Nigeria: Power project looters

Labour must lead mass action to bring culprits to book

The Nigerian government, dogged by the accusations that it only is in office because it rigged the April 2007 elections, has sponsored a series of investigations into corruption under former president Obasanjo. Nigeria has been griped by some of the revelations including the claim by Obasanjo’s own son that his wife slept with his father in order to get government contracts. A particular focus has been the continuing electricity crisis that means that 60% of Nigerians have no power, despite Obasanjo officially spending $13bn to boost supply. Obasanjo himself is still a member of the Advisory Council of Transparency International, the anti-corruption NGO.

This article, from the latest issue of "Socialist Democracy", the paper of the CWI’s Nigerian affiliate, the Democratic Socialist Movement, has also been reprinted in two Nigerian daily newspapers, the Daily Independent and Daily Trust.

Power project looters

While it lasted Nigerians were daily treated to a reality show at the public hearing on power sector expenditure on how the previous Olusegun Obasanjo government that strutted around as an Olympian height of virtue and wisdom had made fortune out of misfortune of the entire nation. Arguably, the major misfortune of Nigeria is its primitive power sector. But beyond the startling revelations that underscore the egregious corruption which characterised the ill-fated Obasanjo government, the masses should not expect any fundamental outcome from the public hearing and entire power project probe.

No doubt Obasanjo is on trial but he considers the entire exercise as a circus show. He has not lost sleep, notwithstanding the ignominy the hearing has unleashed on him. Reacting to the probe, he boasted, “God has never disappointed me. I sleep well, exercise well and eat moderately. I don’t allow anything to weigh down my mind. I thank God for creating me.” (Punch, March 16, 2008).

It is not God that makes Obasanjo to be so confident but his experience. He knows all the anti-corruption exercises in Nigeria are mere show trials or publicity stunts; he organised a number of them himself while in office. The National ID card scam, the Ikoyi House scandal, NPA fraud, bribe for budget episode, PTDF, etc are some of the features of Obasanjo anti-corruption crusade that, after momentary sensationalism generated in the media, were thrown into the dustbin of history. Shortly after assuming office in 1999, Obasanjo set up the Christopher Kolade and Oluwole Rotimi panels to probe some transactions and contracts under the 11 month long Abubakar Abdulsalami military regime. The panels came up with damning reports which have been since swept under carpet.

Much before him was Pius Okigbo panel on $12.4bn first Iraq War oil windfall whose report has grown wings and is untraceable to date. The major culprit, Ibrahim Babangida, who was the head of state when the huge revenue was made in 1991, struts the streets with impunity. Even, this very current House of Representatives late last year indicted Olubunmi Etteh, its then Speaker in a N628m house renovation scandal. Yes, she was impeached and lost her coveted Speakers’ seat, but remains “honourable member” of the lower house making laws for Nigerians. The anti-corruption agencies have chosen to turn blind eye and deaf ear to the infamous Ettehgate, “hear no evil, see no evil”. The House committee probing power sector expenditure has concluded its public hearing without inviting Obasanjo to appear before it.

Beyond mere condemnation of the daylight robbery of public resources with public statements, labour and pro-masses’ organisations must not allow this monumental fraud in the power sector to go unchallenged. They should mobilise workers and masses for a mass protest to bring Obasanjo and others indicted to book. This is not however meant to create illusion that the protest itself will end corruption in the country. Capitalism has proved globally to be an intrinsically corrupt system. But it would, at least, make a bold statement that the corrupt capitalist politicians cannot just help themselves to public resources and ride roughshod over the poor masses. For the protest to be more meaningful it has to be linked with a struggle of workers and poor masses to wrest political power from the thieving capitalist elite of all political parties, tribes and creeds.

However, the public hearing was not only entertaining and stunning, but also instructive. It has finally demystified the myth of Obasanjo government anti-corruption crusade. It appears corruption was a policy thrust of the government. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, Obasanjo’s former Finance Minister, revealed at the public hearing that the much-celebrated due process initiative, which was an important element of Obasanjo’s anti-corruption drive, was waived while awarding the power project contracts. As a result $2.2bn worth of projects were awarded without bidding process. One of the companies has just capital base of $200! 34 illegal/unregistered firms were awarded N6.2bn worth of projects. These are just a few examples in a power project cesspit.

