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Deconstructing Diezani: Why Alison-Madueke is the most powerful woman in the country (YNaija Long Read)

by Wilfred Okiche

Diezani K. Alison-Madueke - World Economic Forum on Africa 2012

There are a number of theories about why DAM remains untouchable by the GEJ administration, even in the face of countless compelling reasons for the former to step aside. Her closeness to the president is unrivalled, and there have been rumours of a familial or romantic connection.

From the moment she was appointed as Nigeria’s first female Minister of Petroleum Resources, it was clear that Diezani Alison-Madueke was going to have a rough ride. The petroleum sector, an all boys club for most of its history, is the life blood of Nigeria’s economy. Contributing about 14.4% to the country’s total rebased GDP, and oiling its vicious political machinery, the sector is so critical and valuable that former president Olusegun Obasanjo acted as his own Petroleum Minister for the 8 years of his presidency, trusting no man (or woman) to head the ministry.

New kid on the (oil) block

Obasanjo gave way to Yar’Adua, and the latter’s untimely death led to Goodluck Jonathan’s ascension to the Presidency. In its roughly three-years of existence, the Yar’Adua-constituted Federal Executive Council had become toxic, having been caught up in the events surrounding the late president’s illness and eventual death. Thus, newly appointed Acting President Jonathan swiftly dissolved that cabinet and instituted a new one. Alison-Madueke was confirmed as Nigeria’s new Petroleum Minister within months. Such a high profile appointment for a woman was unheard of in the country’s tumultuous history. Naysayers quickly swooped in, attempting to take down the one to whom President Jonathan had handed the keys to the oil kingdom. However they found in her a worthy and far superior adversary.

To understand the sheer wattage of power that the Petroleum Minister wields, one only needs to recall her appearance at this year’s Senate Committee hearing on the alleged unremitted sum of $10.8 billion by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Beautifully clad in fine ankara fabric and adorned in gleaming jewellery, Alison-Madueke cut a polished but disturbing figure as she was grilled by the Ahmed Makarfi-led Senate Committee on Finance. The NNPC’s claim that it spent 80% of the unaccounted funds on subsidy payments for kerosene was countered by suspended Central Bank governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s submission that kerosene subsidy payments had been terminated by President Yar’Adua in 2009.

Nigerians watched in incredulity as Alison-Madueke, with supreme confidence and a subtle air of superiority, attempted to explain why the kerosene subsidy payments went on in spite of a presidential memo dictating otherwise. The oil minister announced that she was not compelled to stop making payments because the directive was not gazetted, and hence had no backing from the law. Petroleum industry watchers were unsurprised by the outcome of this inquiry, as the NNPC, which Alison-Madueke directly supervises, has a long-standing reputation of corruption and lack of accountability. What grates, however, is that the institution’s current leadership has no desire to attempt to prove otherwise. And for all the many accusations and indictments trailing her character, Alison-Madueke remains a favourite of the presidency, having been neither prosecuted in a law court nor sanctioned by her boss, the president.


A lady of firsts

Notwithstanding her foibles, the strongest critics of Diezani Alison-Madueke (‘DAM’, as she is referred to informally) would be hard pressed to disagree that she came into public service eminently qualified after an impressive run in the private sector. Upon her return from the United States, she joined Shell Petroleum in 1992, starting out in the estates segment of Shell’s operations and rising through the ranks to become the first female Executive Director of Shell Petroleum Development Corporation in Nigeria.

This streak would trail her into the public sector, where she became Nigeria’s first female Minister of Transportation. Although her stewardship in the Transport Ministry was less than stellar, DAM was ‘promoted’ to the highly lucrative Ministry of Petroleum after a brief stop at the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development. She became the first female Petroleum Minister of Nigeria – and by extension, an Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nation – in 2010. In this capacity, she was the first female head of an OPEC country delegation to the annual OPEC Conference. In 2013, DAM was electedAlternate President of OPECat the 164th meeting of the OPEC conference in Vienna, Austria despite protests back home from Nigerians. An anti-corruption coalition group comprising over 150 organizations put together a petition demanding her removal, saying she was “unfit and undeserving of that international position and should not be allowed to pollute the integrity of OPEC”.

