FAAC AND THE N450B DEBT: LEST WE CELEBRATE IN VAIN
I have observed how over the years the general attitude of Nigerians towards corruption or perceived corruption has transformed from repulsion and revulsion to attraction. Or how else can one explain the rise in the number of corruption cases that are reported daily in the media in spite of the much talked about war against corruption that the various administrations often declare on the menace? Bothersome as this trend has become already, it has begun to progress from mere attraction to outright celebration.
We saw this celebration of corruption element in the case of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mrs. Patricia Etteh.
The corruption case against her was so celebrated that in the frenzy Nigerians lost touch with the facts of the case, overwhelmed by the cries of "crucify her, crucify her!" Etteh was, in a manner of speaking, crucified. But barely a year later after the dust of the celebration had settled down, the facts began to emerge and it became clear that she had been "crucified" for a corrupt act she intended to commit, but did not actually commit.
A curious form of celebration of corruption came to the fore last year at the height of the Sanusi Lamido Sanusi-led banking sector reform. After the sack of the Managing Directors of the "sick" banks, it came to light that some of the loans that were drowning the banks were insider abuse-related. Then the celebration started. In the heat of the celebration, every debt owed to a bank became a crime and every loan obtained from a bank became corruption. Both fake and genuine businessmen were hounded for ‘non-performing loans’ which at that time became another name for corruption. But several months later after the tide of celebration had begun to ebb and people had begun to feel the negative impact of the criminalization of loans in businesses and the economy, Nigerians began to raise questions as to when it became a crime for one to take a loan or owe a bank.
Now, what do all of these have to do with N450 billion debt the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is said to be owing the Federal Government or the Federation Account Allocation Committee? Though none has directly accused NNPC of committing a crime by owing the Federal Government, a similar trend of celebrating corruption is discernible in the way newspapers have been celebrating the news in their editorials. Since the Minister of State for Finance, Mr. Remi Babalola, disclosed the decision of FAAC to get NNPC to commit to a payment plan for the N450b debt some weeks ago, the media has been agog with reports, editorials and commentaries on the issue, celebrating what they perceive to be another case of corruption. Some even interpreted it as a confirmation of "the rot in NNPC", since President Goodluck Jonathan had earlier ordered a probe of the Corporation’s books. For most people, the simple arithmetic is that Mr. President’s directive to the Minister of Finance to appoint a world class audit firm to audit NNPC’s accounts plus Babalola’s call on NNPC to present to FAAC a work plan on how it intends to pay the N450b debt equals monumental corruption in the Corporation. For them, this calls for celebration.
And as the celebration gathers momentum, reason is thrown to the winds in the frenzy. No one wants to draw from the experience of the recent past that has shown clearly that a debt is not a crime, neither is it an act of corruption. No one wants to know how the debt came about. Not even the explanation of the Minister of State for Finance that NNPC has been saddled with so much responsibility with regard to the payment of petroleum subsidy to such a level that it is hemorrhaging to death has made any difference. Babalola’s explanation that the Federal Government owes NNPC much more than the Corporation owes FAAC was deliberately ignored. Some even went to the ludicrous level of insinuating that the Minister of State has been ‘settled’ by NNPC to hold brief for it.
But before we get carried away by the celebration, it is fair to get an understanding of the issues involved in the N450b debt, lest we be found to have celebrated in vain. The N450b was part of the money realized from the sales of Crude oil that NNPC was supposed to have paid into the Federation Account. But it could not pay the money into the Federation Account because at that time, more money was needed above what was budgeted for to sustain crude oil production activities to ensure that cash flow into the Federation Account does not dry up as a result of the attacks on oil production facilities by militants in the Niger Delta.
It would be recalled that in 2007 through 2008 when the militants’ activities peaked in the Niger Delta, crude oil production was threatened and cut short to an unprecedented level. This naturally led to increase in the cost of production as the risks rose. As the cost of production spiraled above what was budgeted, the extra cost had to be paid one way or the other to ensure that production in the wells that were not shut in continued so that the nation would have crude oil to sell to guarantee in flow of revenue into the Federation Account. NNPC made payment for the extra cost from proceeds from crude oil sales and paid the balance into the Federation Account as stipulated by the Constitution. FAAC’s argument over the years is that NNPC over-stepped its bounds by paying for the extra cost of production without recourse to it since the law says that all proceeds from crude oil sales less what was budgeted for cash calls should be paid into the Federation Account. It is that extra cost of production that amounted to the N450b debt the Corporation is said to owe.
It stands to reason that had NNPC not intervened the way it did, production would have grounded to a halt and nothing would have accrued to the Federation Account for sharing at the end of the month. But FAAC does not see it that way. It insists that NNPC over-stepped its bounds by taking money from the proceeds of crude oil sales to pay the extra cost of production brought about by no fault of the Corporation. It does not matter if the action of NNPC was beneficial to the entire country and that without that action there would have been nothing for the Commission to allocate during those days of crisis in the Niger Delta.
Rather than allow this matter to drag on, NNPC has agreed to pay the debt. But it is hampered by another burden foisted on it by the Federal Government – the burden of paying petroleum subsidy to petroleum products importers to avert fuel scarcity. Till date, the Federal Government owes NNPC the sum of N880b in this regard.
This amount is aside of other expenses the Corporation undertook on behalf of the Federal Government like Pipeline security costs which amount to N113.34b, Energy Security costs which amount to N99b and other payments on behalf of the Federal Government and the Power Holding Company of Nigeria which amount to N63.55b. All these debts owed the NNPC which have been verified by the Ministry of Finance and other relevant government agencies amount to N1.156tr. This was the amount Babalola referred to when he said Federal Government owes NNPC far more than what the Corporation owes FAAC. If the Federal Government pays what it owes the NNPC, the Corporation can conveniently pay off its N450b debt and still have a balance of N705b.
The Minister of State for Finance understands these issues. He tried to explain them to members of FAAC and the Nigerian public. But because of our special love for celebrating corruption even where none exists, we have chosen not to listen. The few who have listened have chosen not to understand, or deliberately misunderstand what the Minister has said.
The truth, however, remains that at the end of the day when the dust of the celebration has settled, we shall all wake up to the reality that there was really no corruption to celebrate in this matter. And we would have celebrated in vain. Shall we ever learn? Someday, maybe!
Ben Ekori, a management consultant and public affairs analyst, writes from 5, Barthust Street, Wuse 2, Abuja.