Of COVID-19 and a nation on fire

Posted by News Express | 22 April 2020 | 2,171 times

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Sadly, in two weeks, three treasured national assets have been gutted by fire - Accountant General’s office, CAC headquarters and INEC headquarters. Is COVID-19 this highly inflammable? — Jiti Ogunye.

“Daddy, look at fire on the television,” shouted my five-year-old son Naetochukwu Nnadozie Onwubiko, as he played around the parlour. 

With this unusual alarm from my son, who apparently looked at the television and saw the breaking news being relayed, he called my reportorial attention to the burning flames at the imposing complex of the Independent National Electoral commission (INEC) located in the upscale business district of the nation's Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in Maitama.

The irony is that the Independent National Electoral Commission is just a walking distance to the significantly huge exotic headquarters of the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) that also went up in flames only a little above 48 hours earlier, even amid the curfew imposed on the nation’s capital by President Muhammadu Buhari as a way to contain the spread of the Coronavirus ailment in Nigeria.

I then wondered how on earth such catastrophic occurrences are becoming the norm rather than exception at this period of emergency in which workers are at home, just as most other residents of the nation's capital, Lagos and Ogun states that came under total lockdown as announced by the President. These complexes going up in flames are located strategically not far from the FCT Police headquarters. INEC as well as the CAC are about five minutes drive to the seat of power, known as Aso Rock. Not far from INEC is the Abuja Water Fountains, where demonstrators and Nigerians wishing to express their democratic outrage used to gather, before President Buhari deployed battalions of armed police men who loiter around that environment 24/7.

So, my son’s clarion call also quickly reminded me of the song by the Ajegunle, Lagos-born musician, Daddy Showkey aptly entitled Fire in our country with the following lyrics: “Fire dem burn wall no run

Comot from road for ram o

Give am chance e get brake o

Hehehehe and then Fire fire, e no won quench the country

Give me plenty water make i quench the fire

Na hear me against people

Quench fire u can quench the fire

Quench fire u can quench the fire

Fire burn, fire burn, fire burn fire burn, Daddy Showkey don come back again x2

Shine your eye, shine am well well.”

Daddy Showkey’s warning that Nigerians should shine their eyes may have informed the reason why there is an avalanche of deep-rooted suspicion among millions of Nigerians who think that the fires at those Federal Government agencies are linked to acts of sabotage by some top government officials who must have siphoned public funds and are trying to hide the documents that could trigger their arrest. Nigerians are also shocked that these fires broke out when there is supposed to be tight security. Some are of the opinion that there can be no smoke without fire, meaning that these outbreaks are well-coordinated. The same interrogatory is what some leading commentators are asking.

One of those asking questions included the author of the opening quote, Lagos-based legal practitioner, Mr. Jiti Ogunye, who expressed dismay that the fire at the headquarters of the Independent National Electoral commission is one too many; that our national strategic assets are threatened by inferno, which sources are yet to be uncovered. 

The fire incident that triggered off national conspiracy theories on the possibility that some powerful persons working for the current administration headed by President Buhari were responsible for the inferno at the headquarters of the offices of the nation’s number one accountant: the Office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, symbolically named Treasury House. Mind you, the office got burnt barely 24 hours after the Senate discovered mind-boggling financial scam at the Social Investment Programme, which is domiciled in the Office of the President of the Federal Republic.

However, the media office of the Accountant-General did not waste a minute before coming up with a robust presentation of the official angle of what actually transpired.

The statement was dated April 9, 2020, and was signed by a director in the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation, lawyer-journalist Henshaw Ogubike.

In his presentation, he explained that within 24 hours of the incident, the office of the Accountant-General of the Federation has, in his words, “Restored Service on GIFMIS Platform Less Than 24 Hours After Fire Outbreak.”

Ogubike, a federal director, stated that the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (OAGF) has announced the successful restoration of service on the Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS) platform.

The OAGF said the shut-down of the GIFMIS platform was caused by the fire outbreak at the Treasury House on Wednesday, April 8, 2020, which was successfully contained.

The fire had affected the outdoor panels of the cooling system of the server and, as a result, the server automatically shut itself down. Repair work was immediately carried out on the affected equipment and, at 12:30 pm on Thursday, April 9, 2020, the server was successfully restarted.

According to the OAGF, “presently, service has been restored and payments can be made and received through the GIFMIS platform.” 

For the purposes of offering explanation to Nigerians not experienced with information technology jargons, Mr. Ogubike stated that GIFMIS is an IT-based system for budget management and accounting that is meant to improve public expenditure management processes, enhance greater accountability and transparency across ministries and agencies. 

It was while the nation was still awaiting the report of the investigation into the fire incident at the OAGF that the suspicious fire incident occurred at the Corporate Affairs Commission.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Corporate Affairs Commission is not your everyday local office. This institution is the custodian of all vital company registration documents, and it is key if there is any criminal probe of procurement corruption in any public institution in Nigeria.

This is because the fastest way to catch a thief who has defrauded the Nigerian people is to get the facts and figures about the corporate establishment of such an accused and to even ascertain if the offending person or company is a validly registered entity in Nigeria. This is an institution that has turned to a cash-cow of some powerful cliques with connections to the powers that be.

