Thu, Nov 01, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Nigerian speaker of the House Etteh resigns

FALL FROM GRACE Former hairdresser Patricia Etteh was prevailed upon to step aside after it became clear her position was untenable, one of her aides told the BBC

DAKAR , NY Times News Service

It is hard to say when, precisely, Patricia Etteh, the speaker of the Nigerian House of Representatives, a former hairdresser who became the fourth highest official in Africa's most populous nation this year, fell definitively from grace.

Perhaps it was when her detractors first accused her of spending US$5 million to renovate the offices and official residences for her and her deputy, as well ordering a fleet of a dozen cars. Or perhaps it was the US$780,000 worth of massage machines she was accused of requisitioning, a charge she rebutted by saying she would not have made such a purchase when six massage machines were already clogging the storage halls in the House building, gathering dust.

The final blow for Etteh, who resigned on Tuesday, may have come on Oct. 17, when, amid fisticuffs between her supporters and detractors on the House floor, the chairman of the Health Committee collapsed and died, apparently of natural causes.

Or it could have been when it became clear that the business of governing Africa's top oil producer had ground to a halt.

"The Nigerian political elite to a large extent are like maggots," said Sola Adeyeye, a former member of the House who has watched Etteh's implosion with a mixture of disgust and awe. "They are creatures that enjoy the presence of corruption and stench. But the Nigerian people are only going to put up with that for so long. She had to go."

Etteh's travails began late in the summer when a House panel indicted her on charges that she had abused her office and failed to follow due process in spending lavishly on renovations for herself and her deputy. Since then, the scandal has dominated the front pages of Nigeria's boisterous national and regional newspapers, and calls for her to resign have filled editorial page columns.

Etteh has insisted all along that she did nothing wrong, that she followed proper procedures in her expenditures and that she is a victim of a witch hunt by political enemies. She was the first woman to lead a branch of Nigeria's legislature and many political analysts said she had been chosen for that spot by Nigeria's former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who stepped down in May after two terms in office but remains influential in the ruling People's Democratic Party.

The scandal exploded at a delicate time, just as Nigeria's new president, Umaru Yar'Adua, made his UN debut last month. The trip was filled with carefully orchestrated appearances intended to transform Nigeria's image from a land of oil-fueled kleptocratic chaos to a vanguard of progress and democracy in the new Africa.

Many commentators worried that the controversy would simply drag Nigeria's image through the mud again, confirming its reputation as a nation of "scammers," in Colin Powell's memorable phrase.

"Nigeria is neither America where a public official in Etteh's position would have resigned out of decency; Japan where she would have committed suicide for shame," wrote Rotimi Fasan in a column this month in Vanguard, a national newspaper. "Nor indeed is our beloved country China where people like Etteh are summarily executed by the state. The cultlike operation of government in Nigeria would rather see to it that Etteh remains in office."

Nevertheless, Etteh was prevailed upon to step aside after it became clear that her position was untenable, one of her aides told the BBC. The deputy speaker, who was also embroiled in the renovation scandal, resigned as well.

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