$16 billion: OBJ, Buhari generate more heat than light over power sector


In this report, ABDULRAHMAN ZAKARIYAU looks at the issues that led to President Muhammadu Buhari’s outburst that there is nothing to show for improved power, in spite of the colossal amount spent in the sector by previous administrations, as well as ex President Olusegun Obasanjo’s challenge that he is ready for probe.

Like a recurring decimal, the allegation keeps coming up since it was first made by former President Umaru Musa Yar’adua in 2007. In fact, the House of Representatives conducted a long winding investigation, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Comssion(EFCC) but the matter has not been rested. Last Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari exhumed the ghost of the $16 billion that was spent during the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration on the power sector, without commensurate returns. Since then, the polity has been abuzz with all kinds of analyses and explanations, all of which are generating more heat than light on the issue.

Buhari turns a new leaf?

In 2011, during the presidential debate, General Muhammadu Buhari, the candidate of Congress for Progressive Change(CPC), promised to probe the $16 billion that was squandered on the power sector without any positive result. However, Buhari lost that election but four years later, he won the presidency but for three years, he had refused to fulfil the promised probe. Last Tuesday, he inched towards the probe when he received the Buhari Support Organisation(BSO), led by retired Col Hameed Ibrahim Ali, the Comptroller General of Customs. Buhari, without mentioning names, had lamented that past administrations did not invest in infrastructural development. According to him, ‘’one of the former heads of state was bragging that he spent more than 15 billion American dollars on power. Where is the power?” Clearly, even without naming him, Buhari was referring to ex President Obasanjo.

Obasanjo fires back

In a statement issued within a few hours, Obasanjo made a rebuttal through Kehinde Akinyemi, his spokesman. In the main, the former president accused Buhari of lack of correct information and ignorance. According to the statement, Buhari was merely re-echoing an earlier unsubstantiated allegation by another former president. For the records, the statement recalled, ‘’the National Assembly had exculpated President Obasanjo of any wrong-doing concerning the power sector and has proved the allegations as false.’’ Furthermore, the statement said that ‘’Obasanjo has addressed the issues of the power sector and the allegations against him on many occasions and platforms, including in his widely publicised book, ‘My Watch.’ ’’

In the book, the former president even ‘’reproduced various reports by both the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which conducted a clinical investigation into the allegations against Chief Obasanjo’’. Similarly, the statement pointed out that the book contains the report of the Ad-hoc Committee on the Review of the Recommendations in the Report of the Committee on Power on the Investigation into how the huge sums of money was spent.

In summary, the statement recommended that the president and his co-travellers should read chapters 41, 42, 43 and 47 of ‘My Watch’ for Chief Obasanjo’s insights and perspectives on the power sector and indeed what transpired when the allegation of $16 billion on power projects was previously made. ‘’If he cannot read the three-volume book, he should detail his aides to do so and summarise the chapters in a language that he will easily understand,’’ Obasanjo said.

SERAP spearheads calls for probe

Significantly, a civil society group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), had been in the forefront of the campaign for the probe of the power project. SERAP, in a letter dated November 24, 2016, had asked the then acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Walter Onnoghen, to appoint an independent counsel to investigate allegation. According to the group, a parliamentary hearing by the House of Representatives on the power project was revealing. Specifically, witnesses testified that the $16 billion budgeted for the power project may have been stolen by some state officials. In this regard, section 52 of the Corrupt Practices Act requires the CJN to authorise an independent counsel to investigate any allegation of corruption against high level public officers and to report his findings to the National Assembly. Furthermore, the constitution also prohibits the exploitation of Nigeria’s human and natural resources for any reason, other than for the good of the community. This position, SERAP argued, is well supported by the provisions of the UN Convention against Corruption to which Nigeria is a state party.

SERAP also noted that allegations of corruption in the energy sector have resulted in the epileptic and interrupted supply of electricity and corresponding deprivation and denial of the citizens’ access to quality healthcare, adequate food, shelter, clothing, water, sanitation, medical care, schooling, and access to information. SERAP recalled that the hearing which took place on March 11 and 12 March, 2008 revealed a lot of corruption. In particular, Mr. Bernerd Mensen, the Chief Executive Officer of Lameyer, a German firm was paid N370 million (out of the total contract sum of N600m) just to do a feasibility study on a power station. However, SERAP said that ‘’he confessed that he had never visited the site of the Mambilla Hydro-Electric Power Project in Taraba State.”

In addition, the hearing revealed that the N200million, out of the N370 million collected, ‘’was spent to build a bungalow at Gembu, apparently to create the impression that work was in progress, but the project was later abandoned,’’ SERAP recalled. The group further said that ‘’one of the witnesses who gave evidence at the hearing said that the ground-breaking was done at Gembu, about 25kilometers from the Mambilla; and that they never got to the Mambilla at all.’’ Specifically, the Mambilla power plant was envisaged to generate 2,600 megawatts of electricity but it never took off te ground. Similarly, the contracts awarded for the Kainji, Egbin, Afam and Ugehli power stations were never executed but the PHCN, in its report to the hearing on how it spent its budgetary allocations between 1999 and 2007, quoted the contracts as part of the work done.

