The federal government's patience with the unrelenting criticism of the National Economic Council (NEC) approval for the withdrawal of $1 billion from the Excess Crude Account (ECA) to fight Boko Haram insurgents, ran thin Tuesday as it described its critics as unpatriotic elements.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, vented the government's anger at a news briefing in Lagos and said those who had imputed ulterior motives to the NEC action were wrong, contending that their comments were a disservice to the nation's service men and women.
"The controversy over the approval of $1 billion by the NGF (NEC) is absolutely unnecessary and unhelpful," he stated firmly.
But in a swift response Tuesday, the main critic of the decision, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), said the federal government's position was nothing but a red herring, insisting that the government had not come clean about the real purpose of the fund.
The party's National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, told THISDAY that from the discordant tunes being sang by high level officials of government about the purpose of the fund, it was obvious that it would be used for political purposes.
The proposal to withdraw $1 billion from the ECA to fight the insurgency in the North-east was an initiative of the Nigerian Governors' Forum (NGF), which received the nod of the NEC, headed by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and populated by the 36 state governors of the federation as well as some officials of the federal government stipulated in the 1999 Constitution as amended.
The decision, which was announced by the Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki after a NEC meeting three weeks ago, has been greeted by an avalanche of criticisms with some governors and public policy analysts querying its rational and legality.
But Mohammed described the criticism of the decision as unnecessary, uninformed and highly-partisan, explaining that the fund would be used not only to fight Boko Haram but also to tackle other security challenges, including illegal oil bunkering, kidnapping and cattle rustling.
He said: "Just because some people, under a different political dispensation, squirrelled away money meant to equip the military in the past does not mean the military should be left to its own devices or that every allocation to the military will suffer the same fate."
Mohammed said that the All Progressives Congress (APC) government is a disciplined government that would not allow allocated funds to end up in private pockets or spent on prayers.
He said: "We will always empower the military and other security agencies to be better able to carry out their tough tasks."
The minister justified the necessity for the fund, saying that the $1 billion was not too much given the gravity of the security challenges the country faced.
Citing the fight against Boko Haram, Mohammed said the aircraft being used for the war, including fighter jets and helicopters, altogether consume 64,021.08 litres of fuel per day.
He said: "With the aircraft flying a total of about 30 sorties a day, and at N275 per litre, it costs a total of N15,153,428.25 daily to fuel the aircraft."
According to him, the spares for the aircraft from January to November 2017 cost N20,019,513,739.88, while consumables for the aircraft (engine oil, plugs etc.) amounted to N3,863,600 monthly and N46,363,200.00 annually.
He said: "What about the cost of ammunition? Just for 42 days, from 5th November to 17 December, the cost of ammunition was over $5 million!"
Mohammed said that the cost of acquiring air force platforms should also be considered.
He said: "For example, the 12 Super Tuscano aircraft recently approved for sale to Nigeria by the US Government costs a whopping $490 million, yet this is government to government contract, and the costs of spares, munitions and other consumables are not included!
"Let's remember that the costs stated above are for the air force alone and restricted to operations in the North-east alone. We have not even talked of the Army or the Navy, which are also fully involved in tackling internal security challenges in the country.
"Neither have we included the operating cost of the Nigerian Air Force in the Niger Delta to curb pipeline vandalism; in the North-west to contain cattle rustlers; in the North-central to curtail herdsmen and farmers' clashes; and kidnappings, armed robberies and separatism in other parts of the country."
The minister said there was nothing wrong in the opposition offering constructive criticism, adding that democracy allowed citizens to freely air their opinions.
He, however, warned that criticisms should not be a licence for anyone to distort facts, engage in crass sensationalism or bring partisanship to every issue, not the least one that concerned the security of the nation.
He said that those who viewed the $1billion from the prism of partisanship were wrong.
According to him, the military is undoubtedly the most national of all our institutions.
He said: "It serves all Nigerians, irrespective of their religion, ethnicity or political party. It should never be dragged into the partisan arena."
He said that the fact that Boko Haram had been largely degraded did not mean the war was over, explaining that asymmetric wars like the one against the insurgents did not end with an armistice.
"It is therefore curious that some of those who have criticised the $1-billion approval have hinged their argument on the fact that the Boko Haram has been degraded," he noted.
Mohammed claimed that fighting an asymmetric war was costlier than fighting a conventional war. He also said that the war against terror was never fought with budgetary provisions.
He said: "It is common knowledge that the annual budgetary allocation to the military is not commensurate with the internal security challenges we face, for which we have had to continuously rely on the military to assist the police and the Civil Defence Corps.
"When insurgents take over a chunk of our nation's territory, we turn to the military. When the farmers/herders clash escalates, we turn to the military. When kidnappers up their game, we turn to the military. When illegal bunkerers and pipeline vandals are seeking to overwhelm our oil production and export, we turn to the military. When ethno-religious clashes occur, we turn to the military.
"But when it is time to give the military the resources it needs to function, we say it is a waste of scarce resources; we come up with spurious reasons to deny the military its due."
He said that NGF acted wisely in approving the withdrawal from the ECA to fight Boko Haram and other security challenges in the country.
"Security of lives and property is at the core of the existence of any government and the NGF understands this quite well, going by its action in approving the withdrawal from the ECA," he stated.
He said that had the military been better equipped to tackle Boko Haram in the early days of the insurgency, thousands of lives, including those of service men and women would have been saved and that the war would have been over a long time ago.
Mohammed also said that if the funds meant to equip the military had not been diverted into private pockets, there might be no need today to withdraw any money from the ECA for that purpose.
But reacting to Mohammed Tuesday, PDP's Ologbondiyan said the federal government was fishing for justification for the $1 billion ECA fund, saying the reasons given for it had not been consistent.
He said: "Governor Obaseki was very clear in his briefing that the fund was approved for the fight against Boko Haram insurgents. When we queried the constitutionality of spending the federation's money on a fight in a section of the country that the government claimed to have won, Vice-President Osinbajo expanded the scope of the use of the fund to include expansion of the security architecture of the country.
"But THISDAY reported Governor Aminu Masari of Katsina State on Sunday as saying clearly that the fund was for the fight against insurgency in the North-east and the South-south.
"So, what exactly is the fund for?"
Ologbondiyan insisted that it would be unconstitutional for the NEC to lure the federal government to spend funds from ECA on security, which is on the exclusive legislative list.
According to him, "Security is on the exclusive legislative list, which means it should be the responsibility of the federal government. We are curious that the states are willing to donate their own share of the ECA, a fund that actually should be in the Federation Account for distribution to the three tiers of government, to the federal government even when they know that the central government has already been reimbursed for security through its massive share of 48 per cent of the revenue of the country."
He said the PDP believed that the federal government ought to fund security, including the military through its share of 48 per cent of the nation's revenue and if it felt overwhelmed, it should decentralise its security function.
He regretted the reference to the critics of the $1 billion proposed disbursement as unpatriotic elements, saying it showed how intolerant of dissent the federal government was.
According to him, rather than apologising profusely for leading the country into another round of hardship occasioned by its inability to make petroleum products available to Nigerians, the federal government was busy casting aspersions on their integrity.
"What we think should engage the federal government's attention now is how it will bring fuel to our filing stations and end the misery of citizens and not this frivolous attempt to justify an obvious fraud," he said.