Memo to the National Assembly

Memo to the National Assembly

Last week, the House of Representatives announced that in the past eight years, the government of Olusegun Obasanjo squandered $16 billion, not $10 billion, in its smoke-and-mirrors gambles for electrical power.  The lower figure had been announced by President Musa Yar'Adua.

I invite the National Assembly to pay a similar attention to the expenditure of the government on roads.  In this column on December 4, 2006, and nearly one year later on November 4, 2007 I explored this subject, and concluded that the government had "spent" nearly N1 trillion since Obasanjo took office.  Nigerians have yet to see those roads, or feel the impact of such heavy spending.

What passes for roads in Nigeria, the world knows, are either death traps or where you spend your best hours sitting in traffic.  It is time to clarify exactly what has happened so that we do not repeat our errors. 

First, let me state the depth of my worry.  In 2003, when he was campaigning in his home state, Ogun, Obasanjo expressed the thought the passing thought that his government had spent over N300 billion on roads.  That statement led to the famous conflict between Obasanjo's first-term Minister of Works, Mr. Tony Anenih, and the Abia State Governor, Mr. Orji Kalu.

Kalu challenged Obasanjo to ask Anenih what he had done with all that money.  The Governor subsequently accused Anenih of threatening to kill him as a result of his position. 

The matter would eventually be "resolved" within the People's Democratic Party, as though it were a case of two elementary school boys fighting in a class.  Mr. Anenih never explained the N300 billion away, and Obasanjo never talked about any dissonance between his government's budgeting and its performance.  He just budgeted more money, a subject to which I will return in a moment. 

Anenih did say something.  Through a spokesman, he said he did not get N300 billion, but N126 billion.  Again, Obasanjo never shook his head, never cared, never sought reconciliation between his budget and his government's performance.  He just emptied more money into the Ministry.  And again, I will return to that subject.

Let this go the record as one of those things I fail to understand.  Last year, in New York, the former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nuhu Ribadu, said that the controversial amount was actually N50 - not N300 - billion.  This is despite the fact that the President had himself said the amount was N300 billion.  Worse still, it was despite the fact that Anenih admitted having been given N126 billion!  That amount is a whopping two and a half times what Ribadu ÔÇśdiscovered'!  Again, Obasanjo found no reason to reconcile these numbers. 

Still in the same Ministry, and of those things that I do not understand, let me mention one more.  Last week, the Director-General of the Federal Roads Maintenance Agency, Mr. Olubunmi Peters, said that in Obasanjo's eight years, FERMA spent N500 billion maintaining our roads.  Five hundred billion Naira, and Nigerians cannot find the roads. 

But that is not all.  Five hundred billion Naira in eight years?  That is impossible because FERMA was set up by an Act of the National Assembly in November 2002.  Its first assignment was "Operation 500 Roads", which was launched in March 2004.  In other words, FERMA has been in existence for four years; how in the world could it have spent N500 billion in eight? 

Throughout Obasanjo's tenure, nobody truly cared about our roads, or how often we died on them.  Nigerians may recall that the House of Representatives passed a vote of no-confidence in Mr. Anenih in 2001.  It said that less than 20 per cent of the money budgeted for the Ministry in 2000 was actually spent on any work.  Where was the money?  The legislators said it was in a certain bank account in Ibadan!  What did the House do about it?  What did the police do?  What did the EFCC do?  What did Obasanjo do? 

It is also instructive to consider that in 2004, Chukwuma Soludo, who was at the time Economic Adviser to the President, and is now the Governor of the Central Bank, stated that over 1000 road projects - with a value of N1.4 trillion - were lying around the country, uncompleted.  In government circles, "uncompleted" is usually a euphemism for "abandoned."

By that time, of course, Obasanjo had got his wish: a second term in office.  He had better things to do, including launching money-gulping new "reform" schemes such as the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS), and new sermons to preach, such as the "war" against corruption.

Anenih?  He won a "promotion": becoming Acting Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the PDP.  When you are at the top of the tree, nobody talks back to you, and that position explained that Anenih was in the clear.  That explains why Obasanjo coveted that position; as soon as he could no longer cling to the presidency, the first thing he did was to unseat Anenih and take his place. 

Meanwhile, back at the Ministry of Works, Obasanjo had passed the reigns of control to Adeseye Ogunlewe.  The former Senator will be remembered for general bullying of the government of Lagos State.  He is also remembered for a curious link with the number "300" with which his predecessor had achieved political immortality. Three hundred billion Naira, remember, is the figure Anenih was being asked to explain. 

Well, early in 2006, Ogunlewe was sacked without an explanation.  The Civil Liberties Organization said in a report that Ogunlewe was also accused of having embezzled N300million meant for the rehabilitation of roads in South Eastern Nigeria.  "Accusation" is such a laughable word in Nigeria; like Anenih, Ogunlewe may have been "accused," but he was never prosecuted by his boss who said he was fighting corruption.  Like Anenih, Ogunlewe is a free, rich, influential man. 

But he had another "300" trick left, Ogunlewe did, as he left office.  He begged Obasanjo not to abandon his third term ambition.  His justification: "There are 72 on-going projects and 56 newly-designed ones," he said, for which N300billion (yes, N300b) had been committed.  He said the projects were "critical to the economic survival" of Nigeria, and only Obasanjo could complete them. 

Obasanjo's third term ambition would mercifully and comprehensively be rejected by Nigerians.  But he left office reportedly with a vast fortune, as well as a boast that he served, and was not corrupt. 

If the members of the legislature have any respect for those who elected them, or for justice, they must establish the truth.  It is obvious that routinely and repeatedly, funds were budgeted but embezzled in a variety of ways, leaving Nigerians to die and be maimed in great numbers.   About 50 Nigerians are killed every day. 

Injustice - tremendous, cynical and vile - has been visited on our people.  The National Assembly must establish the extent of this shame as a basis for reinventing the future, or become a part of it. 

Last July, the Senate adopted a motion by which it undertook to audit all the road projects undertaken during the Obasanjo years.  Moving that motion, Senator Ayogu Eze (PDP, Enugu State) said that the Obasanjo government had spent over N1 trillion on the sector, "with minimal or no impact."

What remains to be seen is what impact the National Assembly and the Yar'Adua government will have on this monumental betrayal.  Nobody can run away from it without being a part of what is no less than an unprecedented mess.