By Patrick Dele Cole
FOR several weeks now the Senate and the Comptroller General of Customs have been embroiled in an argument about the proper mode of dressing the Comptroller should wear to appear before the House. The Senate wants to discuss the comptroller’s directive that custom duties be paid when due. But the question is whether the whole fuss is worth it – if the Comptroller General of Customs should appear before the Senate in uniform. Col. Ali obviously thinks that the uniform is an infra dig to him, even if paradoxically he does not think the office is below him! A simple person’s view would be quite straight forward; if you do not want to wear the uniform, resign and go home.
It is generally believed that Col. Ali is very close to President Muhammadu Buhari. If that is so, then he is not serving the President who has still not fully recovered well by his obstinacy. This issue has taken the Speaker and the President of the Senate to Aso Rock to discuss the problem. The general view of General Buhari is that he is a disciplinarian. Mr. Ali’s behaviour puts such views seriously in doubt. One would have expected he would have fired Mr. Ali long before now even if he was his only child. I use the word child advisedly because all parties in this imbroglio have behaved most childishly.
There are other implications of this standoff. General Hannaniya was happy to wear the uniform of the Traffic Corps. So was Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka. But all this is space devoted to Ali’s uniform or lack thereof. Meanwhile, the main issue of how to solve the problem of payment of custom duties to stakeholders is still pending.
There is, however, another side to the story. The Senate and House of Representatives have not been icons of respectability themselves. Both Houses have manipulated the number of oversight committees so as to give a post of chairman or deputy to its members and, therefore, qualify for being public servants and as such, entitled to other emoluments. Nigeria is in serious recession: oil prices have fallen, production levels are lower, earnings even lower.
The National Assembly has no plans to reduce their still undisclosed salaries, or plans to reduce spending within the National Assembly or the judiciary. If recurrent expenditure eats over 84 per cent of our revenue, one would expect that one of the first steps in an austerity-stricken budget would be to reduce the recurrent administrative costs. Rather the last scandal from the National Assembly is that of padding the budget with items that interest its members.
I have been impressed by the relentless pursuit of the National Assembly in the discharge of the oversight functions in chasing down monies which seem to have disappeared into thin air from the executive. I am not going to speculate on the widespread view that the diligence of the National Assembly in these matters is not altogether altruistic.
Nevertheless to have a body that is able to hold somebody to account must be ultimately good for democracy. Lately, the National Assembly noted that the Minister of Finance was the chairman of the National Procurement Commission on the sound principle that sometimes the Ministry of Finance also procure items: ipso facto, the National Assembly does procure things, who presides when this happens?
On the Comptroller General and his uniform, I believe that he is under the general supervision of the Minister of Finance who would have been the proper person to address the problem raised by the National Assembly. I know that various sections of the law were read out to show that the Comptroller was mentioned by name. Even so, a lot of hot air would have been saved if the Minister was called upon to answer questions which deal with raising revenue. I hate to speculate on why the National Assembly is doing this, as other similar cases would like to go to the offices in charge rather than to the minister of the parastatal.
But that is only one side of the story. Why should the National Assembly be that concerned about the uniform of an official of government? How is the prestige of the National Assembly members trampled by the arrogance of an officer who obviously has no respect for the House? The Surgeon General of the United States would never dream of appearing before a congressional committee in anything less than his best, which in this case would be his uniform.
Respect is earned, never demanded. If you allow yourself to be manoeuvred into demanding respect, you probably do not deserve it. Finally what business is it of the highly elevated Senate about the uniform of a public official even if he is the Comptroller General of Customs? Is there no more pressing business before the Senate?