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Ebubedike Akabuwa: Clothing Mr President in wrong robes

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Ebubedike Akabuwa: Clothing Mr President in wrong robes

by Ebubedike Akabuwa

There is something about truth and robes in  literature. Most quotes on truth or lies are crafted around robes. The “locus classicus” is the legendary fable of an Emperor and his new  clothes. It chronicles the tale of a pompous king  who engaged swindlers to weave an imaginable  robe that could be invisible to anybody unfit to be king. He was naked but he walked around with great illusions of grandeur and belief that he was wearing an invisible robe.  The shame that befell him is a story for another day.

British politician and former prime minister Winston Churchill also used robes to couch a powerful quote about truth and lies. He said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on.”  The quote is time tested and underlines the ease with which falsehood spreads at the expense of truth.

There is another popular saying about truth and lies that deals  with robes. It goes thus “lies have a special way of wearing the robe of truth with passage of time”.  This is so true and an incontrovertible fact that leads me to the central premiss of this piece.

If there’s any lie that is fast wearing  the robes of truth,   it is the lie that President Jonathan is corrupt.  We have a President who has been severely castigated, demonized and clothed in the unfitting robes of the most corrupt President in Nigeria’s history.  On social media in particular, it would appear that there is a syndicated machinery that is oiled to vend falsehood against Mr President.  Increasingly, we are bombarded with stories of how Mr President stole trillions as subsidy, feeds on a billion Naira budget, encourages oil theft and sustains impunity. Faint regard is given to proof and falsehood keeps trending. There exists a compelling need for men of good conscience to speak out and restrain these lies from wearing the robe of truth hence this piece.

I focus mainly on the subsidy saga because it accounts for a large size of the fabric with which these costumiers of falsehood have woven  a wrong robe for Mr  President.

SUBSIDY SAGA

It is not true that President Goodluck Jonathan stole or aided the stealing of subsidy funds in Nigeria. What is however true is that he is the only President that has summoned the courage to expose and fight the endemic corruption in the Petroleum sector.

Barely a month after he was sworn into office as President in 2010, President Goodluck  Jonathan  directed the then Minister of Finance, Olusegun Aganga to commission a comprehensive audit of NNPC and PPPRA. Consequently, Aganga engaged the services of a leading global Audit firm, KPMG and that of SS Afemike & Co to carry out a forensic audit into the state of the finances of the corporation and government spending on fuel subsidies to the tune of 1.5 trillion naira. The Audit covered all transactions between 2006-2010 and was submitted in January 2011.

The KPMG report revealed  monumental corruption in NNPC/PPPRA  during the period under review. The 2011 general elections were around the corner hence the president suspended  action on the report pending the conclusion of the elections and inauguration of a new administration.

Under the new administration, President Goodluck Jonathan excavated the KPMG report and went into far reaching consultations with his economic team led by world  renowned  Economist Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala (who had replaced Aganga as Minister of Finance). The team considered all the recommendations made by the KPMG report which bordered on the need to dispense with the subsidy regime, restructure the entire oil and gas sector and promote laws that will institutionalize transparency and eliminate corruption in the system.

It is instructive to note that the cross pollination of ideas on KPMG report enabled the  fertilization of plans to withdraw subsidy.  President Jonathan was irked that oil marketers and officials of NNPC were taking advantage of the subsidy regime to defraud Nigerians in hundreds of billions hence the compelling need to close the window of corruption( Subsidy)  and  block the conduit pipe called Petroleum Support Fund (PSF).

Unfortunately, the oil marketers and trader companies (OMTC), who are the beneficiaries of the subsidy regime, fought back to resist the move. They unleashed their financial muscle and got Labour and Civil Society organisations  to deceive gullible minds into thinking that the move to remove subsidy was a bitter pill from the oppressor. Nothing else could have been further from the truth.

First, the corruption in subsidy management predated the Goodluck Jonathan administration as evidenced in the KPMG report. The report states that the total sum of 1.5 trillion Naira was  mismanaged  as subsidy funds between 2006 and 2010. It is common knowledge that Goodluck Jonathan was a Governor of Bayelsa as at 2006  and only  became acting President in 2010.

Secondly, It is true that some money has been misappropriated as subsidy under Jonathan as President. The President admits as much hence his resolve to institute the KPMG audit and the AIG Imoukhuede Committee. What is however lacking is an acknowledgment by critics and opposition alike that GEJ, unlike his predecessors, launched a war against corruption in the oil sector by exposing the sector to probes, audit and public scrutiny.

