Moving, Yet Standing Still


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October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007



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Moving, Yet Standing Still




Godwin Agbroko





culled from THISDAY, March 22, 2005



For quite a long time, I had intended to raise the issue of the president's refusal to appoint a petroleum minister. Each time I wanted to do so, my attention would be drawn elsewhere by other compelling events which I needed to comment upon immediately or foreclose altogether.

This week is no different. I had firmly made up my mind last week to take up the matter today before I travelled out to Warri for the burial ceremony of my younger sister's husband. It was there I heard the news of the arrest of the education minister, Prof. Fabian Osuji, on the allegation of offering a N50 million bribe to the education committees of the National Assembly.
Of course, this is a salacious piece of news by any standard. The antecedents of the case made it even more so. Only last month, Hon. Haruna Yerima of the lower house had indicted the National Assembly in a manner that plainly said that his fellow legislators constituted a serious problem to the nation.  He had said that "we (legislators) are not the solution to Nigeria's problems..." because "every facet of the National Assembly stinks with corruption, especially the committees."

There was one minor or important point (depending on where you are on the social ladder) on which I disagreed with Hon. Yerima. I take exception to his comparison of the Assembly's debates to "beer parlour debates that are laughable and have no meaning to the ordinary Nigerian." Beer parlour debates are not a laughing matter to those who engage in them. Were anyone present to laugh at the debates, he risks a black eye. And the debates are certainly full of more meaning to ordinary Nigerians than those which go on in our legislative  chambers and executive councils. If for nothing else, the debates help long-suffering Nigerians to purge themselves of deep emotions on which they would have otherwise choked.

To be more serious, Yerima's allegations were not a laughing matter to his colleagues. Instead of calling him to substantiate the charges, the House promptly suspended him for two weeks. I'm told that it was his petition that led to the arrest of the education minister. As expected, the administration has been crowing about Mr Osuji's arrest as one more evidence of its determination to fight against corruption.

To me, this is just one more addition to the administration's threatening gestures at the beast of corruption. Like previous ones, any other action after his feeble gesture will end in national amnesia. It is with considerable mental effort that I'm able to dredge up these past gestures -- Makanjuola of the defence ministry, Obegolu of INEC, SAGEMgate, Halliburton's-bribe-for-tax, and lately Tafa Balogun of the police force. What is one more Fabian Osuji? It would sound cynical to repeat my prediction in the Balogun case, that like the former police boss, Mr. Osuji will not have his day in court. If the education minister is actually taken to court and the case is concluded, he must be a political light-weight indeed, not a sacred cow.
That is why I won't waste a column on the Osuji matter. For now, this case, like previous ones, looks like the laughable debates in Yerima's House of Representatives that have no meaning to the ordinary Nigerian. Hon. Yerima himself summed it all up when he said: "The truth is that we lack the capacity to fight corruption in this country." We are still waiting for the time when we can separate the gesture from the capacity.

I was also in Warri when I read of the president's disclosure that he is under tremendous pressure to run for a third term. I can't possibly see any purpose to the president's disclosure other than to fly a kite. His choice of location (Berlin), audience (German-African Association), occasion (lecture), and topic (Nigeria: A strong emerging economy) were primed for maximum exposure and effect.

On the issue of predictions, you will recall that I had outlined this scenario in January in my piece entitled: The Making of OGA. There, I had foretold the emergence of a political organisation with the possible name of Obasanjo Grand Alliance that would canvass a third term for the president. I had said then that the calls on the president to run would begin either immediately before or during the political conference in Abuja. The intention is to get the conference, one way or another, to put the imprimatur on the third term project and get Obasanjo to run again, of course, against his personal wish and desire.
The jigsaw puzzle is finally falling into place. Everything is following a well-appointed course. As I noted in the January piece, the president is keeping to his feeble denials. Before now, his oft-repeated mantra was that it would be unconstitutional for him to run. Now that there is the possibility that the Abuja conference could clear the constitutional hurdle, the tune has changed to the president's desire to conclude a triple transition in 2007-- from military to civilian government, from government to government, and finally, from one personality to another.

