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Time to Reclaim Nigeria - By Chido Onumah

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I have been following the 'Occupy Movement' across the world and I must say I am impressed. What started as a small band of protesters on Wall Street in New York a few weeks ago, has grown into a global movement against the current exploitative

 social order. It is growing bigger every day, incorporating community and religious groups, labour unions, students, and youth organisations.  

As an internationalist, I stand in solidarity with the protesters everywhere. It was inevitable that sooner rather than later 'free market' capitalism, another name for corporate greed and brutal exploitation of weaker nations, the working people and toiling masses would face this kind of onslaught. Alas, history seems not to have ended! And the   'free market' ideology which has reduced a huge percentage of mankind to poverty is headed for the trash can of history. I have always believed that a new, better, and more humane world is possible!

I was ruminating over the 'Occupy Movement' and the options open to us as Nigerians when I read what to me was perhaps the most brazen attack on the psyche of the Nigerian people and the soul of the country. As Nigerians, we have become inured to reports of corruption or wanton waste of public resources. And this certainly was one of the many acts of sleaze that go on in the country everyday in the name of governance. But this is different. This is one scam that was devious in conception and contemptuous in execution. If there was any doubt that government in Nigeria is a massive conspiracy of those in power to rip off Nigerians, this scam has cleared that doubt.

We have Sahara Reporters to thank for this awakening. To think that no national newspaper or media outlet has deemed it necessary to investigate or report on this scam is a damning indictment of the media in Nigeria. Did I hear some say 'occupy our newsroom?. Well, that is something for another day. Our focus is on the atrocious behaviour of a regime that preaches anti-corruption and transformation, but everything it touches reeks of corruption.   

The government's latest misdeed has to do with the sale of a piece of land reportedly belonging to Nigerian Telecommunications Limited ( NITEL). It involves the Presidency, the Attorney General of the Federation, Mohammed Bello Adoke, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and a 'businessman' Alhaji Abubakar Aliyu (boss of AA Oil). Full details of the story are on Sahara Reporters ( ), but I shall attempt a summary here.  

A few years ago, a piece of land belonging to a government agency, NITEL, and valued at N8 billion then, was sold to Alhaji Abubakar Aliyu by the Yar'Adua regime at less than N1 billion. When President Goodluck Jonathan came to power, his administration , through the Attorney General of the Federation and the CBN bought back the same land for N17.5 b illio n . The Central Bank of Nigeria, which was used as a conduit to buy back the land said it bought the land to build a 'world class conference centre'.

The report noted that all those involved in the transaction benefitted handsomely from the deal. In a sane society, this scandal is enough to bring down the government. But this is Nigeria. We may wake up to even bigger scandals tomorrow. After all, the embattled former speaker, Dimeji Bankole, reportedly bought the official house of the speaker for N45 million and put the house for rent to his successor, Aminu Tambuwal, for N40 million.

This same house was allegedly refurbished by Bankole's predecessor, Patricia Ette, with over N400 million, while Bankole himself spent over N600 million ($40 million) in   refurbishing the house. A t the rate Nigeria's rapacious ruling elite is going, not only will they sell Aso Rock, the seat of government, they may just put up the country for sale one day. Of course, it is not likely that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) will take up this case because its origin is public knowledge.  

Ordinarily, it wouldn't have been necessary to be alarmed by this deal; after all, this is not the first report of sleazy deals associated with this government. What was irksome though was the rejoinder by the CBN on the land scandal. In a   tacky response through Mr. M. M. Abdullahi, CBN's Head of Corporate Communications, the apex bank sought to pour salt on our injury in its attempt to 'put the record straight and to avail (us) of the truth about the said transaction'. If anything, the rejoinder proves the authenticity of the report by Sahara Reporters.

