It was Labour Day. His Excellency, the Deputy Governor, was hosting labour leaders in the State at Creek Haven to mark the day. It turned out to be a sumptuous evening with gregarious tastes as varied delicacies paraded the vast expanse of His Excellency’s dinner hall. It was a buffet and you could get as much helpings as your appetite inspired. Leading the roughly thirty labour leaders, His Excellency, accompanied by an assistant carrying a tray holding a flat plate, scooped a splash of rice, then added a piece of fish, a meal that would hardly satisfy a four-year old who is truly hungry. Among us, someone caught my attention. Someone always does. My eyes trailed him as he picked from virtually every bowl until his plate overflowed and then accompanied him to where he sat. My eyes were fixated upon “doing sociology.” He had actually taken more than he could consume, because when some of us were done with the appetizer, main course and dessert, he was still battling to level the single course he had settled for. When the dinner was done and we were ready to go, my eyes couldn’t help being awed by the mounts of food still sitting on bowls untouched, enough to feed two more of our numbers.
That was food. I’ve seen a lot more. I’ve been to a public officer’s house where I saw fleet of cars and wondered if each room was an estate housing a family of adults each driving a car, only to realize that there were no kids in the house as they were grown up and on their own. I’ve entered houses with over ten bedrooms with no one resident there, except that once in a long while people occupied a few of the rooms. I’ve walked into government offices, where there are so many empty spaces that you could run a school in them. I’ve seen government offices where spaces left unused could be rented out and the money used in paying salaries of their staff. I’ve seen public funds expended to train people to the highest levels of competence, but such people are hardly given opportunity to use the knowledge. I’ve seen events where public funds were used to rent rooms in luxury hotels far beyond the number of genuine participants expected and then the excess rooms converted to house commercial sex workers to service the participants.
Nigeria is a country of waste. This is stating the obvious. Government start projects they know they will never get around to use or see to conclusion. People award contracts for the sake of awarding contracts, not necessarily for the sake of completing a project. It is in Nigeria you hear that four companies are each awarded a contract to supply a model of generator to a particular address at the same time and these are processed and paid for. It is in Nigeria that public officers are given monetized cars they keep in their houses while using pool cars, and after four years new ones are brought in while the older ones given out to them virtually free, to resell at much higher amount. It is in Nigeria that someone would hire a commercial aircraft for over four million naira ($25,000) to attend a few hours meeting, even after knowing about the meeting days and weeks ahead. The unfortunate thing in Nigeria is that public and individual wastes are symmetrically bonded, one feeding the other. It’s this intricate relationship that entrenches the resilience of waste in our society.
The relationship between the culture of waste and corruption in Nigeria is too obvious. There is a psychotic rationale among many Nigerians which fuels the culture of waste. It’s the reasoning that waste, or ostentatious display of affluence, is a sign of material success. People steal public funds by committing all manner of fraud because they want to feed a particular life style. I’ve heard of a statement credited to a public official years ago, that Nigerians steal more than they need and that if they only stole what they needed, the resources would have been enough to go round. This is a pathetic comment on our collective psyche as a nation. Why should they even steal? My knowledge of how government works is that those who steal public funds most are the ones who should not steal at all – presidents, governors, senators, assembly members, ministers, commissioners and heads of government institutions. The legitimate perquisites of their offices are so enough for them, if they are not wasteful or avaricious. Sadly, I have also found out that public officers are in silent competition with each other on who can steal most and buy more assets. I know of public officers at both state and federal government levels who are in mad rush to build hotels because one of their kind has built one, or in mad rush to secure a plot of land at a particular location because one of their kind has secured one. They feed on collective financial hysteria, driven by shared wasteful dementia.
It’s the same demented reasoning that is given by people who claim to build a future for their children to the point of buying certificates for them. It’s the same reasoning that claims to secure children’s future by stealing government money. It’s the same reasoning that underlies claim by people who seek to secure their children’s future by building houses with rooms enough to house a community. It’s the mindset of waste, a mindset that feeds on one’s ego and personal appetites in disguise. Unfortunately, this mindset is pervasive among public officials as well as private citizens. While growing up, there was a story of a federal public official who stole so much money to keep in store for his children, and when the law was about catching up with him, he poisoned himself. What a distorted sense of altruistic legacy to leave behind! History has shown that whatever legacy we leave for our children, we deceive ourselves if such legacy does not comprise values of respect, love, hard work and integrity. These values will outlast the value of materialism or any other driven by culture of waste or avarice.
Recently, I had a chat with some friends on constructing personal homes. As the discussion progressed, I asked which of them was still living in the house their parents built. There was none. All had moved away, even within the same town with the parents, some preferring to live on rentage. I went further to ask why they thought that their children would live in the ones they are building. I even went ahead to share a story I’m very familiar with which is fitting to reproduce here. It’s the story of a retired professor from the South-west, an outstanding gentleman and academician, who owned a hotel I have stayed in a few times. It is always a delight to stay at his hotel, as he is often around for a lively chat about life and goings-on. During one of those chats, he mentioned that he was selling off the hotel so that he wouldn’t bother about running it as he was aging. Prompted to know why he wouldn’t leave it as a legacy to his children, he revealed that he had called each of the children to come and take over, but they were all settled abroad and none accepted his entreaties. He then added that the one he was most hopeful of taking the offer was the one that told him “Dad, sell the hotel while you are alive and enjoy the money or else, I will sell it when you’re gone.”
Well, you might shudder at the story of the professor, but it is the reality. I have followed the man’s life story and the hotel was painstakingly built through his sweat, without stealing any public funds. He is relieved to sell off his investment, without having any headache. But, would he have been relieved if he had stolen public funds to build the hotel with the hope that his children would inherit it? It’s our introspective response to this question that can give us a candid view of the culture of waste we are enmeshed in.