Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
By Sani Tureta
When Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was first brought into governance, she was seen as the ideal person to handle the country’s finances. Her reputation at the World Bank preceded her and much thought she was the archetypal patriot who had elected to sacrifice so much to serve her country. It did not matter then to the few that knew that she was recommended to President Olusegun Obasanjo by Chief Orji Uzor Kalu who was then the governor of Abia State. Her origin in Delta and marital affiliation with Abia was even seen as a major plus in the struggle to build a Nigerian nation.
She is credited, in her first coming, with the policy that saw Nigeria pay back our foreign debts to the international creditor clubs. Many were disappointed when she was deployed to the foreign ministry and were thus not surprised that she soon quit the cabinet.
In her second coming, she was invested with double powers. Ordinarily, the man who should co-ordinate the economic activities and agencies of the federal government is the President. The Ministry of Trade and Investment, the Ministries of Finance, National Planning, and agencies like the Office of Debt Management, Offices of the Accountant General and Auditor General, among others, are supposed to report to the Chief Executive of the Federation. But Dr. Goodluck Jonathan chose to cede his powers in this regard to Okonjo-Iweala as Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy and chairman of the expanded Economic Management Team.
So much was expected from her by her fellow citizens who believed in her, even though many also begrudged her for allegedly owing her loyalty to the Bretton-Woods institutions as against the Nigerian nation. As President Jonathan in his inaugural address to the nation on May 29 last year, announced that he would be transforming the country, the whole country waited to see the economic policy unfolded. And, with the appointment of the Finance minister and other members of the economic team, it became clear that Dr. Okonjo-Iweala would shoulder much of the burden.
Early this year, and early into her tenure as Finance Minister, the subsidy crisis ensued. Okonjo-Iweala; the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Mohammed Adoke Bello, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria; Labour Minister Emeka Worgu; the Petroleum Resources Minister, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke; the Central Bank Governor, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and agencies in the petroleum sector were all brought into the fray as labour and the civil society groups tackled government over claims that trillions of Naira had been spent to subsidise the cost of petroleum products consumed domestically between 2009 and 2011.
“Crucify them”, was the loud cry from an incensed public. Nigerians had wallowed in poverty in the midst of plenty and had always known that the commonwealth had been pillaged by a few to whose hands it had been entrusted. Revelations over the years that politically- exposed persons, people to whom the reins of government at the federal and state levels had been entrusted over the years, and had gone beyond their briefs to convert the public till to private safe had conditioned Nigerians to think and accept tales about criminal tendencies of public officials, be they in the executive, legislative or judicial arms of government. Government’s attempt to fully remove the subsidy on the petroleum products on January 1, even when measures to assuage the anger of the public and soothe the pains through the Christopher Kolade-led Subsidy Re-investment Programme was announced, led to street protests and actually threatened the socio-economic regime.
As manager of the economy, the Finance Minister was at the centre of averting the crisis. She had a duty to explain government actions and shuttle between the National Assembly and her ministry in a bid to douse the fire that had been stoked by the subsidy removal. She was grilled by the legislators who had instituted a probe into the management of the subsidy payments and the shocking revelations further incensed the general public. It is at such times that leaders are known by their handing of sensitive and delicate matters of state. A leader is not expected to play to the gallery or dance to the popular tune. A leader is expected to rise above the fray and, without being arrogant, take a cause he or she believes would lead to the general good.
One development from the subsidy removal and the protests that greeted it was the reform process instituted to clean up the petroleum sector. Both the legislature and executive engaged the reform gear. In February, a 21-member Special Task Force headed by former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, was set up to streamline revenue sources in the sector. The Minister of Petroleum wrote to the EFCC to investigate fuel subsidy regime
But, a disturbing and dangerous turn was taken as Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala appears to be prepared to play Pontius Pilate in the matter. Rather than allow a careful investigation into all the issues and thus a diligent prosecution of those against whom a prima facie case could be established, the Finance Minister, in her August 16 press conference in Abuja, gave the impression that all those who had been allegedly indicted (only court can indict as in Atiku Abubakar’s case) by the National Assembly probes would be sent to court. Much as the country deserves to recover every naira misappropriated and punishes those responsible for the sorry state of affairs in the country, care must be taken in ensuring that justice is not sacrificed at the altar of convenience.