How I spent $16 billion on power—OBJ

In 2008, ex President Obasanjo sent a letter dated May 12, to the House Committee on Power and Steel which was probing the $16 billion that was allegedly spent on the power sector. For 18 years, he told the committee, there was no serious investment in generation and transmission between 1981 and 1999, ‘’ except the completion of Jebba and Shiroro hydro power plants which my military administration began and Egbin thermal plant initiated also by military administration.’’ Obasanjo furher said that his PDP-led Administration thereby inherited eighteen years of non-investment in power generation and seeming apparent neglect of the sector.

In 1999, only 1500MW was being generated, in spite of the claimed 6000 MW capacity. In fact, Obasanjo had said that the Ijora and Oji River thermal based on coal have completely closed down for lack of coal production and early gas thermal units at Afam and Delta were obsolete and needed replacement. Similarly, ‘’the hydro power plants of Kanji, Jebba and Shiroro suffered seriously from silting and/or inadequate flow of water into the dam and poor maintenance.’’ In addition, the ex president revealed that ‘’the Egbin thermal unit suffered from disruption of gas supply through vandalism and poor management and maintenance by NEPA staff.’’

In spite of poor revenue, Obasanjo said that his administration had ‘’embarked on building thermal units in four locations where existing gas pipelines are sufficiently close to minimise cost of gas provision to these sites. These sites or locations are Papalanto, Omotosho, Alaoji and Geregu. Each of these sites could be made to ultimately provide close to 1000MW. It must be remembered that the first term of our Administration started with the price of oil at $8 to $9 per barrel. Our budgets were not realised due to poor revenue intake from oil. For these four locations, we had to seek loan from China at concessionary rate to support two of the sites. Three of these sites – Gerengu, Omotosho and Papalanto – were built to the point of commission before I left government in May 2007.’’

As at 2007, Papalanto, Omotosho and Geregu are generating power for the grid, Obasanjo had clarified. However, gas pipe vandalism has affected them all and the problem remained with Egbin. He recalled how his administration tried to diversify the power sector by studying all the available and possible sources of power and energy. These include solar, wind, tide, biomass, thermal from gas, thermal from coal, thermal from nuclear and hydro, the ex president said. According to him, ‘’we realised that technology for mass production of power from solar, wind and tide is still some distance away, and, therefore, the unit cost is prohibitive. They will do for smallholding or domestic use and we instituted concessionary policy to encourage such domestic or small-holding installation and use.’’

For large scale power production, we are left with thermal from gas, thermal from coal and hydro, Obsanjo recalled. He revealed that his government had set for a twenty-year programme of nuclear energy only after they have almost exhausted what they can obtain from other thermal sources. ‘’After a visit to Omoku where Rivers State was building a thermal unit close to an Agip gas source to eliminate long distance gas pipelines that could be subjected to vandalism, we embarked on the study and search for similar available gas sources close to which other thermal plant could be located. Six of such sites were located at Sapele (Delta), Ehobor (Edo), Egbema (Imo), Gbaram (Bayelsa), Calabar (Cross River), Omoku (Rivers). That is the beginning of what is today called NIPP. It would be short in gas pipelines but might be somewhat long in transmission to grid line,’’ he added.

Obj fired first shot

Significantly, Obasanjo’s open letter to Buhari on the state of the nation, where the former asked the president not to seek re-election because his administration has failed, is widely regarded the trigger of the current hostilities. In the letter which was written last January, Obasanjo gave credits to Buhari on the war against insurgency and corruption ‘’although it is not yet uhuru!’’ However, Obasanjo had said that ‘’it is no credit to the federal government that the herdsmen rampage continues with careless abandon and without finding an effective solution to it. And it is a sad symptom of insensitivity and callousness that some governors, a day after 73 victims were being buried in a mass grave in Benue State without condolence, were jubilantly endorsing President Buhari for a second term!’’

In addition, Obasanjo blamed the president of ‘’nepotic deployment, bordering on clannishness and inability to bring discipline to bear on errant members of his nepotic court. ‘’ According to the ex president, this has grave consequences on performance of Buhari’s government to the detriment of the nation. Obasanjo wondered ‘’what does one make of a case like that of Maina: collusion, condonation, ineptitude, and incompetence, dereliction of responsibility or kinship and friendship on the part of those who should have taken visible and deterrent disciplinary action? How many similar cases are buried, ignored or covered up and not yet in the glare of the media and the public?’’

