Lagos turns on kickbacks

By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 26/03/07):

One road for Africa leads to penury by way of Zimbabwe; another leads to something far better via a nation that is far bigger. But Nigeria, with 10 times the population and greater natural riches, is developing problems of its own. The old curses of corruption and political instability are back.President Obasanjo is stepping down on April 21 at the end of his second term. He didn’t want to go. He tried to alter the constitution and get himself a third term. He needed more time to finish slaying the dragon of bribery, he said. But new Nigerian democracy wouldn’t let him linger. And nor would his own vice-president, Atiku Abubakar.

So the two fell out; and Atiku fell out of the ruling party, joining the opposition instead. He is its candidate to succeed Obasanjo next month – if he’s allowed to stand. But a wave of corruption allegations, fuelled by damning reports from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has engulfed him. It claims that maybe as much as $145m would appear to have gone walkabout. On cue Nigeria’s election commission announced that nobody facing criminal charges could be allowed on the ballot paper. Exit Abubakar. Game, set and match to Obasanjo.

But only if you prefer screaming headlines to detail in this affair. Detail, however, comes by the kilo and sits piled on my desk and tells a rather more nuanced story about Nigeria’s Petroleum Technology Development Fund – built up by fees on oil concessions to help Nigerians develop expertise in running their own industry – and what’s become of it since the President Obasanjo took an interest in it.

Where did the supposedly missing $145m go? Into illicit pockets, according to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission investigators. So a senate committee examined its allegations. First, it decided Abubakar had «abused his office by aiding and abetting the diversion of public funds approved for specific projects» into deposits at banks which were then «fraudulently converted» into loans to a raft of private companies. So much for Abubakar’s lead supervisory role over the development fund finances – and so much, perhaps, for his hopes of becoming president.

But there were other, softer conclusions to this committee report. It found that the president (and his federal executive council) had «acted in disregard of the law» when he approved controversial projects from development fund coffers – one establishing an African Institute of Science and Technology that hasn’t been established yet, another bank-rolling a mysterious company called Galaxy Backbone Plc.

Everything the fund had undertaken since 2003 should be scrutinised afresh, the committee ruled. And the millions that Obasanjo’s lawyers had been paid for registering Galaxy Backbone should be properly itemised, and taxed. More evidence about the purchase of cars and photographs for the president’s library came to light, as well as a dissenting report from one senator, ruled out-of-order because the committee has no statutory provision for dissent.

But would there be sanctions against Obasanjo to match those against Abubakar? It seemed not. The committee simply advised him «to adhere strictly» to the rules of the Petroleum Technology Development Fund. Last week, though, the senate declined to accept the report. The committee resigned for a day – and then swept back into action, promoting Obasanjo to target number one and dropping all but one charge against Abubakar. From tragedy to farce to thundering crisis in 72 hours.

Meanwhile, the essential crisis grows fiercer. It could turn very nasty indeed if Abubakar is finally ruled out of the presidential race. What’s at stake is something that matters hugely to Africa. Nigeria is populous, talented, resourced and dynamic. It is has a natural leadership role, and the inherent wealth to exercise it. And the long, uncertain years of military dictatorship may be over. Obasanjo will pass power to another civilian politician in April. There’s a tentative stability here that could turn into real hope.

When Nigerians elected their president they wanted a break with the corruptions that had dragged their country down. He played the Chief Clean role and set up the economic crimes commission, and applauded when it claimed to have swilled $5bn in kickbacks out of the system. It appeared to show Nigeria moving forward. But what is anyone to make of all the million plus nairas gone on photographs to deck a library?

Leave the president and vice-president to their prosecutions. Don’t pronounce on guilt or innocence from afar. But do trust the people of Nigeria, its courts, press and NGOs, to see this one through. Hope, when you talk to Nigerians, is a laugh of contempt for the old politicians and rancid old ways. Hope is a challenge and imperative. It’s down to the people to make their demands inescapable – to make sure this seamy business doesn’t fade away. Hope springs and, perhaps, hope resounds. Because there is a right to dissent.