By Chido Onumah
Controversial Minister of Petroleum Resources, Mrs. Diezani Allison-Madueke may be the main casualty in the planned cabinet reshuffle by President Goodluck Jonathan ahead of his first anniversary on May 29. Presidency sources say it is the President’s way of reassuring Nigerians of his commitment to fighting corruption. The President has come under severe pressure from his inner circle to drop Mrs. Allison-Madueke because of the controversy surrounding her. The President, sources say, is disposed to the recommendation but does not want to act on it immediately so as not to be seen as acting under pressure from the public.
Mrs. Allison-Madueke, a former executive of Shell Petroleum Development Company, was appointed Minister of Transportation in July 2007, charged with the responsibility of over-seeing the maritime, aviation, railways, and road infrastructure of the country. Following a cabinet reshuffle in December 2008, she was appointed Minister of Mines and Steel Development in which she held the primary responsibility of discharging the ministry’s mandate in the exploitation of the nation’s solid minerals and steel endowments. After a cabinet dissolution in March 2010, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke was appointed Minister of Petroleum Resources in April 2010, putting her in charge of Nigeria’s vast oil and gas resources.
Controversy has dogged the minister who is seen as a member of the inner circle of the Jonathan administration. Dubbed the “queen of bling” (jewellry) because of her penchant for high fashion and jewellry as well as her close ties to US-based jewellry merchant, Chris Aire, Mrs. Allison Madueke was the subject of a Senate probe in June 2008 after it emerged that as transport minister she had paid 30.9 billion naira ($263 million) to contractors between December 26 and 31, 2007. She was never charged or tried for these allegations and has strongly denied any wrongdoing.
In October 2009, the Senate indicted her and recommended prosecution for the alleged transfer of 1.2 billion naira ($8 million) into the private account of a toll company without due process and in breach of concession agreement. The minister said she was innocent. No legal action was instituted against her.
Investigative reporter and managing editor of Premium Times, Musikilu Mojeed, in a report last year titled “Oil minister, her jeweller and their sweetheart deal” made startling revelations about Mrs. Allison Madueke. According to Mojeed, “On April 7, 2010, a day after her appointment as minister for petroleum resources, Diezani Allison-Madueke flew to Beverley Hills in Los Angeles to revel in a lavish party and fashion show put together by Christopher Aire, a United States-based Nigerian celebrity jewellry designer and merchant, whom she met during her 15-month tenure as minister for solid minerals and steel development. By the time the bejewelled Mrs. Alison-Madueke returned home a few days later to assume duties as Nigeria’s first female oil minister, she had achieved three clear objectives from the trip – she had unlimited fun, acquired some of Aire’s exotic gold and gemstones, and handed Mr Aire an invitation to become one of Nigeria’s biggest crude oil lifters. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“At the time, the 47-year-old Mr. Aire had nothing whatever to do with the oil business. His company, Solid 21 Incorporated, dealt strictly in jewellery and timepieces. Those close to him said Mr. Aire was content with his jewellery business and had no plan to venture into Nigeria’s murky oil waters. But all that changed after his meeting with Mrs. Alison-Madueke that fateful April 7. As the minister was flying home, Mr. Aire also kick-started the process of registering brand new companies with which he planned to lift Nigerian crude. On July 9, 2010, the jeweller incorporated Siseno Oil Nigeria Limited, with him and one Patience Iluobe (believed to be his relative) as directors, to carry out the business of petroleum products sales and distribution.
“Twelve days later (July 21, 2010), Mr. Aire, through his agents, headed again to the Corporate Affairs Commission, where he incorporated another firm, Caligeria Oil Limited, also for the purpose of conducting petroleum products sales and distribution. This time, one of his US-based companies, Osiri Holdings, Ms. Iluobe, and one Otaigbe Onyekwere Agba, were named as directors. Mr. Aire also proceeded to incorporate a US version of Caligeria with himself, his bodyguard, Joseph Agbi, and Jivani Davoodian, a Californian lawyer, as directors.”