The former president also blamed Buhari’s poor understanding of the dynamics of internal politics. ‘’This has led to wittingly or unwittingly making the nation more divided and inequality has widened and become more pronounced. It also has effect on general national security. ‘’ Obasanjo also decried Buhari’s penchant for passing the buck. ‘’For instance, blaming the Governor of the Central Bank for devaluation of the naira by 70% or so and blaming past governments for it, is to say the least, not accepting one’s own responsibility. Let nobody deceive us, economy feeds on politics and because our politics is depressing, our economy is even more depressing today.’’

Furthermore, Obasanjo reminded the president that ‘’he was voted to fix things that were bad and not engage in the blame game. Our Constitution is very clear, one of the cardinal responsibilities of the President is the management of the economy of which the value of the naira forms an integral part. Kinship and friendship that place responsibility for governance in the hands of the unelected can only be deleterious to good government and to the nation.’’

Rather than seek a second term, Obasanjo had advised Buhari “to consider a deserved rest at this point in time and at this age. ‘’

Lai’s Response

Less than 24 hours later, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed gave a measured response to Obasanjo’s letter. Lai, in the letter, noted that Obasanjo may have been too busy to notice the administration’s achievements in revamping the economy. ‘’Apparently, the former president believes that the administration does not deserve a pass mark in the area of the economy, which is the third of our three-pronged campaign promises. We have no doubt that in the face of massive challenges in this area, this administration has availed itself creditably. We believe that Chief Obasanjo, because of his very busy schedule, may not have been fully availed of developments in the government’s efforts to revamp the economy, which was battered by the consequences of over-dependence on a commodity as well as unprecedented pillaging of the treasury.’’

Significantly, analysts believe that Buhari have decided to take on Obasanjo, especially as his Third Force coalition has coalesced to a political party, African Democratic Congress (ADC).

Nigerians call for probe

From legal luminaries, activists and organised labour, Nigerians have been caling for a comprehensive probe on the $16 billion that was misappropriated in the power sector, more so, as Obasanjo has thrown the challenge to the government.

Specifically, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) Chairman, Prof Itse Sagay (SAN), Obasanjo should be probed. ‘’ President Buhari has been very generous and mild towards his predecessors, not wanting to cause discomfort and embarrassment for them out of respect for the positions they held. But, Obasanjo is a man who does not respect himself, who thinks he is the President-General of Nigeria for life and has a right at any time to wade in and be very caustic and publicly insulting to his successors, just because he’s envious of the same position he held. He cannot detach himself from the Presidency,’’ he further said.

In the same vein, Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Emeka Ngige, urged the anti-graft agencies to do their work- no matter who is involved. Contrary to Obasanjo’s claim, Ngige said ”I believe there was a report of the House of Representatives Committee on Power that indicted President Obasanjo in 2008 for various infractions on power sector contracts during his regime . The committee recommended that EFCC or ICPC should do further investigation and possibly prosecute him, if found culpable. That report was kept in a deep freezer till date.”

Similarly, a former Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) President and leader of the National Intervention Movement (NIM), Mr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), called for strong measures against all those found culpable over the $16billon spending. “Unfortunately, our leaders always trade words and nothing gets done. A new government should get down to real business in 2019 and take a strong action against all who are culpable; enough of panels but very tough action. We in NIM will do it. Extremely strong measures,” he said.

Likewise, Malam Yusuf Ali (SAN) is doubtful if anything would come out of any probe. According to him, ‘’given the history of probes in our country, it usually leads to nothing and the country ends up spending more good money to look for hay in the sack. If there are issues that are worthy of investigation on the matter, let us get world renowned auditors to do forensic audit since money was involved. The Elumelu House of Representatives probe on power – what came out of it? Nigerians are tired of this blame game! People got elected to fix the country. Please let them fix Nigeria so that we stop the brain drain. We will have functional hospitals so that public officials stop wasting our money on external treatment of simple ailments. Name calling won’t change our situation.”

Constitutional lawyer Ike Ofuokwu urged Buhari to face his job and stop playing politics. Ofuokwu said that Buhari should be courageous enough to charge Obasanjo if there is evidence against him. According to him, Buhari’s comment ‘’ is simply a political statement geared towards 2019 election. This is a government that claims that it’s fighting corruption, so if it has thoroughly done its findings and is satisfied that former President Obasanjo has dipped his hands into the national treasury, the only reasonable thing expected of her is to be courageous enough to put the process of prosecution in place and arraign the former president in a court of competent jurisdiction.

Significantly, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) said President Buhari’s comment should be looked into. NLC Secretary General Peter Oso-Eson said if there is evidence on the allegation, nothing should stop its investigation. He said anybody that is found guilty should be prosecuted, adding that there is need for transparency in the anti-corruption drive of the Federal Government.

Given his antecedents, Obasanjo will continue with his campaign against Buhari and the president’s men will also dredge more allegations against te former president. But would Buhari prosecute Obasanjo? Certainly not ian an election year.

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