At a public lecture she delivered last month to mark the 42nd Convocation of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka(UNN), former vice president of the World Bank, and ex-minister of Solid Minerals as well as that of Education, Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili, raised issues about accountability and transparency in the revenue earnings of the country, particularly in the last six years.
The period covers the administration of late President, Umaru Yar’Adua, and the current regime of President Goodluck Jonathan. Specifically and pointedly, Ezekwesili alleged what she called a “back to back squandering of the significant sum of $45bn in foreign reserve account and another $22bn in the Excess Crude Account (ECA) being direct savings from increased earnings from oil” that the administration of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo reportedly handed over to the successor government.
The former Minister had noted in her lecture at UNN that despite such a huge wealth that the Obasanjo government left behind, Nigerians, mostly the poor, continue to “suffer the effects of failing public health and education system as well as decrepit infrastructure and battered institutions”. Attributing the alleged failures of government to utilize the oil revenues to “tragic” and “imprudent choices”, the former minister asked a few pertinent questions: “where did all that money go”?, “where is the accountability for the use of these resources”?.” Were these resources applied or more appropriately, misapplied”? Expectedly, Ezekwesili’s questions have stoked intense controversy, and riled the Jonathan government.
It reacted swiftly and combatively. First to pick up the gauntlet against the claims of Ezekwesili was the minister of Information, Mr Labaran Maku, who at a press conference, described the allegations as “curious, outlandish and fictitious”. According to him, Ezekwesili exbited a surprisingly limited understanding of government finances in her comments at Nsukka, adding that the ex-minister’s accusations amounted to a self-indictment of her stewardship at the education sector between 2006 and 2007,and threatened to probe her tenure as education minister, a period government claimed the ministry received over N458 bn, but in the words of government, “nothing to see in terms of achievements”.
Government also reeled out figures believably from the Central Bank of Nigeria to substantiate its own side of the story. It said Ezekweslili’s own account was the opposite of the true financial statement in both the foreign reserve and ECA balance in the years under reference. Government however admitted that since Obasanjo left office in 2007,the nation’s foreign reserves had witnessed some fluctuations, rising from $43.13bn in May,2007 and peaking at $62 bn in September,2008 during the Yar’Adua administration. Besides, government debunked Ezekwesili’s claims of a rot in the present education system, describing her interrogation in that respect as simply “disingenuous and hypocritical”.
Regardless of these disclaimers, Ezekwesili still stuck to her claims and has challenged the government to a public debate on the matter. All things considered, the claims made by Ezekwesili ought not to have degenerated into the sort of needless furore, outright abuse and threats that have attended the matter. We believe that her concern was genuine and, indeed, made in good faith, and as such it should not have incensed government into casting aspersions on her. Her assertions are not totally new.
These are the same fears that reputable financial institutions, both within and outside the country have repeatedly expressed, about how past and present administrations in Nigeria have failed to seize the rare opportunities of boom and the revenues so generated to transform our economy, and instead, Nigeria continues to slide in the development and productivity ladder. If government sincerely felt her claims were weighty (and indeed, they were), the best way to address the issues she raised would have been to rebut them with superior and unassailable facts and figures, not by grandstanding.
A dispassionate view, tempered by decency of language ought to be the right path to take. When government is accused in a matter of this nature and magnitude, as Ezekwesili has audaciously done, the appropriate thing for it to do is to take the challenge calmly and responsibly rather than being belligerent. Government is a public trust and does not exist for its own sake.
Government, it bears repeating, must be accountable to the people. A personality of Ezekwesili’s background and experience in government and a respected voice in public policy matters knows what possibly went wrong in government and could not have gone off the handle just to impugn or blackmail the government in power for the sake of it. We urge government to accept the debate she has proposed. It will help to clear the fog around the issues she raised.