I recall a particular episode when we were going to Saudi Arabia for the Third OPEC Summit, in November 2007. Before we left for the airport, someone had given me copy of a publication by a foreign website dedicated to oil and gas reporting.
The publication detailed how oil lifting licences were given out by President Yar’Adua in a manner that lacked transparency. In the course of the flight, I scribbled a handwritten note, attached the document to it and went to hand it to him in his cabin.
Not long after, the president called me back and confirmed that all the information contained in the publication was accurate. It was at a time the president was holding on to the Energy Ministry portfolio.
He said whenever we reached Saudi Arabia, I should meet the Minister for State for Energy, Mr Odein Ajumogobia and give him the document to read in my presence and let him know that I was acting on his instruction.
He said I should listen to his comments and report back to him. He added that I should do the same to the GMD of NNPC, Eng. Abubakar Yar’Adua (not a relation of the president).
When we got to Riyadh, I acted as the president directed. I met the GMD first and he blamed everything on Ajumogobia and the president.
When I later met Ajumogobia, he explained that he was powerless and that the GMD of NNPC had no regard for him since he was reporting directly to the president. He also agreed the report was accurate but that the said allocations were done between the president and the GMD.
I reported my “findings” back to the president who took time to explain his own role as well as the promoters of some of the “briefcase companies” on the list. They were prominent people in the society, including those who had held senior positions in government in the past.
The president also debunked the charges by both Ajumogobia and the GMD by explaining the role each played in the matter. What was, however, not in doubt, even from the president’s explanation was that the GMD was indeed bypassing Ajumogobia because he had direct access to the president.
This to me was not right. With my background in the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI), a governing body to which I had been appointed by President Obasanjo in 2004, I was able to offer candid advice which the president promised to heed.
When we returned, he indeed directed the GMD to be reporting directly to Ajumogobia but not long after, (Dr Rilwan) Lukman took charge of affairs in the ministry and the equation changed.
In view of the controversy generated by a recent letter to President Muhammadu Buhari by the Minister of State for Petroleum, Dr Ibe Kachikwu, the foregoing excerpts from my book, ‘Power, Politics and Death’ is instructive.
It is also a clear indication that the power struggle between Kachikwu and the GMD of NNPC, Dr Maikanti Baru is not new.
Except you are Diezani Alison-Madueke, (the first, and to date only, sole administrator ever to superintend Nigeria’s oil and gas sector), it is difficult to compel the GMD of NNPC (who has enormous powers of patronage) to report to anybody other than the president.
Thanks to Mrs Oby Ezekwesili who nominated me as representative of the media and President Obasanjo who, to my surprise, approved the appointment, the best education I had going to my job as spokesman to the president in 2007 was my almost four-year experience as a member of the founding NEITI National Stakeholder Working Group.
It is also for that reason that I am not carried away by Kachikwu’s allegations or the self-indicting rebuttal by Baru. When it comes to our petroleum sector where the more you look the less you see, I prefer to keep my own counsel.
However, to the extent that serious questions that border on transparency and accountability have been raised by Kachikwu, I hope the president will not treat the matter with deodorant as he did with the report on the ‘grass-cutter’.
What the scandal suggests is that for an administration that claims to be fighting corruption, there is no preventive mechanism in place to enthrone any systemic change.
In fact, it would seem that this administration has a narrow concept of corruption which is why so much energy is being expended on the retail side while the greater corruption–lack of adherence to the rule of law and due process–which, stripped of all pretensions, is what this scandal is all about, is largely ignored.
If he can wriggle out of the constitutional implications of signing approvals at a period he had ceded powers to his vice president, as it is now being alleged, I hope President Buhari will use this opportunity to identify and fix the gaps that have been exploited in NNPC and perhaps all such other entities.
And there is no better way to do that than to order an independent review of all the contracts awarded by the corporation from June 2015 to date. I limit the scope to his period in office so it doesn’t become another weapon to which-hunt his immediate predecessor.
Meanwhile, even though this scandal may not be about any stolen money, I am almost certain that if it were under President Goodluck Jonathan, the APC propaganda machine would by now be on overdrive in telling Nigerians about “how the billions of dollars were shared and who got what”.
That is why I am disappointed that nobody in the opposition is making life difficult for those who are notorious for spinning any and every untruth to score cheap political points.
Now, I am sure there will be some claims to a competitive bidding process in the awards of the oil contracts. Yes, it is true that the NNPC invites some stakeholders to witness such contracts bid openings. But as the Yoruba people would say, it takes no magic to put a lump of meat in the mouth and make it disappear.
The bottom line is that the NNPC is, and has always been, opaque in its dealings because it has so many things to hide for the federal government, especially regarding the management of the federation account that statutorily belongs to the three tiers of government.
In all the foregoing, what saddens is that the NEITI has provisions that should have helped in detecting some of the breaches being alleged at the NNPC.
The question for this administration therefore is: Does the President know and care about the instrument he has in NEITI?
I believe the president should use this crisis to remove the incentive for corruption in the national oil company and clean up the sector by investing in systems that pass the smell test.
The passage of the key components of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is key in that direction even as I also enjoin President Buhari to inaugurate the Procurement Council as required in the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) Act so that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) can stop awarding contracts.
Incidentally, this is one of the many promises in the All Progressives Congress (APC) campaign document.
All said, the only way President Buhari can redeem his vanishing credibility is to launch a bold deregulation agenda for the petroleum sector and as a first move, he should immediately relinquish the position of Minister of Petroleum and withdraw his Chief of Staff from the NNPC Board.
It was, and still remains, a needless decision that runs counter to the enthronement of good corporate governance in such a critical sector.
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