“I don’t think I’m controversial; I think the position is,” she once told the Financial Times. “You can never win with this thing. If you take a hands-off approach, they say you are not doing your job. If you try to move for transformation and reform, you get the highest kind of pushback in any sector.”

All the king’s (wo)men

It was president Obasanjo who started the trend of employing a host of leading ladies in his cabinet; women who he trusted to get the job done without recourse to whoever’s ox was gored. Between the years 1997-2007, Obasanjo introduced the country to the formidable foursome: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Obiagaeli Ezekwesili, Dora Akunyili and Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke. Each minister came with sterling credentials and zeal to right a compromised system. By allowing an enabling environment and creating political protection to smoothen their reform processes, Obasanjo provided a solid platform for these women reach for the stars.

President Jonathan, upon assumption of office, went further by placing women in charge of more critical ministries such as petroleum, ICT and aviation. They became an essential part of the new power bloc, but even among these women who fuelled the engine that ran the economy, the Petroleum Minister topped the list. When a cross section of politically savvy Nigerians is sampled on the question of who the most powerful woman in the country is, Alison-Madueke’s name comes up nearly every time.

The reason is simple.

President Jonathan is married to a formidable woman, and while she often meddles in state affairs which do not concern her, Mama Peace’s title of First Lady is strictly ceremonial and does not carry any constitutional weight. Stella Oduah, a firm favourite who acted as bag lady for Jonathan’s presidential campaign was reluctantly eased out, following an indictment for the aviation agency’s purchase of two bullet proof cars at 255million naira for her official use.

Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a heavyweight in her own right, and is perhaps single-handedly responsible for any credibility that the Nigerian government currently enjoys in the international community. Her recent listing as one of the most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine is further proof that much of her influence may indeed be exerted outside the country and not within. She may have the ear of the president, but as proved by the $10.8 billion unremitted funds scandal, when it comes to matters of the deliberately and frustratingly opaque NNPC’s oil dealings, and how they drive the economic and political space, she is way out of her league. Okonjo-Iweala seems to know this too, as she has tired of furtively defending a government that is evidently soft on corruption.

A source close to Aso Rock insists that in spite of Okonjo-Iweala’s fervent claims to the contrary, she actually submitted a letter of resignation to President Jonathan earlier this year. It was promptly rejected. “She wants to go,” the source said, “but Jonathan won’t let her.”

The last – and perhaps strongest – link in this feminine cohort is Alison-Madueke. Currently the longest serving minister in the federal cabinet, she sits atop the nation’s oil wealth, guarding it jealously and determining who gains access to the nation’s wells. A native of the Bayelsa creeks, she knows the game and plays it well. Mr President trusts her implicitly and she has earned this trust. With an election year close by, no one expects that Jonathan will upset the political equation by letting her go.

The untouchable

Alison-Madueke’s public service career has been copiously littered with one scandal after another. Shortly after she was appointed Minister of Petroleum in 2011, the now defunct NEXT newspapers, in a series of award-winning investigative reports, revealed that she had back-dated her year of graduation from Howard University by 5 years, leaving employers with the impression that she had some post-graduation work experience.

NEXT also reported widely on the minister’s unchecked excesses and corrupt practices which she aided, abetted and in some cases instigated, using undue advantage of her office. During her stint as Mines and Steel Minister there were sweetheart deals with Nigerian-born international jeweller Chris Aire, who had no previous oil and gas experience, to lift sweet crude via his briefcase companies. She was also accused of the fraudulent assignment of prospective rights in lucrative oil blocks, selling the federation account short in the process.

A 2011 KPMG forensic report on the NNPC – which she and the state oil corporation stubbornly refused to co-operate with – uncovered monumental sleaze and corruption in almost all aspects of the petroleum sector. With revelations ranging from illegal deductions of state funds to sharp business practices such as the violation of OPEC’s recommended oil quota, and failure to remit billions of naira to the state, everyone involved in the management of the nation’s oil wealth came off tainted.

