by Karlmax

WHEN, in 1994, the late General Sani Abacha, invited former Head of State, Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari to serve as head of the newly created Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund (PTF), the latter gave one condition for this acceptance: He must be given the title of Executive Chairman, and he must have a free hand to run the Fund as he saw fit, without any interference from anyone.

The PTF was itself a child of controversy. Abacha had, in 1994, increased the price which Nigerians had to pay for petrol, diesel and kerosene. The Nigerian populace vehemently opposed the hike, both because the increase was exorbitant, and because most Nigerians were certain that the windfall from the price hike would find its way into the hands of a few highly placed Nigerians.

To assuage this fear, Abacha summoned Gen. Buhari from retirement, to administer a new Trust Fund into which all excess income from the price increase would be paid, and from which the Fund would intervene in critical areas of the economy in such a manner as to directly benefit ordinary Nigerians. Buhari's main qualification was that he was considered to be both a strict disciplinarian and an incorruptible man. And he was for this reason expected to ensure that the fund was properly used, and that it would not become another avenue from which public funds were simply carted away by a handful of well-placed Nigerians. That was the expectation. But the reality, in the end, was a story of massive and cynical looting of the public treasury.

How the Fund became a funnel

Gen. Buhari was Executive Chairman of the Petroleum (Special) Trust Fund from its inception in 1994, to its disbandment by the Obasanjo administration in 1999. According to the report of the Interim Management Committee, which was set up in that year to investigate the affairs of the Fund, the total income accruing to the Fund from mid-1994 to July 1999 was in excess of N181 billion. There were six major areas in which the PTF intervened directly during the period. They were: roads and waterways; supply of educational materials and rehabilitation of educational infrastructure; food supply; health; water supply; and what was curiously termed other projects.

The management structure of the Fund was so capricious, from start, as in retrospect to suggest that the executive chairman was far more impressed by his position as an alternate Head of State, an Interventionist Czar who was answerable to no one, not even the Head of State himself, than anything else. First, he unilaterally appointed a single consultant, Afri-Projects Consortium, as the sole adviser to the Fund. Then he delegated virtually all his powers to this agency. Afri-Projects Consortium was given the exclusive power to initiate projects, assess their probable cost, approve the costs, execute the projects, and assess the quality of execution, all alone. The Consortium's decisions could not be questioned by anyone outside the Fund. Even the statutory members of the Fund's Board of Trustees found themselves helplessly watching as huge sums of money were paid out for questionable projects. And not surprisingly, the three professional management firms recruited by the Interim Management Committee to audit the performance of Afri-Projects Consortium came up with the unanimous conclusion that APC had over-charged the Fund for its services to the tune of over N2 billion.

APC directly managed the HIV/AIDS Intervention Programme of the Fund. Its managerial incompetence was found to be staggering. It knowingly imported sub-standard, poorly packaged, poorly stored, expired, or soon to expire treatment kits and drugs. And in the end, the auditing firms that investigated APC's performance concluded that it had cost the government N579 million by stocking huge silos of useless drugs and kits, purchased at inflated prices.

PTF's intervention in other areas of the health sector was equally atrocious. For instance, under the supervision of the omnipotent APC, PTF purchased large quantities of spectacle frames which were at the time costing only N800 a piece locally, for N1,900 a piece. This cost the public treasury over N45 million in inflated charges.

Ambulances whose going price at the time was N3 million each were found to have been purchased for N13 million each, leading to a loss to the treasury of N900 million.

PTF, through APC, purchased general drugs at the cost of N3 billion. The Interim Management Committee's consultants concluded that the Fund had been cheated by as much as N1.5 billion through inflated charges, and because most of the drugs had already expired before they could be safely used.

The Interim Committee's consultants also discovered that PTF had decided, without approval from the government, to build a residential estate in Wuse, Abuja, a project which was clearly outside the scope of its intervention mandate. The project purportedly cost PTF N703 million. But the consultants concluded that a realistic valuation of the project could not exceed N328 million. The project cost was inflated by more than 100 per cent, at N375 million.

In virtually every other area of PTF activity, three separate consultants engaged by the Interim Committee, and working independently, concluded that there had been massive fraud or criminal mismanagement of funds belonging to Buhari's empire. The Headquarters Extension and Renovation Project of the PTF cost the Fund N461 million. The consultants determined that it should not have cost more than N326 million. The Fund had been defrauded by N135 million.

The PTF had three main bank accounts. The independent consultants concluded that the Fund had been short-changed by as much as N3.6 billion by way of short payment of interest accruals from deposits, or excessive charges on Cost of Turnover by preferred banks.

The Rural Water Supply Scheme was another funnel from which huge sums of money were siphoned away. The independent consultants determined that as much as N1 billion was recoverable from inflated costs and mobilisations for work that was never done. They discovered, also, that the Fund had lost as much as N900 million in the Educational Materials Supply Scheme, through inflated charges and non-performance of contracts duly paid for.

The Rural Telecommunications Development Scheme was another such scheme from which money was cynically carted away by favoured clients. The scheme was designed in two parts: a Pilot Phase, and the Main Phase. The Pilot programme was intended to determine the viability of the project. But this did not deter PFF, under Gen. Buhari, to award contracts for the main programme to the tune of N1.6 billion, without any contracts signed, and before any conclusions could be drawn from the Pilot project.

It is a horrendous story of criminal negligence, cynical fraud, and unprecedented disregard for all civilised standards of prudence and transparency in the disbursement of public funds. In the end, the independent consultants concluded that of the N181 billion that accrued to PTF in the four and a half years of its existence between July 1994 and July 1999, as much as N25 billion was either stolen or improperly expended.

The great man's defence

Sources from within the PTF Interim Management Committee assert that when Gen. Buhari was invited to comment on the findings of the committee's consultants regarding the conduct of the empire over which he presided, he coyly retorted that he was not aware that such massive fraud went on his watch, but that in any event, he could not have benefited personally from the hideous purloining of the treasury. .

That may be true, but it does not detract from the fact that he delegated to this outfit the sole and exclusive power to initiate projects, assess those submitted by other companies, approve variations on contract sums, and determine the quality of work done. He also, by his own admission, according to our sources, approved in writing all recommended payments from the Fund. But he did not know, he claimed, that those to whom he had delegated virtually all his powers were stealing the country blind. And no one has a right to call him to account, since to do so would be to question his famous reputation.

Former president Shehu Shagari was kept in jail for nearly one and a half years by Buhari, and almost lost his sight, when Buhari seized power on December 31, 1983, not because he was found guilty of any criminal offence, certainly not for abuse of his office. Shagari's only crime, it appeared, was that Buhari was convinced that the buck stopped at his desk, for as President, he had to pay vicariously for the purported crimes of his lieutenants. Umaru Dikko, Shagari's ubiquitous Minister of Transport, almost died in a crate, contrived by Buhari, that was en route from London to Nigeria, where he no doubt would have suffered worse than Shagari's fate. Some state governors were jailed for 200 years and more, because they could not account for how they spent their security votes (which were often no more than N20 million).

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