[OPINION]: The Dividend of the Court of Public Opinion Trial of NNPC

by Ugochukwu Ugwuanyi

So overwhelmed are we by the non- remittance of some petrol-dollars to the Federation Account between January 2012 to June 2013 that we’ve failed to spare a fraction of our time to consider what NNPC must be doing in the wake of its exposure. Whether business as usual still applies or it has learnt to keep its hands off the cookie jar. Even if it carried on like before in the second half of 2013, the oil behemoth will now be more circumspect in conducting its affairs courtesy of the leakage of its underhand dealings to the public.

This to me remains the most reason we should appreciate the rambunctious Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, Mallam Lamido Sanusi for blowing the lid off this scam. What a parting gift he has bequeathed to us. Nigeria is indeed blessed to have this hurricane fellow as CBN honcho. I say this without respect to his weaknesses. Show me a being who is devoid of weaknesses and I’ll withdraw my acclaim of Sanusi.

I purposely used hurricane to describe him because he is indeed a hurricane. For him to be able to force NNPC to unprecedentedly admit withholding government funds to the tune of $10.8 billion makes him phenomenal. You’ll recall that it is this same NNPC that has consistently denied keeping back any money belonging to government. Even in the face of apparent allegations of non-remittance, the oil corporation have continued to repudiate such charges.

When Olusegun Aganga was minister of finance, the KPMG audit he ordered pointed to this malpractice by NNPC, the Nuhu Ribadu committee on the verification of fuel subsidy payments also raised the same charges, ditto for the Nigerian Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative that should be in the know. In all these instances and more, NNPC disputed their unanimous claim, maintaining that it pays into the federation coffers all monies it generated on government’s behalf. This bare-faced lie by the state-run oil company presented Nigerians as morons gullible to whatsoever they’re told.

Alas, what is in contention is not whether the corporation withheld our commonwealth; since it has agreed it did. What is at issue is how much it failed to remit. In a private letter addressed to President Jonathan which somehow became public, the CBN governor alleged that the NNPC failed to remit $49.8bn it generated between 2012 and July 2013 to the Federation Account. The content of the letter generated much furore across the country causing top officials of NNPC, CBN, ministry of petroleum resources and that of finance to collaborate in finding out the veracity of the CBN governor’s claim.

At the end of their meeting, while NNPC and the ministers present held that only $10.8 billion was unaccounted for, the sceptical CBN people scaled down the missing amount to $12 billion. That had remained the position of CBN until last Tuesday when the Kano Prince told the Senate Committee on Finance probing the missing funds that up to $20 billion amounting to N3.3 trillion is the actual amount unaccounted for.

In his submission to the Senate Committee, Sanusi firmly argued why the $10.8 billion claim is untenable. He held that while the total crude oil lifting from January 2012 to June 2013 stood at $67 billion, only $47 billion of that amount was paid into government coffers. The CBN boss also disputed how NNPC claimed it spent the outstanding $10.8 billion which it agreed was not remitted.

Indeed, Sanusi isn’t the only one challenging how NNPC told us it spent the money. Every informed Nigerian knows that what NNPC told us it did with the money do not add up. According to the corporation, 80 percent of the $10.8 billion was incurred on petrol and kerosene subsidy while the remaining part of the sum was spent on the managing and repair of vandalised pipelines.

Their shallow explanation wasn’t even appealing to the Finance Minister who demanded: “If the money was spent on operational costs, let us see the evidence that it was spent in an authorised way. And if not, let the amount be remitted to the Federation Account.” But why should NNPC spend such money on its operational costs when that has already been taken care of by the budget? The madam should know that giving a full breakdown isn’t enough to vindicate NNPC. Else, that becomes an endorsement of impunity and a contempt on our budget.

Meanwhile, how can NNPC tell us it spent part of the money on HHK subsidy when a subsisting presidential directive issued in 2009 had barred payment of subsidy on kerosene? In the same vein, how can NNPC deceive us into believing it paid subsidy on petroleum when documents reveal that the NNPC did not make any deductions from the domestic crude sales for petrol subsidy payment between April 2012 and 2013? According to the CBN governor, document showed that within the period under review, the row for “adjustment for subsidy” consistently showed “NIL”. Pray, what then is NNPC yapping about?

Even if we believe that the entire money went into the operational costs of NNPC, how do we reconcile that with sections 80, 81, 82 and 162 of the 1999 Constitution as amended? For those sections along with the provisions of the revenue allocation act expressly state that all revenues are to be paid into the Federation Account for onward distribution to various tiers of government.

Assuming Section 7; subsections A and B of the NNPC Act backed what the state-run corporation did, shouldn’t the NNPC Act kowtow to our constitution in this instance? I think it’s high time this issue got settled once and for all. For NNPC has always claimed its operations go beyond the constitution. It will be recalled that in February 2013, NNPC insisted before the Senate Committee on Petroleum (Downstream) that it had powers to raise $1.5 billion loan from Nigerian and international lenders.

It is a common knowledge in a democracy that the constitution is the supreme law and “its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons,” as stipulated in Section 1 (1) of the 1999 Constitution. Subsection 3 explicitly states: “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail, and that other law shall to the extent of its inconsistency be void.” Before these provisions, even the power to be self-accounting which NNPC enjoys is vain.

The larger-than-life influence of NNPC must have informed the joke Nasir el-Rufai told us they used to crack about NNPC. In his words: “the NNPC was an independent federal republic on its own totally separate from and way superior to the Nigeria we all worked for!”. How convenient it is for el-Rufai to bring this up now when he failed to blow the whistle then like his ‘brother’ have now done. I’m sure if he had done that, the magnitude of attention on NNPC would have scared it from not remitting up to $20 billion. The disclosure would also have scaled down the impunity with which the NNPC conducts its transactions.

Be that as it may, Sanusi must have digested sections of the constitution relating to the use of money that should go to the Nigerian state, hence his submission: “No one has the right to retain money that should have gone to the Federation Account; so the fact that you’ve admitted retaining or withholding $10 billion is itself bad enough. This money was supposed to come in and if it came in, it would be part of our reserves and part of our excess crude savings.”

Is it still a wonder why our Excess Crude Account hasn’t been faring well or why the statutory allocations to states have been suffering shortfalls? It has now become clear that all these are happening partly because NNPC has been short changing us by not paying in to the Federation Account all that it should remit. That is why more is expected from our grumbling state governors who just appear content in complaining about NNPC’s impunity and illegality in handling oil revenues.

Warts and all, it is good that NNPC is in the eye of this kind of storm. Since those on whom the onus lies have failed to drag the corporation to the court of law, many thanks to Sanusi for dragging it to the court of public opinion. It is hoped that the corporation’s diversion of public funds will be adequately thrashed before it quits this court. Given the novel progress recorded so far (NNPC admitting it held back some funds), the corporation will surely have a rethink when next it wants to play a fast one on us. This in the main is the dividend of the trial of NNPC in the court of public opinion.

Ugochukwu can be followed on twitter @ugsylvester or reached through [email protected]