By Yemi Adebowale
Presumably the report will be made public on that day. Since the establishment of the committee about two weeks ago, its mandate, focus and composition have been enmeshed in controversy. It couldn’t have been otherwise because rather than focus on establishing the facts that would help it reach it reach a fair and useful conclusion, it started with an unsubstantiated public indictment of former Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
Even though it was allegedly set up to investigate what happened to the amount claimed to have been inappropriately spent from the ECA, it was clear that right from the very announcement of its establishment, at least one if not more of its members had already reached a verdict even before its work began. For Governor Adams Oshiomhole, Okonjo-Iweala’s guilt was already as clear as night and day. And rather than sit down to establish if the amount was really spent in an unauthorised manner, what happened to it and who were responsible, Oshiomhole has invested his energies and famous vocal skills as a labour leader to persuade Nigerians that Okonjo-Iweala is guilty before being charged.
This was obvious from the inception of the committee as Oshiomhole told the media that “We looked at the numbers for the Excess Crude Account. The last time the former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, reported to the council, and it is in the minutes, she reported by November 2014 that we had $ 4.1bn.
“Today, the Accountant-General Office reported we have $2.0bn. Which means the honourable minister spent $2.1bn without authority of the NEC…”
Chair of the Nigerian Governors Forum, Governor Yari had also added that “The Federal Government, in conjunction with the Central Bank of Nigeria, will look inwards to see how to support and how much they will give to states, especially on the issue of outstanding salaries owed by the states and even the Federal Government.” But the Oshiomhole position dominated media coverage of the establishment of the committee.
Following Oshiomhole’s allegations, Okonjo-Iweala had through her spokesperson, issued a strong rebuttal of Oshiomhole’s allegations. According to her spokesperson Paul Nwabuikwu: “The allegation by some governors that former Minister of Finance, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala spent 2.1 billion dollars out of the Excess Crude Account without authorisation is false, malicious and totally without foundation. We want to state categorically that no unauthorised expenditure from the ECA was made under Okonjo-Iweala’s watch in the Finance Ministry.
“Decisions on such expenditure were discussed at meetings of the Federation Accounts Allocation Committee (FAAC) attended by finance commissioners from the 36 states. It is sad that the esteemed National Economic Council and the persons behind these allegations acted as if the constitutionally- recognised FAAC, a potent expression of Nigeria’s fiscal federalism, does not exist.’’ The statement further said that Nigerians know that collective revenues, allocations and expenditures of the three tiers of government were the concern of the monthly FAAC meetings.
As confirmed by the Finance Commissioners of the 36 states, the former Minister of State Finance, Ambassador Bashir Yuguda who was the chair of FAAC during the period had informed the forum that former President Jonathan had approved the spending of the money on payment of petroleum subsidies for the whole country.
But Oshiomhole’s indictment of the former minister before trial was widely reported as the position of NEC which is very worrisome. Observers are concerned that the governor’s campaign against the minister which preceded even the setting up of the body and his well-known animosity against her have, ab initio, done irreparable damage to its mandate and credibility. Between December 2014 and now, the governor has gone public with various allegations against the minister. He has variously accused her of responsible for all kinds of huge sums from the national treasury, ranging from $30 billion to $20 billion to N720 billion and more recently, $2.1 billion. In fact he has even alleged that the minister was responsible for Edo State being denied N10 billion from the treasury.
The recent report by THISDAY, based on documents from the Debt Management Office, which revealed that Okonjo-Iweala turned down Oshiomhole’s request for the approval of three commercial loans for Edo State before the elections throws new light on the issue. The documents showed that the former minister’s decision was based on expert advice that using a World Bank facility which the state was then expecting to offset the commercial loan as Oshiomhole requested was not only irregular but was likely to leave the state in a difficult position. Oshiomhole, from all indications, was very unhappy with this decision.
Given this background, there are strong concerns regarding the capacity of the committee to be balanced and objective in carrying out its mandate giving the public personalisation of the issue. This is even more so as other members have not spoken up but instead have allowed the Edo state governor to seize the stage and define its mandate based on his personal grievances and interests.
In fact, events of the preceding two weeks seem to suggest that the Committee may have been hijacked by interest groups who have for a long time sought ways to rubbish the reputation of the former Minister of Finance for daring to insist that public funds must be transparently managed and the right thing done. This perception is strengthened by the fact that Oshiomhole’s very public campaign against the former minister has defined and politicized its mandate to the point that it is difficult to separate the two. For a highly respected body like the National Economic Council, the current state of affairs regarding its announced investigations are, at best, highly irregular. They do no inspire confidence that the committee will do justice to its mandate.
Another challenge the committee faces is the growing public perception that the inquiry is designed by some governors to politically tarnish Okonjo-Iweala for the simple reason that she insisted on transparency in the management of the nation’s finances and regularly shared information about allocations from the Federation Account and the Excess Crude Account to states and local governments to Nigerians in the national newspapers and other media.
It is common knowledge that ever since Okonjo-Iweala introduced the practice during the administration of President Obasanjo, it made many governors and other elected and appointed officials across the country very uncomfortable. Reason: it empowered Nigerians with information about what the three tiers of government receive from the Federation Account and other sources. They did not like the idea of putting such information in the hands of Nigerians because this led, inevitably, to uncomfortable questions about the management of these resources. After Okonjo-Iweala resigned from government and went back to the World Bank, the publication of allocations became an irregular affair but she resumed the resumed the practice when she came back again in 2011 under the Jonathan administration.
But the hostility towards the publications has not ceased but may have actually increased since the failure of many states to pay the salaries of their workers became a public issue. Our investigations reveal that when the Finance Ministry published, a few days to the expiration of the Jonathan administration, figures of what the Federal and State governments got from the Excess Crude Accounts between 2011 and 2014, there was a spike of anger in Government Houses across the country because some Governors saw it as an effort by Okonjo-Iweala to “embarrass” them at a sensitive time when their workers were protesting backlogs of unpaid salaries. To them, this was enemy action because it tended to portray them as wicked and insensitive to the suffering of their people The fact that states like Ekiti and Enugu which receive very low allocations from the Federation Account compared to some defaulting states were able to pay only made these state governors more angry with Okonjo-Iweala.
But the truth is that given the quantum of the resources they have received in the past four years, apart from some cases of states which have special problems, no state in the country has a good reason for denying their workers’ salaries.
Against this background, it is worrying that such a breath taking attempt is being made to deploy the NEC, one of the most respected premium government forums – in this crass political manner. One hopes for the sake of the NEC, our democracy, and institution building in this country that this effort by Oshiomhole and his cohorts will not be allowed to stand.
To deploy such a historically important institution like the NEC as a lynch mob against a woman whose only crime is that she served her country with passion and dedication would not demean Okonjo-Iweala, but it will demean the National Executive Council (NEC) as an institution.
The good news is that the NEC is not a monopoly of Oshiomhole or those who seek to tarnish it with their ignoble political intentions. It brings together the thirty six state governors, the Central Bank Governor, and the Ministry of Finance under the chairmanship of the Vice President and that is a basis for optimism that Oshiomhole’s jaundiced stand will not define the committee’s report.
It is strange that those who worked with integrity, allowed citizen participation in government by releasing information that was hitherto held in secrecy are now being targeted for persecution, while the real culprits are being left to go free. This is not the way to wage the war against corruption. Why is Okonjo- Iweala being made a sacrificial lamb? Everybody in Nigeria knows who did right and who did wrong during the Jonathan administration. President Muhammadu Buhari should be very careful and should not allow people that are close to him to hijack systems and processes to pursue and execute a personal vendetta at the expense of the administration’s mission.