Waivers Fraud : Punch Editorial Board floors Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

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What do you do when you find yourself in a slimy hole?  Wisdom dictates that you stop digging. But for Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister for the Economy, this treasured American dictum makes no sense as far as the issue of the corruption-drenched waivers and exemptions goes. In yet another desperate attempt to defend the misuse and abuse of import duty waivers, exemptions and concessions, she pointedly singled out The PUNCH for attack, accusing this newspaper of “trivializing corruption” at the TEDxEuston forum in faraway London.

In her latest blunder, she once again faulted our insistence that import duty waivers have become, in the hands of successive Nigerian governments, instruments of massive corruption and not of economic stimulation as she claims. After “entertaining” her audience with what she called “a whole series of newspapers with their negative reports,” the minister went on, “I had an example recently of this trivialization from one of our national newspapers, ‘The PUNCH newspaper’; they claimed that a government policy where we give incentives to industries or business people to spur them to invest in the economy was a bunch of corruption.”

But if you accuse someone of lying, you must be prepared to prove it. If you are a government minister, backed by all the power and integrity that should go with the position, that onus of proof becomes double. Not our eminent minister. As she was grandstanding in London, fresh revelations were being made back home of the magnitude of the loss to the economy of the fraudulent waivers.

The minister, in her response to a 50-point query from the House of Representatives, had claimed that only N170.73 billion worth of waivers and exemptions were granted in three years. She said waivers and exemptions worth N55.96 billion were granted in 2011, N55.34 billion in 2012 and N59.42 billion in 2013.

But her figures contrast sharply with the document from the Nigerian Customs Service. The NCS had said N603 billion was lost in duties that should have been collected between January and September last year alone.  She will also need to convince Nigerians that the Daily Trust report of January 22, 2014, How Nigeria lost N1.4 trillion to waivers between 2011 and 2013, is wrong and hers right.  The report alleged that N480 billion was lost in 2011 and a similar figure in 2012. Though the NCS denied “making any accusation of corruption in the implementation of the waivers” in a newspaper advertorial, it nevertheless confirmed that “the document credited to it was presented to the National Assembly in November 2013 upon invitation of the latter to explain shortfalls in projected revenue collection.”

Significantly, her false declaration that The PUNCH “did not even look” at her published list of waiver beneficiaries is proving to be in character. Her fighting words:  “So, when the newspaper wrote an editorial and said this was corruption. We pointed out that, ‘Yes, in the past, it wasn’t good but now we have been running a different system for two years.’ They dared us to publish those who got these waivers; and guess what? Last week, we sent it to them; yes we did. But you know what? They refused to even look at it. And they continued to insist that this was excess bite of corruption.”

This is unfair and patently false. We duly reported her claims in a story, “Nigeria lost N65.23bn to waivers in 24 months,” on December 2, 2013. Yes, we insist that, in spite of her celebrated reform, the waiver regime, even under her watch, is still dogged by corruption because her flaunted list further reinforced our position. We found waivers granted to the Gombe Central Mosque in 2011 to import 13 cartons of the Koran and carpets, and waiver to the Catholic Church, Makurdi to import children’s Bibles. What is the economic trade-off in these? In 2012, the Akwa Ibom State Government got a waiver of N271.2 million for a private aircraft, while Taraba got N13.06 million for a helicopter. In 2013, Rivers State got waivers worth N2.18 billion for a Bombardier aircraft and two Bell 412 helicopters.

The minister’s propensity to defend scandals and question even credible findings is distressing. How do waivers for aircraft to accommodate the luxurious lifestyles of state governors boost the economy or create jobs? How many jobs were created by the N450.7 million waivers to massage the First Lady’s ego to host the African Women Peace Mission, an NGO? How about the waivers given to the National Sports Commission for “motor spare parts”? Or the N141.2 million to the Delta State Government in 2013 for furniture? Nigerians need explanations also for the waiver of the N5.9 million to the Maiduguri Central Mosque in 2012 and N14 million for the “Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses” to import “building materials and cabinet parts for kitchen door drawers.”

This is not all. The Customs were also cited to have reported how under “other goods,” as listed in the categories for concessions, goods such as fish, bulletproof vehicles and kola nuts were imported. How do these create jobs in Nigeria or stimulate local production? The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, Mohammed Makarfi, said the upper chamber had found that waivers were being granted for goods that had no benefit to Nigerians. He deplored the revenue shortfall of the NCS amounting to N243.69 billion in 2013 due to factors that included questionable waivers, concessions and exemptions. The PUNCH did not make up any of these allegations.

Sadly, under Okonjo-Iweala’s watch, the abuse of waivers by beneficiaries is still rampant. No one can discountenance the testimonies of the business community that has unanimously condemned the misuse and abuse of the system.

Just how deep is this cesspool? N603 billion in nine months or N1.4 trillion in three years, or N65 billion in two years or N171 billion in three years as she claims? Only our all-knowing coordinating minister has the answer. One sure clue is that she had not convincingly faulted the perverse results of the policy. But her arrogance will not allow her to admit publicly what everyone knows, including the audience of young people she addressed in the United Kingdom. The National Assembly should probe this economic rip-off.

The waiver issue will not vanish as she appears to wish. Highlighting it in the mass media does not distract from the destructive issue of corruption that has laid Nigeria low, rather, it places it on the front burner of public discourse. She does her reputation no good by continuing to defend a corrupt system and talking down at critics and stakeholders. The use of waivers here is corruption-driven and it is the responsibility of every Nigerian to put a halt to this abuse. Okonjo-Iweala cannot solve the problem as long as she continues to live in denial or to take every criticism personal. Safeguarding public finance is not about personal ego or intolerance for public scrutiny by public officials.

The grave flaw in Okonjo-Iweala’s temperament is the arrogance that makes her believe her own myth. She really thinks she is performing an economic miracle when she has done nothing of the sort as the economy is still in trouble. It is such a letdown that we are not even sure if she has any intention of getting off her high horse. Her hectoring as if she is the only one that understands the strategic economic use of waivers and concessions is rather odd and amusing.

Our waiver policy is set on the wrong course. Rather than us, it is Okonjo-Iweala that is trivialising corruption the same way she failed to confront the massive fuel subsidy fraud of 2011 before the January 2012 mass protests across the country silenced her and her specious experts.  She is up to the same bullying tactics rather than investigate the complaints of Customs, business operators, lawmakers and the media that beneficiaries routinely abuse and misapply the waivers. It is still a system driven by corruption and patronage.

As for The PUNCH, our long-standing reputation for objectivity and as champions of the anti-corruption war cannot be assailed by a temporary occupant of public office. This is our stand.

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