Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former minister of finance, fancied her superfluous title of Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, which in effect sought to make her prime minister of Nigeria. But if Nigeria’s ever expansive and costly presidential system of governance had, under President Jonathan, created room for a prime minister (nothing Nigeria can’t do when the matter concerns power), that office couldn’t have gone to Dr Okonjo-Iweala. It would have belonged, almost as of right, to Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, the former Minister of Petroleum Resources. The reason is plain enough: oil is Nigeria and Nigeria oil, full stop. Okonjo-Iweala’s real portfolio of finance and the very economy whose activities she claimed to coordinate depended on petro-dollars. Obasanjo knew what he was about when he reserved the petroleum portfolio for himself, choosing cunningly to keep the goose that lays the golden egg in a cage on his presidential desk. But the Nigerian press insisted on dressing Okonjo-Iweala in the glittering borrowed robes of co-ordinating (read, prime) minister, thus leaving Alison-Madueke, bearing a double-barrelled herself and the true pretender to the throne, with nothing but her mere official appellation. That she was content to be known merely as Minister of Petroleum, was not, alas, borne of genuine humility and preoccupation with the nobler demands of high public office, as we always knew and have even more reason now to believe. Imperial power knows no such thing and as she disdainfully brushed aside one scandal after another, survived call after call for her resignation or dismissal from the federal executive council, it became obvious that more than a mere co-ordinating minister or prime minister, she was indeed the Oil Goddess of Nigeria. And for more reason than one.
For a start, she is indeed beautiful, a head turner, making the comparison apt even in the literal sense. And one can say so even in the light of the recent photos showing the painful physical effects of the cancer that she is currently battling to survive. I wish her every luck in this life battle, the one thing, unfortunate as it may be, that proves she is mortal after all, that even if a goddess (of beauty or oil), her feet were made of clay. But metaphors apart, Alison-Madueke was, other than the president, the most powerful public official in Nigeria. I might even withdraw the exception, only that one must give due respect to the highest office in the land.
And also because a president has the power of appointment and dismissal of ministers, even though Jonathan refused to use that power against Alison-Madueke in spite of what many saw as compelling reasons. It wasn’t as if Jonathan was averse to wielding the political sword: we saw how swiftly he moved against Timipre Sylva, his successor as governor of Bayelsa State. Yet, although Alison-Madueke’s ministerial career was a litany of gross incompetence, or dereliction of duty, or tales of corruption, or all three things, Jonathan felt he couldn’t use his powers against a god(dess). Or so it seemed.
As minister of transport, Alison-Madueke was reported to have wept on beholding the state of the Benin-Shagamu expressway and promised to rebuild that vital artery that links the east, west and south of the country. But other than tears on a washed-out road, the only notable thing she did was to pay N30.9 to contractors between 26 and 31 December 2007 while the road remained in the deplorable state that made her cry. In October 2009, she was the only serving minister among five former ministers of state and four permanent secretaries indicted and recommended for prosecution by the Senate following its probe of the questionable spending of N300 billion naira in the transport sector. As reported in the Vanguard story, “N300bn transportation contract: Senate report indicts Anenih, Okonjo-Iweala, Ciroma,” of 12 October 2009, she allegedly transferred N1.2 billion naira “into the private account of a toll company without due process and in breach of concession agreement.”
Yet she remained a minister. All that could be done, it seemed, was to deploy her to the ministry of mines and steel development. Perhaps there she would excel: after all, gold, if not the other solid minerals in her new portfolio, should excite the passion of a beautiful woman. But far from achieving the goal of reducing our crippling dependence on oil by revamping the country’s moribund steel and mining sectors, she was again dogged by allegations of impropriety. For instance, investigative reports by the defunct NEXT newspaper brought into the public domain allegations of improper dealings that had swirled in the rumour mill to the effect that one Christopher Aire, a US-based gemstone dealer, enjoyed cosy relations with the mines ministry which carried over to Alison-Madueke’s tenure as petroleum minister. So that shortly after returning from a lavish event hosted by Aire in Los Angeles, the gemstone dealer incorporated two briefcase companies that soon found their way onto the list of oil lifters. No charges were filed, so we must assume that the allegation is false in every material particular. But there were far more solid grounds for the many calls for Alison-Madueke’s sack. Take the 2010 KPMG report on the “process and forensic review” of NNPC which returned a damning verdict on every aspect of the oil industry. Remarkably, the report was inconclusive in three areas at the heart of the gigantic oil sector corruption machine that may have dealt the heaviest blows that have brought the country to its knees: issue and renewal of importation supply contracts, evaluation of petroleum products importation bids, criteria for allocation of products and volumes to importers, and periodic prequalification lists of approved importers. KPMG could not conclude these aspects of its work due to NNPC process owners’ (ultimately, the oil ministry’s) “inability to provide supporting documents.”
