Face masks @N20,000: The president must hear this!

By Tiko Okoye

Civic Hive, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO), recently opened a can of worms by accusing the Federal Ministry of Health of engaging in hanky-panky business with regards to recent purchases of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). A spokesman of the NGO disclosed that going by the information it obtained as at August 1, 2020, from the Nigerian Open Contracting Portal (NOCOPO), the ministry reportedly spent about N860miliion to acquire assorted PPE, including ordinary face masks.

He further disclosed that “A single entry by the name Marvellous Mike Press Limited was alone awarded 15 out of the 29 contracts (little over 50 percent), amounting to N444.28million.” In addition, the ministry claimed to have spent N37.06million of the amount to acquire 1,808 pieces of ordinary face masks, bringing the unit price to approximately N20,500!

The imputed purchase price of the ordinary face mask is ridiculously expensive. Here in Abuja at major street intersections, motor parks, markets and departmental stores, such ordinary face masks are sold for N100 to N1,000 depending on the quality, indicating a mark-up of nearly 2,000 percent for the most expensive brand without even taking cognizance of quantity discounts!

When journalists sought clarifications on the mindboggling allegations from the health ministry, the Director of Information, Media and Publicity, Olujimi Oyetomi, was quoted as saying, “Don’t let us (journalists) reduce our noble profession of journalism to playing mischief. I will not be surprised if you come up with nothing truthful about the so-called expose. You should be able to know fake news.”

It benumbs the mind why and how most senior government officials just fail to get it. Public distrust of government officials is the major reason why so many people already believe that COVID-19 is a scam designed to corruptly enrich our public officials under the guise of speedily responding a health emergency. Nigerians are sick and tired of wishy-washy responses to allegations of corruption. And contrary to the thinking of Oyetomi, majority of Nigerians would not be surprised if, upon digging deeper, everything is truthful about the expose!

Oyetomi did a great disservice particularly to Civic Hive and the journalists he spoke to, as well as the rest of us in general, by insinuating that journalists and other stakeholders seeking answers to vexatious questions somehow dishonour their calling by spreading news still in the process of being ascertained as fake or factual. No sir! The situation would have been more appropriately handled by having the ministry counter the allegations by way of displaying verifiable documentary evidence indicating that the ordinary face masks in question were indeed purchased at more reasonable prices. Or is Oyetomi claiming that the ministry never purchased any PPE, including ordinary face masks, as is being alleged?

And if indeed the ministry contracted to purchase the items in question, documentary evidence should be provided indicating how the contracts were allocated to disprove the allegation that only one supplier cornered as much as 50 percent of the entire order. Is the entity in question the only company in the country that has the technical skills and capacity to produce the required masks? It must also be said that the nobility of the Press is not marked by sweeping rubbish under the carpet or in trumpeting a clichéd esprit de corps. American jurist Justice George Sutherland it was who held that “A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people.” This explains why it is universally described as the Fourth Estate of the Realm.

But that is not to say that the NGO and the concerned pressmen are not without any blame. For instance, it would definitely have been much better if they had followed up by making inquiries at the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) to obtain the identities of the shareholders and directors of Marvellous Mike Press Limited. Readers may recall how a superintending minister of a cash-cow agency allegedly similarly farmed out the highly lucrative business of supplying diesel to a mistress. It was revealed that normal electricity supply to the headquarters of the agency was continually sabotaged just to ensure the lady kept smiling all the way to the bank for services supposedly rendered in kind to the Oga at the top!

It goes without saying that tackling allegations such the ones made by Civic Hive has become an endless and ineffective task in this country. Despite the Buhari administration making the war against corruption a cardinal policy plank, coupled with the draconian measures being adopted to curb it, many government officials still wallow in corrupt practices. It is either that corruption is really in our DNA and manifests as a virulent pandemic or that the administration’s policy is not being taken very seriously.

It must also be said that the general attitude and disposition of the larger society leaves a very bitter taste in the mouth. Whether we support or oppose the investigation of a suspect largely depends on primordial considerations such as political affiliation, creed, tribe and region of origin. It has become the norm that whenever news of the pilfering of stupefying amounts of public funds makes the round, we simply scream “Aaah!” and “Ewooh!” and move on to the next breaking news. At a time when a former leader of a militant group in the Niger Delta referred to the unauthorised N81billion expended by the Interim Management Committee of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) as “mere pocket change,” it is more than likely that many Nigerians would perceive N37million as “mere chicken change” not worth the bother of being talked about!

The question begging for answers is what then is the point in expending billions of naira every year on institutions such as the Bureau for Public Procurement/Due Process Office when such shenanigans continue to fester unabated? Would it not be more meaningful to shut them down and divert the huge savings to more needy areas of the national economy?

Be that as it may, public officials and senior civil servants must understand and appreciate the fact that Nigerians are getting smarter by the day. A law such as the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act is not there just for fun. Despite the rather ignoble role oftentimes played by a section of the judiciary, it has become a critical tool in the kit of various advocacy groups to exhume dirty skeletons government officials and politicians do not want the public to know.

Accountants usually speak about materiality but as far as corruption goes, no amount is too small because as King Solomon – touted as one of the wisest men that ever lived – averred: “It is the little foxes that actually spoil the vine.” The buck now squarely stops at the desk of the Federal Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, to help Nigerians make some sense out of the ongoing nonsense on his turf. Either way, it is a case President Buhari must hear if he desires to keep the anti-corruption crusade on course and thwart the demystification of his credibility and legacy.

Okoye, public affairs analyst, wrote from Abuja 08054103468

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