Akunyili: Time To Go Gracefully? – by Bridget Molokwu

In July, 2004, when Professor Dora Akunyili turned 50, the Pharmaceutical Group of the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (P-MAN) organised the biggest birthday party ever for any Nigerian in Lagos. Three former Heads of State were in attendance, as well as numerous state governors and ministers. She was then the Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Control and Administration (NAFDAC). Five years later, when her second daughter wedded in Abuja, she had become the Minister of Information and Communication, and the ceremony was televised live. Those who thought the wedding would be attended by practically the entire federal administration as a sign of stupendous goodwill were awfully disappointed. Her fantastic stock of goodwill has since depreciated. To illustrate, apart from Vice President Goodluck Jonathan and two ministers, none of Akunyili’s colleagues was at the wedding; not even the Minister of State for Information. How times change!

Worse, the erstwhile NAFDAC boss is fast becoming one of the controversial cabinet members. In the past one month, for example, she has been in the eye of the storm over an issue which borders on integrity. Eyebrows are being raised over the propriety of the whopping N8.2 billion contract she got the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to approve for upgrading the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) facilities, so that the NTA could successfully play its role as the host broadcaster of the Under-17 World Cup matches to be played in Nigeria in October.

Pundits have pointed out that the contract sum is mind-boggling. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is the host broadcaster of the 2010 FIFA World Cup matches, and it is paying far less for brand new broadcast equipment, complete with more accessories. What accounts for the huge disparity in contract sums? The explanation is that it has to do with time. In other words, unlike the SABC, which made up its mind to purchase the equipment long ago and placed the order accordingly, the approval for NTA’s new facilities came almost too late. Therefore, the NTA, according to the official explanation, was compelled to resort to refurbishing, rather than buying brand new facilities, since the latter would cost an outrageous amount. If the approval had come earlier, the national broadcaster could have obtained new facilities for a lesser amount.

But the explanation looks like one act of sheer sophistry. Was the NTA granted the transmission right in the first place, a development that could somewhat explain upgrade of its facilities at any amount a bit understandable? The answer is categorically no. The best government propagandists say about the NTA now is that it is still in the race for broadcast rights! The broadcast rights were given to the Africa Independent Television (AIT) shortly after the FIFA Vice President, Jack Warner, visited AIT’s office in Abuja where he also inspected the facilities.

To bring to an end the sponsored rumour in high places in Nigeria that the AIT has not been appointed the host broadcaster, Warner stated categorically a few days ago: “We gave the rights to AIT a long time ago. AIT has its equipment ready and what the broadcaster has is good enough for the championship. On the other hand, NTA’s equipment cannot be ready till September or October, and we at FIFA don’t work like that. We can’t take the risk of waiting till the last minute to see if the equipment is ready. We believe AIT will do a good job with the facilities they have. Even then, I hope NTA will continue to develop its facilities, too, so that they can broadcast future events”.

How did the nation come about the dangerous, costly and false propaganda that the NTA has long won the rights, making it inescapable for the nation to pay a fortune in this era of not only global economic meltdown, but also national financial difficulties exacerbated by acutely declining oil production? Who is responsible for the high profile information scam? When we add the N8.2 billion to the N13 billion the Federal Government is spending on the sporting event – to say nothing about the billions of naira various state governments are spending – it will be clear that Nigeria is spending about the same amount originally proposed for hosting the matches, which President Umaru Yar’Adua wisely refused earlier, in consideration of the country’s severe economic challenges. It is clear that if the President had known about the NTA’s huge expenditure, he would not have acquiesced to Nigeria hosting the event. By hiding some of the expenditures from him, some people in high places tricked the administration into a most expensive jamboree. Think of what the N20 billion being spent on the matches could have achieved for national development, if invested in, say, higher education or electricity, heath, roads, youth development or any other facet of our national existence today in comatose state: a classic case of fiddling while Nigeria burns.

The idea of Nigeria hosting a FIFA tournament at this critical time in our national life is difficult to defend. When nations host major global sporting events, it is generally for marketing and public relations purposes. In 1986, the Olympic Games were held in Seoul as part of the South Korean government’s strategy to advertise its newly acquired technological and economic prowess. Thus, Korean products began to flood the world market immediately after the event.

It is understandable that South Africa is hosting the 2010 World Cup. Since it ended its notorious apartheid policy and elected the venerable Nelson Mandela president in 1994, South Africa has held successful elections, remained peaceful and prosperous and has attained the status of Africa’s economic powerhouse. By hosting the 2009 Under-17 World Cup, what is Nigeria advertising to the world? The Apapa-Oshodi expressway in Lagos, the Benin-Ore Road, the state of public electricity supply, the Boko Haram phenomenon or university teachers who are on strike? Is it our various stadia built by foreign multinationals and their expatriate workers?

Whatever may be the case, the most painful aspect of the coming U-17 World Cup in Nigeria is that Nigeria has been conned to pay a colossal N8.2 billion for the mere upgrade of NTA’s facilities. More amazing is the spirited manner in which Mrs. Akunyili has been defending this scam, which is at odds with her carefully cultivated public image of transparency. Admittedly, she has become unduly controversial since her appointment as the Information Minister.

My genuine take on all this is that Akunyili should know when to leave gracefully.

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