Now, it’s GEJ versus Soludo! By Sanya Oni

President Goodluck JonathanJust as I predicted, the dust raised by former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Chukwuma Soludo on Nigeria’s missing trillions, seems unlikely to settle anytime soon. Once I had thought the matter settled – disappointingly – after Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala contemptuously dismissed the weighty issues raised by Soludo as “outright nonsense and self-seeking aggrandizement that need not be dignified with a response”. With last week’s response by President Goodluck Jonathan as reported by Premium Times (the latter quoting Thisday), the season of indifference is not only over; the matter – mercifully – has become live again!

Permit yours truly, dear reader to bring you up to date on a controversy that the administration would rather sweep under the carpet. In January, Soludo had observed in a letter to the Finance Minister and Coordinator of the economy, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala that “the basket of our national treasury is leaking profusely from all sides”. He cited examples. First is the issue of oil theft which he noted averaged 400,000 per day which came to about $60bn ‘stolen’ in just four years. He put the cost in naira to about N12.6tn.

The second was the issue of foreign reserves. Soludo had claimed that minimum forex reserves should have been at least $90bn instead of the current level of $30bn. To him, the gross mismanagement of the reserves has denied the country some $60bn or another N12.6tn.

Expectedly, he brought up the issue of ‘missing’ $20bn from the NNPC (N4tn); the fuel subsidy racket and the import duty waivers bazaar. He asked: “How many trillions of naira were paid for oil subsidy (unappropriated?)? How many trillions (in actual fact) have been ‘lost’ through customs duty waivers over the last four years? How many trillions of naira self- financing government agencies earn and spend?”

His conclusion was that “probably more than N30tn has either been stolen, or lost, or unaccounted for, or simply mismanaged under your watchful eyes in the past four years. Since you claimed to be in charge, Nigerians are right to ask you to account. Think about what this amount could mean for the 112 million poor Nigerians, or for our schools, hospitals, roads, etc.”

And what did the super-minister, the lone official in the eye of the storm have to say to the matters that are not only legitimate but of immense public interest? A rude and haughty riposte delivered through an aide, Paul C Nwabuikwu. Dismissing Soludo’s charges off-hand as “littered with abusive and unbecoming language” she stated that the comments “shows how an embittered loser in the Nigerian political space can get so derailed that they commit intellectual harakiriby deliberately misquoting economic facts and maliciously turning statistics on their head to justify a hatchet job…We hope all the intellectuals in the international circles in which Professor Soludo has told us he flies around in will read what a Professor of Economics has chosen to do with his intellect”!

Mercifully, yours truly is not alone in finding the language offensive; I recall that the descent to vulgar abuse actually prompted Obiageli Ezekwesili to write on her Twitter handle shortly after – the “nation and people seem to be on an accelerated race to the bottom. So sad! Why would a statement from (the) government read like that? Gosh!”

Did the President finally clear the fog? Let’s hear the President speak through Thisday as reportedby Premium Times:  “Not too long ago I read in one of the papers, I think Vanguard, that former chief economic adviser to President Obasanjo who also went to become a CBN governor… Soludo is a professor and first class material. Yes, making a first class in economics, he is a brilliant person. His secondary school records are fantastic. So by all standards he is a brilliant person… he accused Ngozi; that N30 trillion was stolen under the watch of Ngozi in four years.”

 He went on: “Ngozi became a finance minister, let’s say from 2011 till date. From that time till now, our annual budget is between N4.3 trillion and N4.9 trillion. So even if you put all together, it is about 18 plus trillion naira, and not 30 trillion. The budget for these four years is less than N20 trillion, but Soludo said that under Ngozi’s watch they stole N30 trillion. This is in the papers, social media, stored in the clouds and will continue to be there. And when you type it in it will come out that during President Jonathan’s time they stole N30 trillion.”

You think the President deliberately muddled up the issues? Then wait for this assault on the professional integrity of Soludo:  “We asked Ngozi how her colleagues in the World Bank saw the accusation and she said they were laughing and couldn’t believe it. There are certain things that you just cannot believe and if that is coming from somebody considered to be cerebral like Professor Soludo, then of course you know what the ordinary person would say. It is all political.”

Interesting isn’t it? Soludo ignorant, doing mischief – or simply playing politics? Ignorant? That seems extremely doubtful. Mischief? Even more unlikely. Playing politics? The President should know – after all, he’s been doing a lot of shuttles of late, doing rounds to revamp his beleaguered presidency. So what’s wrong with Soludo taking a sip from the giddy brew?

Expect Soludo to thunder again – if only to defend his honour being rubbished by the President and his appointees. It would be most tragic should Soludo be forced into an arrangee silence so as not to further ruffle feathers.

Now to the substance. I am alarmed that a matter as serious as those raised by Soludo – on which several other Nigerians have also voiced alarm – would be reduced to a trivia by a President obviously in awe of his appointee! If you ask me, I’ll say that the President needed not have reminded us that his super-appointee to whom he outsourced his economic management has his roots in the World Bank – where all knees must bow when it comes to economic wisdom! As if we didn’t know that already. After all, where else, except in Jonathan’s Nigeria would an appointee secure appointment on such terms as to negate the federalist principles, and in such undisguised affront to the constitution of the republic? Or is the president saying that a sojourn at the World Bank automatically translates to immunity from questions over an individual’s stewardship?

By the way – I am unaware of the resolution of the import duty waiver bazaar – in which our untouchable minister would swear that her ministry granted waivers and exemptions worth N55.96 billion in 2011, N55.34 billion in 2012 and N59.42 billion in 2013 – totalling N171 billion while the implementing agency, the Nigeria Customs Service, would show that a whopping N1.4 trillion waivers were granted during the same period.

So much for the Jonathanians and their white-washed sepulchres.

NATION