Etteh, wounded Speaker, walks on moral stilts

Etteh, wounded Speaker, walks on moral stilts 

By Levi Obijiofor 

Friday, 28 September 2007 

Thursday and Friday last week were eventful days for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Patricia Olubunmi Etteh. On Thursday last week, one day ahead of her scheduled appearance before the panel investigating allegations of financial malfeasance against her, the nation was given an insight into the script of a major drama the Speaker had intended to perform for the investigating panel. In the document, the Speaker resorted to sophism rather than basic facts to dislodge the allegations made against her. But the document was anything but convincing. There were logical holes and incomprehensible arguments that raised further questions about the Speaker's ability to engage in informed debate.  

The document released by Etteh to the media last week was poorly constructed, logically flawed and indeed misleading. Etteh failed to address the key issues raised by her accusers. It would have helped if she had relied on unassailable evidence to shoot down the allegations against her. Last Friday, Etteh appeared in person at the venue of the investigation panel. She looked like a champion boxer determined to defend her title. In a sense, Etteh's title is presently on the line. Her supporters expect her to defend her title vigorously and successfully in order to stitch her tattered reputation and repair the damage done to the office of Speaker.  

Unfortunately, Etteh's performance before the panel, in person and in writing, has exposed her incompetence as Speaker and her lack of moral character. During her testimony last Friday, Etteh was vividly ill at ease. She consistently refused to take the blame for any problems associated with the renovation contracts. She said the appropriate units within the National Assembly should be held accountable for any lapses in the contracts. 

Whenever panel members tried to get Etteh to accept responsibility for the contracts and the hefty amount of money approved for the renovation projects, Etteh proved to be as evasive and slippery as an eel. She consistently reminded panel members that, as a certified beautician, she was not professionally qualified to determine whether the renovation contracts were justified or not, whether the processes adopted in awarding the contracts were legally satisfactory or unsatisfactory, and whether the amount of money involved was too enormous or tiny. She repeatedly took cover under the excuse that she was not a construction engineer, not a quantity surveyor, not an architect, and not a real estate valuer. But no one needs to be a professional builder to understand that N628 million was just too colossal to be approved for the renovation of the Speaker's official residence.  

By constantly shifting responsibilities to her subordinates, by refusing to accept blames for the blunders committed in the award of the renovation contracts, the Speaker has exposed her poor leadership skills and her administrative ineptitude. It is a shame that after nearly eight years in parliament, the Speaker could not yet understand the basic ethical principles and processes that underpin the award of contracts in the National Assembly. If this Speaker is in the wrong profession, it is not too late for her to return to her professional hairdressing job (no pun intended).  

Etteh is a troubled Speaker. As long as allegations of official misconduct continue to swirl around her, the Speaker will forever be distracted from her official parliamentary duties. The distraction will come chiefly from a scandal that threatens to weaken her capacity to function as an effective Speaker of the House. At a time when the Speaker ought to be preoccupied with crucial legislative matters that affect the welfare of everyone, she has been busy attending nocturnal meetings with her party supporters, answering uncomfortable questions from her legal team, and rehearsing how she would defend herself against serious allegations of financial impropriety and abuse of House policies and procedures relating to contract awards.  

It is certainly not a good evidence of moral leadership for a Speaker to be confronted with daunting allegations of corruption so early in the life of parliament. Even if Etteh wrestles herself successfully out of this mess, she would be remembered ignominiously as the woman who brought the high office of Speaker to public ridicule and disrepute. Etteh also would have damaged irrevocably the dignity and integrity associated with the office she occupies. If Etteh remains as Speaker after the investigations, she would be remembered as the Speaker whose actions led to brawling by parliamentarians. What would it profit Etteh for her to shrug off this debilitating scandal and continue in office as Speaker with a handbag full of cracked mirrors, facial masks and mascara? Only Etteh can answer this question. 

With or without Etteh, the House of Representatives will still continue to exist. But whether it would be an effective House or a disorderly House would be determined by current and future events. So far, investigations into the house renovation scandal have yielded significant but tantalising outcomes. One: Etteh's vision of herself as a respected Speaker who commands the authority of the entire House has been smashed. Two: the conflicting accounts presented to the investigation panel by Etteh and other principal officers of the National Assembly in regard to how the contracts were awarded show that corruption is clearly embedded in the definition of due process as it applies to renovation contracts.  

The allegation that the Speaker once ordered massage equipment valued at N98 million has further undermined the public rating of the Speaker. It is insensitive and an act of financial recklessness for a House leader to accord priority to massage equipment to the value of nearly one hundred million naira at a time when the underprivileged members of our society are struggling to survive. How would the massage kit help to reduce poverty or provide food for the poor? Given her background, could the Speaker afford to buy that equipment from her annual income?  

Ironically, at the panel hearing last Friday, Etteh presented herself as a prudent, careful and courageous Speaker who has had to sacrifice a lot for the sake of the nation. But the revelation made by Acting Clerk Niyi Ajiboye last week has contradicted the Speaker's claim that she is a good financial manager. Can a good financial manager see any value in a massage equipment worth N98 million, for the purpose of personal use? The Speaker is now perceived as a spendthrift (rather than a prudent woman) who is incapable of controlling her cravings.  

There are certain aspects of Etteh's testimony last Friday that did not quite add up. In one moment, she said she deserved to be garlanded with awards because she saved the nation millions of naira which she would have spent if she had taken up accommodation at a lavish hotel pending the completion of the renovation of her official residence. In another moment, she argued she had no expertise in the award of contracts. Yet Etteh admitted that she was the chairperson of the tenders' board that awarded the contracts. Throughout her defence, Etteh did not seem to realise that she was guilty of conflict of interest because she participated (as chairperson) in the tenders' board that awarded contracts for the renovation of her own official residence. In her capacity as chairperson of the board, Etteh ought not to have participated in the award of those contracts. 

Etteh is a wounded Speaker walking on moral stilts. Her image has been battered. She is now the subject of newspaper cartoons. Etteh's grip on the leadership of the House is shaky. She leads a factionalised House of Representatives, a House dogged by petty loyalties and confusion, a House in which legislative business is likely to be settled with punches and exchange of crude weapons.  

There are four aspects of Etteh that should attract close scrutiny of the investigation panel: her leadership quality, her honesty, her moral character and her financial priorities as the number three citizen of the country. House members with some degree of integrity must ensure that this particular scandal should not be resolved through "peace talks" initiated by Etteh or her political godfather Andy Ubah. If Etteh and other principal officers of the House have committed a crime, they should be punished according to the law.