It must be noted that some government officials who steal public fund sometimes rely on unregistered and fake companies to draw out huge sums of money, and so the forensic financial crimes investigations at the Corporate Affairs Commission will usually show the validity or otherwise of any registration documents tendered by such persons in conflict with the law. Mind you, over 80 per cent of cases of corruption, running into tons of billions of United States dollars in Nigeria happen through Procurement-related crimes and the Corporate Affairs Commission is the gate-way for any sort of registration of contractors in Nigeria.  

The CAC is such a strategic national institution that must be preserved and protected from sabotage of any kind. Knowing that Nigerians are already asking questions, the management has also issued a statement exonerating itself of any blames. This statement must be taken with a pinch of salt. There has to be a clear determination through a carefully conducted investigation by an independent body of forensic crimes investigators to ascertain whether there is more to the fire at the CAC than meets the eye. Nigerians must not swallow hook line and sinker the following explanation by the management of the CAC because, as far as we are concerned, they are an interested party in this fire incident. They, therefore, must not be allowed to be the judge and prosecutors in their own case.

This is what the management of Corporate Affairs Commission headquarters in Abuja, in its defence, sought to debunk what it has already termed as “rumour making the round”; to the effect that some of these rumour-mongers, according to the CAC management, have gone to town to claim that there was casualty and some documents at the seventh and sixth floors of the building has been badly damaged as a result of the fire outbreak on Wednesday.

This affirmation was contained in a statement signed by the Head of Public Relations, Mr Adams, and made available to the media, stating clearly that no vital document was burnt by the fire incident.

The statement reads “As at 10:20 am on Wednesday, one of the outer units of split air conditioner on the 6th floor in the main building exploded due to power surge. The sound attracted the attention of some personnel within the premises and, immediately, they mobilised to quench the fire, using the extinguishers and fire-hose reels within the building.

“The fire had descended through the outer 5th and 4th floors air conditioners’ ducts, which necessitated the call for the Federal Capital Territory fire service. And they promptly responded.”

According to the statement, the incident has since been contained as only one unit of two horse-powered split air-conditioners and the electric cabling that leads to it has been affected and no casualty from the incident.

The CAC added that all documents and records from the commission headquarters are intact, as normal activities resumed immediately. But as I said earlier, the fire incident at the CAC must not be ignored nor the official explanation accepted. It should be probed. 

Then came the fire at the headquarters of the Independent National Electoral commission (INEC), which was confirmed officially as only affecting the media unit of the commission. 

While the debates about the remote and immediate circumstances behind the fire incidents in those major national housing assets were raging, the fire outbreak at one of the biggest markets in the South-west of Nigeria, in Ibadan, Oyo State has, perhaps, made critical observers to pause for a while and to ask the question of who exactly is setting Nigeria on fire? This question was prophetically echoed by Daddy Showky in his song that Nigeria is on fire. The Oyo State government is said to have sprang on their feet and are promising to help set up the distraught traders in the burnt-down Dugbe market.

Already, Tribune newspaper reported that succour may be on the way for victims of Wednesday’s fire disaster in Ibadan, as the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and Governor Seyi Makinde gave assurances of assistance on Thursday.

This assurance came when both Makinde and South-west director of NEMA, Slaku Luggard, paid an on-the-spot assessment visit to the scene of the Dugbe Alawo fire incident.

Fridges, mattresses, beddings, bags, shoes, electronics and various wares were burnt in the inferno which torched about 20 shops.

Speaking after looking at the damage, Makinde said though the state is facing the challenge of fighting COVID-19, the government will still come in with a necessary intervention.

While sympathising with the victims, he said the state would be looking at establishing an emergency endowment fund for management of disasters.

One of the victims of the incident, Mr Dapo Davies, agreed that the government’s assistance will go a long way in helping them to come back from the loss.

He recounted that the inferno brought down a business he had grown for thirty years.

Whether these are fires from accidental sources are to be subject to the findings that may emerge from the different investigative panels that would have to be constituted by the relevant authorities to ascertain why each of these fires occurred when the nation is on the frontlines of the battles against the spread of the coronavirus disease in Nigeria. These investigations must cover whether these are cases of arson.

By way of advocating for a solution, I would say that in the earlier suspected bomb explosions or pipeline explosions in Lagos, which last month destroyed a Roman Catholic school and killed over a dozen residents, there was a clear evidence that the relevant first responders such as the Federal Fire Service, the Lagos Fire service, the National Emergency Management Agency and the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) spectacularly failed to respond as rapidly and professionally as their mandates demand.

The fire in the Dugbe market in Ibadan and that of the IDP camps in Borno State were also not contained on time, thereby exposing the lack of capacity of these vital first responders to carry out their primary duties.

This poor show of these key disaster combating institutions is a very big problem that needs to be fixed because any nation that lacks effective emergency response system is in a big mess.

The fires in these other key government institutions is a disturbing phenomenon that requires critical and determined forensic investigations to unravel if there is a syndicate that has set out to set fire on government offices, using the curfew period as their most convenient operational time, since they are aware that security forces can either be bribed or compromised or even not be at work even when they have a clear instructions from the commanders to provide the essential services of safeguarding these strategic national infrastructures.

Could it be a case of sabotage by external or internal elements who are bent on causing maximum damage and to help some thieves in government to get away with their crimes; since, if there are no documentary traces they may never be traced and prosecuted.

There is a heightened sense of foreboding about the burning flames all around these treasured national housing assets. Henshaw, however, maintained that the Accountant-General of the Federation has nothing to hide.



•RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist (www.huriwanigeria.com, www.emmanuelonwubiko.com), is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).


Source: News Express

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