Fresh out of University with an idealistic mind of a better Nigeria

Ever wonder how officials like Yahaya Bello allegedly divert public funds for personal use? This article lifts the veil on civil service corruption through a firsthand account. I share my experience as a young officer encountering a system where budgets are manipulated and projects become a source of personal gain.

It was at the turn of the decade that I got employed as a Grade Level 8 Step 2 Officer in the Lagos State Civil Service and posted to Agege Local Government as the Officer-in-Charge (OC) Accounts. I had just completed the mandatory one-year national youth service far away from home, returning to Lagos to start life after having spent the last two decades being prepared for it.

It was at Sita Street that I was introduced to Lagos, and this was where I called home. It was from here that I made the daily trip to the local government office on Abeokuta Street and back.

As the OC Accounts, my job was to ensure that the revenues and expenditures of the council were properly recorded, and that all expenditures were in line with the budgetary provisions as approved by the local government legislature as headed by a speaker. In short, to ensure compliance with the Lagos State Local Governments Accounting Manual, maintaining the Departmental Vote Expenditure Account (DVEA) and the Departmental Vote Revenue Account (DVRA).

To ensure this, all expenses were brought to my desk to confirm that there was a budgetary provision for the work and that the remaining provisions were adequate to accommodate the expenditure being made. It wasn’t a tedious responsibility for a young man aiming to become a Chartered Accountant, except that I wasn’t prepared for the politics that come with the position.

On this special day, as the hours on the clock ticked towards closing time, a voucher was brought to my table for approval. Reviewing the voucher, I realised it was for the installation of publicly funded pipe-borne water, not anywhere else but on Sita Street. I was alarmed! I had woken up and arrived at work from this street and had been unaware of any construction activities that would have led to a functioning pipe-borne public water tap being made available. Had I missed something? I held off on approving the voucher so that I could check out this good news.

Arriving on Sita Street at the close of work that day, I walked the entire length and breadth of the street looking for this public water tap and the accompanying infrastructure but found none. I asked my mum and siblings whether they were aware of any such installation, and the answer was No.

At work the next morning, I refused to approve the voucher and it was returned to the Council Engineer Office. Following this, the contractor who was to be paid for the work came to my office demanding an explanation, of which I told him that there was no such work done in the mentioned street. He drew my attention to the “certificate of work completion” issued by the Council Engineer, asking when it became my responsibility to validate whether work was done or not and left my office in anger.

Not very long later, one of the errand boys showed up at my office, informing me that the Chairman wanted to see me. At this point, I was frightened. I was just at the entry level of public service, so I had no direct communication line to the Chairman, and for the Chairman to request my presence was intimidating. For the very first time in my stay at the local government office, I was ushered into the expansive office of Mr Ajagunna, the chairman. Without looking much at me, he asked why I had refused to approve the voucher, a question to which I stammered to respond. Nothing I was saying made sense to the chairman, whose next instruction was, “Go and get me your boss.”

How I got downstairs, I still don’t know till date, but I surely did make my way to Mr Vaughan’s office. He was the treasurer, and having told his secretary about my mission, I was ushered into his office. He was a big man with a loud voice to match his stature. I explained to him that the chairman wanted to see him. Immediately, he heard that the call was from the Chairman; he didn’t bother to know why but started fuming, saying what have you, small boy, done now? Why would the Chairman want to see me? With myself in tow, we made our way back to the Chairman’s office, who flung the voucher at the Treasurer, saying, “Your boy has refused to approve this voucher, saying the work has not been done. Could you sign off on it?”

Muttering words of apology, he took the voucher and signed off on it in front of the chairman and promised the contractor, who was sitting relaxed at one end of the office, that the voucher would be expedited for payment. He took the voucher with him, and he continued bashing me with unprintable words as we made our way downstairs. He told me that my action was unauthorised as the work of validating whether a project had been done or not was that of the Council Engineer. All my protests that this was a public project claimed to have been executed in the street where I lived fell on deaf ears.

When you fight corruption, corruption fights back…

The version of me that left the council offices that day was the opposite of the ever-bubbling, confident self that had arrived earlier that morning. I knew the story would not end there; I had chosen to ride on the back of the tiger!

And truly, it didn’t. On resumption the following Monday morning, as I stepped into my office on the ground floor of the main secretariat building, I was handed a redeployment letter. Over the weekend, the civil service machine had been at its most efficient. I have been transferred and re-designated. I was no longer the OC Accounts but was now the OC Reconciliation. The humour was not lost on me; someone must have been ingenious in thinking that I would make better use of my investigative powers in reconciling the bank ledgers and statements.

I had been sent to Siberia. My Siberia was in sharp contrast with the Accounts Office that I had left behind. While the Accounts Office was on the ground floor of the main council building and was so big that it accommodated about six employees, Siberia was not. It was located at the back of the customary court area and away from any traffic or interactions with other people. In fact, until then, I had only heard of the office by name but was unaware of where it was located. It was a single room with no amenities apart from the ceiling fluorescent light, not even a fan. The office was messy, with files stacked wall-high and cheque stubs all over the place. At the account office, I had a team of about six reporting directly to me; in Siberia, that number was zero. My wings were clipped, and I could be of no further threat to anyone.

