BY NIYI AKINNASO
I did not realise how little food a person eats in a day until sometime last year when my wife was out of the country on a two-week business trip. In preparing for the trip, she cooked a variety of stews–vegetable, okra, and gbanonnon, each with chunky chips of fish and assorted meat or chicken. In addition, she also prepared three separate “ordinary” stews of whole fish, chicken, or “bush” meat. All the stews were kept in one freezer. In another freezer was stored cooked beans, garnished with corn and cray fish, and moinmoin kept in traditional leaf wrappers.
The plan was for me to eat whatever I wanted while she was away. All the house maid needed to do was to prepare whatever I wanted to eat the stew with. Even when I undertook a one or two-day trip out of town, I took some of the frozen food with me in a cooler.
My wife and I were surprised when it was discovered that I had not even consumed half of the prepared food by the time she returned two weeks later, even when I shared some of it with friends. The experience reminded me of Lev Tolstoy’s popular story, How Much Land Does a Man Need? It is about a man who kept adding more and more land to his already large purchase until, out of exhaustion, he suddenly dropped dead. With the tool he used in demarcating his acquisition, his assistants dug a six-foot grave and buried him. All the land he needed in the end was no more than the six footer.
The moral of Tolstoy’s instructive story and my experience with food came back alive last week when I read the stories about the humongous amounts of money kept in storage by two former public officials. Andrew Yakubu, a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, we learned, kept about $9.8m and £740,000 (both over N3bn) in a cottage house in a Southern Kaduna slum, while Diezani Alison-Madueke, a former Minister of Petroleum Resources, kept over $153m (about N34 billion) in three separate bank accounts. All the monies have been forfeited to the Federal Government.
In an incisive report (Vanguard, February 17, 2017), Azubuike Ishiekwene gave a hint about the possible source of the funds: A deal is suspected between the banks, which kept proceeds from crude oil sales in the NNPC’s accounts, and the three top officials in the NNPC, including the GMD and the minister. The deal required the banks to pay up to two per cent of the interests accruing from the accounts to these officials, as a condition of retaining the NNPC accounts. The money would then be changed to dollars for safe keeping. If this were true, then it is either the minister got more share than the other two, or the GMD kept more money somewhere else. It is also possible that the minister got more money in her accounts from other sources.
Be that as it may, the lessons from, and the implications of, these discoveries are far-reaching. First, the discoveries demonstrate the heartlessness of Nigerian public officials who loot our common patrimony. And this has been going on since the colonial government established the culture of an extractive economy, by which public officials take what they need, without caring much about what the rest of the population needs, as in an inclusive economy, which cares for everybody. What has changed is the scale of the extraction, especially since the discovery of oil. Ever since then, Nigerian public officials have engaged more in the politics of self-interest than in the politics of public interest. As a result, much more money has gone into their pockets than is used for the public good.
What is even worse is that much of the loot is not recycled within the local economy as it is either expatriated overseas or locked up in bank accounts, warehouses, or soak-away pits. Or, how does one explain why Yakubu and Alison-Madueke would keep such amounts of money locked up in a country, where the vast majority of the population lives below the poverty line? Yakubu’s case attracted special shock because he kept the money outside the banking system, recalling the discovery of $1m in a freshly dug soakaway pit in the home of Air Marshal Adesola Amusu a year ago.
Here’s how Alpha, who lives in the rundown neighhourhood, where Yakubu maintained a cash warehouse, reacted to the discovery: “I am short of words. How can one believe that such amount of money was found here, in a place there is no regular electricity supply, water supply? To think that a man of such immense wealth has something to do with this community without contributing anything is, to say the least, disheartening” (Sunday PUNCH, February 19, 2017).
The dollar currency in which the loot is kept makes the matter even worse. Why would anyone keep such a huge amount of foreign exchange from public consumption at a time when manufacturers are closing down because of lack of foreign exchange to do business with; when the value of the naira continues to plunge because of dollar scarcity; and when commodity prices are soaring because of daily increases in the exchange value of the dollar?
Second, the question needs to be answered, and urgently too, as to what punishment should be employed to act as a deterrent to future looters. This is important because recent revelations indicate a rise in the scale of political corruption. Clearly, the confiscation of the loot is really no punishment at all. It is just taking back from the thief whatever is recovered from what he or she has stolen.
Recommended punishments have ranged from imprisonment to death penalty. In addition to whatever punishment is adopted, convicted looters also should be permanently barred from holding public office. This goes to the heart of the fight against corruption by President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. If the purpose of the fight is beyond merely recovering stolen funds, then we must begin to see conviction and punishment soon.
Third, it should be admitted that the whistle-blower policy recently established by the Buhari administration may have been working. Indeed, it is not unlikely that Yakubu’s neighbour or kinsman blew the whistle on him. The appropriate legislation should be enacted soonest to give the whistle-blower policy necessary legal backing in order to guarantee the protection it offers to the whistle-blowers, especially now that cases emanating from their actions are going to court.
In retrospect, it is now clear that two former Governors of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi (now the Emir of Kano) and Prof Chukwuma Soludo, deserve the nation’s apology in view of recent revelations of looting in the NNPC. It will be recalled that both men blew the whistle, but they were shot down by former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration.
It is also to the credit of the Buhari administration that the general public, including neighbours and kinsmen of looters, has started to condemn corruption. This contrasts sharply with the case of former Governor James Ibori, who, years ago, was sheltered from arrest by his kinsmen in Oghara until he escaped from Nigeria, only to be picked up in Dubai and handed over to the British police for prosecution. More effort should be made to broaden the campaign against corruption until it is viewed by the general population as an economic plague in need of urgent cure.
Finally, how much money do these dollar hoarders really need for the rest of their lives? What happens to the hidden treasures if they were to die suddenly? How much of the money would they take along with them?