By Camillus Eboh
ABUJA – The two most powerful men in Nigeria traded harmful accusations of fraud on Thursday, marking a new low in the lead-up to landmark elections in Africa’s top oil producer next year.
President Olusegun Obasanjo sent the Senate a r
eport by the anti-corruption agency accusing his deputy of diverting millions of dollars of public funds to private business concerns.
Vice-President Atiku Abubakar responded by threatening to present lawmakers with 127 impeachable offences against Obasanjo, including milking the state oil company of funds for political activities.
“They are going for the jugular and it is going to get messy,” said Abubakar Momoh, politics lecturer at Lagos State University.
The open warfare between two giants of Nigerian politics raises the prospect of electoral chaos in a country already facing many challenges to its integrity, including an armed insurrection in the oil producing Niger Delta, religious strife, political assassinations and widespread violent crime.
The pair have been waging a low-intensity power struggle for years, which broke into the open during a failed campaign to extend Obasanjo’s tenure by rewriting the constitution.
The attempt to give Obasanjo a third term was opposed by Abubakar and was defeated by the Senate in May.
Although out of the running himself, Obasanjo is still keen to control who succeeds him in next year’s elections, which should mark the first democratic handover of power in Africa’s most populous country since independence from Britain in 1960.
The report by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission presented to the Senate details what it said was the authorisation by Abubakar of millions of dollars in payments from the Petroleum Technology Development Fund to private business concerns.
Abubakar’s spokesman Garba Shehu said the vice president would respond to the allegations in detail.
In the meantime, Shehu said Abubakar plans to ask the Senate to probe what he called 127 impeachable offences by Obasanjo including the use of “phoney accounts” for the president’s political activities funded by the state oil company.
Abubakar will also raise questions about where Obasanjo, who was almost penniless before assuming office in 1999, found the money to buy millions of dollars of shares and extensive farm holdings, Shehu added.
The vice president, like the president and state governors, is constitutionally immune from prosecution. But he could be disqualified from contesting for the presidency if he is indicted for corruption.
The Independent National Electoral Commission, which answers to the president, has said it would screen candidates for graft.
The report on Atiku, which was published in full by ThisDay newspaper on Thursday, also implicates another presidential aspirant, former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida.
Momoh said Obasanjo’s campaign to eliminate these big guns could open the way for a less visible candidate to take the ruling party ticket in elections, due to be held in April.
But it also raises the stakes in an already bitter feud between regional and ethnic blocks over whose turn it is to rule the West African giant next.
“If INEC disqualifies Atiku (Abubakar) it will create a big political problem in the country,” said Momoh. — Reuter