Details of the CBN's rejoinder are also on Sahara Reporters ( ), but here is a summary. According to the CBN, ' when the idea for a befitting Conference Centre in Nigeria was muted (sic), the issue of an ideal location became paramount. Hence, when Messrs A. Group Properties Limited approached the CBN and offered to sell the plot of land and the existing (uncompleted) structure, the CBN expressed interest in the property offered because of its location and suitability for the proposed project'. The CBN engaged two 'registered and reputable estate surveyors' to evaluate the property and advise the CBN on the market value of the property. After due negotiations, A Group Properties Ltd agreed to sell the property to the CBN at the cost of N17.5bn as against the company's original asking price of N22bn. Part of the CBN's responsibility in this transaction was to help Alhaji Aliyu clear his debt at Skye Bank.

There is no better way to appreciate the monumental fraud that took place here than to capture the feeling of Nigerians who have responded to the report. I crave the indulgence of readers who are justifiably outraged to reproduce these responses.   Perhaps, Mr. President, the Governor of CBN and the Attorney General of the Federation would address the issues arising. Let me say from the outset that I don't think the ' culprit' here is Alhaji Aliyu. My take is that the government needed some slush fund for 'personal' activities, including electioneering, and it didn't know how to spirit that kind of money from the CBN without raising eyebrows. So the idea came that there was a land to be bought and the CBN was used as a conduit to pay for the land.

Now to the matters arising: Why should the building of a conference centre be of concern to the CBN? Why should the CBN distract itself from its statutory duties of financial and economic regulation of the economy and be chasing land? If the CBN needed land for 'a world class conference centre', why did it not approach the government for a free land? And if it was the government that needed land, why did it involve the CBN in the evaluation and purchase? If the land cost N17.5 billion, how much will it cost to build the conference centre? Was this N17.5 billion appropriated by the National Assembly? How much is the CBN budget for a year and was the purchase of land for almost N20 billion part of its budget?

Who effected this huge appropriation: the CBN, the federal government, or the Ministry of Justice? Who mooted the 'idea for a befitting conference centre in Nigeria'. Was it the CBN, the Presidency, or the Attorney General?

Did the Presidency send Messrs A. Group to the CBN? Why would Messrs A. Group Properties Limited approach the CBN and offer to sell the plot of land? How did the company know that CBN was looking to buy land? Is this deal not comparable to the deals that sent rogue bank executives to jail? Is it the responsibility of the CBN to help its 'client' settle its debt with Skye Bank? Why did the CBN buy a land with an uncompleted structure when it knew what it wanted to do with the land? The uncompleted structure which undoubtedly would be demolished by the CBN for its world class conference centre would have been taken into consideration in fixing the value of the land.

Someone has reminded us that the 2011 budget of Ebonyi State is N60 billion and a CBN official is defending the purchase of a plot of land for N17.5 billion. It is simply mind-boggling to say the least. In a country where there are no functional hospitals, good roads, reliable electricity or potable water, it is amazing that the CBN has this sort of slush money to spend on land. Imagine what N17.5 billion will do for our e ducational and health institutions that are in utter decay.

It is not likely that all those mentioned in this land buy back deal will step forward to tell Nigerians the truth. We are used to elite conspiracy. It is the same conspiracy that is about to play out with the planned removal of the so-called fuel subsidy. The government has gone on a propaganda offensive. A few days ago, a faceless organisation, Mass Interest Project (MIP) took out four pages in Thisday newspaper to explain the benefits of removal of subsidy.

For an oil producing country like Nigeria, the truth is that if our refineries are working, there is no need for the government to 'subsidise' fuel. Our government exports crude oil and imports refined petroleum products. It takes money from the treasury, purportedly to cushion the effect of the high cost of imported petroleum products. Much of that money goes into private accounts. The so-called removal of subsidy means that there will be   a bigger bounty for our ruling elite to play around with.

Former petroleum minister, Professor Tam David West, has described the fuel subsidy claim as ' orchestrated fraud '. There is no better way to portray it. Clearly,   a lot of injustice is being perpetrated in Nigeria in the name of democracy and governance.   But then again, power belongs to the people as Tunisians, Egyptians, and now Libyans have demonstrated. It is not too late to reclaim our just portion of the new world order through mass action.