The British MPs Expenses Scandal and the Nigerian Experience

by Akintokunbo A Adejumo

For about three weeks now, the British Media have been a having a field day with the inconvenience and embarrassment of British Members of Parliament and the Government in the scandal of the fiddling of expenses by various elected members of the British government.

Many MPs (as we call them) have virtually fallen on their own swords. Cabinet Officers have been forced to resign; some MPs are standing down at the next election (whenever that is called); the Prime Minister himself was implicated and embarrassed (what with all his other problems); some MPs have also been forced to make public apologies to their constituents, and above all, almost all the politicians implicated have all returned the monies they illegally claimed. And to cap it all, history was made when the Speaker of the House of Commons was forced to resign for his role in the expenses scandal, the first Speaker in 300 years of British democracy to be forced to do so. The Speaker himself was not implicated in any fiddling of expenses, but somebody has to be held responsible for the mess, so he had to go.

I do not need to regale you with the sordid details (at least, in the eyes of the British public, who were very much aghast and scandalised at the shenanigans going on with their elected officials). Another consideration is that the expenses scandal cut across party boundaries, with both the ruling Labour and opposition Conservative politicians implicated. The continued revelations about excessive expenses claims are embarrassing British parliament members from all parties. Some lawmakers have paid back money to public funds; others face disciplinary action and possible prosecution. Opposition leader David Cameron, of the Conservative Party, forced eight of his senior parliament members to get out their checkbooks and repay claims they had made for furniture and maintenance on their second homes, warning them they would lose their jobs otherwise.

In Britain, it is likely that you will not hear that horrible word “corruption” being bandied about. The alternative word, and apparently, a word which is more tolerable, is “sleaze”. In other words, what is “corruption” in Nigeria (and indeed, other countries) is referred to as sleaze in the United Kingdom. Yet we all know that whether we call it sleaze, fiddling, or whatever, corruption is corruption in any form. It has even been suggested that (and we know this to be true) what goes on in the European Parliament makes what goes on in the British Parliament make our British MPs look like saints.

Corruption exists in all societies and in all areas of human endeavour and activity; there is no doubt about that. However, what has made Western countries to be less prone to the negative and debilitating effects of corruption is their ability to manage corruption to a level which does not affect their ability to perform their functions as democratic and good governments, such as providing for their people and ensuring good governance generally. They have honed this virtue to an art form. They take care of their people while reducing corruption to a manageable level. Above all, they have ensured that there is accountability, rule of law, fairness, justice and security for their people. This is one of the reasons why people from corruption-ridden Third World countries like Nigeria are flooding to these Western countries.

I have in the past written an article about managing corruption (Corruption Management – An Alternative Proactive Approach.) “Corruption is a complex and adaptive phenomenon that affects many aspects of society and has plagued societies from the beginning of time. It is difficult to define, understand, and control. Because of the complexities associated with corruption and the differing perceptions individuals have of the phenomenon; it is not easy to define a realistic anticorruption goal.

• Is it realistic to strive for the total elimination of corruption in any society?
• Can a corruption-free society actually exist?

Although a number of societies may have reduced corruption to relatively low levels, none has created a utopian society where corruption does not exist.

Today, corruption in its various forms and manifestations is prevalent in all societies, even the most advanced Western democracies. Transparency International’s Annual Corruption Perception Index does not reveal any country receiving a “perfect 10” or “zero corruption” in the annual country corruption environment rankings.

• Rather than creating unrealistic public expectations suggesting that corruption can be eliminated, would it not be preferable to educate the public to the reality that corruption cannot be eliminated but can be effectively managed?

Whatever the case, this article is not to lampoon the MPs of Britain or to gloat that the British Society is corrupt too. That is not my concern, although, as a resident of the UK who pays his taxes, it is my money that these MPs are claiming illegally. However, I can also verify that whether you pay taxes or not, we can physically see that these politicians do perform their functions and what is expected of them creditably. They are responsible to their people and constituents who elected them. That is hard to say for our elected officials in Nigeria who hardly represent their people. Most of them bought or rigged their way into positions in the first place anyway, so how do you expect them to have any sense of responsibility to their constituents.

As an aside, in the late 80s, massive corruption was unearthed in the Pentagon of the United States, It was discovered that the pentagon was paying highly inflated prices for materials they purchased locally. In one instance, the Pentagon was purchasing simple hammers, which each cost just about a dollar for close to $200. Somebody or some officials were getting kickbacks from the inflated prices from the suppliers of these equipments. Heads rolled, as would be expected and everybody implicated in the fraud, no matter how highly placed, were disciplined accordingly.

Herein lies the contradiction with the Nigerian situation. A friend of mine, a politician in Nigeria wrote to me, gloating that “Do you see now, Akin? It is not only in Nigeria that corruption exists”. I was saddened, first because everybody in the world knows what my friend is saying, but he was trying to reinvent the wheel. Secondly, he is a typical Nigerian politician who can never accept blame, but instead has that mindset of “Well, others are doing it also, it’s not only me”. Thirdly, they are never contrite, our political leaders. They are immune to change or blame. They find it impossible to acknowledge that what they are doing is tantamount to genocide.

