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AGF’s Office: Another ‘government property’ fire

By Eugene Enahoro April 14, 2020 | EASTERN PILOT All those concerned about the frequent outbreaks of deadly fires in Nigeria agre...

By Eugene Enahoro

April 14, 2020 | EASTERN PILOT

All those concerned about the frequent outbreaks of deadly fires in Nigeria agree that the Fire Service needs general overhauling, re-engineering and repackaging. They also agree that the best way to prevent fires is to understand their causes. To that end, several studies have been made to identify the different types of fires in Nigeria and their causes.  Nigeria is Africa’s biggest crude oil producer and records numerous pipeline fires caused by theft and sabotage.

The methods used to steal oil from pipelines often results in accidents and causes fire. Petrol tankers accidents also cause many fires. Poorly maintained and overloaded tankers all too frequently experience brake failure and the resultant accident causes fire when onlookers scramble to steal leaking fuel and mistakenly ignite the petrol fumes. Market fires are also all too common in Nigeria. Almost every state has experienced a major market fire.  The world-renowned Onitsha Main Market in Anambra state and the ever busy Balogun Market in Lagos have both experienced several disastrous fire outbreaks.

Power fluctuation and illegal, substandard electrical connections are said to be responsible for such fires. Despite knowing these causes, the situation hasn’t improved and since October 2019, there have been large market fires in Benin, Kano, Anambra and Lagos.  Arson, a crime in which individuals intentionally start fires, is fairly common in the USA where there are individuals who start fires just for the “fun” of it.  It isn’t a common crime in Nigeria but it increasingly appears as if whenever government officials are requested to produce evidence of either their educational credentials or financial records, fire, which consumes the documents or money occurs in the place housing the records or cash.

There have been numerous affidavits sworn by political office holders stating that the original copies of their purported academic credentials were lost in fire incidents. This is the process through which some patently uneducated individuals have found their way into political office.  On a larger scale, the problem is perplexing. Throughout the world, fires tend to happen in older buildings, but in Nigeria fires inexplicably consume so many modern government buildings. This habit of “government property fires” consuming modern buildings first became noticeable back in the 1980’s.

In December 1981, the ministry of external affairs building was burnt down and since then there have been a number of such fires. In this case, suspicions of arson were well justified because following the incident, the report of the official investigation said the building  was set ablaze by accountants who were under investigation at the time! Only a few years later in 1983, a huge fire engulfed the Nigerian External Telecommunications building.  Popularly known as NET, the 32-storey building was a landmark in the city and a structure of national pride.

The fire-investigation report suspected senior officials who had been under investigation for fraud and embezzlement, which police estimated to be more than $100 million at the time! Bearing in mind these antecedents, it came as no surprise when the news broke that the office of the Accountant-General in ‘Treasury House” was on fire and Nigerians had a field day of openly expressing derision and suspicion in the belief that “here we go again”! The scepticism was not too difficult to understand. The day before the fire incident, legislators requested for records relating to the disbursement of an alleged N50 billion in cash under the covid-19 palliative measures.

There was good reason to ask for the identities of recipients because it caused popular outrage when it was discovered that the social register used to disburse the cash listed seven states (Kano, Jigawa, Kebbi, Katsina, Nasarawa, Zamfara and Plateau) said to have more poor people than all the states in the Southern region of the country put together. At the hearing, legislators were told that the records were all available in the Office of the Accountant-General. Nine hours later, the office was on fire. The immediate reaction by cynics was that ‘covid-19 started in China as a virus, went to Italy as a pandemic and arrived in Nigeria as a business’. The situation wasn’t helped by a widely circulated false report claiming that the finance minister said government lost N700 billion relief funds in the fire. Furthermore, it was also falsely reported that she said the files and documents of recipients along with details of donors were lost in the fire together with the cash.

The false report also speculated as to why she didn’t call on professional fire fighters in the fire service to investigate but rather called upon the commissioner of police in charge of  Abuja to “trace and identify” the cause of the fire! Although the nation was informed that the records were still intact, and no such press conference was held on the date in question, the implications are very clear. Whoever concocted the story, for reasons best known to themselves wanted to give the impression that something is amiss. Only time will tell when and if the truth ever comes out. Even if this latest fire was not a deliberate act, one thing is certain, there just has to be an end to this destruction of government property whenever financial records are being investigated. It has happened so many times that it’s difficult to believe that it’s simply mere co-incidence.

Meanwhile, the only thing hapless Nigerians can do is call upon government to fully appreciate that they must account for public funds if they are to convince anyone that their war against corruption isn’t simply a tool to be used against opposition leaders or those out of favour with government. It must not be stressed that those in charge of public cash should ensure that it is kept in a bank. Those in custody of public financial records should ensure that they are duplicated and copies secured in a purpose built fireproof location where they cannot be casualties of unending mysterious government property fires.


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