The National Christian Elders Forum recently brought a charge of corruption against the Christian Association of Nigeria. They alleged that the leadership of CAN visited President Muhammadu Buhari, and when they were leaving, they were given a whopping sum of money as “transport money.”
Since they made the allegation, neither the Presidency nor CAN has denied that they received “transport money” from Buhari. What has been in dispute is the amount involved: whether it was N40m or the N25m. The NCEF petition also contained other issues such as nepotism and mismanagement of funds by CAN officials but what concerns me more is the CAN team visiting the President and leaving with such a humongous amount of money.
Sincerely, I hope that when CAN met the President, they discussed the issue of security and demanded redress of the death of their Christian members who have been killed by rampaging forces of evil soiling the land. I hope they spoke to the President assertively and charged him to find a solution to the issue of the herdsmen who are spreading darkness over the country. I hope they swung the weight of their moral authority at him. If they did all (or some of) those, and they still extended their hands to collect N40m or N25m when they were leaving, I hope they knew that whatever they advocated has been severely compromised? They might as well have sold themselves for 29 pieces of Judas’ silver.
The practice of offering cash to visitors is not a new development by the way, neither is it limited to religious leaders. In 2010, some members of the Lagos Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists were kidnapped while returning from a visit to the then Akwa Ibom State Governor, Godswill Akpabio. When they were released, the then Chairperson of the NUJ, Wahab Oba, mentioned that the kidnappers collected the sum of N3m from them and some of that money had been a benefaction from the governor. In 2012, Pastor Tunde Bakare, the senior pastor of Latter Rain Assembly, rejected a sum of $50,000 reportedly offered him by then President Goodluck Jonathan, a sum also presented as “transport money.” When the story broke in the news, Bakare clarified that he rejected the money on principle.
Going by the NCEF allegations, it means that the practice of offering visitors substantial sums of money as “transport money” has not ceased. Considering the barrage of people who visit political leaders at all levels every day, the “transport money” gulped daily must run into some stupendous amount of money. I know a politician who was practically ruined because of such monetised “thank yous” that he offered to the many associations that besieged his residence after he declared his interest in the governorship seat of his state. They came under different guises – this and that association that promised to help him fulfil his political ambitions – and they left his house with wads of cash. Eventually, he did not even win the primary of his party.
Traditionally, when we visit older folks, the VIPs, and others who have more resources than we do, it is expected that when we leave their place, they will give us “transport money.” It is a cultural expectation that when people do you the honour of a visit, you should reciprocate by offering them a gift. Our cultures are premised on such informal transactions of honour. When we lived in smaller societies ruled by a monarch or their proxies, going to visit a king or a paramount chief could mean one’s fortune was changing because such encounters came with a lot of presents. Even now in the 21st century that we live in larger and more complex urban societies, we have largely retained those practices. They are a core part of our orientation and it contours the structures of our expectations when we deal with “big” people.
It is all good that kings and ‘big’ persons shower the less fortunate with gifts, but when it comes to politicians and public officers, such transactions are based on a different set of dynamics. First, the money they use to perform such brazen generosity does not belong to them personally. Since the Constitution does not formally recognise such gifts, accounting for it has to be rendered in vague and open-ended terms that make other acts of corruption possible.
Considering how people have been socialised into expecting such monies, it will be difficult to wean them off such practices. If the president, governor, and other elected officials stopped handing out monetary gifts to guests, the rate at which people visit them under one pretext or the other would drop rapidly. No matter how much such gifts are rationalised as an inextricable part of our cultural practices, it should only be deemed proper when the money involved is from individual pockets and not the public purse.
There is no justification for offering CAN or anyone millions of naira as a gift because they visited the President. It will take a principled and resolute leader to stop the practice. Such a leader not only needs to be firm, they also have to be consistent in their public conduct. When Chief Olusegun Obasanjo first became President in 1999, he tried to institute the culture of “presidential handshakes” to athletes who represent the country at sporting events. Rather than shower athletes with gifts when they visited the President after snagging a victory, he thought they should be content with a mere presidential handshake. A presidential handshake means victorious athletes should be able to walk away with their heads high that they had represented their country, made their homeland proud, and they had received a handshake from the most influential person in the land.
However, that practice could not be sustained across various administrations. Perhaps, the Obasanjo administration would have been far more successful if they had extended the practice across the board. In other words, you cannot tell athletes to be merely grateful for the opportunity to serve the nation and shake hands with the President when those who do far less and yet shame the country go home with bags of money hauled straight out of the national treasury. Already, many of those who win medals for Nigeria do so because they have personal determination and grit anyway, not because the country invested in them. They succeed in spite of Nigeria, not because of the country nor anything it has done for them; so why would they not act like a mercenary when they are victorious?
Another thing Obasanjo’s government must have found out was that, unlike other climes, the Nigerian President’s handshake does not have much symbolic value or any similar capital to confer on anyone who receives it. When the Imo State Governor, Rochas Okorocha, went to the USA and shook hands with President Barack Obama, a billboard was made out of it and mounted in strategic locations in the state. Okorocha is not likely to have done that with the President of Nigeria or any other African president! Our people are rightfully cynical when politicians who embody corruption offer us non-monetary compensation. They also want their share of the national wealth paid up front.
As much as the culture is ingrained in us, it does not mean it cannot be improved. Instead of giving people money as gifts because they visit the President or any other leader, why not give them classy souvenirs instead? In a matter of time, people will learn to feel less entitled. Whether CAN is right or wrong to have collected money from Buhari is left for their conscience to answer. They are neither a poor nor a hungry people; they could do without that money. They could have turned it down and walked out of Aso Rock with their heads held high like a “royal priesthood” they should be.