It is the duty of the AGF as the official leader of the Bar and lawyer to the Federal Government to handle or delegate all prosecution of criminal cases. His department determines which case is due for trial and those against whom a case could not be sustained. He has as much duty to ensure that the guilty is punished as he does in ensuring that the innocent is not made to go through undue pains. This is his constitutional duty and he must be allowed to handle this rather sensitive matter.
The comments by the Finance Minister could expose the AGF to public fury in cases where some innocent persons had been wrongly laid up for prosecution. It must be noted that, in recent times, the EFCC in particular, has been accused of failing to secure conviction of accused politicians taken to court, largely because investigations might not have been thorough. This must not be allowed in the instant case as the soul of the country is on trial.
It is particularly important to note that the private firms involved in importation of petroleum products could not have acted alone. What has happened and what is happening to officials of agencies like the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency and other government agencies? Can a case be sustained against any firm when it is clear that it could not have acted without the connivance of a public official? Wouldn’t officials of the agencies be summoned and grilled by the defence counsel? Would a public official who supposedly inspected, verified and certified imported products for payment admit to an infraction necessary to secure conviction?
It takes two to tango is a popular saying. Besides, there are two sides to every equation. Thus, the office of the AGF should be encouraged to carefully sift the chaff from the grain. If he is stampeded and falters, the cases will fall like packs of cards that cannot stand even the gentle breeze,
This is a critical juncture in the life of this country. It is a momentous occasion to recover looted funds, but if mismanaged, all could be lost. Every public official must be encouraged to do a good job. The Minister of Finance, assisted by the Petroleum Resources Minister and the CBN Governor has her role to play in coming up with figures and documents that could assist in determining the guilty. If some have started refunding sums credited to them that could be helpful. The facts should be collated and transferred to the prosecution team, but the AGF should not be pushed into joining the crowd in crucifying all.
It is important to note that NNPC/PPMC is responsible for over 60 percent of total petrol import and account for 100 per cent kerosene import and distribution in Nigeria. As at today, NNPC owes oil traders over US$3 billion as unpaid import product purchased. In 2011, because of traders unwillingness to continue to sell product to NNPC on open account basis, NNPC commenced purchasing products on crude for refined product swap arrangement (trade by barter) at average price of Platt plus 89/MT. This is about US$70/mt more than what other marketers supplied the local market. Today, NNPC is swapping with 180,000 barrel/day of crude for refined products with the following companies: Sahara Energy (30,000 barrel/day), Trafigura (60,000/day), Duke Oil 90,000 barrels per day. Duke oil is 100% owned by NNPC but the entire contract is re-assigned to the following companies and Duke oil only benefit US$2/MT on the deal. Aiteo 30,000 barrels/day, Ontario 30,000 barrel/day and Televeras 30,000 barrel/day.
Why is NNPC left out of this investigation when NNPC is the major beneficiary of imports? Since investigation started, PPPRA and Ministry of Finance have stopped paying marketers at a rate that will encourage more import. NNPC has been responsible for over 85 percent product import since March 2012 and as per NNPC figure, government owes NNPC over N1 trillion.
Today, we know the selling price of DPK. Where is the subsidy on kerosene and who collects the subsidy? Today, private companies are not able to pay salaries, as downstream sector is responsible for over 30,000 direct workers and over 100,000 indirect Nigerians? What will happen to all these people. Does she want AGF to prosecute when there are no clear evidence? Is government interested in prosecution or recovery of fund?
Tureta is a Port Harcourt-based public affairs analyst