It will be recalled that on the heels of “Occupy Nigeria protests” that trailed the partial removal of subsidy in 2012, President Jonathan inaugurated the AIG Imoukhede committee to probe the subsidy regime. Unlike the Farouk Lawan led House of Representatives Committee probe that was enmeshed in a bribery scandal that compromised its integrity, AIG was unblemished and submitted a comprehensive report that has provided the legal basis for the historic prosecution of the indicted oil marketers for subsidy corruption by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC).

The ongoing trial of subsidy suspects viz, Mahmud Tukur,  Abdullahi Alao, Opeyemi Ajuya, Alex Ochonogor, Olanrewaju Olalusi, Walter  Wagbatsuma, Adaoha Ugo-Ngadi, Fakunde Babefemi, Ezekiel Ejide and so many others marks the historic and first ever criminal prosecutions instituted by the FG against oil thieves in Nigeria.

Thirdly, it is malicious and a tendentious overkill for some folks to accuse the president of benefiting from the subsidy corruption cesspool which he desperately seeks to  wind up. There is absolutely no nexus between allegations that Jonathan corruptly enriches himself through subsidy funds and his desperation to end the subsidy regime in Nigeria.

I  have asked, which President ever risks his popularity rating  and public opprobrium  just to shut down a system(subsidy) that favours him?

Fourthly, President Jonathan’s critics have sought to create the mischievous impression that FG’s resolve to remove subsidy in January 2011 was a poorly veiled attempt to increase fuel pump price and expose the masses to severe hardship. Ignorance cannot come in a better form. The thrust of the subsidy removal policy  rests majorly on the plank of deregulation. This administration seeks to remove subsidy as a gateway to full deregulation of the downstream sector.
It is expected that in a deregulated downstream sector, where government does not regulate prices, there will be massive inflow of private sector investments in construction of refineries. The present subsidy regime makes importation very attractive and it is trite economics that importation kills local production. It is much easier, less risky, and very profitable to import fuel in Nigeria (and benefit from subsidy payments) than to venture into the long term, very risky, capital intensive and less profitable business of setting up refineries.

It would  be recalled that in 2002, the then President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, granted 18 private refinery Licenses. None of them is yet established after a decade due to the subsidy regime. Even the Tonwei Refinery which ought to be Nigeria’s first private refinery with a capacity of  200,000 barrels of refined product per day is yet to take off eleven years after Obasanjo laid the foundation stone. The state governments of Akwa Ibom, Lagos, Edo have all had a shot at building refineries all to no avail.

It takes extraordinary courage backed with bank loans, government support , and the big financial muscle of a Dangote to risk long term investments in refinery under the present subsidy regime. That notwithstanding, there is an assurance by government that it will deregulate as no investor can thrive in a market where government, rather than market forces, dictates price.

Put succinctly, President Jonathan sought to kill the proverbial two birds of corruption and deregulation with one stone-Subsidy removal.  It is not about increase of pump price (although the partial removal now makes it appear so). There is no denying the fact  that total removal of subsidy will lead to increase in pump price in the short term.  However, it holds exciting prospects for the long term. A deregulated market without subsidies on importation will encourage local and foreign direct investment in refineries and  usher in competition that will gradually lead to a significant reduction in pump prices of petroleum products. The benefits also extend to the creation of jobs for hundreds of thousands of unemployed Nigerians and the repositioning of Nigeria’s oil industry in the global market.

The challenge of governance in this clime is that the opposition takes advantage of mass ignorance to confuse and politicise issues and clothe Mr President in the unfitting garb of a corrupt man. A President who is corrupt will not bother to remove subsidy but would rather perpetuate it for his own gains. A president who is corrupt will not instigate probes by himself i.e KPMG, AIG Imoukhede etc. He would rather tow the path of his predecessors who did not  raise a single probe in NNPC. A president who is corrupt will not formulate a new PIB that seeks to revolutionize the oil industry, dissolve NNPC and deregulate the sector. A President who is corrupt will not invite Nuhu Ribadu, Presidential candidate of the leading opposition party to probe into oil revenue in the last decade and submit a report which formed the basis for drafting the new Petroleum Industry Bill. A President who is corrupt will appropriate the role of Minister of Petroleum to himself (like some of his predecessors did) and run it like a private estate  devoid of NASS summons and investigations. President Jonathan is not corrupt. He is being clothed in wrong robes.

– Ebubedike Akabuwa, Abuja based legal practitioner. Follow this writer on Twitter: @akaebube

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