One contradiction to the British scandal is that when the British politicians were exposed, they immediately owned up and started refunding the money they falsely claimed. Some even resigned. Some may even face prosecution for abuse of privileges. In Nigeria, this has never happened,

nor will ever happen.

Another contradiction is the amount of money involved. In some cases with the British MPs, relatively small amount of expenses caused their embarrassment or downfall. In Nigeria, massive, unbelievable amounts of money are stolen or misappropriated, and nobody is held accountable. Also remember, that these British MPs are not accused of dipping their hands in the till nor have they been implicated in massive embezzlement or misappropriation of funds meant for the development of their constituencies, but just fiddling expenses. There is a difference. At least they are submitting receipts – genuine receipts – for what they claimed; the issue is that they were claiming for what they should not have claimed for in the first place or fiddling with their expenses, that is inflating their expenses claims. In our country, receipts rarely exist, and if they do, they are false. Anyway, no self-respecting Nigerian government official will give a receipt for a bribe he or she receives, would they? And they don’t take cheques for bribes. It is cash in “Ghana must go” bags.

Another issue is that of accountability. There is always an audit trail, as opposed to Nigeria where everything is not on paper and where such are, often disappear into thin air. Also in our dear country, everybody involved, including the Government itself, will cover up. Please note that I did not say “try to cover up”; what the Government does is ignore the calls of the public to be open, and arrogantly, actively, cover up. And you know what, paradoxically; the Nigerian public also has blame in this.

As Max Siollun wrote in Nigeria Today Online (18th May 2009), “Nigeria has bred something far more sinister and sophisticated than petty graft and bribery. Corruption is not just an offshoot of collapsed social and governmental institutions, nor is it the result of a hostile economic environment.

The roots go much deeper and are symptomatic of the residual breakdown of Nigerian societal values and morality. It is the result of Nigerians’ failure to distinguish right from wrong, and of a nationwide refusal to condemn dishonesty. Societal values have broken down so much that Nigerians are often blind to situations where they are the victims of corruption. After former Governors Alamieyeseigha, Dariye and Ibori were arrested on charges of massive corruption, they were cheered in their communities by jubilant crowds who feted them as returning heroes. This despite the fact that they were accused of stealing from the same people who cheered them. It would be odd to see robbery victims lining the streets to cheer the robbers that stole from them. Nigerians resist attempts to inhibit the corrupt acquisition of wealth. Government initiatives to tackle it are resisted as unwelcome impediments. Nigerians disapproved of the anti-corruption campaign of Major-General Buhari. Such disapproval was not explicit, but was subtly presented as principled critiques of his “high handed” attitude to corruption. Nigerians celebrated when Buhari was overthrown and replaced by Babangida. The anti-corruption efforts of the EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu were also derided for being “selective”. The truth is that Nigerians were unhappy that they were being asked to acquire wealth honestly”.

Therefore, there really are no basis for comparison of this unique British scandal with what goes on in Nigeria on a daily basis, and openly, unchecked and in some cases, unreported. How many of us actually know what is being stolen from us? If not for occasional breaks like the Halliburton, Siemens, Wilbros, Power Projects, NNPC, etc probes, the Nigerian public are blissfully unaware of, or unconcerned about how much their leaders are stealing. The percentage of us who really know and are concerned cannot be more than 3 percent. And that is why we have situations like what Max Siollun described above, despite the majority of Nigerians being victims of corruption.

This again shows the contradiction with the British case. I cannot imagine such happening in the British society. And it is not about the public knowing their rights. It is about the British public’s indignation that their elected leaders cannot be trusted not to put a few quid in their pockets while conducting the affairs of state. Again, please note that these claims were not actual money being embezzled, but paying for things they should normally be paying for out of their own pockets, after their high salaries and legitimate expenses, for which they are entitled.

In our Nigerian situation, officials (executive or legislative, civil servants, etc) are actively stealing, or accepting massive bribes. And there are no audit trails. Governors boldly put state allocations in personal accounts, inflate contracts, demand for and accept kickbacks on contracts, and perpetrate all other forms of corruption. In short, these cliques of irresponsible leaders virtually get away with murder. These cannot happen in Britain, without being found out almost immediately. Hence the difference between the two countries; and therefore the lack of any basis for jubilation in the knowledge of British MPs suffering some inconvenience and embarrassment.

The only instance of politician forced to resign in Nigeria that I can remember is that of former hairdresser and Speaker, Patricia Etteh, who was forced to fall on her sword after a protracted and bitter public outcry. On 30 October 2007, following weeks of pressure, Etteh resigned her position as Speaker. Her deputy, Babangida Nguroje, also resigned. Ministers, commissioners, Senators or other legislators and other officials rarely resign after being implicated in wrongdoings in Nigeria. They try to weather the storm out and scurry about lobbying to stay in their posts.

In the meantime, reforms in the British Parliament means that it will be a long time before politicians can abuse the system again, or find loopholes to do so. In Nigeria, the loopholes are inbuilt into the system by us, and this is not just for expenses claim.

All these perhaps explain why Nigerians must not gloat at the embarrassment of the British politicians. There are no bases for it.

You may also like

Leave a Comment