By Ray Ekpu
It is not known to this column how close Brigadier Sani Abacha was to Major General Muhammadu Buhari by December 1983. It was Abacha who announced at the end of a few minutes of martial music on new year’s eve that the government of President Shehu Shagari had been thrown into the dust bin of history. Buhari became the fulcrum of that history as Nigeria’s head of state. On August 27, 1985, there was another game, the Revolving Doors’ game. Buhari was out, thrown out, while Ibrahim Babangida, was in, thrown into the pinnacle of political power in Nigeria. Babangida clamped Buhari into the dungeon for some months where he cooled his feet, while his colleagues were bestriding the Nigerian political and military firmament like they owned the world. Babangida left or was forced to leave the throne after eight years of dangerous foot work. He called Chief Ernest Shonekan, a successful private sector entrepreneur, to come and take the baton of leadership.
He took it and as he was trying to hold it in his hand firmly, Abacha who had been eyeing the coveted prize greedily grabbed it in 1994. He immediately increased the price of petroleum products. The public rolled out a series of protests. As an appeasement measure, he set up the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF) as an intervention development agency to bring succor to the people especially in the rural areas. He made Buhari the executive chairman of the Fund which he ran for five years (1994-1999).
Why did Abacha appoint Buhari the Executive Chairman of PTF? Was it as an atonement for the sin of standing by while he was overthrown by the Babangida Boys? Or was he just sympathetic seeing that the man had been left in the cold by Babangida since his ouster on August 27, 1985? Or was Abacha simply looking for a fabled disciplinarian who didn’t love money too much or the dirty part of it? Buhari needed that rehabilitation, physical, financial and reputational. He was eager to come in from the biting cold and be seen as a man who, despite the overthrow and detention, had kept his dignity and integrity such that Abacha who was Babangida’s man, could trust him with the big-wallet job.
The Petroleum Trust Fund was to intervene in such areas as roads and waterways, supply of educational materials, rehabilitation of educational infrastructure, food supply, health, water supply, etc. Buhari set up a capricious management structure and appointed Afri-Project Consortium (APC) led by a 42 year old man, Salihijo Ahmad. This Consortium was the sole manager of the PTF projects. Ahmad had admitted to Newswatch in an interview published by the magazine in its April 19, 1999 issue that it was APC that wrote the proposal which defined the mandate of the PTF. It suggested the criteria, procedure for selection and appointment of contractors, consultants and suppliers. It also worked out the monitoring mechanism adopted by the PTF. The APC had some 620 consulting firms reporting to it. It was the sole management consultants to the PTF. Most Nigerians had no idea how the PTF was run. It was when President Olusegun Obasanjo took over in 1999 and set up an interim management committee (IMC) headed by Dr Haroun Adamu to wind down the PTF that the worms crawled out of the can. That Interim Management Committee appointed three technical consultants to investigate various aspects of the PTF management. Their findings conducted independently were damning. When I read President Buhari’s remarks a few weeks ago in which he crowed about the achievements of the PTF under his leadership, I decided to do a facts-check since I knew that Newswatch had done a cover story titled “How Buhari ran PTF” which was published in its March 13, 2000 issue. This story was the product of a thorough investigation into the mammoth fraud as discovered by the technical consultants hired by the IMC. Details of the IMC report are distilled for you here. The findings: N144.51 billion had been given to PTF by the Federal Government during its lifetime; A residential estate was to be built at Wuse, Abuja, for N703 million but the technical consultants hired by IMC put the realistic valuation at about N328 million; Between July 1994 and July 1999, about N25 billion was either stolen or improperly expended; Extension of PTF headquarters was to gulp N650 million; Expired HIV/Aids drugs and kits worth N28 billion was supplied to several hospitals nationwide. This was confirmed by the Nigerian Guild of Medical Directors whose Secretary, Mr. Rowland Ogbonna, asked the Federal Government to withdraw the drugs immediately from all hospitals in the country. Many projects were abandoned while the completion rate of other projects was put at 30%; the sum of N500 million that the PTF deposited in a bank disappeared as soon as the IMC was announced. The bank agreed to pay the money after President Obasanjo read the Riot Act to the bank officials. On taking over, IMC discovered that there were no contract documents, drawings or specifications relating to projects. The APC could and did award contracts and vary the pricing without any reference to the PTF. Mr. Ahmad had asked the IMC officials to come and collect some documents in connection with all the transactions. On the day of the appointment he collapsed and died. The other members of the APC team claimed that they were not in a position to supply the documents.
