A former minister of education, Dr Obiageli Ezekwesili, recently threw the gauntlet on the economic policies of the current administration.
She claimed that the administration, from its inception when the late Umaru Musa Yardua was president in 2007 to Goodluck Jonathan's, 'squandered' $45 billion in the country's foreign reserve account, and another $22 billion in the excess crude account. Such alleged wasteful expenditures, she said, provided proof of Nigeria's failure to make the right development choices. Mrs Ezekwesili made the accusations in a paper she gave to mark the 42nd convocation of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
Majority of Nigerians, she went on, have lost their dignity because of ravaging poverty caused by the poor choices the elite make, endemic corruption and lack of investment in education, among other factors.
A former vice president at the World Bank, Ezekwesili noted that Nigeria enjoyed five circles of oil boom since independence, and bemoaned the failure of governments to convert the resulting windfalls to renewable assets through proper management of human capital, development of other sectors or investment in foreign assets, itemising similar steps that other resource-rich countries had taken with respect to their oil incomes.
She pulled no punches when she said the Jonathan administration misappropriated oil income, nearly all of the $67 billion she claimed was left in the treasury by former President Obasanjo, in whose administration she served as minister. The figure was the total oil revenues that accrued to the country at that time, Mrs Ezekwesili said.
"Nigerians, mostly the poor, continue to suffer the effects of failing public health and education system as well as decrepit infrastructure and battered institutions", she said.
Her comments have riled government officials, particularly in the Presidency; instead of picking up the challenge, they were dismissive. The House of Representatives considered the revelations serious enough to institute an inquiry into them. The Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) advised President Jonathan to organize a public debate on the matter between its officials and Mrs Ezekwesili in order to set the records straight.
In the mix of the argument and counter argument, the truth may never be known.
While Mrs Ezekwesili's strong words may help reopen debate over the management of public finances by government officials, they also reinforce the view that it is part of the on-again-off-again bickering between Jonathan and Obasanjo, carried out in the media mainly by their respective aides.
Mrs Ezekwesili's figures need to be challenged. Her performance while in office was not without its controversy; in fact the performance of the entire administration she served cannot be described as an epitome of prudent management or exemplary people-oriented policies. Those who should do the challenging have refused to take the gauntlet to respond to Mrs Ezekwesili for the benefit of public discourse and open society.
But the import of her remarks, that of the need for openness and accountability, should not be lost in the debate.
Whether both the excess crude and foreign reserve accounts were depleted, perhaps recklessly or fraudulently, as Ezekwesili alleged, and there have been no tangible impact on the living conditions of Nigerians, it would make greater sense for the government to respond, and not stonewall.
The basis for suspicion that all may not be well stems from the fact that the excess crude account has no constitutional basis, although it sounds well in principle to save for a rainy day. Managing it therefore is at the whim of those in political office. An agreement to transfer the proceeds into the new Sovereign Wealth Fund has not been carried through, the result of failure in political leadership.