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Probing the zillions: Tale of two Nigerian Female Ministers By Kunle Hamilton

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Even scientific calculators must be upgraded to calculate the magnitude of fraud that envelopes us as a nation. I recall as a kid that the nation's annual budgets were announced in the millions by our military heads of state. Then came the billions in tens but that soon changed to billions in hundreds.

Today, our national budgets are read in trillions and that may soon be relegated to the states. It seems like our leaders are rewriting our monetary vocabulary just as fast as our treasuries are being looted. By the way, 'trillion' in the United States means “one million million dollars.” But in the United kingdom 'trillion' means “one quintillion pounds.” In figures, 1 followed by 12 zeros is called a 'billion' while 1 followed by 18 zeros is the 'trillion' or 'quintillion'. It is not unlikely that before you and I die, dear reader (sorry about this fatality) 'trillion' would no longer capture the size of our federal looting and we would have to go the 'zillion' way.

'Zillion' is decribed by an online dictionary as “a very large indeterminate number.” In a funny way, given the indeterminate nature of who is lying or not in the Farouk Lawan-led fuel subsidy probe panel report – Nigeria's buzz of the moment (is it the ministers, lawmakers, marketers or all of them - over the N1.3 trillion/ N1.67 trillion fraud allegation?) is perhaps best described as a 'zillion naira fraud'. As President of the country, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was quick to announce, through his spokesman Dr. Reuben Abati, his readiness to “act on” (not 'implement') the recommendations of the fuel subsidy probe panel led by Hon. Farouk Lawan. Both doctors are wordsmiths, so please get it right.

If the head of a family is known to judge cases brought before him after the submission of just one party, all Nigerian cultures would label such a man very wicked. In fact the Yoruba people would call him 'Agba osika' (translated “a senior in wickedness” rather than transliterated “wicked elder”). It is therefore safe to assume that Jonathan's proactive response is not a rush towards endorsing the report even if he actually thinks the probe committee did a thorough job – which have cast aspersions at while others applaud it. Jonathan said he would “act in the best interest of Nigerians.”

But from the claims and counter claims that have bedevilled the report (a stigma the House of Reps is still trying to cleanse) it must now be obvious to the president that he needs to sit back and listen some more before he acts, if he truly wants to satisfy the masses on the streets rather than the reps who live in posh places. The president needs to drop his gaze in order to see his nose - a favourite cliche. So who 'wiki-leaked' the probe report? Long before it was presented on the floor of the House, over 200 pages of the report were 'wiki-leaked' on the world wide web (www) and overzealous reps were already being quoted on newspaper pages on how meticulously they would make the president implement its recommendations, word for word – as if they owned the executive.

Why did Lawan allow his work to seep through his fingers before his colleagues could wrap their brains around it?

To be fair, the fuel subsidy probe is a healthy way to go about sanitizing the management of our national resources, but limiting the exercise to a three-year period, 2009-2011, is selective and myopic. We cannot blame Lawan for this myopia because he didn't appoint himself to do the probe, but we must look beyond the piper to discover who dictates his tunes. If in three short years spilt between the Yar'adua and Jonathan administrations, over a trillion naira is said to have been looted. How much more do you think would be uncovered if the last 10 or 20 years of NNPC's existence were probed, not minding the other areas of our national life? Zillions, of course!

Now let us look at the women in the eye of the subsidy storm – Finance and Cordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and her Petroleum Resources counterpart, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke. While the Lawan panel called them (and the Central Bank Governor, Mallam Lamido Sanusi) liars for offering disparaging figures during the probe, it has still not called them fraudsters, looters or embezzlers like it has alleged against some infamous marketers. But the probe panel wants one or both of them sacked so that big heads can be chopped off for the rot that bigger, older ministers had created long before them. Right now, Nigerians are angry and rightly too.

Professor Wole Soyinka, Pastor Tunde Bakare and others are rooting for mass protests to demand a presidential implementation of the report. I support that too because such rot in government must stop. However, Alison-Madueke is the first Petroleum Minister to call for a probe of this magnitude of the ministry in our 52-year history. Doesn't that mean something? Only Dr Olusegun Aganga as Trade Minister did something close to that by inviting KPMG and Afe Afemike & Co to do a forensic audit of NNPC and PPPRA for the period 2007-2011. It is unusual for a thief to invite his own catcher.

A Yoruba proverb confirms that it is more usual for a mischief maker to point a thief in the direction of hidden loot and then invite the loot owner on time to catch the thief redhanded. Alison-Madueke does not seem to be either. Anyone in her shoes who sits atop a cash cow ministry that is the mainstay of a country as big as ours and who in less than two years of heading it can inspired anti-graft agencies and concerned citizens to help uncover a zillion naira fraud like the Lawan report has now done should indeed be encouraged, not sacked - unless it is proven that she is a looter too. The rot in Nigeria pervades our 52-year history; let's not sack the only two women who first blew the whistle on our national rot.

Alison-Madueke's male predecessors gladly looked the other way and possibly joined in the looting of our common wealth. But this 'Diezani' whose uncommon name means “one who looks well before she leaps” dared all the racketeers that have been milking Nigeria's oil wells dry and pulled the searchlight on them. First, she invited the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to do the job before the lawmakers hijacked the probe, and then she set up special task forces to help clean up her ministry. The Lawan probe panel may not have done a perfect job, but only a convicted thief would try to discredit its report in its entirety.

Unlike many other panels before this one, the entire House of Reps ought to be applauded for demanding that most of their recommendations be implemented by the president – as long as the country is the better for it. We are tired of probes that go nowhere. Their finicky debate of the report that reframed and approved 62 of the initial recommendations of the Lawan panel as well as gave a two-week window to the marketers that didn't get a fair hearing under the Lawan panel, was spot on. Okonjo-Iweala cannot be rubbished by charlatans who may never smell world acclaim like she has done quite a few times in her life.

She was rated the 'best man' for the job of World Bank president before America's might and global politics gave what should have been hers to President Barack Obama's candidate, Jim Yong Kim. If nothing else, Nigerians should be proud of having such an icon in government who is willing to swim in the murky waters of our socio-politics in a bid to join hands with those who truly want to win our collective war against this endemic corruption. Unless both women are evidently caught stealing public funds – like James Onanefe Ibori's – calling them thieves or demanding their sack is a disservice.

Instead they should be given a sporting chance to re-engineer their corners of the economy for national progress, where their male predecessors have failed woefully. Think about this; it just might be the long term looters of our common wealth who keep assaulting these women's integrity just to get them removed so that they can keep raping the nation unfettered.