Skip to main content

Probe The Projects, Not The Persons By Sonala Olumhense

There is one Nigerian who is absolutely certain to be probed, but it is not whom you might first suspect.  

That person, and I write this so he knows it for certain, is Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s current President.



History will probe Buhari in ways even he cannot now think of subjecting anyone.  That is why he must not be mistaken about the challenge in front of him to do what he knows he was voted to do: get to the bottom of corruption in Nigeria.  He has no choice.

Still, it is self-evident that arresting corruption cannot be an end in itself; the effort must be a means to restating Nigeria as a country, towards providing a firm and sustainable foundation for her development.  

By his pronouncements, Buhari understands this.  Before History probes him, however, he has stated that he will probe the government which preceded him.  

That government had the morals of a prostitute.  It lacked shame.  It provided respectability to daylight robbery, especially the most conniving and mercenary kind, and deserves to be probed.  

While I support that government being robustly scrutinized, it is worth restating that it is clearly not the only one in recent times that was guilty of anti-people and anti-Nigeria practices.  I therefore propose to Buhari an easy component to this probe that is fair, productive and manageable.  It would also encourage healthy public participation.

That approach is to probe public projects.  While some of the looting of Nigeria has involved current expenditure, the most outrageous, from year to year, and from one administration to the other, has been in the area of infrastructure.  That is because the procedure has been so easy: get something into the budget, get the funds out, share it.  

The entire world knows the result: a nation of uncompleted projects. In one of President Jonathan’s novel initiatives, he set up the Presidential Projects Assessment Committee in March 2010 to examine cases of abandoned projects at the federal level.  When the team turned in its report in May 2011, it contained an astounding 11,886 projects.

Worse still, that committee observed that its figure was conservative, and that the correct inventory could be up to 20 per cent higher. In other words, a more accurate number would have been around 15,000.

“We take no joy in confirming that there is indeed evidence of large scale, widespread institutional mediocrity, deficiency of vision, and a lack of direction in project management, which result in poor conceptualisation, poor design and faulty execution,” said panel chairman Ibrahim Bunu.  He cited the infamous Ajaokuta Steel Company project, on which $4.5 billion has been squandered in 30 years. “Needless to add that this has resulted in avoidable loses of billions of Naira to the government.”

That was in 2010, and Mr. Jonathan’s first year in office.  He promised to take action, but typically, he did not move a muscle until voters muscled him out five years later.   

In the interim, his government went on to add hundreds, perhaps thousands of projects of its own in the five years that followed.  In May 2011 in my column, I documented his mountain of electoral promises, which is available online, and which yielded some of those fake or uncompleted projects.  

But rather than dismiss this as a problem in itself, I think it provides part of the answer, which is that the current government should implement the reports of presidential enquiries that its predecessor did not have the heart to touch.  By doing so, Buhari will not only unearth a ton of money, he will provide a vital missing element in our democracy: continuity, sending the important message to aspiring office holders that official responsibility does not end when your tenure does.

Mr. Jonathan’s Projects Assessment Committee report needs some updating, but it is essentially a comprehensive starting point for trying to understand what has happened to Nigeria.  Implementing it would provide a dispassionate approach to limiting the damage and teaching some essential lessons to public office-holders and their friends about impunity.   

In my view, given the large number of projects involved, a decision will have to be made as to a cut-off point in order to limit the number of infrastructure projects that are still viable or desirable.  Some of them would have to be merged, some of them sold, and others completely written off.  

Those projects chosen for further work or completion should be partly funded from direct recovery of the funds originally looted from them.  Of particular focus here should be projects in electricity, petroleum, roads, education and health: fields were the greatest callousness was deployed against the most vulnerable.

It is remarkable to consider, for instance, that as much as $16 billion was lost on the electricity file during a short period of time before President Umaru Yar’Adua assumed office.  No other country would work away from a challenge as stupendous as that one, and the records are still current.  It is possible to recover no less than $12 billion from that account alone.  Fittingly, some of the funds should go into building a few new jails that would house some of the thieves.  

All we have to do is find out who collected the funds for each particular uncompleted project, and publish a full dossier, complete with clear deadlines for refunding the funds outstanding against those names.  Those who default should have their assets frozen or seized.   

In this connection, it is good to learn that President Buhari has turned some attention to the Halliburton scandal, and related reports that have never been implemented.  The foreign report, from February 2008, implicated several former Nigeria leaders and their spouses: about 80 persons in total, who walked away with fat Halliburton bribes.

The other report, the Okiro Report, emerged early in 2010.  Despite confirming the foreign report and revealing many more Nigerians who had benefited from the bribery bonanza, it has never been implemented.   

The way forward should necessarily involve electoral reform, for which the celebrated Justice Muhammadu Uwais Report awaits implementation.  Again, it is one of those reports on which Mr. Jonathan had vowed to act, but subsequently reneged, especially once he decided he wanted to run for office in 2011.

It would be recalled, however, that in March 2010, the Secretary to the Government, Mahmud Yayale Ahmed, announced that Mr. Jonathan, who was at the time Acting President, had sent the report to the National Assembly.  Regrettably, nothing was heard about the report in its undiluted form thereafter, and Nigeria waits to benefit from the groundbreaking reforms it recommended.  

In other words, there is no wheel to reinvent.  Let Buhari, remembering that he will throughout his tenure, and eternally thereafter, be forensically investigated, do the right thing once and for all.  He should place all the key projects on the table to be inspected in the full light of day.

[email protected]
Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense