Last Sunday, I claimed in this column that our newspapers are diminished by, among others, a chronic and dangerous failure to publish follow-up stories.
There are several dimensions to this concern. I want to substantiate my claim with general references in our recent experience. I will then focus on some stories of a particular vintage from four of our major newspapers.
In no particular order, but with the current story of the looting of former Inspector-General Tafa Balogun’s loot in mind, I would like to recall the conflict, in 2003, between Olusegun Obasanjo’s first-term Minister of Works, Mr. Tony Anenih, and the former Governor of Abia State, Mr. Orji Kalu. It began when Obasanjo, campaigning in Ogun State for his second term, announced that during his first, his government had spent over N300 billion on roads. Kalu said Obasanjo ought to ask Anenih what he did with the money, since we still lacked roads. An Anenih spokesman later claimed that, alas, Anenih got only N126 billion out of Obasanjo, not N300 billion.
There the story ended, except that, in a statement in New York late in 2006, the former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Nuhu Ribadu, stated that the amount in question was only N50 billion, not N126 billion, and not N300 billion. No journalist asked further questions.
By the way, Anenih’s successor at Works, Senator Adeleye Ogunlewe, was sacked early in 2006. Obasanjo offered no explanation as to why, but the Civil Liberties Organization said that Ogunlewe was accused of having embezzled N300 million meant for the rehabilitation of roads in South Eastern Nigeria. As he left office, Ogunlewe was last heard begging Obasanjo to remain President after his second term. Ogunlewe said there were “72 on-going projects and 56 newly-designed ones” for which N300 billion had been committed, and that only Obasanjo could complete. The press seemed satisfied.
But two months after Obasanjo left office, in July 2007, the Senate decided to audit his road projects. Moving the motion was a former member of staff of The Guardian, Senator Ayogu Eze. Moving the motion on the floor of the Upper House, Mr. Eze observed that the Obasanjo government had spent “over N1 trillion” on roads, but “with minimal or no impact.” That was two years ago.
In July 2006, Mr. Audu Ogbeh, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Advanced Congress of Democrats (and former Chairman of the People’s Democratic Party), made the stunning allegation that a top Nigerian government official had received a payoff of N60 billion in our debt deal with the Paris Club. That deal saw Paris writing-off our $18 billion debt. In mid-September, Mr. Ogbeh reportedly met with the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), which was allegedly investigating his allegation. Mr. Ogbeh was reported to have told the ICPC he was ready to substantiate his story. Strangely, the story ended there.
How about the Abacha file? In December 2006, EFCC’s Ribadu announced that a total of $2 billion had been recovered. Obasanjo, however, never mentioned a specific amount. Of greater importance, whatever was recovered has never been accounted for. The closest we have come to it was Mrs Nenadi Usman, Obasanjo’s last Finance Minister, who stated that the funds had been given to five ministries: Power, Works, Health, Education, and Water Resources. She did not say exactly how they had received the money. And she did not know what they did with it, but said an investigation was on into how they were being spent. The press seemed satisfied.
Meanwhile, does anyone remember Mrs. Usman’s former boss? Redeployed to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala arrived to find that Nigeria had sent a cheque of $4.6 million to the International Seabed Authority (ISA), to pay a debt of only $22,000. The press was satisfied.
In December 2004, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) sent a letter to the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Bureau, Rtd. Captain Emmanuel Nsa, in which it alleged that between 1999 and 2004, public officials had stashed up to $2.2 billion away in foreign banks. In the letter, published in The Punch, SERAP gave the Bureau one month, until January 27, 2005, to investigate and identify the officials involved, or face legal proceedings.
On July 13, 2004, The Guardian reported President Obasanjo as alerting the nation that a government agency had tried to defraud the Federal Government of 36 million Euros using an inflated contract. He was speaking to senior civil servants, and he told them how he was going to take up the matter. The Guardian never raised the issue again.
On June 6, 2004, ThisDay reported that the Federal Capital Territory was littered with uncompleted government projects running into billions of Naira. They may have been part of the government projects that Charles Soludo, who was at that time an Economic Adviser to President Obasanjo, told the National Planning Committee of the House of Representatives would require over N1.4 trillion to complete. That story was also reported by ThisDay. Then, silence.
On July 2, 2004, also reported ThisDay, President Obasanjo told a meeting of the Nigerian Stock Exchange's (NSE) Biennial Conference of Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Directors of Quoted Companies that his government needed $20 billion to finance the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) between 2003 and 2007. On December 30, 2004, The Punch reported that the government had secured a new loan of $140 million to finance the reform scheme. Earlier, on October 12, The Guardian reported that the United States Agency for International Development had started a five-year “economic strategy” worth $60 million to help Nigeria “realize its developmental plans.”
[The Department for International Development of the United Kingdom has also reported substantial increases in aid to Nigeria since 2003/2004, when it gave £35 million, to 2007/08, when it gave £100 million. All of this is despite the abandonment of NEEDS by Obasanjo].
On July 29, 2004, The Punch was one of several papers that reported on a massive land scam in Abuja. Blown open by the EFCC, it was allegedly masterminded by one Mr. Success Amuchie. Among other people, the scam featured such well-placed Nigerians as Edo State Governor Lucky Igbinedion; former President of the Senate, Anyim Pius Anyim; former FCT Minister, Mohammed Abba-Gana; and then Deputy Leader of the Senate, Dr. Jonathan Zwingina.
On July 29, 2004, The Guardian reported that the House of Representatives had begun an investigation into the disbursement of the N130 billion received from foreign donors between 2000 and 2004 to combat the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Earlier, on July 1, Reuters had reported that the United States had just given Nigeria $460 million grant spread over five years to help us fight poverty and HIV/AIDS. Both stories disappeared.
In August 2004, Nigeria was awash with gory stories of the discovery of the Okija Shrines in Anambra State that were found littered with human skulls and decomposing bodies. The newspapers said many of the custodians and “priests” of the shrine had been moved to Abuja, ostensibly to face the law. Vanguard was one of the newspapers that carried those reports. It further reported on August 14 that tension was mounting over the disclosure that the police would reveal the names of prominent Nigerians that found in the shrine registers. End of story.
Vanguard also reported, on November 11, 2004, that the Federal Government had approved an N847 million contract for closed circuit public cameras in Abuja and Lagos to help control crime. The press was satisfied.
On August 10, 2004, in a story by ThisDay the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) alleged that about $170 billion had been siphoned from the nation by corrupt officials. The coalition said it would mobilise patriotic Nigerians and friends of the country to assist recovering and repatriating the missing funds from foreign accounts, stocks and estates.
I could write for days about similar stories in the Nigerian press that I took notice of, and those I have cited here are mainly from a specific period. My point is that a responsible and professional press would not allow stories of this nature to disappear while it scrambles to quote the same public officials and make celebrities of them.
And yes, editorials and opinion columns are great, and Lord knows I have been guilty of many of them in my time. But they are highly overrated homilies. It is a newspaper’s investigations and its ability to break epochal stories—not opinions fashioned in air-conditioned comfort—that earn it respect and credibility, and build a nation.
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