It is this type of talk that Churchill would have characterised as "a piece of sublime mysticism and nonsense." With the president's kind of desire, nothing can be sure. It is instructive that Obasanjo has been unable to summon up the kind of affirmation given by Gen. Tecumseh Sherman when he was being pressed to run for the U.S. presidency. Sherman's ringing affirmation not to run left no iota of doubt. "If I am drafted" he thundered, "I will not accept; if nominated, I will not run; and if elected, I will not serve."
Even when his denial is not on a firm ground, one thing is however sure: the president's Berlin kite would serve as the signal for the commencement of the third term battle. You can be sure that between now and 2007, the nation will be on the sterile course of yet another term for the president. And with it, billions of naira, which would be the only reason why the army of political jobbers in shinning armour of patriotism would be in it.

Again, I would prefer to leave the project for a third term in its embryo, and  to return to an issue from which the nation might still derive some profit. You would think that logic should demand that if only one minister is to be appointed by any administration, that minister would be for petroleum resources. Petroleum is virtually the only thing on which the entire nation lives. Unlike the first republic, it is now impossible to imagine Nigeria without crude oil. It is therefore a great puzzle that the president singled out this ministry to be without a minister. Nigeria, I suspect, must be the only country that produces its amount of oil, lives virtually off crude, and yet has no petroleum minister.

I must accept that the argument for the president not having an oil minister can be made from the other end. Because the oil resource is so vital to the nation's interest, the president decided to put the portfolio in his own hands for closer supervision. But if that were the president's reasoning, the practice has vitiated it, showing that there is no way this president, no matter the number of petroleum advisers and assistants at his dispoal, can truly have a hands-on administration of that portfolio.
I need only recall a few things here to demonstrate the futility of the president handling the portfolio. The state of  the nation's four refineries, for example, is a sore thumb for the administration, sticking out in all its ugliness. Six years in office and millions of dollars down the drain, the administration has virtually failed to revive the refineries. Of course, no one expects a president, with Obasanjo's kind of domestic and international commitments to ECOWAS, the AU and G.77 to have time for details on turn-around-maintenance of refineries, as with virtually other technical matters in the petroleum industry.

In the event, a lot of things have gone wrong in the sector. I am not surprised about the false declarations of oil reserves by Shell, the bulk of which came from our shares. I am equally not surprised that Nigeria is about the only country that has done virtually nothing about the spurious Shell reserves. The company has been sanctioned in the United Kingdom and the United States, except Nigeria. Yet, the declarations of reserves have great financial implications for our joint-venture operations.
Again, the revenue commission and nearly all the governors have been griping about the true state of accounts of our oil revenue. Virtually everyone outside the federal set-up is suspicious of the nation's oil account. That is why the governors have been demanding for an accountant-general for the federation that would be separate and distinct from that for the federal government. Even when the states are unlikely to get their wish, the demand alone speaks eloquently of their state of mind, namely, that the centre is fiddling with the accounts.

What makes this a serious problem in a federal set-up is the apparent inability of the National Assembly to get to the bottom of the oil revenue conundrum. When summoned by the Assembly, the group managing director of the NNPC, as a technical operative, can only have so much information at his disposal and divulge so much to politicians. As the minister who should naturally answer to the ministry happens to be the president, he can't be summoned at will by the Assembly's relevant committees.

The point is that every ministry needs a political head to stamp the goals and vision of the government on the ministry. In the absence of an effective political head, the technical operatives are left to fulfill their own agenda, using their own devices which may conflict severely with the policy thrust  and vision of government. Without a minister, the void between the operatives and the president becomes too wide. In such a situation, supervision is invariably less than effective and abuses may go undetected. That was why we saw a chief executive of the national oil corporation who preferred to squander more that N400 million on hotel accomomdation without qualms. He claimed that money was too small to get him a  befitting home in Abuja and that his hotel stay was a great sacrifice to the nation. When he spoke, he repeatedly used phrases, such as: " I determine how much I want to sell my crude" This, at a time when increases in the price of refined petroleum products were causing shocks-waves across the nation. I am sure that by the time the U.K-based firm contracted by the government to do a five-year audit of Nigeria's oil revenue completes its tasks, the story would be told graphically, if not dramatically, in figures.

Given the strategic place of oil to our national life, I've always wondered why Nigerians, especially their representatives, have been seemingly absent-minded about the appointment of a  petroleum minister to relieve the president of that burden. It may be that they are wearied by the intransigence of the president's, refusal to have one. Yet, what happens in that sector argues for not just a petroleum minister, but one that is technically sound, completely at home in the ways of the industry, and has the political savvy to give effect to the administration's vision  in the oil sector. Anything short of this would be a return to the president's handling of the oil portfolio or worse. And this is what we must avoid in what remains of the Obasanjo presidency.




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