$67 BILLION QUESTION: Labaran Maku’s Humongous Nonsense

indexIt would have been a breeze of pleasant surprise had Dr. Doyin Okupe, the President’s adviser on public affairs decided to keep quiet for once. Curiously, none of those in Nigeria’s perverted corridors of power has dared to take up the challenge of squaring up with Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili in a public debate over allegations of “brazen misappropriation of public resources” levelled against the Jonathan administration. Nonetheless, it would have been shocking if Okupe had not sought to bring down the full weight of his office (no pun intended) to bear on Ezekwesili for daring to finger President Goodluck Jonathan as one of the major players in the ‘misapplication’ of $67bn foreign reserve left by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration.

The Okupe I know is not one that would allow a Labaran Maku to take the shine off his office through a hurriedly-arranged press conference. By the way, Ezekwesili used to be a highly visible member of the economic think-tank in the Obasanjo administration. Popularly called ‘Madam Due Process’, she was appointed a minister after injecting some measure of credibility into the due process unit. From Knucklehead’s point of view, unlike her traducers, Ezekwesili’s intellectualism, passion and love for this country has never been in doubt. For a woman that enjoyed the support of Obasanjo, I had labelled her ‘crazy’ when she walked out of the ministerial appointment and accepted to serve with World Bank as Vice President for Africa. Why abdicate such ‘juicy’ post as a cabinet member for a regulated pay which could end up being a toothbrush allowance for a Nigerian minister, any minister? Yet, Ezekwesili made her choice!

Perhaps, if she had decided to play by the rules and keep a permanent smirk on her chubby face as the transformation train wobbles on a slippery rail, Ezekwesili would not be in the eye of the storm today. But, ever since our encounter in Aso Rock when she was a senior aide to Obasanjo, I knew Oby was not one to suffer fools, especially the parasitic elite, gladly. Her mission seems quite simple: stop the looting and fix the nation for good! In our countless interactions, I never fail to remind her that she was probably the lone dreamer on that train. To her, I was just being a cynic. Today, I doubt if she is still bustling with blind optimism about people in power and their intent to raise the nation a notch higher than the derelict structure they met. There were simply too many pretenders even in the Obasanjo cabinet and they wore split images. Most of them would sacrifice an arm and a leg to belong to that group of rapacious elite that Oby so much despises because of the callous way they continue to impoverish the poor. And I guess she knew any confrontation with this clique is bound to be met with something close to a deadly, custom-built earthquake.

And so when the retired World Bank chief kicked the Jonathan government in the groin, accusing it of wasting a large chunk of an estimated $67bn (N10.8trn) left in the nation’s foreign accounts by Obasanjo as at May 2007, she must have anticipated some sort of angry rebuttal from the President’s men. For a woman who rarely cuddles controversy, I want to assume that she was sure of the authenticity of the figures before rolling them out in a lecture delivered as part of the convocation ceremonies of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. She must have been truly troubled to have coined the fiery words used in passing on that message. She must have been convinced that something needed to be done to reverse the gradual slide into economic stagnation. This is not just about what she said but the way she couched it.

Listen to her: “They squandered the significant sum of $45billion in foreign reserve account and another $22billion in Excess Crude Account, being direct savings from increased earnings from oil that the Obasanjo administration handed over to the successor government in 2007. Six years after the administration I served handed over such humongous national wealth to another one, most Nigerians, but especially the poor, continue to suffer the effects of failing public health and education systems as well as decrepit infrastructure and battered institutions.

“One cannot but ask what exactly does this level of brazen misappropriation of public resources symbolise? Where did all that money go? Where is the accountability for the use of these resources and the additional several hundred million dollars realised from oil sale by the two administrations that have governed our nation in the last five years? How were these resources applied or, more appropriately, misapplied? Tragic choices.”

For an administration with a short fuse for absorbing criticism no matter how flexibly constructive, it was not long before the dogs were let loose on this wife of a pastor. For daring to raise questions on accountability in governance in addition to having the effrontery to table humongous charges bearing on sheer waste against Jonathan and his late predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, Ezekwesili has come under ferocious attacks. She has been called a liar; a rabble-rouser; an unqualified interrogator; shameless peddler of incorrect figures and a grand-stander that should not be dignified with a public debate to verify the true figures. Between Maku and Okupe, picking the winner in the craze to unleash verbal expletives remains too close to call. They are sure earning their pay!

