Governor's Antics A New Low

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Governor's Antics A New Low, Even For Corrupt Nigeria 

By

Lydia Polgreen

in Yenagoa, Nigeria
 

 

December 3, 2005


 
Precisely where Diepreye Alamieyeseigha will fall in the gallery of corrupt Nigerian leaders is a matter for history to judge.  General Sani Abacha, the military dictator who helped himself to at least $US3 billion and salted it away in foreign bank accounts, doubtless stole far more.
 
But General Abacha, who ruled the country from 1993 to 1998, did not escape money-laundering charges in a foreign country by donning a dress and a wig and quietly slipping away, as Alamieyeseigha, the Governor of a small oil-producing state in the Niger Delta, did from Britain last month.  For their sheer audacity, Alamieyeseigha's antics are likely to earn him a prominent place among the leaders who in the past four decades are believed to have stolen or misspent $US400 billion in government money, most of it the profits from Nigeria's vast oil reserves.
 
"It is a new low," said Gani Fawehinmi, one of Nigeria's leading lawyers and a longtime campaigner for good governance. "And in Nigeria that is saying something."
Alamieyeseigha is suspected of siphoning millions of dollars in cash and buying an oil refinery in Ecuador, along with several houses in London, California and South Africa. He has denied stealing money from the state.  Long associated with rampant corruption and kleptocratic governments, Nigeria for years has been given one of the worst scores in Transparency International's world corruption perception index, although this year its rating improved slightly.
 
Corruption touches almost every aspect of life, from the millions of sham email messages sent each year by people claiming to be Nigerian officials seeking help with transferring large sums of money out of the country, to the police officers who routinely set up roadblocks to extract a bribe of 20 naira (about $A0.20) from drivers.
In the past year, President Olusegun Obasanjo has ratcheted up the fight against corruption, and several high officials have been ensnared in criminal investigations.
The president of the Senate was forced from office after he was accused of taking a bribe from the education minister to pass an inflated budget. The inspector-general of the national police was charged with stealing $US140 million ($188 million), pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced recently to six months in jail. But the Alamieyeseigha scandal has almost eclipsed those gains and led many to wonder whether democracy will ever make government here more accountable. "Looting from the people is not a new thing," said Kayode Fayemi of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an advocacy group. "We are used to that. But for people who claim to be representatives of their own people to commit this barefaced robbery is shameful. Where is the rule of law?" 
"This is what happens when you have leaders who are interested only in themselves," said Bishop Anslem, who is 29, has a university degree in industrial electronics but has never had a steady job. "They take the money and we see none of it."
Alamieyeseigha is one of Nigeria's 36 governors, a class of men who enjoy immunity from prosecution because of a clause in the constitution.
 
His state of Bayelsa produces 30 per cent of the country's oil, and with recent sky-high oil prices, the state budget this year ballooned to $560 million, compared with about $300 million in 2003.  But the money has not brought relief to the locals. It has mostly paid for white elephants such as mansions for the governor and his deputy. The 2005 budget sets aside $US8.5 million to build those two houses, along with more than $US2 million for furnishings.  And that is just this year. Since 2002 the state has spent more than $25 million on the governor's mansion, according to budgets on file in Yenagoa's tiny public library.
 
A glossy, mostly wordless booklet issued by Alamieyeseigha's press office, A Legacy of Selfless Service, includes drawings of the houses, depicting fantasies of waterfalls, fountains and artificial lakes. Meanwhile, the Poverty Eradication Committee, whose purpose is not explained, has a budget of about $A31,000, according to the 2005 budget. That is a little more than half of what is budgeted for toiletries for state officials.  Alamieyeseigha was arrested in London on September 15 and charged by British authorities with three counts of money laundering. He was released on bail but had to surrender his passport.
 
His next court appearance was scheduled for December 8, but he mysteriously materialised in Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa State, at the end of last month, telling a crowd of supporters who assembled outside the governor's mansion: "I cannot tell you how I was brought here. It is a mystery. All the glory goes to God."  The scandal of Alamieyeseigha's arrest and flight from London has gripped the nation. At the Ekiti Motor Park bus stop in Yenagoa, men gathered around a news stand to read breathless newspaper stories printed under banner headlines.
 
"This is what happens when you have leaders who are interested only in themselves," said Bishop Anslem, who is 29, has a university degree in industrial electronics but has never had a steady job. "They take the money and we see none of it."
Alamieyeseigha is one of Nigeria's 36 governors, a class of men who enjoy immunity from prosecution because of a clause in the constitution.  His state of Bayelsa produces 30 per cent of the country's oil, and with recent sky-high oil prices, the state budget this year ballooned to $560 million, compared with about $300 million in 2003.
But the money has not brought relief to the locals. It has mostly paid for white elephants such as mansions for the governor and his deputy. The 2005 budget sets aside $US8.5 million to build those two houses, along with more than $US2 million for furnishings.
 
And that is just this year. Since 2002 the state has spent more than $25 million on the governor's mansion, according to budgets on file in Yenagoa's tiny public library.
A glossy, mostly wordless booklet issued by Alamieyeseigha's press office, A Legacy of Selfless Service, includes drawings of the houses, depicting fantasies of waterfalls, fountains and artificial lakes. Meanwhile, the Poverty Eradication Committee, whose purpose is not explained, has a budget of about $A31,000, according to the 2005 budget. That is a little more than half of what is budgeted for toiletries for state officials.
 
Culled from The New York Times

 

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