Ordinarily, Obasanjo would have had privilege of hiding behind one finger by pointing fingers at the contractors and absolved himself of any complicity to defraud the nation. But he gave himself up as an accomplice by commissioning many projects that were either non-existent or uncompleted with pomp and pageantry. Indeed, the Chairman of the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Allocation Commission (RMFAC), Hamman Tukur, disclosed at the hearing that a power project commissioned by Obasanjo in Cross River was discovered to be an empty site! “We went to some of the sites and there was nothing on the sites; so where was the money going?” Tukur revealed (Punch, March 21). The House committee itself while on the spot assessment tour discovered an uncompleted N9.8bn ($83m) power project that was commissioned in Bayelsa.

The revelations have pointed to the fact that rather than interests of Nigerians, the power project was just a cash cow for Obasanjo and acolytes. The beneficiaries of the projects include Abdul-Salami Abubakar, a former military head of state, whose company was paid almost full money but has only done 5% of the work, when it ought to have completed the project. Few months before the hearing commenced, Obasanjo’s daughter, Iyabo, with the pseudonym of Damilola Akinlawon, was implicated in a N3.5bn ($30m) contract scandal in power sector.

The power sector scandal has cast serious question on the accountability and book keeping in Obasanjo government. The exact amount spent on the National Integrated Power Project is not known to date. From Presidency, Accountant General Office, Central Bank to the National Assembly, the figures have been conflicting. Meanwhile, the House of Representatives has claimed to track $13.28bn so far, though the investigation is still underway. This has meant that $16bn disclosed by Dimeji Bankole, Speaker of House of Representatives, is nearest to the truth.

Also the development has raised question on the propriety of excess crude oil account, which is the main source of the money spent on the power project that have gone down the drain. This account has proved to be a major siphon employed by executives at state and federal levels to loot public resources since its advent by Obasanjo government. The RMFAC recently disclosed that, “the revenues in 2004, 2005 and 2006 were not only misused but also not accounted for to date” (Daily Independent, January 2, 2008). The excess crude oil revenue is the revenue accrued from the surplus over the budget benchmark. Since 1999, the crude oil has been sold much above budget benchmark. The revenue is spent by executives without appropriation by the National Assembly or respective State Houses of Assembly.

Ailing power sector has been the major bane of meaningful development in Nigeria. Less than one-third of Nigerian population is connected to electricity supply, which is even erratic and almost non-existent. A World Bank report in 2005 had estimated that $10bn was needed to ensure that at least 75 per cent Nigeria’s population had access to electricity. This has meant the $16bn mismanaged by Obasanjo government, if judiciously spent, should have largely mitigated the monumental electricity crisis in Nigeria. On assumption of office in 1999, Obasanjo promised to raise power generation to 10, 000MW from 3, 000MW, but he left it worse off. Inadequate power supply has forced companies to run on generating sets powered by expensive fuels, which are sometimes scarce commodities in spite of Nigeria being the seventh largest producer of crude oil in the World. Many businesses have closed shop or relocated out of the country. With this are attendant job losses. Most houses in Nigeria are “power stations” where residents generate their own electricity, making fire outbreak a daily risk.

Obasanjo’s government, like Yar’Adua’s, was run on the basis of neo-liberal capitalist philosophy, which discourages government spending on basic needs and social infrastructure. This has meant that there is huge but loose revenue that is only available for looting. The thieving ruling elite only exist to loot public resources. To them government is a big racket for self-serving interest. Thus, if as against the principle of cut in social spending, government votes money for public projects, it is just to create another avenue for looting.

Workers and poor masses should not be carried away by the melodramatic public hearing or repose hope of better deal from Yar’Adua government. Like similar exercises in the past, the probe is just to make Obasanjo stop grandstanding as an anti-corruption crusader and lose his political capital, influence and patronage. Rather, workers and masses should agitate for and join a mass movement to chase all the corrupt leaders out of power.

The probe and shocking revelations thereof will not automatically ensure the turn around of power sector. To guarantee provision of electricity and other basic infrastructures, adequate public resources with democratic management and control by the working people is the key. To achieve this, labour and pro-masses’ organisations should lead workers and masses in struggle now to demand confiscation of looted assets from corrupt individuals and companies, the democratic drawing up of a crash “power plan” to provide electricity throughout the country, open democratic control over this “power plan” to prevent looting and profiteering. There is no technical reason why Nigerians should not have electricity (or water, roads, etc). The reason we have shortages are because of the rotten capitalist system that runs everything for the profits and greed of the few. We can demand improvement now, but fundamentally we also need to build a mass based working people party run on socialist programme that can really transform every aspect of the way we live.

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April 2008