Nigeria: The men behind the money

By Tolu Ogunlesi in Lagos

Nigerian elections demand big bucks, and many in industry stand to gain. But despite the ostentatious televised giving sprees and cheerleader consortiums, President Jonathan may still find he’s scraping the bottom of the (oil) barrel for the funding he needs.It was the grandest of events even by the standards of Nigerian pomp and ceremony.

More than 200 of the country’s plutocrats and their political friends gathered in the Old Banqueting Hall in the presidential villa at Aso Rock on 20 December to raise funds for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP).

They simply can’t afford to take the risk of snubbing the ruling party

The tables were decked out in festive red, green and white – the party’s colours.

At the centre of proceedings were President Goodluck Jonathan, sporting his trademark fedora, and party chairman Adamu Mu’azu in a flowing blue agbada.

Welcoming his guests, Jonathan called the event a “fundraising dinner to help our party”. For good measure, he added: “as you all know, a business-friendly party”.

Such was the interest that national television channels carried a live feed.

As Jerry Gana, a former information minister turned fundraiser-in-chief, worked the room, businessmen and women stepped forward clutching cheques or promises of cash, claiming to rep- resent entire sectors of the economy.

Bola Shagaya, representing a group of oil and gas companies, contributed N5bn ($27m).

Transport and aviation companies added N1bn, while roads and construction, and food and agriculture put in around N500m each.

The single largest donor was the automobile magnate and chairman of Skye Bank Olatunde Ayeni.

“This is the time for us to show that we love our PDP and we love our president,” declared Ayeni.

He went on to announce, on behalf of “myself and my partner”, a donation of N1bn and another N1bn on behalf of “our group of friends”.

At the end of the evening, smiling broadly, Gana announced that N21bn had been raised.

It was a far more ambitious – and successful – outing than the PDP’s first campaign fundraiser in 1999. That raised only N356m, well short of its N500m target.

The bigger ambitions of today’s fundraisers, critics say, point to the huge returns on campaign contributions or political investments.

“In Nigeria today, the only trade you can do that can guarantee better returns than oil and gas and telecoms is politics,” says Jide Ojo, a former programme manager with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems based in Washington DC.

“When you hear of import waivers, fuel subsidy scams, immunity from prosecution – that’s just payback for those who have supported the cause of a [winning] party.”

Was it a coincidence that only a day before the PDP fundraiser the government announced the creation of a special bailout fund to allow power companies to pay off their debts to gas suppliers?

Greed of the ruling class

Debo Adeniran, executive director of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders (CACOL) does not think so. He says that he sees a strong connection between lavish party payoffs and corporate excess.

“Nigerians are being made to pay for the greed of the ruling class through these underhand dealings. All the companies that took money for the fuel subsidy, none have been prosecuted. Nobody is in jail – nobody in court even.”

At the Aso Rock fundraiser, some of the more interesting conversations were off camera.

There was, The Africa Report was told, quiet speculation about whether the PDP – the juggernaut of Nigerian politics since 1999 – could face defeat in the February elections.

Questions were also asked about the absence of some of the corporate glitterati. In the past, Aliko Dangote, Femi Otedola and Abdulsamad Rabiu were among the largest donors to the PDP.

In 1999, a relatively unknown Dangote donated a third of the funds raised at a party dinner for Olusegun Obasanjo’s election campaign.

In 2013, Dangote pulled in vice-president Namadi Sambo and petroleum minister Diezani Alison-Madueke to attend the launching in Abuja of his $9bn oil refinery project.

Since then, insiders say, relations have cooled.

Dangote Group adviser Joseph Makoju, who stood in for Dangote at the fundraiser, would not disclose how much the company would contribute but said there were plans for a personal meeting between Dangote and Jonathan.

Dangote is still the richest person in Africa, but his coffers were depleted in recent months as Nigeria’s naira lost value with the fall of global oil prices.

Rabiu, who, like Dangote, hails from the northern commercial hub of Kano, announced a donation of N250m at a campaign fundraiser in October 2010.

Now, he is chairman of the state-owned Bank of Industry, a key position in the array of government financing organisations.

Otedola’s absence provoked the most comment.

Known as the ‘Diesel King,’ Otedola made a fortune from importing diesel at subsidised prices for the tens of millions of generators required because of Nigeria’s chronically unreliable electricity supply.

Although a close friend and supporter of Jonathan for a decade, Otedola is critical of the government’s economic management, according to some associates.

Like many fuel importers, Otedola’s businesses have suffered since the government started cutting fuel subsidies in 2012.

Businesses are simply pragmatic, says a political spin doctor working for Jonathan’s campaign: “Most of the big companies are contributing to the PDP, I can assure you. They simply can’t afford to take the risk of snubbing the ruling party. Of course, I’m fairly sure that many of them will give something to [Muhammadu] Buhari and the All Progressives Congress as a kind of insurance policy.”

