Mixed Metaphors: Theory of Relativity

Last week, the Nigerian government again humiliated its citizens by shamelessly begging businessman Elon Musk of Tesla for ventilators.

“Federal Government of Nigeria needs support with 100-500 ventilators to assist with #Covid19 cases arising every day in Nigeria,” the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning tweeted on Wednesday.

The Ministry was responding to Mr. Musk tweeting he had ventilators to deliver device free of charge.   Whereupon our Next Level hustlers, all power but no responsibility, swiftly jumped into action.

When the scandal emptied into the streets, the government quickly deleted the tweet, but it was too late.

I was surprised that Next Level forgot to blame the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) for the tweet, or for not having ventilators and PPE, or even for deploying witchcraft to prevent President Muhammadu Buhari from traveling to London for his overdue medical tour.

How did we get to a country where irresponsible governments beg for gifts and loans and grants to do nothing?

The routes in are many; here is one (and I begin the story by condoling former Minister and former Senator, Nenadi Usman, whose husband, Sa’ad Usman, died last week).

Dr. Usman, who was a traditional ruler in Jere, in Kaduna State, had suffered physical injuries in 2014 while reportedly settling a land dispute in the area.   A former permanent secretary in the state, he was taken to London for treatment.

In May 2004, Nenadi, as the Minister of State for Finance, attracted considerable respect when she took on the nation’s governors.  Speaking during a visit to the Debt Management Office, the geography graduate revealed how the kleptocracy worked: each month, as soon as the governors received their federal allocations, they hit the foreign exchange market.

“We have noticed that exchange rates jump up three or four days after [Federation Accounts Allocation Committee] meeting,” she said, speculating that the that the distortion in the forex market right after the allocations could be connected to the governors frequent foreign trips.

“If you look at the states, the states that get so much, you can hardly see anything to show for it,” she observed.

Days later, Nenadi’s senior colleague, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, corroborated her statement, urging members of the Senate to “ask the Governors what they are doing with their funds.”

Several governors weakly protested their lambasting by the Ministry of Finance, but none came forth with the test called for by Nenadi: “…anything to show” for the funds.

That was 16 years ago.  Indeed, since 1999, Nigeria has had hundreds of governors, each collecting these allocations as well as an armada of loans, but with nothing to show.

In most states, children are still studying under trees or in dilapidated structures; in many, particularly in the North, millions are not even in school.  The roads are bad.  There are no libraries or services.  There are no hospitals.

At the federal level, Nigeria began to enjoy Abacha loot repatriations in September 2005, Okonjo-Iweala announcing at a press conference in Switzerland the recovery of $458 million and “about $2 billion total of assets…” from the Abachas.

In December 2006 in Switzerland, La Declaration de Berne said that of $700 million repatriated to Nigeria, there were “irregularities” in Nigeria’s use, and that $200m had simply been ‘siphoned’ off.

In February 2007, with questions swelling, Nenadi—now Finance Minister—announced that Nigeria was “investigating” how the recovered Abacha loot was being spent.  One month later, she declared that the recovered funds—about $2.5 billion—had been deployed into 50 projects in five ministries: Power, Works, Health, Education, and Water Resources.

It seems reasonable to presume that some of those projects might have been health projects, perhaps significant health projects such as hospitals.

When Okonjo-Iweala returned to serve in the Goodluck Jonathan government, she explained in February 2014 that only $500 million had been recovered during her time in Obasanjo’s government.  The money, she said, was “channeled into rural projects.”

But that is not even how Obasanjo remembers it.  In 2016, after a court ordered the Buhari government to publish a detailed account of the recovery and spending, he called the judge and critical citizens “stupid.”

“I don’t keep account,” he thundered.  “All Abacha loots were (sic) sent to Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and every bit of it was reported to Minister of Finance…If they want to know what happened to the money, they should call CBN governor or call the Minister of Finance!”

Obasanjo, remember, was a robust “corruption-fighter.”  So robust that in 2006, he established an anti-corruption Joint Task Force (JTF) comprising the EFCC, the ICPC, the Code of Conduct Bureau, the Department of State Services, and the police.

In its report, the JTF indicted 15 state governors, affirming they had breached the code of conduct, and recommended their prosecution.  One of them, Mr. Jonathan, was specifically found guilty of several counts of false declaration of assets.

Obasanjo thought that eminently qualified the man for higher office, so he made Jonathan Vice-President.

But back to Nenadi, who became a Senator in 2011, and in 2015, was appointed by Jonathan as Director of Finance of the PDP Presidential Campaign Organization.

It is in that capacity that in 2016, the EFCC gave her a new title: the accused.

Along with Femi Fani-Kayode, who had served in the Obasanjo cabinet with her, she was accused of money-laundering and stealing nearly 5bn in federal funds

To be sure, that trial continues, and I do not imply that she has been convicted.  An EFCC case is often a marathon that is forgotten by the time it is finished.

But the former Minister then declared in 2017 that she has breast cancer and needed treatment…abroad.  The court allowed her to travel to the US.

But just imagine if those 10 health projects had been implemented in 2004 or 2007.  She could have been treated in Nigeria, perhaps in her native Jere.

Indeed, by the time she was requesting travel abroad, Switzerland alone had returned to Nigeria over $1bn, including $380m in March 2014.

That country followed up with $322.5m in 2018 that the Muhammadu Buhari government, under international pressure, agreed to spend on the Conditional Grants Scheme (CGS).

That pressure arose because the entire world had seen Nigeria in the last 16 years shamelessly squander vast tranches of funds returned to her.

But the CGS, as I have lamented in the past, is not an unknown or innocent quantity: into it has also annually disappeared $1bn in MDGs funds during the same period.

Which reminds me that we began at the Ministry of Finance where Zainab Ahmed is now in control.  One year ago, Buhari ordered her to sell off thousands of unclaimed assets recovered by the Federal Government since 2015.

Six months.  With immediate effect.  We have to hope she delivered—and not to the original owners—because Nigeria has nothing left.

Because for 20 years, Nigerian leaders and officials have had public words but a private world.  That is until Nightmare Nigerianus—coronavirus—conspiring to trap the criminals and their victims at the scene of the crime.

A spaghetti of insincere relationships: that is how we got here.  You can’t delete this tweet.

[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials].



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