By Chidi Orazulike
Since the heated arguments over the partial removal of subsidy on Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), otherwise known as Petrol, in January 2012, a lot more Nigerians have become better acquainted with certain words. Prominent among them is the word ‘Cabal’, referring to the nameless fable group who has been feeding fat on the people’s commonwealth; They cart away trillions on Naira yearly in the name of Subsidy; they decide which petroleum product goes where; they feed the black market with petroleum products already paid for from the people’s common wealth; and in effect are blamed for the pervasive poverty in a nation so richly blessed like Nigeria. The success of the group is however, believed not to be unconnected with its alliance and collaboration with certain elements in the corridors of power. Their activities in the Nigerian oil and gas industry are so pervasive that the rot and opacity of the industry is largely credited to them.
These are some of the characters that the erstwhile chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Mallam Nuhu Ribadu has been mandated to hunt down with his recent appointment as the chairman of the 21-memeber Ministerial Committee on Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force (MCPRSTF). According to a government statement the new task force, set up by the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Dieziani Alison-Madueke, is “Consistent with the policies and promises of President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan’s Administration, and underpinned by the yearnings of the people of Nigeria for transparency in the Petroleum Industry.”
The task force has the following terms of reference:
* To work with consultants and experts to determine and verify all petroleum upstream and downstream revenues (taxes, royalties, etc.) due and payable to the Federal Government of Nigeria;
* To take all necessary steps to collect all debts due and owing; to obtain agreements and enforce payment terms by all oil industry operators;
* To design a cross debt matrix between all Agencies and Parastatals of the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources;
* To develop an automated platform to enable effective tracking, monitoring, and online validation of income and debt drivers of all Parastatals and Agencies in the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources;
* To work with world-class consultants to integrate systems and technology across the production chain to determine and monitor crude oil production and exports, ensuring at all times, the integrity of payments to the Federal Government of Nigeria; and,
* To submit monthly reports for ministerial review and further action.
Mallam Ribadu’s reputation as one of the most successful anti corruption crusaders Nigeria has ever produced certainly lends credence to President Jonathan’s seriousness and commitment at cleaning up the rot in the oil industry. It is no doubt, a big boost to the current administration that it could successfully woo a man of Mallam Ribadu’s political stature into working with an administration he fought so hard to unseat just less than one year ago. However, the political sparring between them in the 2011 presidential elections has raised a few eyebrows concerning both the motive and propriety of Mallam Ribadu’s appointment.
The fact that he was the presidential flag bearer of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the major opposition party to President Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in that election is clearly not sitting well with the ACN. The party had made it clear that “As a political party, we wish to reiterate our position barring any member of our party from taking any appointment whatsoever from the PDP-led Federal Government. Any member of our party who takes such an appointment does so in his personal capacity.” It also insisted that rushing to poach credible personalities from the opposition without first accepting that it is overwhelmed by the problems facing it (PDP) smacks of underhand tactics aimed at decimating the opposition and also tarnishing the well-earned credibility of such personalities.
The party equally expressed doubt, saying that “one can never be sure – going by the deceptive nature of the PDP – that the kind of appointment now being offered to Mallam Ribadu is being made in good faith or just to get credible people to launder the government’s badly damaged image and credibility”. It feared that there is also the possibility that booby-traps will be deliberately set for such credible personalities to guarantee their failure in their stated assignment, after which they will be ridiculed and dumped “like an ordinary chump!”
But party politics aside, there is the more worrisome concern that Mallam Ribadu may have inadvertently played into the hands of those he had fought, back in his glorious days at the EFCC. There are reports that in June 2006, during his chairmanship of the EFCC, Mallam Ribadu headed a Joint Task Force set up by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to provide interagency muscle to the war against corruption.
That panel comprised the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), the EFCC, the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), the Department of State Services (DSS), and the Nigerian Police, each of which provided five members. It indicted 15 governors, including President Jonathan, who was then the governor of Bayelsa State. They were all found to have breached the code of conduct for public officials and were recommended for prosecution in line with the CCB Act, but no action was taken at that time and President Jonathan, who was found guilty of false declaration of assets at that time, went on to run for the office of the Vice-President in the 2007 elections. In September of the same year, Mallam Ribadu also listed money-laundering charges against Mrs. Patience Jonathan, Nigeria’s current First Lady.
However, in 2010, upon his return from exile, Mallam Ribadu was reported to have personally and unilaterally cleared Mrs. Jonathan of the EFCC’s charges of money-laundering against her, although the file was still being processed after he had left office.
Some have also expressed their curiosity as to why Ribadu would accept the current appointment, especially given the suspicious anti-corruption credentials of those behind it. Mrs. Alison-Madueke, the Minister of Petroleum Resources, has for two years been the subject of various corruption allegations, none of which has been discharged. Many are of the opinion that she should not be supervising any investigations in the Ministry or the NNPC, given the allegations against her.
