In one of his pocket friendly proverbs, Nigeria’s most famous writer, the late Chinua Achebe, once admonished that one should not steal more than the owner will notice. It appears that, Nigeria’s Chief Accounting Officer, the Accountant-General of the Federation, Alhaji Idris Ahmed, has allegedly stolen far more than the owner will notice in one of the most scandalous revelations of corruption in recent memory in this country. And noticed it, the owner has.
Last week, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested and detained the sitting Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF), Alhaji Idris Ahmed, for allegedly pilfering the nation to the tune of N80 billion, or 193 million dollars in today’s exchange rate. The EFCC further said it has traced most of this huge sum to multiple choice properties in Kano, Abuja, Dubai and London allegedly owned by the now suspended AGF. The AGF is still in detention, as investigations into the case by the EFCC presumably continue, and of course, the EFCC must prove its case beyond any reasonable doubt in a court of law, even as Nigerians await the AGF’s own side of the story, since allegations of corruption in Nigeria, like fairy tales, often have many twists and turns. This may be just the tip of the iceberg, as the old saying goes.
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But even the little we know now is more than enough to take a long and hard look at this case. The outrage that has greeted the EFCC’s revelation by Nigerians has been unbelievable, and quite rightly so. How does one person, even a handful of persons, go about pilfering public money? Didn’t the AGF, if the allegation is true, feel anything in his own mind that this is too much money to steal by one person? Didn’t the AGF think or look back at the general suffering in the land at the moment? Money is very important for a lot of things, but the kind of money that is important for any one person is not of the kind in question here. No one requires $193 million to meet any needs. And most human beings on this planet would struggle to know what to do with that much money even if you handed it to them for free.
Perhaps, then, the first issue to look at is the scale of corruption being alleged here. Let’s face it, N80 billion ($193 million) is a lot of money anywhere in the world. It is scarcely the kind of money any paid civil servant, indeed any employee, can earn working even for several lifetimes. According to a report by Boston Consulting Group published by Forbes magazine in 2015, just about 5000 households in the United States, the supposed richest country on earth, have a net worth above $100 million. And we can suppose, even for this group of ultra-rich families in the U.S, most of their money would have been around for decades, if not centuries.
In other words, N80 billion is not the kind of money anyone can earn in seven years of “service” in a poor country like Nigeria. As a paid civil servant, the AGF’s salary can scarcely be more than the President’s N26 million a year. But for context, let us say that the AGF earns $1 million a year, or about N40 million a month, he will need to work for 190 years—more than two lifetimes—to earn as much money as he is now being accused to have defrauded the country. Why would anyone want to go that far with what is clearly not theirs?
This leads straight to the second important issue for me in this whole sordid affair. For anyone person to be involved in this level of corruption, as alleged by the EFCC, requires a level of moral debauchery and degeneracy that is difficult to fathom, especially at a time most Nigerians are groaning under the weight of meeting even the barest of basic needs. Money is now effectively the god of Nigeria, and in a way that is qualitatively different from its worship in many other societies.
If the allegation is true, and we wait for the final verdict by the courts, then the AGF has grossly abused three important kinds of trust. First, he has betrayed President Buhari who appointed him—and credit to the president for not preventing the AGF’s arrest—not only to keep a watchful eye on the nation’s treasury but to lead the fight against corruption through several anti-corruption instruments directly lodged in the AGF’s office. Then, of course, there is the abuse of personal and professional trust. Rising to the level of Account-General of the Federation is possibly the highest professional honour any Nigerian accountant could hope to achieve. That honour has a value that is far beyond even the amount now being alleged, and should, by itself, be sufficient deterrence for anyone who rises to such high office.
And third, if this allegation proves true, then the AGF has not only betrayed the President’s confidence in him but also the public trust. All forms of corruption involve some betrayal of trust of some kind, but this one is still at a different level. With the centralisation of the federal government’s receipts and payments in one office, through the administrative instruments of the Treasury Single Account (TSA), the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System (IPPIS) and the Financial Management Information System (FMIS), AGF Ahmed became far more powerful than all previous occupants of the office. But that power came with even more responsibility to the public, which, sadly, may have now been betrayed. It is difficult to imagine why anyone would throw all of these away to land in such a mess.
But beyond the betrayal of public and professional trust, there is another dimension of this case that intrigues me as someone who has done research on the revelations of corruption in Nigerian press and politics. When considered over a long period of time, revelations of corruption in Nigeria have several set patterns. One of these is that allegations of corruption tend to be associated with election season: the year before election, the election year, and the year immediately following it. And this holds true across all levels of government and politics in the states and the federal government, and also within and between political parties.
In my own data of over 15 years, I found that news of corruption in Nigeria peaked during 2007-2008 and 2015-2016, but still holds true during 2003-2004 and 2010-2011, though to a lesser extent. Conversely, revelations of corruption tend to peter off in the intervening years between elections. This means that we tend to learn more about corruption after the government in which the corruption is alleged has left office, regardless of political party differences or levels of government.
In other words, as we draw closer to next year’s elections, we can predict more revelations of corruption, and we will get to know far more about the extent of corruption by public officials under this government when they leave office after May 2023. So, while the current allegation of N80 billion fraud in a single office has caused outrage among Nigerians, and rightly so, it could be yet no more than an indication of the shape of things to come from next year onwards. We will find out soon enough.