It is not just allegations of shady deals that have trailed Mrs. Allison Madueke. She has also been in the eye of the storm politically. Last June, an association of unemployed youth held a protest calling for her re-appointment as Minister of Petroleum Resources. Just last week, she was accused of renting a crowd of protesters to stop the debate at the National Assembly in Abuja on the fuel subsidy fraud. The protesters in Abuja were given police protection while protesters in Lagos calling for government action on the subsidy report was dispersed by the police. Under Mrs. Allison Madueke, nobody knows how much oil Nigeria produces, how much is consumed locally or exported. There are also no exact figures of the level of fuel import and how much the country makes from the sale of crude oil.
Many individuals and groups, including at least one member of the House of Representatives, Mr. Robinson Uwak, (PDP- Oron Federal Constituency, Akwa Ibom State), the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Save Nigeria Group (SNG) led by Noble Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and Pastor Tunde Bakare have called for the dismissal of the petroleum minister after the House of Representatives probe found out that between 2009 and 2011, the government made illegal payments of about 2.7 trillion naira ($18 billion) for fuel subsidies. The committee described the subsidy regime as “fraught with endemic corruption and entrenched inefficiency”. It noted that more than 10 companies obtained foreign currency under the subsidy programme and didn’t use the funds to import petrol while the state Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) gave approvals to 35 companies to import products before they were formally registered with the agency.
The House of Representatives had asked the anti-corruption agencies to investigate and prosecute former ministers of finance, Mr Mansur Mukhtar (2009-2010); Mr Olusegun Aganga (2010-2011), who is now Minister of Trade and Investment, and former Accountant General of the Federation (AGF) and current governor of Gombe State, Alhaji Ibrahim Dankwambo; the present AGF, Mr Jonah Otunla, and the Director-General of the Budget Office, Dr Bright Okogu, for an alleged extra-budgetary expenditures under the Petroleum Support Fund (PSF) scheme. A member of the House Ad Hoc Committee on Subsidy Management, Dr. Ali Ahmad, had alleged that companies owned by past and serving governors, ministers and top politicians were involved in the fuel subsidy scam.
The Save Nigeria Group on Monday gave the Federal Government a two–week ultimatum to prosecute persons indicted in the fuel subsidy probe. ‘‘The populace should be ready for another determined march on corruption. Nigerians must be prepared to march and come out en masse and demand a termination to this insolence against the ordinary people,” Soyinka said at the press conference called to announce the group’s plan. According to Bakare, “Now is the time to act to save our country from the grip of corruption. To this end, we are giving two weeks to see concrete steps in the direction of prosecuting the indicted officials, failing which, we shall be calling our people out on protest.
Nigeria’s four refineries have been comatose over the years necessitating the importation of refined petroleum. Even though many public commentators and experts, including former petroleum minster, Professor Tam David West, and renowned petroleum engineer, Dr. Izielen Agbon, repeatedly said that there was no subsidy on imported petrol and what the government was subsidizing was corruption and inefficiency, the Jonathan administration, after a spirited campaign spearheaded by the Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mallam Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, and Mrs. Allison Madueke, went ahead on January 1 to remove the so-called subsidy on fuel. That decision occasioned intense hardship across the country as price of basic food items and transportation sky-rocketed. That decision also sparked a week of strikes and protests, forcing the government to put the price of petrol at 97 naira a litre from 65 naira after it was raised to 141 naira on January 1.
The January protests have been termed the largest and most successful public protest in Nigeria because of its appeal and nation-wide spread. The activists who led the protests said the government should fix the country’s oil refineries and tackle corruption.
President Jonathan has faced internal and external problems since assumption of office on May 29, 2011, including allegations of corruption, poor management of public infrastructure, and rising violence. Only last week his national security adviser, General Patrick Owoye Azazi (rtd) accused his party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) for being responsible for the violent insurgency in the country. Azazi had blamed the PDP”s “politics of exclusion and the do or die attitude” of the leaders of the party for the deteriorating security situation in the country.
There are plans to give the embattled minister of petroleum resources a soft landing if eventually she is dropped. There are murmurs of a possible diplomatic appointment. It is left to be seen how the planned cabinet reshuffle will affect the government’s handling of corruption and change the public perception of the Jonathan administration.