Though there may be many interpretations to Mallam Ribadu’s recent appointment, some political watchers see it only as a trend that has merely repeated itself. As the helmsman of the EFCC, during a visit to the National Assembly to submit the commission’s annual report in 2006, he had described the corruption of Bola Tinubu, the then governor of Lagos State as having an “international dimension.” But by the end of his two terms at the government house, Tinubu was in full control of the ACN, even after his short lived romance with Alhaji Atiku Abubakar who had defected from the PDP to further his presidential ambition on the platform of the ACN.
It was therefore, surprising when five years later, Mallam Ribadu emerged as the ACN presidential candidate for the 2011 elections under the leadership of Bola Tinubu. He travelled the length and breadth of Nigeria with the same man he had so strongly and passionately condemned as being internationally corrupt a few years back. Dressed in party colours, they acknowledged and waved brooms (the ACN party symbol) at party supporters. They were however, defeated by President Jonathan’s PDP at the polls.
By accepting his latest appointment, Mallam Ribadu has once again proved that he has no qualms working with people who, by his own assessment, are corrupt. It is therefore most likely that he may have jumped ship from the ACN to the PDP, in pursuit of his political ambitions. And it is feared that his famed anti corruption streak may be seriously hampered by the circumstances of working under a Presidency he boldly campaigned and fought against in the last elections, as well as a President and First Lady he had earlier indicted for corrupt practices.
Even more curious is the recent trend of proliferation of committees whose recommendations, more often than not, end up in some dark corners of the presidential archives. Since the partial withdrawal of petrol subsidy last January, at least, three ministerial committees have been set up in the Ministry of Petroleum Resources alone. These include the Ministerial Committee on Governance and Control Task Force (MCGCTF) headed by Dotun Suleman; Ministerial Committee on Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force (MCPRSTF) headed by Mallam Nuhu Ribadu and Ministerial Committee on National Refineries Special Task Force (MCNRSTF) headed by Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu.
Of course, these are just the latest in the recent spate of committees. There is also a Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) Special Task Force headed by Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, set up to work with government offices to produce a clean copy of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) for presentation to the National Assembly and to fast-track the passage of the bill which will provide a basis for reform.
Still, there is the Special Task Force on Governance and Control to review all management controls on the NNPC and other parastatals/agencies; design a new governance code to ensure transparency and good governance and design a blueprint to separate policy from operations in the NNPC and other parastatals/agencies, set key performance indices, eliminate rent-seeking opportunity and arbitrage and design a road map for transition to the PIB.
Most analysts are of the opinion that the importunate creation of committees and task forces has succeeded mainly in multiplying the layers of bureaucracy which actually contradicts a core essence of President Jonathan’s administration policies. It may be recalled that the Steve Oransaye led Committee on Restructuring of Parastatals and Agencies, inaugurated on August 18 last year was given the task of downsizing public sector administration as an austerity measure by reducing the number of non ministerial agencies to eliminate overlap, duplications, redundancies and reduce cost of governance. The president has also severally assured Nigerians that his administration was working tirelessly on reducing the astronomical cost of governance in Nigeria. However, the incessant multiplication of committees and task forces, as exemplified in the petroleum ministry, can only attract higher overhead costs. Indeed, there are concerns that the Minister of Petroleum Resources may have transferred her duties and responsibilities under the Constitution and the Petroleum Act to some ad-hoc committees.
However, in the midst of these task forces, Mallam Ribadu’s committee seems prominent. There appears to be a consensus of opinion among Nigerians that his entry into the war against the cesspool of corruption in the Nigerian oil industry portends good tidings. And although his present assignment may present him with new challenges, he is certainly familiar with the terrain when it comes to the war against corruption. Should he be given the freedom to apply his courage and commitment to national assignments to bear in this current task, the industry, and indeed Nigerians, will be the better for it. His success at the EFCC helped to demystified people who hitherto thought they were untouchables. By many standards, therefore, Mallam Ribadu has the qualifications to take on the nameless and faceless so called ‘Cabal’ in the oil industry. He has a knack for calling a spade by its real name and should be able to stand up to, not only the cabal but their collaborators in the parastatals and agencies of government whose actions and inactions have been costing the country billions of dollars in lost revenue. He must bear in mind that the people he has been mandated to hunt will not go down without a fight. Their facelessness may probably be because they are not too different from those who have sent him on the mission. He needs no reminder that the critical importance of his committee lies in the fact that since the Nigerian economy depends heavily on petroleum revenue, being in charge of the Ministerial Committee on Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force is of strategic national importance. Indeed, providence may have provided him with another opportunity to further endear himself to the Nigerian masses. And considering his political ambitions, he may as well be getting closer to his goal. We want to believe that he sincerely meant what he said when he proclaimed that, “We must see it (corruption) as a war within our borders, a war that has assumed a systemic and endemic character, but to which all must now urgently enlist with our different capacities, or accept to all go down with the ship.” Hence, the most effective weapon Mallam Ribadu can rely on in his current crusade is his moral compass.