This Day (Lagos)

18 December 2012

Nigeria: Okonjo-Iweala - My Mother Was Abducted Over Subsidy Claims

Photo: This Day
A gang of armed men has seized 83-year-old Kamene Okonjo, left, mother of finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Abuja — Barely three days after her mother, Prof. Kamene Okonjo, was freed, Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, disclosed yesterday that the kidnappers told the octogenarian that the minister's purported refusal to pay subsidy claims as well as the non-release of the Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme (SURE-P) funds were the motives behind their heinous action.

The minister, who said the old woman's freedom from the abductors was miraculous, added that although she was denied food and water for the five days she was in captivity, she was in excellent health.

Briefing journalists in Abuja, Okonjo-Iweala, who described her mother as a very courageous woman, said while she was in their custody, the woman had inquired from the kidnappers the motive behind the ordeal they had subjected her to.

The abductors, she said, had told her mother in no uncertain terms that her daughter (the minister) had refused to pay subsidy claims to marketers as well as blocked the release of funds accruing to SURE-P.

To set the record straight, the minister noted that nobody had stopped the payment of subsidy to marketers whose claims had been verified by the Aig-Imoukhuede Committee, stressing that the insistence of the Federal Government remained that only claims emanating from genuine transactions and had been verified should be paid - a position she said Nigerians had also championed.

On SURE-P, the minister stated that the programme was a different process, under a special committee, which is not under her control, adding that the Federal Government would continue to do what is right and in the overall interest of Nigerians.

"I can't give all the details because we don't want to compromise ongoing investigations.

"But I can tell you one thing: My mother suffered a great deal during this ordeal. It was only the Almighty God that rescued her from a situation that could very easily have ended tragically.

"Apart from the emotional trauma of being violently taken away from her family and kept incommunicado for five days in a strange environment, a woman of 83 years was left without food for five days. We give glory to God that she is alive today to tell the tale," she said.

She said while her mother was in their custody, the kidnappers spent much of the time harassing her.

"They told her that I must get on the radio and television and announce my resignation. When she asked why, they told her it was because I did not pay 'oil subsidy money'.

"They also said I had blocked the payment of money to certain components of the SURE-P programme.

"These statements are, of course, not true. In the case of subsidy payments, we have been paying all marketers whose claims have been verified by the Aig-Imoukhuede Committee after going through the necessary processes.

"For marketers whose transactions are proven to be fraudulent, the position of the President Jonathan government is also clear: we cannot and we will not pay. We will not back down on this. We will continue to stand firm.

"In the case of SURE-P, there is a totally different process that I have no control over. This is the right thing to do. And this, I believe is what the Nigerian people want," she said.

The minister, who thanked God for His act of mercy in ensuring the safe return of her mother, said the outpouring of love and support to her family from Nigerians of all persuasions had strengthened her love for her country and firmed her resolve to expend more energy in serving her fatherland.

She thanked President Goodluck Jonathan, and his wife, Patience; Vice-President Namadi Sambo; Senate President, David Mark; Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu; Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, and teeming Nigerians from various walks of life and religious inclination, who stood behind the Okonjo family with their prayers and outpouring of love during her mother's ordeal.

Okonjo-Iweala particularly thanked Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan of Delta State; his Anambra State counterpart, Peter Obi; Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, and several other governors for their roles and support during the trying period.

She also thanked fellow cabinet members, who showed solidarity through their calls and other means, adding that these helped to assuage her fear over the abduction.

She said the international community was also most supportive during the period, adding that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, sent a personal message of solidarity, just as did the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, the United States' embassy, both present and past World Bank presidents, as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, among others.

"Even as we thank God, we cannot forget so many Nigerians who have gone through the same terrible experience either as victims or families or friends of victims. Words are not enough to describe the sheer horror of the experience.

"The best way to honour the victims and families is to ensure that there is greater focus on kidnapping and progress in combating it. Working with the relevant agencies under the leadership of the president, I intend to contribute my quota in helping to achieve this.

"We also thank Mr. President and the First Lady who were absolutely wonderful and first rate in their support and encouragement to me and my family throughout this terrible ordeal. The president took a daily interest in the case and gave directives for appropriate action by the security agencies.

"The security agencies also did a good job. They were very professional and enthusiastic in the discharge of their duties. I am hopeful that they will complete the job which they started so well.

"As terrible as the experience was, the love and sympathy of Nigerians was constant and overwhelming. It helped us get through the dark moments of this five-day ordeal. God heard the prayers of the millions of Nigerians who prayed for the safe return of my mother. From the bottom of my heart, I thank all those who sent messages of support and encouragement by phone, by email and in person.

"To those who prayed in their homes and organised prayer circles in their churches and mosques and offices, I say, thank you. Your prayers were heard," she said.

The minister also expressed her heartfelt sympathy over the death of the former Kaduna State Governor, Mr. Patrick Yakowa, the former National Security Adviser (NSA), General Andrew Owoye Azazi, and the four others who died in last Saturday's helicopter crash in Bayelsa State.

The minister said the late governor and NSA were people she knew very well and worked closely with, adding that it was with a heavy heart that she was expressing their loss.

Okonjo-Iweala noted that their death had tempered the mood of the nation at this festive period.

In the meantime, the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) is estimating that the Federal Government might spend N1.23 trillion on fuel subsidy payments by the end of 2012.

This projection is inclusive of the initial N888.1 billion budgeted for fuel subsidy in the budget, the N162 billion proposed in the supplementary budget as well as any extra payment that may arise from subsidy claims by petroleum product marketers at the end of the year.

The Executive Secretary, PPPRA, Mr. Reginald Stanley, gave the breakdown yesterday at a meeting with the Joint House of Representatives Committee on Finance, Appropriation, Petroleum Upstream and Petroleum Downstream.

The meeting was convened as part of the legislative process to assess the supplementary budget recently presented to the National Assembly by the president.

Stanley, who justified the request by Jonathan for the N162 billion extra to fund the fuel subsidy scheme, said that going by the trend of relevant indicators, government might spend as much as N1.23 trillion at the end of the day.

He debunked speculations that the supplementary budget did not emanate from a forensic audit and thorough calculation, insisting that the executive did its homework well before arriving at the amount it requested in the extra budget.

Lawmakers in the lower chamber of the National Assembly had picked holes in the supplementary budget proposal, describing it as bloated.

Some had dismissed it as a figment of the imagination of the executive and almost threw it out when the bill got to the second reading in the House.

However, the PPPRA boss said that the N161,617,364,911 supplementary budget was right on track, explaining that the N888 billion earlier budgeted for fuel subsidy payments also included the N232 billion earmarked for the payment of arrears arising from 2011 subsidy claims and N650 billion for 2012 claims.

Even at that, Stanley said the 2011 arrears later shot up to N451 billion, leaving behind N437 billion only for 2012 payments. He said that so far, N605 billion in subsidy claims had been processed and were awaiting payment.

The PPPRA boss said that the outstanding portion of the funds budgeted for subsidy was grossly inadequate hence the need for the supplementary budget.

"The total projection of about N1.23 trillion should not scare anybody because we are an oil producing nation and we are reaping from the upper part of the deal in terms of higher prices for crude oil.

"In the same vein, we should not also forget that about 95 per cent of the products are imported," he said.

The Director-General, Budget Office of the Federation, Mr. Bright Okogu, who was also at the meeting, backed Stanley's position, stating that the supplementary budget was necessary and urgent. He urged the lawmakers to expedite action on its passage.

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