By COMRADE AREMU
Obasanjo never hid his disgust for General Sani Abacha who had jailed him for a phantom coup. Released from jail and still wallowing in a fit of new found spirituality, he wrote a book and called it. The Animal Called Man. And he elected to wage a battle on this Animal Called Man. While taking his oath of office at the Eagle Square on 27th May, 1999, he had pledged to wrestle corruption out of our national psyche. In a fit of mediaeval triumphalism, he chanted: there will be no sacred cows!
But his first attack was a disaster. No sooner had he made that declaration than he dispatched Mallam Haroun Adamu to the headquarters of the Petroleum Trust Fund (PTF), an intervention agency run by General Muhammadu Buhari, to start the war on corruption. Haroun Adamu’s public brief was to wind down PTF but the hidden one was to disgrace General Buhari by exposing the shady deals in PTF.
Contractors working for PTF were used to picking their cheques across the counter without much ado. Under the new inquisitor, contractors discovered they now had to oil their cheques out, something alien to the PTF they knew. They cried foul. And there were several other fouls after the first foul. To say that Obasanjo was thoroughly embarrassed by his minions would be an understatement, so much so that till date he does not discuss PTF in public.
As a General, it would appear that Obasanjo read Sun Tzu’ s The Art of War upside down. Sun Tzu had counselled: Know thyself; know thy enemy. You will fight a thousand battles without defeat. The blitzkrieg he deployed only showed he did not know PTF. He might not have needed to fire a shot to win or wean PTF. To date, most Nigerians knew how PTF started, what it did but not how it ended. Not known as one who forgives, was it not surprising that General Buhari walked the streets with his head high throughout Obasanjo’s imperial majesty when the fear of EFCC was the beginning of political wisdom?
In October 1994, General Sani Abacha increased the pump price of petrol from N3.25k to N11.00 per litre. Nigerians assailed him with criticisms for this unpopular move and to assuage their feelings, he quickly established the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund to use a portion of the proceeds of the increase to intervene in critical sectors of the economy. Nigerians never took Abacha seriously on this project until Gen Muhammadu Buhari was announced and inaugurated the chairman of the PTF in March 1995. That PTF awarded contracts worth billions of naira is not news. The news the PTF made within the four years it existed was and still is that contracts awarded were executed to their logical conclusion and for those not executed, the PTF got every kobo back. Before PTF, contractors were used to abandoning contracts and bolting away with their advance payments. It never happened in PTF. When Buhari visited the Onitsha end of the Enugu-Onitsha express way awarded to a local contractor and discovered the job was abandoned, he simply called on the bank that guaranteed the contractor to pay back. There and then, the contract was terminated and later awarded to another contractor. From that moment, banks and insurance companies that provided bonds to contractors learnt that the old order had changed and had to monitor projects it guaranteed.
For the years it existed, PTF published its annual reports and always addressed press conferences to respond to issues arising from the reports. And each time it did, it challenged anybody who could deliver on any of its projects at a price cheaper than what it cost the PTF to submit his proposal. Nobody ever did.
In one of the presentations of its annual report, the Executive Secretary of the Board of the PTF, Chief Tayo Akpata, maintained that the roads constructed by the PTF not only cost less than World Bank funded roads but were also better qualitatively. He challenged anyone to prove the contrary. Until the PTF was scrapped, nobody did.
While the PTF existed, contractors never needed to lobby and grease palms to get LPO’s. You only needed to belong to the appropriate group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria and other professional groups to qualify. Not a few contractors received requests to supply the PTF in the comfort of their offices. It was so unbelievably true that some had to travel to Abuja to reconfirm if the LPO’s they received were genuine. And genuine they were.
To be paid for a completed contract, all the contractor needed was to present a certificate of completion issued by the ubiquitous consultants engaged by the PTF and his cheque would be prepared. And with a proper letter of introduction, a contractor could send a third party to pick his check across a counter in the Finance Department without any ceremony. One cannot also forget in a hurry the PTF drug revolving scheme. Under this, the PTF set up offices in hospitals across the country and supplied them with drugs. The financial consultants employed by the Fund ensured that receipts from the sales of the drugs were used to replenish the stocks in an unending cycle that banished out-of-stock anthem the Nigerian public were forced to listen to before then. And it was not easy to divert PTF drugs to the parallel market. The smallest tablet supplied had PTF logo engraved on it. Somebody attempted diverting the drugs and was caught. General Buhari took up the case personally and ensured the culprit went to jail. After that, nobody heard of diversions again.
The strategy of the PTF in procuring these drugs is worth reviewing. Over 60% of the drugs supplied to the PTF were locally produced. In fact, the PTF only imported drugs that could not be produced by the local pharmaceutical firms. The pressure on the existing pharmaceutical companies was so much that almost all these firms had to increase their capacity by expanding and employing more hands. Neimeth Pharmaceuticals, Emzor Pharmaceuticals among others can be contacted to affirm or disprove this. This policy was deliberately made to ensure that more jobs were created within the economy. Builders who built for PTF would also tell you that they were not allowed to import paints. There was a list of all the paint manufacturers in the country maintained at the PTF from which builders bought paints. Within the same period, the capacity utilisation in these companies soared as they expanded and created more jobs. A look at the records kept by IPWA plc and other existing paint makers within the period under review is worth attempting to digest the profundity of the PTF intervention in the building sector; and other sectors it intervened in as its model was so overarching that critics labelled it the alternative government.
This column is not enough to put in a proper perspective the job General Buhari undertook and did while in PTF but it suffices through this glimpse to understand the mindset and the strategy of this maelstrom which the ruling elite hate for his forthrightness – a quality in short supply in governance today.
One can cite the number of roads and hospitals rehabilitated by the PTF. One can also quote the billions it spent. The essence of the PTF, however, lies more in the multiplier effect its intervention had on the economy as a whole than in the number of what it did, which on its own was equally impressive. This distinction is what differentiates growth from development. While the former is quantitative, the latter is qualitative. As a political economist, I know that the economic development of any third world country lies in qualitative transformation.
Before the coming of PTF, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida had introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) which he had claimed had no alternative. The revered economist, Professor Sam Aluko, had also reminded him that economics was a science of alternatives; that even death had an alternative which was life and that SAP was a kiss of death. IBB was to acknowledge the failure of SAP when out of frustration around 1991, he exclaimed that the Nigerian economy had defied all known economic theories and was surprised that the economy had not collapsed.
The economy did not collapse. The PTF intervention ensured it did not. This was the lesson OBJ failed to grasp when he dissolved the Fund with executive fiat in 1999. As at 1997, funds available to the PTF was about N115 billion and Nigerians could point at projects the fund was expended on. A decade after PTF, the governments from OBJ’s to date had spent much more than that in the power sector alone and have not been able to generate even a megawatt more of electricity.
Managing public funds is serious business. General Muhammadu Buhari was fond of telling contractors on visit to sites: If you perform well, you get a handshake. If you perform badly, you get a handcuff. This is the mantra we need at this historical juncture. The man that incarnates this mantra out of the available presidential candidates is General Muhammadu Buhari.
There is also a lesson to be learnt from the day Buhari left PTF. Obasanjo, on assumption of office, announced the setting up of the interim management committee led by Mallam Haroun Adamu to wind down PTF. The following day, Buhari addressed a press conference and invited the new management to immediately take over. He told Nigerians that everything the new management needed were in the records to which they would have unhindered access. He bid his staff farewell, descended the stairs, literally jumped into his four wheel drive that took him home to Daura. He never stepped into that premises again to this day. And he never fled the country to escape the EFCC.