The Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has debunked claims by a newspaper columnist, Mr. Sonala Olumhense, that the $2.5 billion Abacha loot recovered during the regime of former President Olusegun Obasanjo disappeared when she was also presiding as the nation's finance minister.
The Special Adviser to the minister, Mr. Paul Nwabuikwu, who reacted to Olumhense's article via a statement, yesterday, said the writer's piece was guilty of a general absence of "verified facts and the basing of opinions on gross inaccuracies."
Nwabuikwu said $500 million and not $2.5 billion was recovered when the Okonjo-Iweala presided as finance minister during Obasanjo's, adding that contrary to the writer's position, the money did not disappear, but was channelled into rural projects.
"For instance, Olumhense writes that $2.5 billion of Abacha money was recovered during Okonjo-Iweala's time as finance minister during President Obasanjo's reign and that the money disappeared implying some involvement in the disappearance by the minister. This is absolutely false. First, the amount recovered was $500 million, not $2.5 billion. The recovered amount was channelled into rural projects and programmes as per the agreement with the Swiss government which repatriated the funds. A combined team of Nigerian and Swiss nongovernmental organisation with the World Bank later verified the use of this money on the ground where the projects from were cited and they certified the money had been accurately utilised.
"The World Bank had written about this in a 2007-2008 Handbook on stolen asset recovery where the case was cited as a best practice example of how to deploy returned proceeds of looted assets. Readers of Olumhense would benefit more if his passionate writings on Okono-Iweala are supported by a bit more research as opposed to sweeping, unverified statements," the statement added.
According to Nwabuikwu, a second inaccuracy in Olumhense's article was the claim that the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) was to be the last reform agenda of Nigeria, querying: "Who on earth made such a claim? The idea that a country needs one magical reform strategy to take care of all current and future challenges is strange. It simply doesn't make sense. Every country continues to reform as circumstances change - the name may change but the process of reform is and should be continuous. President Obama is currently reforming the health and immigration systems in America. The United States, like many other countries, has never stopped reforming. Why should Nigeria?"
The ministerial aide also alluded to her comments on corruption in the recent TedxEuston talk, noting that most of the examples of political corruption at the event were from Nigeria.
"But unlike some of those who talk about corruption, Okonjo-Iweala has not stopped at talking. The clean-up of the fraud in the subsidy payments regime to oil marketers for which she paid a heavy personal price in the form of the abduction of her mother by paid kidnappers in November 2012 is one clear example. The sole demand of the kidnappers for the first three days of the abduction was that the minister should resign and leave the country for spearheading the clean-up. Her 83-year old mother was held for five days and it was only the intervention of the Almighty God who answer the prayers of well-meaning Nigerians that brought her back, alive. Where was Olumhense at that time? How can he claim that this woman is not at the forefront of the fight against corruption? Thank God her mother is still alive to tell her traumatic tale and nobody should make light of that sacrifice.
"Another example is the clean-up of the pension fraud with the establishment now of a new institution under the Federal Ministry of Finance - the Pension Transition Administration Department to ensure that pensioners under the old defined benefits scheme are not defrauded anymore. The department is a practical response to an issue that many of us feel very strongly about - the terrible experience that many senior citizens have to go through just to collect their pensions - and serious work is going on to ensure that fix this long-standing problem in a sustainable way," the statement said.
On the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) oil accounts issue, Nwabuikwu said Olumhense seemed to have forgotten that Okonjo-Iweala had already called for an independent forensic audit to establish the facts of any unaccounted for money and ensure that every naira that is owed the treasury is returned to the Federation Account.
"This is the best way to proceed given the conflicting claims by Mr. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi and the NNPC. After all the speeches and comments like that of Olumhense, the fundamental problem of determining the facts as a basis for action must still be tackled. Is there room for more action on corruption? Of course the answer can only be yes. But action is needed to achieve change. Talk is cheap, action is crucial.
"Olumhemse is entitled to his opinion of the status of the transformation agenda but his failure to say anything about visible achievements in roads, rail, power privatisation, agriculture and job creation programmes like YOUWIN speaks volumes about the bias and lack of balance in his comments. Of course, the foundation of a mortgage housing programme for the country, a project with profound positive implications for the overall economic development of the country is beneath Olumhense's gaze as a professional critic. Like many Okonjo-Iweala critics, he is too apoplectic with contrived rage to see anything good in whatever she does. Their minds - and eyes - are shut to any possibility of any positive contribution. As the minister has always maintained, we face serious challenges at so many levels as a country. But that is precisely why progress should be recognised so that it will act as a beacon for more work to achieve more progress. A climate of total and complete hopelessness, like the one which commentators like Olumhense are working so hard to achieve, is not in the interest of any Nigerian," Nwabuikwu said
On recurrent budget, he stated that the minister had publicly explained the origin of the present imbalance between recurrent expenditure and capital expenditure, adding that the huge salary increase of 53 per cent and the attendant pension increases awarded to public servants in 2010 were the major factors.
"Unfortunately for Olumhense, Okonjo-Iweala was not in office then. Was Olumhense a columnist then? I believe so. Since he is so passionate about the high recurrent expenditure, he should avail us of what his critical analysis of what transpired at that time. If he said nothing then, then he has no moral authority now to lay blame where it does not belong."