Nobody needed to say much to me; it was clear that I had no future career in Agege; my career in the civil service that had not started had ended already. I made up my mind that I needed to leave the local government for pastures elsewhere, and I did.

In a sad twist of events, related or unrelated, Mr Ajagunna was killed while he tried to be a Rambo on a rampage by Armed Robbers who invaded his house.

The Library on Wheels program….

But that wasn’t the only experience, though; it started with the Library on Wheels program. The council had conceived the brilliant idea of bringing the library to the people on wheels. I had been a beneficiary of the wonderful library system that Agege had, so I was sure that this initiative was one in the right direction.

Our Sita Street had a mix of kids when I was growing up – some more privileged than the others, and the Bankoles were surely privileged. We knew each other just faintly, as my uncle hardly allowed us to mix. With privilege also comes the opportunity to take life for granted and rebel. Not one of the Bankole’s pursued their education beyond the secondary school level, but then, with the privilege of being of the Bankole stock, one of them contested and got elected as the Supervisory Councillor for Education. With this election, he became one of the authorities that I needed to defer to.

On this given day, he had walked into my office with a voucher that had been approved for a training to be held in Ibadan. The problem was that there were no more funds on the vote for Education, and as such, I could not ascent to it. I explained this much, and he was furious. Condescending as well, calling me all sorts of names and questioning my competence. He asked me to use the budget of the proposed Library on Wheels, and I asked him to seek approval from his colleagues for the virement of the budget to cover this expenditure. He left very disgruntled and promised that there would be retribution for my subservience.

How the fund got paid to him, I don’t have a clue, but a few days after the training had taken place, I got a memo with the approval of the Treasurer to code the expenditure against the Library on Wheels budget head, depleting that budget line. At the time I left the council employment, the project had not taken off, and I doubt whether it did actually take off eventually or at the scale at which it was planned.

Mind where you thread…

Before all these events occurred, I had been forewarned by Mrs. Sanni, only that I did not take some of them seriously. Mrs Sanni was a kind soul sent to me divinely to guide me in my conduct as I got settled into working at the council. She was the OC in charge of Markets and was my direct report. We didn’t have a boss-subordinate relationship; how could we? What we had was more of a mother-son relationship. She was much older in years and had been working for the local government, probably from the time I was still in primary school.

She had whispered to me that I should be cautious of where I sit and where I thread in the council offices as there are those envious of my position who would do anything to hurt me and get me removed from the position. She narrated that as the OC markets, with responsibility for collecting revenues from all the stalls and women in the various markets in Agege, she was not conscious of this until she sat on a charm that someone had placed on her chair and developed a sickness that assails her, to the point of death, once yearly.

Until then, I never had an inkling of how powerful the position I held was and that it was the cynosure of the eyes of many of my colleagues. In those days, we had fash, pedi, and one young married lady as colleagues, all of whom had been sent freshly to Agege Local Government from the Ministry of Local Government Affairs. All these names have become big guys within the local government system and I disappointed not a few with the decision to exit the system such that a family member threatened never to have anything to do with me in the future, given that I was given an opportunity that he never got and I casually threw it away.

I started checking my seat before sitting down, removing the foot carpet before stepping on it and stopped sending the office attendant messages to buy lunch for me.

We get the leaders we deserve?

What I was to learn later was that society fuels the corruption that pervades the environment. Next to our house was a lady who had a drinks store, Iya Rashida known for her bleached skin and mingling with men of all sorts. Her beer parlour was the final calling place each night for people of different characters. She also wielded a large political influence as I guess she was the Ward’s Woman Leader for one of the political parties. Elections are not won on just promises; after all, anyone can promise heaven on earth. More importantly, they are not sustained either with emptiness; the boys have to be placated, and patronage in the form of opportunities for personal enrichment occur. A chairman that ignores this stands the risk of being removed by the legislators. She was a recipient of fridges, freezers and gas cookers from the local government, and I wondered how. What I came to learn was that by awarding fictitious contracts, contracts meant not to be executed, the party generates the money to run the organs of the party and buy the necessary patronage and votes of those in the local government that will make the next election possible. How else could people like Iya Rashida get the ‘dividends of democracy’ in the form of fridges and freezers?  It was through grafts like invoicing for work not completed that the chairman and his cronies amass the cash with which they gratify the people to secure their votes.

This process has become institutionalised in our lives. We only need to look a little closer at the multitudes of abandoned projects and contracts not executed but announced on radios and televisions to understand the ramifications.

Some have said that we should shine the light on the Lagos-Calabar Expressway to be sure it doesn’t end as ‘food for the boys’ by ensuring its execution.