Or take the oil subsidy scandal that led to the January crisis in which many lives were lost or ruined. Alison-Madueke, like the president, knew, or, at least, heard the truth trumpeted from every corner of the country: that what the government was subsidising wasn’t the price of petroleum products but the boundless greed and corruption of contract-mongers and their collaborators in power. Even the House of Representatives probe panel chaired by the discredited Farouk Lawan revealed how a cabal of government-enabled oil bunkerers, subsidy scammers and buccaneers of all stripes hold Nigeria by the jugular. It was at this point that the calls for her resignation or outright sack on grounds of principle and probity reached a crescendo. As Gbenga Obadare, chairman of the Senate committee on privatisation and commercialisation , put it, she ought to have resigned “honourably as a decent person” not because “she is guilty” but because “from the series of revelations coming from the probe, she is not innocent.”
And take, lastly, the scandal of two oil spills three years ago (a random choice, since oil spills are as constant as the waters of the creeks in the Niger Delta), ten days apart, in Akwa Ibom. On 13 August 2012, crude from ExxonMobil’s production facility rendered over 20 kilometres of coastal waters useless to the local fishing communities. While the fishermen were still cleaning their nets of slick and praying for help, another spill killed their hopes. Accustomed to never being held accountable by the government, the largest oil company in the world didn’t bother to do anything to mitigate the damage and restore the livelihood of the affected communities.
Then after a tepid government directive, ExxonMobil sent, according the testimony of the locals, forty youths to clean up the mess. Literally with bare hands. As one fisherman sees it, the oil behemoth considers the task of cleaning up as a “favour to the community rather than taking responsibility for their careless operations.” And why wouldn’t they when the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency merely busies itself with “investigations” that will help determine “the nature and extent” of the pollution while the people and the environment suffer?
And amidst the shameful record of performance across three ministries, Alison-Madueke remained untouchable, living a charmed life in Nigeria’s famously tempestuous political waters. It may have been the case that Alison-Madueke’s clout as a former top executive of Shell, the second-largest oil company in the world, has a lot to do with her seeming immortality. After all, if oil is Nigeria, then Shell which accounts for half of the country’s production is the de facto corporate “president” of the country. It was in that capacity that Shell bought arms for the police and covertly funded Major (later promoted Colonel) Paul Okuntimo’s Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, set up to pacify, in true internal colonialism style, the Niger Delta for continuous expropriation. And however the storms blew around her under Jonathan, Alison-Madueke watched with godlike amusement fellow ministers come and go without ever losing sleep. As is truly becoming of a goddess.
Well, she is out of power now, dethroned you might say, and the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police have found enough reason to not only commence serious investigations into her lordly five-year dominance of Nigeria’s oil resources but, also, to restrict her movement in the UK where she is undergoing cancer treatment, search and seize money from her mother’s expensive London apartment, and seek the extradition from Switzerland of her high-flying instant billionaire friend or alleged NNPC “business” partner, Kola Aluko. The ailing oil goddess has made a strenuous, even indignant, declaration of her innocence—“I challenge anyone to come forward with facts showing that I stole government or public money. I’ve never stolen Nigeria’s money,” she says.
She has also asked for sympathy though her lawyers, and she has it aplenty from me, but already the predictable cry of witch-hunting has been raised by those who benefited from her days of unaccountable power to the detriment of the nation. I doubt that the Metropolitan Police, or President Buhari who has replaced her as petroleum minister, will be deflected from the urgent need of dredging to the bottom of the ocean of ooze that threatened to drown the oil sector and the country. “Abandoned, gods grow out,” said the immortal Christopher Okigbo, killed in a war that was as much about self-determination for the Igbos and the fate of the newly independent Nigeria as it was about the never-ending scramble for the oil of the Niger Delta.
And so it must be clear to Alison-Madueke that only truth will vindicate her, not pity (as deserving of it as she might be in her present health condition which, by the way, doesn’t seem to have tempered her behaviour in office towards prudence and good stewardship). Or her sake, I hope she it is true that she never stole, nor allowed anyone to steal, from Nigeria while she could dispense any manner of favour by a wink or the wielding of a pen.
- Ogaga Ifowodo, Phd (Cornell University), lawyer, poet, activist and writer is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of The New Diplomat
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