SEC PROBE: THE SEED OF A BROKEN FAMILY
Nigeria is a nation that tolerates drama well. It has a flair for the good, the bad and ugly. All in almost equal measure. When the citizens are fed up with how government is running our affairs, events and public officials entrusted with key institutions of the economy provide us with the tonic that soothes our frayed nerves.
This is a dizzying season of probes and shocking revelations in Nigeria.
Every passing day, Nigeria is looking pretty much like a tragicomedy movie which people troop out to watch at a cinema.
The storyline is a portrait of an attractive Queen who had a fatal accident. Each episode opens with a narrative of two queens, then a sop and thereafter, a horror that leaves the audience in utter bafflement. And, then you begin to ask: how did they turn into clowns, or and become turns in the tumbrel? Was it in their stars or their DNA? Or a gang-up to rubbish each other's image and accomplishments? Without a doubt, there's right now a crisis of public morality in Nigeria. Shocking revelations everywhere - in the capital market, in the pension scheme, the subsidy fund - you name it.
These are immoral conducts that shock the conscience of a nation and diminishes whatever hope left for redemption. In the last four months at least, especially in the aftermath of the nationwide strike in January, induced by the removal of fuel subsidy, every scrap of investigation has opened up mind-boggling scams of unprecedented proportions.
One of the strange things in these moral crises is that in most of the probes, the people who over the years have been passionate about morality and corporate governance are the very culprits at the centre of this portal of corporate fraud. For instance, evidence emerging from the capital market hearing in the House of Representatives has shown how those entrusted with its supervision have ripped it part for self-seeking interests and turned it into the American equivalent of Las Vegas. We have also heard with utter disillusionment how those in charge of the Pension Fund turned it into a colossal pain for pensioners. The combination of these two categories of people have taken our economy down and destroyed hundreds of lives and millions livelihoods.
Like a soap opera, we have heard and watched in disbelief, horrifying, back-breaking, ground-breaking and backstabbing stories and abuse of public office that makes Nigeria look like a huge joke. Let's refresh our minds with a few of these monumental corruption, frauds, market abuses and non-compliance with statutory requirements in the various offices for which the officials were allegedly found wanting. The resumption of the public hearing on the near collapse of the Nigerian capital market has provided a window to see through these baffling discoveries. But, it is easy to find any of our public institutions, including the legislature, that isn't steeped in moral failing. However, it is disheartening when supposedly good people do bad, and in the process erode the confidence of investors who bear the risk, only for a privilege few to take all the rewards.
That's exactly what the Director-General of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Ms Arunma Oteh alleged last week during her appearance before the Ad-hoc committee of the House of Representatives. Like she did in March before she caused the sudden withdrawal of the disbanded committee headed by Hon. Herman Hembe, the SEC boss came back with a swat, a more loaded gun, this time, against the leadership of the sacked Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) under Prof. Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke.
According to Oteh, there were incidences of financial skimming, misappropriation, false accounting, misrepresentation and questionable transactions in the NSE under the leadership of Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke. The allegations are gripping. One of her allegations was that erstwhile boss of NSE spent a princely sum of N1.3 billion on trips, N186 million on Rolex wrist-watches and N37 million on a luxury yatch. Besides, Oteh claimed that the former NSE council members shared N1.7 billion among themselves, while CEOs of four banks used depositors' funds to purchase over 7 billion units of their own shares.
The picture painted by Oteh was that of a sordid plunder of investors' money in the capital market. Part of the notable fraudulent deals Oteh alleged, included a re-classification of N1.3 billion originally expended on business travels. Of this amount, she said, N953 million was re-classified under 'software upgrade' and then carefully diverted. On the Rolex wrist-watches, Oteh delivered a sucker punch when she alleged that out of N186 million reportedly used in buying 165 Rolex wristwatches as gifts for the council awardees, only 73 were indeed presented to the recipients.
So, what happened to the rest, valued at N99.5 million? She claimed, they were unaccounted for. The cost of the yatch, she said, was recognized in the NSE balance sheet as a 'gift' presented during its 2008 Long Service Awards. This is arguably, the most baffling corporate fraud in any public institution in Nigeria since independence, if proved to be true. Between Oteh and Ndi Onyiuke, there is no love lost.
It all began immediately Oteh took over as the boss of SEC. It is therefore no surprise when the former DG of NSE (She will claims to be the boss) took her turn to refute the allegations against her by Oteh. Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke came with a wallop, hitting Oteh as a lawless and incompetent fellow with scant understanding of the nuances and operations of the Stock Exchange. With voice dripping with disdain for Oteh, the erstwhile NSE boss denied any wrongdoing.
She riled up with further broadsides and a tinge of arrogance of her own, refusing to see anything wrong with the amount NSE under her leadership spent on trips, Rolex Wristwatches and purchase of a yatch. She offered no apologies for that, and at some point in her evidence, alluded to the fact that she made money for the Stock Exchange and perhaps had the right to spend the money in NSE vaults as she liked. When Prof Ndi Okereke was done, questions were asked: can Oteh take as much blows as she has delivered? Could this super corporate woman be guilty of hubris, that overweening pride and arrogance that often end in self-destruction? Or, could she be suffering from the smartest-kid-in-the class syndrome? Or better still, is she a target of orchestrated blackmail by those who feel uncomfortable with her style of administration at the SEC? Last Wednesday must be a day Oteh won't forget in her lifetime. After accusing others, she faced a sweltering hammering of her own from inside her own staff.
This typified the proverbial seed of a broken family, who would rather destroy their inheritance than share it. Members of her own executive management at SEC had publicly opened a blistering accusations of what they called her 'non-inclusive administration'. She was accused, among other things, of favouring her own friends, mass recruitment of new hands when better hands were available at the SEC. Few times, (if any), have we seen this sort of deep-seated animosity and mutual distrust.
This is not good news for a regulatory authority such as SEC. But to be fair to Oteh, in Nigeria where nothing is impossible, those Oteh has stepped on their toes (and they are legion) including some old hands she met at SEC, may have ganged up to do her in. And she has provided her enemies with the ammunition, by presenting herself as Caesar's wife - beyond reproach.
But those who do 'big things', Richard Nixon warned in his memoirs, should be careful about 'stumbling on little things', because things considered of little consequence, are what often lead to downfall. That's why the brightest and the brainiest sometimes end up in tears. Surely, somebody's bubble is going to burst at the end of the SEC probe. It will be sad if this dazzling, tempestuous, graceful, brusque and brilliant woman is consumed in this chaotic, and backstabbing-filled room of corporate Nigeria. That will be a lesson learned the hard way. I fear for Oteh. I feel very sorrowful about the days and weeks ahead.
Will she be our Icarus?
There is a message from all these ugly happenings in our land. If the President does nothing for these transgressions as Nigeria and its citizens, especially the hapless citizens and investors, he would have knowingly or unknowingly, ensnared and alienated himself from the vast majority of the populace. The list of enemies of corporate Nigeria has been exposed by these probes, and it stretches well beyond all facets of both private and public institutions and top officials as suspects. I do not think that this government envisages this level of revelations that we have seen in recent times. The seeds of popular uprising are sown when, after such disclosures, government is seen to have done little or nothing. That will be the ultimate price to pay for turning a blind eye to evil deeds.