Bismarck Rewane, who heads a financial services company in Lagos, says there has been a slowly moving kaleidoscope of financiers, from generals, oligarchs, bankers and state governors to fuel importers.

Bankers say the latest big beneficiaries of the PDP government were those companies that had been awarded oil blocks or concessions to run electricity companies under a privatisation scheme.

But, for now, both businesses are problematic.

Oil companies have been hit by the halving of the world oil price, and many of the new electricity companies have picked up huge debts as snags over tariffs and gas pricing have emerged.

They may need government help as much as the ruling party in government needs them.

Despite Nigeria becoming Africa’s largest economy last year, these twists in the market may force the PDP to be more frugal.

For the first time since 1999, it did not organise costly primary elections to choose its presidential candidate.

Instead, after high-level soundings with party cadres across the country, Jonathan got the candidacy unopposed.

With the presidential nomination over with little fuss and cost, the party barons turned their full attention to building a campaign war chest.

Companies and politicians have formed themselves into rival gangs of cheerleaders, extolling their willingness to contribute to Jonathan’s campaign coffers.

They adopted grandiose titles redolent of patriotic fervour: the Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria, the Protectors of Nigerian Posterity, the Patriotic Supporters of Good Governance and, more enigmatically, the 2015 Project.

According to one of the many public relations firms hired by the PDP, these fundraising consortia compete to raise the biggest pot of cash and win over the most monied corporate bosses.

Reaching out to more than 60 million voters in 36 states and the federal capital is an expensive business.

The jostling to contribute to Jonathan’s campaign started early last year.

The most prominent group is the Transformation Ambassadors fronted by Ifeanyi Ubah, whose Capital Oil was named in the 2012
fuel subsidy scams.

The Transformation Ambassadors sponsored adverts on state television that earnestly compared Jonathan’s leadership to that of Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

It also organised nationwide rallies and a drive to get signatures endorsing the president’s bid for a second term.

In September 2014, the group announced that it had collected more than 20m signatures.

Around that time, the ruling party set up a committee to register and screen the almost 7,000 groups it said were supporting Jonathan’s bid.

Oduah’s aviation ovation

The history of the Neighbour To Neighbour (N2N) group shows the links between fundraising and political office.

In 2011, N2N was the best known and most aggressive group backing Jonathan’s presidential ambitions.

It was hugely successful in soliciting massive contributions from state and private companies, mainly due to the forceful personality of Stella Oduah, the brains behind N2N.

Within weeks of Jonathan’s election in May 2011, Oduah was appointed aviation minister, one of the most lucrative fiefdoms in the government.

There she stayed until 2013, when parliamentary pressure over her role in a car procurement scandal forced Jonathan to dismiss her.

After the president, the 36 state governors are the most powerful bloc of politicians, and their spending has risen exponentially since the return to civil rule in 1999.

At a fundraiser for Obasanjo that year, the PDP’s governors contributed N100,000 each.

At the December 2014 dinner, the state governors donated N50m each.

Jonathan’s most vocal supporters include Godswill Akpabio, who is chairman of the PDP Governors’ Forum and governor of Akwa Ibom State, Jonah Jang of Plateau State and Gabriel Suswam of Benue State.

Governor power

There is a simple quid pro quo between Aso Rock and governors’ offices: they back Jonathan’s campaign and they receive a presidential endorsement for a second term.

Only a few independent spirits such as Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi have broken away from the PDP.

Civic activists argue the political fundraising system has overtones of criminality. CACOL’s Adeniran describes the PDP fundraiser in December as “an exhibition of the high level of insensitivity and moral decadence of the ruling class”.

He adds that the donations might come from illegal financial deals. Such suspicions are backed up by the 2013 report of the Inter-Governmental Action Group Against Money Laundering in West Africa, which calls political party financing a common means of money laundering in Nigeria.

There have been calls for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to investigate political fundraising, but its spokesman Kayode Idowu says its remit is restricted: “INEC is tracking what the parties are spending so that when they reach the limit we can flag it.”

It is up to the Corporate Affairs Commission to monitor company donations to parties, he adds.

Eze Onyekpere of the Centre for Social Justice in Abuja says INEC and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission have failed to punish breaches of the laws on party funding because they lack political will.

Some of the laws seem deliberately ambiguous, too.

Current laws set a limit of N1m for individual donations to a political candidate but no limits on donations to a political party.

They also set a N1bn limit for spending by a single candidate, but there are no limits on what a party can spend.

This might explain the belated announcement by fundraiser Jerry Gana that the N21bn collected during the December dinner at Aso Rock was absolutely not for Jonathan’s election campaign but to pay for the PDP’s new headquarters currently being built by Bouygues of France. ●

 SOURCE: The Africa Report.

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