Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala fancies herself as the Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, and, effectively, as the prime minister of Nigeria. But if we have a prime minister, it can be no other than Mrs Diezani Alison-Madueke, Minister of Petroleum Resources. The reason is plain enough: oil is Nigeria and Nigeria oil, full stop. Okonjo-Iweala’s real portfolio of finance and the very economy whose activities she claims to coordinate depend on petro-dollars. Obasanjo knew what he was about when he refused to cede the petroleum portfolio to anyone else, choosing instead to keep the goose that lays the golden egg in a cage on his presidential desk. So if Okonjo-Iweala is the prime minister, Alison-Madueke, bearing a double-barrelled name as well, is the Oil Goddess of Nigeria. And for more reason than one.
For a start, she is indeed beautiful, a head turner, making the comparison apt even in the literal sense. But jokes apart, Alison-Madueke is, other than the president, the most powerful public official in Nigeria. I might even withdraw the exception, only that one must give due respect to the highest office in the land. And also because the president has the power of appointment and removal of ministers, even though he has refused to use that power against Alison-Madueke in spite of what many see as compelling reasons. Moreover, the president is plainly not averse to wielding the political sword: see how swiftly he moved against Timipre Sylva, his successor as governor of Bayelsa State. Yet Alison-Madueke’s ministerial career is a litany of either gross incompetence or dereliction of duty or both.
As minister of transport, she was reported to have wept on beholding the state of the Benin-Shagamu expressway and promised to rebuild that vital artery that links the east, west and south of the country. But other than tears on a washed-out road, the only notable thing she did was to pay N30.9 to contractors between 26 and 31 December 2007 while the road remained in the deplorable state that made her cry. In October 2009, she was the only serving minister among five former ministers of state and four permanent secretaries indicted and recommended for prosecution by the Senate following its probe of the questionable spending of N300 billion naira in the transport sector. As reported in the Vanguard story, “N300bn transportation contract: Senate report indicts Anenih, Okonjo-Iweala, Ciroma,” of 12 October 2009, she allegedly transferred N1.2 billion naira “into the private account of a toll company without due process and in breach of concession agreement.”
Yet she remained a minister. All that could be done, it seemed, was to deploy her to the ministry of mines and steel development. Perhaps there she would excel: after all, gold, if not the other solid minerals in her new portfolio, should excite the passion of a beautiful woman. But far from achieving the goal of reducing our crippling dependence on oil by revamping the country’s moribund steel and mining sectors, she was again dogged by allegations of impropriety. For instance, investigative reports by the defunct NEXT newspaper brought into the public domain allegations of improper dealings that had swirled in the rumour mill to the effect that one Christopher Aire, a US-based gemstone dealer, enjoyed cosy relations with the mines ministry which carried over to Alison-Madueke’s tenure as petroleum minister. So that shortly after returning from a lavish event hosted by Aire in Los Angeles, the gemstone dealer incorporated two briefcase companies that soon found their way onto the list of oil lifters. No charges were filed, so we must assume that the allegation is false in every material particular. But there are far more solid grounds for the many calls for Alison-Madueke’s sack. Take the 2010 KPMG report on the “process and forensic review” of NNPC which returned a damning verdict on every aspect of the oil industry. Remarkably, the report was inconclusive in three areas that lie at the heart of the gigantic corruption machine that has brought the country to its knees: issue and renewal of importation supply contracts, evaluation of petroleum products importation bids, criteria for allocation of products and volumes to importers, and periodic prequalification lists of approved importers. KPMG could not conclude these aspects of its work due to NNPC process owners’ (ultimately, the oil ministry’s) “inability to provide supporting documents.”
Or take the oil subsidy scandal that led to the January crisis in which many lives were lost or ruined. Alison-Madueke, like the president, knew, or, at least, heard the truth trumpeted from every corner of the country: that what the government was subsidising wasn’t the price of petroleum products but the boundless greed and corruption of contract-mongers and their collaborators in power. Even the House of Representatives probe panel chaired by the discredited Farouk Lawan revealed how a cabal of government-enabled oil bunkerers, subsidy scammers and buccaneers of all stripes hold Nigeria by the jugular. It was at this point that the calls for her resignation or outright sack on grounds of principle and probity reached a crescendo. As Gbenga Obadare, chairman of the Senate committee on privatisation and commercialisation , put it, she ought to have resigned “honourably as a decent person” not because “she is guilty” but because “from the series of revelations coming from the probe, she is not innocent.”
And take, lastly, the current scandal of two oil spills, ten days apart, in Akwa Ibom. On 13 August, crude from ExxonMobil’s facility rendered over 20 kilometres of coastal waters useless to the local fishing communities. While the fishermen were still cleaning their nets of slick and praying for help, another spill killed their hopes. Accustomed to never being held accountable by the government, the largest oil company in the world didn’t bother to do anything to mitigate the damage and restore the livelihood of the affected communities. Then after a tepid government directive, ExxonMobil sent, according the testimony of the locals, forty youths to clean up the mess. Literally with bare hands. As one fisherman sees it, the oil behemoth considers the task of cleaning up as a “favour to the community rather than taking responsibility for their careless operations.”
And why wouldn’t they when the National Oil Spills Detection and Response Agency merely busies itself with “investigations” that will help determine “the nature and extent” of the pollution while the people and the environment suffer?
And amidst the shameful record of performance across three ministries, Alison-Madueke remains untouchable, living a charmed life in Nigeria’s famously tempestuous political waters. It may be the case that Alison-Madueke’s clout as a former top executive of Shell, the second-largest oil company in the world, has a lot to do with her seeming immortality. After all, if oil is Nigeria, then Shell which accounts for half of the country’s production is the de facto corporate “president” of the country. It was in that capacity that Shell bought arms for the police and covertly funded Major (later promoted Colonel) Paul Okuntimo’s Rivers State Internal Security Task Force, set up to pacify, in true internal colonialism style, the Niger Delta for continuous expropriation. And however the storms blow, Alison-Madueke watches with godlike amusement fellow ministers come and go, the latest being her counterpart in the power ministry, Bartholomew Nnaji. As, you might say, is truly becoming of the oil goddess of Nigeria!