That wasn’t all. As Transport Minister, a senate probe revealed DAM paid an illegal N30.9 billion to contractors within the last 5 days of 2007 to rehabilitate the Benin-Shagamu expressway. By the time she left office, the road remained as she met it. The senator Heineken Lokpobiri led ad-hoc committee on transportation in 2009, indicted and recommended her for prosecution for the alleged transfer of 1.3billion naira into the private account of a toll company, Digital Toll Gates without due process and in breach of concession agreement.

She has denied the bulk of these charges, mainly with half-baked and barely plausible defences, but in a society that allows too much power at the centre, there is hardly a law court in the country that is capable of prosecuting Diezani Alison-Madueke. Not while president Goodluck Jonathan is in power, at least. Even the principled Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, former chairman of the now weakened Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), whose Petroleum Revenue Special Task Force was set up by the federal government to recover oil revenues, found his committee facing a credibility crisis after the minister was indicted for handing out at least three of seven discretionary oil licenses that did not account for $183million in signature bonuses.

In an unsurprising twist, President Jonathan, at the last presidential media chat, put up a spirited defence of his oil minister when quizzed about her latest private jet expenses. He queried the intentions of legislators, accusing them of doing more politicking than law making and wondered aloud why the minister had been invited to as many as 200 sittings since her appointment.

There are a number of theories about why DAM remains untouchable by the GEJ administration, even in the face of countless compelling reasons for the former to step aside. Her closeness to the president is unrivalled, and there have been rumours of a familial or romantic connection. Others claim that she was appointed to secure unfettered access to the oil coffers for the president’s election campaigns and as such, she has been accused of shaking down oil marketers through the Petroleum Price Regulating Agency (PPRA) in exchange for oil import licenses to raise funds for the president’s 2011 election campaign.

No shrinking violet

For every scandal that has hit the carefully coiffed image of Allison-Madueke, she has fought back with equal measures of aggression, mostly out of the public eye. Whenever there is a fresh round of accusations (and it seems that there is always one), DAM’s quietly efficient PR machine swings into action. The signs are unmistakable: articles written and published by unknown journalists singing her praise to the high heavens and pointing out the progress of the oil sector under her leadership, as well as sponsored ads in national dailies, taken out by obscure coalitions with names like South-East Youth Consultative Forum. There are also the foreign media profiles casting her as the brave amazon who is taking on the Herculean task of cleaning out the notoriously messy oil industry and struggling,  against all odds, to pass her much delayed Petroleum Industry Bill, even as she is checkmated at every step by a mysterious “cabal” who feed fat at the expense of Nigerians.

Her mistrust for the local press is palpable, and she rarely grants interviews or speaking engagements. On the rare occasion that she does, there is an obstinate refusal to answer the hard questions. Legislative summons are received with disdain, and sometimes her appearances materialize only after she has been threatened with contempt summons.

For all that she is said to be, DAM is not afraid to get her hands dirty, as her political enemies tend to meet their waterloo in interesting ways. NEXT has gone to the place in the clouds where failed newspapers go, although its woes are due to ineffective management rather than any external interference. Farouk Lawan, chair of the House of Representatives committee which investigated the payment of fuel subsidies, was publicly disgraced and discredited after being caught on tape accepting bribes from billionaire oil magnate Femi Otedola (who just happens to be a close ally of the petroleum minister). There is also the case of Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, the now suspended CBN boss, who was hustled out of office following allegations of financial misconduct.

Sanusi, a former ally, had threatened to blow the lid on funds unremitted to the federation account by DAM’s NNPC. Of all the victims of ‘Hurricane Diezani’, he has been the most outspoken, telling the New York Times in an interview following his suspension that bank chiefs who may have been laundering oil money went straight to DAM after he resolved to open their books to trace the missing funds. From that day, he claims, he became a marked man.

