6 February 2013

Nigeria: A Monument to Profligacy


The African First Ladies Peace Centre that began last year as an outlandish joke appears to be taking the shape of a huge financial strain on the resources for the federal government.

The centre was conceived when Nigeria's first lady, Dame Patience Jonathan hosted a meeting of the Africa First Ladies Summit in the capital. She was elected its president.

That event itself was not without controversy, given the fat bill that the government had to foot after the guests had departed.

Eyebrows were raised and questions asked at the time about the relevance and propriety of committing public money to erect headquarters for what essentially is an amorphous, voluntary and impermanent organisation such as the First Ladies Peace Mission.

"We have demonstrated that we are committed to achieving lasting peace in our continent. We shall build a befitting structure for our mission', Mrs Jonathan said at ceremonies to mark the foundation laying for the proposed centre.

Moreover, the choice of location happened to be the site for the Women and Youth Empowerment Foundation (WAYEF), incorporating perhaps a worthier cause, the National Cancer Centre, of Mrs Jonathan's predecessor, Mrs Turai Yar'Adua.

Theirs is no gainsaying the need to address the many challenges that bedevil the African continent. And there are several continent-wide and regional organisations that have committed to meeting them. The African Union (AU) and the Economic Commission for West Africa (ECOWAS), among others, have well-staffed departments that are structured to tackle such issues.

If African first ladies have a role to play in such intricate missions as peacemaking, it should be within the frameworks of such international organisations, and not by creating new bureaucratic institutions that serve no useful purpose but feed the egos of those who propel them, at great public expense. Mrs Jonathan has just been elected to a second term as president of the African First Ladies Peace Mission (AFLPM).

The outrage that greeted the announcement that the federal government had set aside four billion naira to construct the First Ladies Abuja centre was expected. But this has not swayed the authorities to rethink the project.

In fact, the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Alhaji Bala Mohammed, was forced to defend the four billion naira that he said had been budgeted for the project. He said in a statement made on his behalf by a spokesperson that the money was already captured in the 2013 budget of the ministry of FCT.

Justifying the expenditure, Mohammed said that in 1996, the AFLPM had been involved in debating what he called 'issues of great relevance' to African women, children and youth and challenges of social injustice.

He said that as part of its obligation to live up to its international responsibilities, Nigeria accommodated some international organisation, like the rest of the world. The cost to the government of renting accommodation for such organisations, he said, was over N1 billion a year, and remarked that the proposed headquarters building was an opportunity to save cost by using the AFLPM building to serve multiple roles in providing office accommodation, as well as housing, not just the African First Ladies Peace Mission but to other international bodies as well.

But the fact remains that the minister's rather lengthy and convoluted explanation has done little to address the basic question why the government considered the project a priority one at this moment, in the face other challenges that the country confronts-collapsing infrastructure, restive workers, insecurity, and seemed to be surprised that people should query the authority of the government to embark on the project. That is beside the questionable utility of the AFLPM.

There is a predilection on the part of this government to neglect serious and urgent national issues, and to dwell instead on the expensive and wasteful indulgencies of its top functionaries; indulgencies that add little or no value to the quality of life of the ordinary citizen. The first ladies peace mission centre is one of them. The government has no business using public money to fund its capital projects.

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