A friend called me two weeks ago to bemoan the tumbling price of crude oil. In
the last six months, the price of crude oil has gone from a high of more than
$140 per barrel to under $40 a barrel. “It means that ‘ordinary’ Nigerians are
in for hard times,” my friend said in a rueful tone.
My response jolted him. “Tell me,” I challenged, “did the majority of Nigerians
see any significant improvement in their lives during the seven years that crude
oil prices went through the roofs?” Then I reminded him that the oil boom had
simply encouraged Nigerian politicians to remove all limits to their greed.
Those who preside over the ruination of Nigeria in Abuja and its thirty-six
satellites affixed their mouths to the trough and went into a feeding frenzy.
Shortly after this telephone conversation, former President Olusegun Obasanjo
weighed in on the outlook for 2009. In what amounted to an informal state of the
union pronouncement, Obasanjo warned Nigerians to brace for a difficult 2009.
Like my friend, his dire prognosis was informed by the falling oil prices.
His grim message was ironic on several levels. From 1999 to 2007, Obasanjo
oversaw what must rank as one of the most wasteful exercises in statecraft
anywhere in the world. His presidential “reign” coincided with a period of
dramatically rising oil revenues. And what did he do with all that windfall?
Apart from handing a huge chunk of the nation’s earnings to the Paris Club to
settle Nigeria’s questionable debts, little else. Obasanjo left a shameful
legacy: no new road projects; sloppy maintenance of existing roads; a healthcare
system that is nothing short of scary; poor funding of education; a power sector
that steadily deteriorated; rampant corruption, and an electoral culture in
which rigging is the cornerstone.
As Nigeria’s oil revenues rose, Obasanjo cornered the portfolio of petroleum
minister, and then instituted a culture of minimal accountability. Under his
nose, a relatively low-level aide carried $170,000 in cash on a presidential
plane bound for New York City. Obasanjo even benefited from the slush; the aide
in question “donated” $45,000 in farm equipment to Temperance Farms, owned by
the former president. Obasanjo, who alleged that he was allergic to corruption,
defended this obscene and sordid transaction. He claimed that Andy Uba, the
aide, had made a fortune as a U.S.-based businessman prior to joining his
administration. It was – to put it mildly – a bald untruth.
But if the illicit ferrying of cash on the presidential jet was the limit of
greed in the Obasanjo years, perhaps the former president and his minions would
deserve commendation for restraint. Instead, their greed festered and touched
more crucial sectors of national life. Since Obasanjo’s reluctant exit from
power, the national legislature has uncovered unconscionable deals made during
his two terms. A probe by the House of Representatives found out that the former
president and his top aides wasted between $5 billion and $16 billion on power
projects that remain mirages.
Another legislative committee is probing the corrupt deals and wastages in the
oil sector during Obasanjo’s years. That committee has heard some truly
disgusting testimony about the manifold ways in which the Obasanjo
administration frittered away Nigeria’s oil earnings.
Curiously, that committee has gone into “quiet” mode. A friend of mine recently
spoke to a member of the committee and asked how the probe was proceeding. The
member shook his head, gave a cynical grin, and volunteered that “nothing will
come out of it. There’s too much money involved.” When my friend pressed
further, the legislator told him that too many members of the committee had been
“confused” by huge bribes. “There’s too much money flying around us,” he
Part of the problem is the reluctance of Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Obasanjo’s
handpicked successor, to confront the egregious looting during his benefactor’s
reign. Yar’Adua is too handicapped by the crisis of political illegitimacy to
lift a finger and accuse his predecessor. At any rate, his own government has
squandered two years with little or no concrete achievements to its credit.
The challenge now is not whether Nigerians can manage to tighten their belts in
the face of harshening economic realities. Nigerians’ belts are permanently
tight, whether the nation is earning a lot or little. The truth is that Nigeria
is cursed with “leaders” who are no better than common criminals. They are
looters disguised as leaders.
At a time when oil earnings seem set to crash even more, the question is whether
the vampires in power can learn, for the first time, to tighten their own belts
a little. That would entail setting their greed to the declining rates of crude
oil earnings. If they don’t do this, they may finally push the belt-stifled
‘ordinary’ Nigerian to wake up and say “Destroy this temple!”