For several weeks now, the Senate and the Comptroller-General of Customs have been embroiled in an argument about the proper kind of dress the Comptroller-General should wear to appear before the House. The Senate wants to discuss the Customs boss’ directive that appropriate duties be paid on all imports and must be paid on all vehicles imported even long before now.
But the question is whether the whole fuss is worth it. Does the Comptroller-General of Customs need to appear before the Senate in uniform? Colonel Hameed Ali obviously thinks that the uniform is infra dig to him, even if paradoxically he does not think the office is beneath 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, by his obstinacy, he is not serving fully well a President who has still not totally recovered from his ill-health. This issue has taken the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate to Aso Rock to discuss the problem. The general view of President Buhari is that he is a disciplinarian. Mr. Ali’s behaviour puts such views seriously in doubt. One would have expected the President to have fired Mr. Ali long before now even if Ali 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 stand-off. Major General Hannaniya was happy to wear the uniform of the Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) when he was corps marshal long after he had retired as two-star general of the Nigerian Army. So was Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka. But so much space is devoted to Ali’s wearing of a uniform or not. Meanwhile, the main issue of how to solve the problem of payment of customs dues to stakeholders remains unsolved.
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 the 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, no plans to reduce spending within the National Assembly or the judiciary. If recurrent expenditure eats up over 84% of our revenue, one would expect that one of the first jobs in an austerity-driven 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 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 into 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 heroes moved the Minister of Finance as the Chairman of the National Procurement Commission on the sound principle that sometimes the Ministry of Finance also procure items: Ipso facto, the National Assemble does procure things. Who presides when this happens?
Finally, on the Comptroller-General and his uniform, I believe that the Comptroller-General 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-General 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 the raising of revenue. I would hate to speculate on why the National Assembly in this, as in 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 trammeled by the arrogance of an officer who obviously has no good home training? 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 maneuvered into demanding respect, you probably do not deserve it.
• Cole, a former Ambassador to Brazil, is a Consultant to the Editorial Board of The Guardian.