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FIRS Allegations doubtful; but…. – By Tonnie O. Iredia

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The allegation of corruption levelled against the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo by a political activist and former Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Comrade Timi Frank was no doubt the major national political story in Nigeria last week. Frank had attributed what he called the ‘ongoing travail of Osinbajo’ to corruption which he claimed had nothing to do with 2023 politics. In a statement in Abuja last Monday, the activist said he had reliable information from his sources in the presidency that the said travail was due to an alleged mismanagement of about 90billion naira supposedly released by the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) to prosecute the last general elections in favour of the APC. If ordinary Nigerians believed the political activist, there are a number of reasons which would make us not to blame such gullible citizens. In reality however, it is simplistic to believe a story only because it found its way into the public domain

 

To start with, we are now in the age of citizen journalism where everyone now purports to be a journalist with or without training making it easy for disinformation, misinformation, hate speech and fake news to thrive with ease across the globe. Only a few days ago, some Oxford University researchers discovered that at least 70 countries have had disinformation campaigns showing even Governments using “cyber troops” to ‘discredit political opponents, bury opposing views and interfere in foreign affairs.’  In Vietnam, according to the researchers, ‘citizens were enlisted to post pro-government messages on their personal Facebook pages just as the Guatemalan government used hacked and stolen social media accounts to silence dissenting opinions while Ethiopia’s ruling party hired people to influence social media conversations in its favor.’ Why should anyone believe tales told by politicians in a country like Nigeria where political parties that have no ideology are entangled in a zero-sum political system where the winner takes all?

 

Another fear we had with Timi Frank’s allegation was that the supposed reliable information upon which the story was reportedly anchored was not disclosed. We were merely required to just believe that someone told somebody about a discussion between the President and his Vice wherein the latter allegedly admitted that he actually embezzled N90 billion and then steps were immediately taken to get him out of office. It is either the story is fake, or something has gone wrong with the older gossip that once a defaulter is APC, he or she is free. More importantly, the so-called defaulter in this case is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, a professor of law and former state attorney general. Of course; Osinbajo may not be a saint, but his antecedents ought to restrain our proclivity to be irrational; to be mindful of the constitutional injunction that every accused citizen of Nigeria is deemed innocent until proven otherwise; and to remember as we canvassed in the case of Chief Justice Onnoghen  that media trial is alien to the rule of law. In other words, jumping into conclusion on such a hazy subject as an alleged corruption war in the Villa demands circumspection. We have also noted Osinbajo’s vehement denial particularly his offer to waive his immunity to face trial.

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It is against this background that this column is inclined to await further development and possibly gather more facts on the subject. Luckily, the Vanguard newspaper which had intuitively helped to spread the story has retracted it and humbly apologized. The point to be noted in the posture of Vanguard is that the paper accepts that it did not on its own, have reliable evidence to think the story should be published.  We couldn’t agree more, but because we are all not equally endowed, we also appreciate the subsisting cynicism in our society which makes those who know nothing about the allegation to believe it no matter any counter argument. If a Nigerian public body is said to have misappropriated trillions of naira, many citizens are likely to believe it. Unfortunately, in the case of the Federal Inland Revenue Service FIRS, the organization does not appear to possess the same credibility it had in the days of Ifueko Omoigui-Okauru. In its reaction to Timi Frank’s allegation, the FIRS merely painted the ideals of the service as if it cannot default. It argued for example that it does not allow its funds to be used for elections – a defence that even the workers of the service may not buy. This probably explains why Timi Frank described the reaction of the FIRS to his allegations as “a puerile attempt to sweep the main issues in his statement under the carpet by claiming unfounded budgetary fidelity.”

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Indeed, the FIRS cannot persuade many Nigerians that every revenue it collects goes directly to the Treasury Single Account TSA or that while there, it can’t be misused. This is because in June 2016 when Finance sector workers went on strike to demand the removal of the then Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, Nigerians got to know that the workers in addition to their salaries, also share some funds raised by FIRS. What we heard then was that once FIRS meets its target, anything above it is sent to the mother ministry and shared among workers in the sector. For at least 3 days the workers locked out Adeosun for frowning at the illegality. No one told the nation anything to the contrary, rather the leader of the workers union was quoted as saying it was a convention in the sector. Painfully, the FIRS did not at the time dispute the diversion of the revenue it collects to staff welfare. Is it the same FIRS that now wants to argue that it can object to a directive from above to release certain funds? We submit that there is no such strong societal institution in today’s Nigeria and insist that what the FIRS does is not exactly same as what it is mandated to do. We therefore call again on government to build strong institutions by ensuring that at all times, only the best is mandated to drive the nation’s development agenda

 

Government must learn to engage in effective communication by appropriately managing public information. If body language and discordant tunes are unwittingly allowed to create cynicism in society, the logical consequence, is doubt, misgiving and apathy in the same society. For example, early in the year, the FIRS told the nation that its performance the previous year, surpassed previous revenue collections. A few months later, that is, before the end of another year, government asked the service to explain why the revenue it collects has dropped compared to what obtained under ex-President Goodluck Jonathan. The implication of the scenario is that government itself does not trust the agency. If so, how can anyone especially opposition politicians trust the same agency?

Tonnie O. Iredia

September 29, 2019

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