To be candid, no one had expected them to stay on the topic without hitting Oby below the waist band. As far as they are concerned, all is fair in this verbal war. Still, it was uncharitable for Maku to insinuate that Oby mis-managed the ‘humongous’ funds released to the Ministry of Education whilst she in charge of that sector. Unless he wants to confirm our fears that files bothering on corrupt practices by people in government are kept in a special cabinet in the President’s office to be employed just they can be employed as tools for blackmail should the need arise, I really cannot figure out what Maku wants us to make of his allegation that Oby squandered over N430bn without any remarkable shift or improvement in the fallen standard of education. I just hope Minister Maku, a one-time deputy governor in Nasarawa State, was not too young then to understand the damage the term ‘policy summersault’ has inflicted on the polity. He couldn’t have forgotten so soon that after Oby resigned and joined the World Bank, that sector was put under the care of a former governor who was more concerned with the grandiose arrangement for the celebration of his marriage anniversary than fixing a sector that was in complete tatters after Oby’s reform was thrown out of the window. In spite of the fact that lecturers had been on strike for over nine months and those who could afford it had sought admission for their wards in neighbouring countries including Togo and Cameroun, didn’t the minister go ahead to have the shindig of his life? In any case, if the government thinks it has a strong case against Ezekwesili, the appropriate thing to do is to drag her before the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and not this whimsical allegation of wasting a ‘humongous’ N430bn by a regime accused of frittering away a whopping N10.6 trillion in five years.

Yet, we return to the real issue at hand. This outlandish and utterly humongous joke must stop. Ezekwesili’s allegations are too serious to be trivialised or waved aside by the government as yet another ranting by someone who once ‘mis-applied’ money entrusted in her care as a public officer. That argument simply doesn’t wash just as the primitive tactic of name-calling begs the question. If the government truly wants to come clean on this matter and convince us beyond any reasonable doubt that Ezekwesili manipulated figures in order to give it a bloody nose, then it should gladly accept the public debate. This issue surely deserves a dignified response and not the usual bulldozing whereby the “accuser or agent provocateur”, as Okupe puts it, is shouted into silence. Nigerians deserve to know whether it is true that we are in this quagmire due to the “tragic choices” made by some people in Aso Rock. We need to know when and where the rain started beating us!

It is soul-lifting that the National Assembly, specifically the House of Representatives, has stepped into the matter. We wait to see how far Okupe can go with his puerile argument that spent fund cannot be described as squandering of riches simply because it was budgeted for! Would the lawmakers accept the laughable excuse that Ezekwesili was merely ‘ playing to the gallery’ and that it was yet another calculated but ‘unsuccessful’ attempt to maliciously “incite” the public against Jonathan and bring his administration into disrepute unjustifiably? Surely the government would need more than Okupe’s gabbling and foul-mouthing Ezekwesili as a “wilfully perjured individual not worthy of any respect or recognition whatsoever.” Hmnn, maybe these attributes were parts of the things that endeared her to the World Bank where she excelled!

Be that as it may, the dusts being raised about how the nation’s money is being managed provides Jonathan an opportunity to clear his name that, in words and deed, he has truly transformed the much promised mirage of “breeze of fresh air in governance” into a reality. All he needs to do is to avail the nation of the facts, figures and what exactly the funds were spent on. Evidently, this is not the time to gloat about imaginary enemies hiding behind the huge ghost of misgovernance to damage anyone’s reputation. Good enough, Ezekwesili’s questions are routine and should be quite easy to deal with by any self-respecting government. Was there a brazen misappropriation of public funds? If no, then why was the nation’s foreign reserve gravely depleted and what was the money used for? Can someone render accounts on how the additional billions of dollars realised from oil sale by the two administrations that have governed our nation in the last five years have been applied? How were these resources applied or more appropriately, misapplied? And did we end up wasting the resources on what Ezekwesili dubbed ‘tragic choices?’ Haha, answering these questions shouldn’t be rocket science for eggheads in the corridors of power.

Obviously, these questions couldn’t have emanated from the warped rambling of a perjured mind. So, why are some people bent on heaping this humongous nonsense that shames a nation in historical proportions on us all? Must opaque management of public resources and crass disregard for genuine accountability forever remain a directive principle of state? Maybe while our VIPs plan a centenary to celebrate what citizens know not, it is beyond us to ask them to account for how they have spent our money. If they continue treading this wayward path, one day, the Arab spring would look like a picnic when the people rise to ask questions with one voice ringing loud and clear across the land!


– Yomi Odunnuga

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