BY AZU ISHIEKWENE
Comparison between public conduct elsewhere and what obtains in Nigeria can sometimes be awkward, especially because it can be mistaken to suggest that we can’t be up to any good. That’s not only incorrect, such moral equivalence is unfair to millions of Nigerians who are doing their damn best in their quiet spaces.
But two stories last week reported within twenty-four hours of each other were too striking to escape comparison.
The first was a story about Commodore Nick Cooke-Priest, captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the iconic aircraft carrier of the Royal Navy.
Cooke-Priest was removed from his command for an offence that you’ll have to read the story twice to believe, if you’re – well – a Nigerian. The poor captain who was appointed to his prestigious job in October had formed the habit of using his official car for personal trips.
The frequency or nature of the personal trips was not disclosed; but if he were a Nigerian officer, for example, the trips might have included but certainly not limited to things like, school runs, market runs for Madam, and nocturnal visits to his girlfriends, not to mention occasional second-degree unauthorized use by the officer’s driver for “kabukabu”.
But nothing was said about the nature of Cooke-Priest’s visits. What was reported was that the captain, after nearly 30 years of sterling service, was removed last week and promptly reassigned, “following reports that he misused an official car for personal trips.”
The report, quoting a source in the Royal Navy, continued, “While the offence may appear relatively minor, it was felt that his position had become untenable and that the commanding officer must be beyond reproach.”
I was tempted to laugh in Ikwerre a day later when I read the other story from Port Harcourt, Rivers State. It was not really a story. It was the video of Governor Nyesom Wike receiving members of the Joint Task Force Operation, Delta Safe, who came on courtesy to the Government House.
Wike told the leader of the Force, Rear Admiral Akinjide Akinrinade, and his delegation that the General Officer Commanding the 6 Division of the Nigerian Army, Major General Jamil Sarhem, was not just a security threat, but that he was also businessman, a bunkering kingpin, in army uniform desperate for cash to fund his ambition to become the next Army chief.
He accused Sarhem of routinely leaking security reports and wondered what his visitor, the JTF commander, would do if his men came across bunkering squads backed by the GOC.
Of course, it might appear incongruous to compare Cooke-Priest’s case of misuse of official car with the allegations of leaking and bunkering levelled against Sarhem, for at least two reasons: one, the facts of the former’s case have been established and action taken against him on that basis, whereas the allegations against Sarhem have been denied and remain only that – mere allegations.
Two, the back story in Sarhem’s case – his spectacular fallout with Wike before the governorship election – could suggest that the governor might just be out for his pound of flesh.
Now, this is exactly the sort of equivocation which partly explains why Nigeria has passed being a joke, and why serious countries, tired of making us a laughing stock, simply ignore us. We cannot keep making excuses for – in fact keep expecting – lower standards of performance from public officers and hope to be taken seriously.
Whatever Wike’s motive for making those serious allegations, the Army is not helping itself or the accused officer by attempting to sweep the matter under the carpet of politics, or by simply saying as its spokesperson in Port Harcourt did, that Wike must first show proof. The Army must first show that it understands the seriousness of the allegations.
If the governor said on public television that the GOC routinely leaks security information and is involved in oil bunkering – which is a serious economic crime – the Army cannot, and should not, simply let the matter slide.
The startled and embarrassed looks on the faces of the JTF commander and his delegation as Wike spoke last week only told part of the story. The potential damage to the Army’s reputation from silence or a muffled, dismissive response, will, of course, be far more difficult to gauge. But if nothing is done, as may well be the case, the impact would be corrosive.
Six years ago, the Financial Times reported that pipeline oil theft from well heads and bunkering in the Niger Delta was costing the country about $1billion monthly. Such thefts, which led the Jonathan administration to sideline the military and instead, paid militants to guard pipelines, had led to a 17 per cent drop in oil sales or the loss of 400,000 barrels per day.
The FT report quoted former presidential adviser, Patrick Dele Cole, as saying, “It’s not only the loss to the treasury that is worrying him and others, but the way bunkering is infecting government at all levels, with senior military and political figures staking out a leading role.”
The tale of oil bunkering in the Niger Delta is a fascinating one. Criminal gangs and small-time peddlers pirated the bunkering franchise from the oil companies. As the illegality grew and became a serious economic threat, the military was deployed. At first, they acted they in the service of the country, but over time, they have become embroiled in the money and politics of the region, making them hardly distinguishable from the gangs and politicians they are supposed to contain.
Wike has only added flesh to the dry bones in Cole’s statement.
The Army could have genuine reasons to dislike Wike’s politics or resent being entangled by the governor’s rough and tumble style. His zero-sum, street-fighter approach and huge ego will hardly endear him to anyone one who believes in process and propriety.
If he was your rational kind of guy he would not wait for the JTF’s courtesy visit and public TV cameras to report a serious security breach to an officer who is apparently of the same rank with the accused. Wike just can’t get over drama and sensationalism.
But that does not justify throwing out the baby with the bath water. Wike’s statement was not for the benefit of the visiting JTF commander. It was to get the attention of Rotimi Amaechi, his political rival in Abuja; the Army chief, and through them, President Muhammadu Buhari. Whatever the governor’s motive, however, the statement is serious enough for the Army to empanel an investigation.
If six years ago, Cole (an Abonnema man) fingered top military brass and politicians in oil bunkering and now the governor, an Ikwerre man, is naming names, it has become a matter that demands no less attention than that given by the Royal Navy to Cooke-Priest’s misuse of his official car.
It’s not about Wike or his tantrums. It’s about the integrity of the Army, the reputation of the officer accused, and the unfortunate impression that you have to rob your way to the post of Army chief.
The only thing worse than what Wike said is any attempt by the Army to gloss over it. It should immediately empanel an investigation and invite Wike, the accuser, to assist the Army to get to the bottom of the matter in the interest of the Force, the GOC and the long-suffering people of the Niger Delta, whose backyard has become the playground of wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.
We don’t need any lessons from the unfortunate episode of Cooke-Priest and his official car to do the right thing. The GOC should be beyond reproach and we don’t need the Royal Navy to tell us that.
Ishiekwene is the Managing Director/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview and member of the board of the Global Editors Network