12th August, 2010
It appears Nigeria is entering what could be called a period of insolvencies.Â That may surprise you, coming so soon after all the talk of multi-billion dollar budgets and junkets â€œto cheer up the boysâ€ for the now-ended football World Cup in South Africa.
Many Nigerians cannot understand this new vocabulary of insolvency because they still swear by the gospel, preached in the 1970s by the then military head of state General Yakubu Gowon, that Nigeriaâ€™s problem was not money but how to spend it.
The first government entity to be hit by this financial crisis was the national petroleum corporation, which manages the countryâ€™s 2m barrels a day crude oil production.
Even at a depressed $50 a barrel in very bad times, the corporation would net a handsome $50m (about Â£31.7m) every day of the year.
You may then understand the shock when a junior minister said last month that the corporation was flat broke.
My friend, it was no joking matter. Within hours of his comments, Nigerians were asking, where has all the money gone?
The nation may be ranked among the most corrupt by its detractors – and they are many – but siphoning all that money would be beyond even Satan.
The Federal Executive Council wasted no time giving the answer everybody wanted to hear: The petroleum corporation was far from being broke – its accounts were entered in indigo blue!
Then, billionaire industrialist Aliko Dangote petitioned the government over alleged mismanagement at the Nigerian Stock Exchange, suggesting that it was heavily in the red and investorsâ€™ funds were being meddled with.
The exchange promptly issued a statement giving a picture of robust health. But Mr Dangote was not just another member of the exchange – he was president of its council and his word therefore could not be dismissed lightly.
The Securities and Exchange Commission responded by launching an investigation into the affairs of the stock exchange but it also sacked Mr Dangote, his council, and the chief executive of the exchange last week.
Yet the biggest worry is that the government itself could become broke because of the uncontrollable greed of the legislature.
This concern has been raised by none other than former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Mr Obasanjo says the legislators have become a financial burden on the nationâ€™s lean purse. He is worried about something many of us have been bothered about for many years, that is, how much it costs to maintain each member of Nigeriaâ€™s Senate and House of Representatives.
Like most Nigerians, the ex-president can only guess. He says he believes it is about $1.7m a year per senator. A representative takes slightly less.
There are 109 senators and 360 representatives in the National Assembly. The bulk of the money they take is described as â€œconstituency allowanceâ€, a payment received by each legislator to maintain a constituency office and to launch an economic or infrastructure development programme.
The outrage is that this and other allowances are determined by the legislators themselves and paid in bulk by the government into the coffers of the legislature for disbursement to individuals. There is no independent audit of this expenditure.
Law professor Itse Sagay says Nigerian politicians are among the highest-paid in the world.Â A columnist in the Lagos newspaper The Punch calculates that, â€œmore than 70% of national income now goes into paying salaries and allowances of political office holdersâ€.
The legislators, irrespective of parties, seem to have become vampires on the nationâ€™s democracy, and there is little or nothing Nigerians can do about it.Â The constitution allows legislators to do what they are doing and only they can amend the document, unless, of course, as the frustrated lawyer, Ben Nwabueze, pointed out last month, some revolutionaries emerge to clean up the system forcefully.
Now, you may need to think twice before condemning impoverished illiterate voters who demand money for their ballot when electioneering campaigns begin later this year. Their votes may be irrelevant to the results.
â€¢ Sola Odunfa wrote this piece for the BBC.