On Friday, PREMIUM TIMES broke the story of the arrest of Diezani Alison-Madueke, former minister of petroleum. She was arrested in London by the UK National Crime Agency on suspicion of bribery and money laundering. The event reminded me of our only encounter where she was chastising me for my incapacity to understand the anti-corruption stance of their government. In September 2012, I received a call that the permanent secretary of the foreign ministry wanted to see me immediately. I went to the office to meet the urbane gentleman, Martin Uhomoibhi who as always was decked in a suit and elegant bow tie. He told me that President Kuffour had been invited to the 2012 Independence Lecture that month and he would like me to provide a Nigerian perspective but would want an assurance that I would not attack the government. I told him that if he had researched my background he would have known that I was no praise singer and advised him to search out the large bevy of praise singers available in the country. He gave his sweet smile and told me he had done his due diligence on my background and I was not invited by accident. He said he has a doctorate degree from Oxford and was a lecturer in the University of Ibadan with massive respect for academic freedom so he would not dream of censoring me. There would be enough accolades in President Kuffor’s lecture and it would be more balanced if there were a few critical thoughts expressed he explained. However, as it was a prestigious event with the entire cabinet and diplomatic corps in attendance, an attack on the Government would not be suitable. We agreed and I turned up on 18th September to participate in the event. After my presentation, President Jonathan responded with fury and anger, an approach that is not in his usual cool and friendly manner. What irritated him were the comments I made on the fuel subsidy demonstrations reproduced below:
“In January this year, I was one of the thousands of Nigerians in the streets demonstrating against the removal of fuel subsidy by my beloved President Goodluck Jonathan. The leading intellectuals of the regime came out to criticise us for our lack of understanding of basic economics. We were told that the evidence is clear that the subsidy is unsustainable. We were dismissed as enemies of the transformation agenda who did not realise that the money for the transformation agenda was going into fuel subsidy rather than economic development so we were saboteurs. We stood our ground. We said there was nothing wrong is subsidising the people but the problem was that people were not being subsidised, the money was being stolen. Today, the jury is out. It was not a subsidy regime; it was a regime of mega looting. Without our demonstrations and protests, President Jonathan would have never understood that the spin he was given about abstract subsidy was the narratives of the mega thieves and not the patriots. All ministers genuinely committed to the transformation agenda are therefore invited to join the next demonstration to be organised by occupy Nigeria.”
In his response to my comments, President Jonathan insisted that the demonstrations were an indication of manipulation. In his own words: “During the demonstration in Lagos, people were given bottled water that people in my village don’t have access to, people were given expensive food that the ordinary people in Lagos cannot eat. So even going to eat free food alone attracts people. They go and hire the best musician to come and play and the best comedian to come and entertain; is that demonstration? Are you telling me that that is a demonstration from ordinary masses in Nigeria who want to communicate something to government? For me, if I see somebody is manipulating anything I don’t listen to you but when I see people genuinely talking about issues I listen. I am hardly intimidated by anybody who wants to push any issue he has. I believe that that protest in Lagos was manipulated by a class in Lagos and was not from the ordinary people.”
He then directed Madam Diezani Alison to respond to what he called the charges I made against his Government. She gave a long-winded speech about the strategy of President Jonathan to destroy the corrupt fuel subsidy cabal and described my position as being in tandem with the corrupt cabal that did not want corruption to end. I was not given a right of reply so I had to keep my anger to myself about demonstrating for free food and bottled water and for doing the handiwork of the corrupt cabal. I suppose we will soon see evidence of Diezani’s commitment to anti-corruption in the British courts.
At the end of the event, I asked two of my former students who were then directors in the Foreign Ministry about my honorarium. They were more interested in getting me out of the place. They explained that the normal interpretation that would be given was that the permanent secretary had invited a speaker to embarrass the President and that at that moment I was not the most loved person in the Foreign Ministry. They escorted me to my car and I went off and thank God the permanent secretary survived the indiscretion of inviting me to an event where criticism was not allowed. The new permanent secretary should find out who chopped my honorarium and prosecute the person.
In my paper, I had questioned the assumption of President Jonathan and his Government that national transformation is about what presidents do, on their own. I argued that positive transformation is what has been on-going in Nigeria for the past three decades and the motive force of the transformation has been the role of trade unions, professional associations, citizens and civil society in putting up barricades to confront many decades of military dictatorship and fight against tyranny at a very high cost to their lives and liberties. The result has the return of democracy as an outcome of popular struggles. I agreed that there was indeed a transformation agenda in the country but added that those in power had been stumbling blocks rather than partners in the positive transformation of Nigeria. In the 1980s, our ruling classes took the side of the multilateral agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. They told Nigerians a narrative about how we have lived above our means in a context in which our production was not at pace our consumption so they must impose discipline and austerity on us. It was in that context that SAP was imposed. There were cuts in public employment, massive devaluation of the naira and inflation, the withdrawal of the state from social provisioning and so on. Nigerians decided they must transform that reality. My concern at that time was that there was a need for a real debate on national transformation but when the concept is reduced to what a serving president says he is doing, the debate dies before it even takes off. It is clearer to all today that the regime of President Jonathan was the stumbling block to national transformation and was indeed steering the country towards national destruction.
Maybe it is not surprising that President Jonathan would continue to believe that the hundreds of thousands of Nigerians in dozens of cities all over the country were on the barricades campaigning against fuel subsidy because opposition politicians were manipulating them. It’s the reflection of an attitude that sees the people as those who should just accept what they are told because it is their government that is talking and that government, as he said, was elected by a wide margin. The vision of national transformation that was being articulated was one that conceived of social and political change as something presidents and their ministers say they were doing. Almost every Nigerian knew that all the Government was doing was mega looting, and yet the praise singers spoke of national transformation. The current regime has a responsibility to unmask the charade that was described as national transformation and lay bare the reality of looting. Yes indeed, let the trials begin.