There were more sordid revelations. The Afenifere did an analysis of the siting of the projects. The consumption of petroleum products by the South was 70% while that of the North was 30%. However, the distribution of the PTF projects was a reversal of the consumption pattern: 70% to the north and 30% to the south. All southern states had 4,440.43 kilometres of roads rehabilitated (24%) while states in the north had 13,870.47 kilometres rehabilitated (76%). Teaching Hospitals’ rehabilitation: South 38%, North 62%; Specialist hospitals: South 29%, North 71%; Food supply: South 17%, North 83%; National Health and Educational Rehabilitation Programme (NHERP): South 0% and North 100%; Vocational Programme: South 3%, North 97%; Primary School rehabilitation: South 12%, North 88%. Haroun Adamu acknowledged the gross imbalances in the sharing of the projects but regretted that his committee could not do much to remedy the situation since by the IMC mandate they could not embark on new projects.
From the findings there was massive fraud in PTF, fraudulently masquerading as achievements. The institution was a government intervention agency but run without the regulatory checks and balances that undergird the implementation of government projects. The Afri-Projects Consortium was just on its own, a loose canon with no authority to check it. Buhari was the Executive Chairman but he was absent-minded and had capriciously surrendered the operational powers of the PTF to APC without diligent supervision. The boys looted the place dry and there was no evidence that Buhari had an inkling of the huge corruption under his feet. Sometime before the IMC takeover, a newsmagazine, TheWeek, had interviewed him about the swirling corruption allegations. He said allegations of corruption against him were false. “My integrity is intact.” His friends said so too and even insinuated that Dr. Adamu was going after Buhari because the former dictator had detained him in 1994. Adamu told Newswatch: “I am not here to probe Buhari, No, that is not our mandate. Whatever happened when he was head of state is long forgotten. He is my friend.”
Buhari’s personal integrity was not soiled by the Petroleum Trust Fraud but he displayed supreme incompetence as a manager. As an Executive Chairman the buck stopped at his desk and no matter how you want to slice it he takes vicarious responsibility for the humongous fraud that took place in that institution. Secondly, the grossly lopsided distribution of the PTF projects between North and South is an awful testimonial for a man of his national standing to whom the nation through the coup makers had given the highest position in the land. His lopsided appointments today constitute a déjà vu.
When I read what he said about Abacha I was sorry for him. He said to a delegation, Buhari Support Group led by Comptroller General of Customs, Hameed Ali. “I don’t care about the opinion you have on Abacha but I agreed to work with him and we constructed roads from Abuja to Port Harcourt, Benin, Onitsha and so on. We also touched education and health. One of the former Heads of State was bragging that he spent $16 billion on power in Nigeria. Where is the power?” The emerging confrontation between the two former dictators, former friends and former allies and now fierce foes, Obasanjo and Buhari, will receive the attention of this column in due course. For now, I think President Buhari’s open veneration of the kleptocratic and autocratic Abacha is a cause for nausea. At the 10th anniversary of Abacha’s death Buhari had given the fantastically corrupt Abacha a clean bill of integrity. Even at that time, Nigeria was running all over the world trying to retrieve the billions Abacha had scattered in several banks in several countries and several continents. The horrifying stories of the elimination of prominent politicians and businessmen by Abacha constitute a notorious portion of our national narrative. No matter how hard Buhari tries, no matter what he thinks of the despicable, despotic Abacha, no matter why he thinks the man was a saint he will never succeed in winning Nigerians to his side. He will only wake up with fleas since he chooses to be in bed with dogs.
Ray Ekpu is a former Editor-in-chief of Newswatch Communications Limited
This article originally appeared in The Guardian of Nigeria