The Economist observed thus; “Tellingly although Mr Jonathan chose to suspend Mr Sanusi on obscure grounds, he has supported Diezani Alison-Madueke the oil minister and a close ally in the face of more serious allegations. Replacing her would send a strong signal that he was serious about fixing Nigeria’s oil industry”.

 “Let them eat cake”

It is clear to all that President Jonathan has no genuine interest in fixing the oil industry. Following his aborted subsidy removal scheme, most industry probe panels have had their reports unimplemented, even as government has continued to pay lip service to the PIB which is currently languishing in legislative limbo. Meanwhile, DAM continues to revel in executive excesses and remains oblivious to the plight of the ordinary Nigerian.

Marie Antoinette, the notorious queen of France is widely credited to have uttered the phrase “let them eat cake” during a famine which left her subjects unable to afford common bread to eat. DAM’s Marie Antoinette moment occurred over 200 years later, when long fuel queues returned to Nigeria’s filling stations after a period of respite. Obviously still smarting from the government’s failure to end the subsidy regime, DAM stated maliciously while addressing journalists, “We cannot eat our cakes and have it. We cannot keep calling out for transparency and accountability and pointing at corruption if we are not prepared to bear the hardship that will obviously come when you are trying to clean up a sector.”

The oil minister who is known for coolly delivering condescending quips in response to tough questions often comes across as arrogant and insensitive. During a legislative committee appearance as Transport Minister, DAM, in an attempt to explain why road repairs were not completed, responded, “my hands are tied” as a result of the late passage of the budget for that year.

Only last month, investigations revealed that she spent 10billion naira to charter and maintain a private jet for her personal and official use. According to the house committee conducting the probe, another jet (a Global Express XRS which costs the nation about 136million naira monthly to maintain) was uncovered. It is indeed hard to see the problems of Nigeria while flying at such luxurious altitudes.

Mommy dearest

Away from her unattractive public career, Alison-Madueke has been able to successfully build a stable and rewarding family life. Born Diezani Agama to an influential nuclear family whose patriarch was one of the first senior Nigerian officials to be employed by Shell Petroleum, a 39 year old Diezani married Admiral Alison-Madueke, a one-time chief of naval staff and military administrator of Imo and Enugu. The former naval chief had lost his first wife after a surgical operation. He met Diezani and two and a half months after, both were joined in a ceremony conducted at her parent’s church.

The newly wedded Diezani immediately became mother to 5 adolescents. In her own words, “The children and I grew, fought and loved as a family and today we have all bonded well.”

This bond was tested during the 2012 Occupy Nigeria protests against the removal of fuel subsidy. Pictures of her step-son, Ugonna Madueke, surfaced on the internet, portraying him to be living a lavish lifestyle in the United States, partying with stars in luxurious digs and hopping on private jets from one city to another. This painted an unwholesome picture against the backdrop of his stepmother’s gospel to the Nigerian populace of sacrifice and trust in government prudence. In a swift rebuttal, the younger Madueke penned an open letter describing the photos as mischievous and misleading. Repeatedly referring to DAM as mother, he submitted that the pictures were released to embarrass and portray the family as insensitive to the plight of Nigerians.

The previous year, at a well- attended ceremony in Lekki, Lagos state which featured musical performances from heavyweights D’banj, Wande Coal and Duncan Mighty, Alison-Madueke gave her step-daughter’s hand in marriage to the latter’s Haitian sweetheart. Her only biological son is an adolescent of 14 years.

She straddles the fine line between corporate excellence and cosy family life and told Boss Africa magazine as much. “I expect every woman to try to make her home a very inviting and comfortable haven for husbands and children to return to daily, no matter what it takes, otherwise their personal success as women won’t be complete,” she said.


Do you hear the people sing?

As all love-hate affairs go, Nigerians have a conflicted relationship with DAM. Enraptured by her physical beauty and impressed by her achievements in the corporate world, her arrival into government was greeted with considerable applause. However her performance in office has made her a divisive figure, eliciting extreme reactions among industry watchers. Her widely reported stunt of breaking down and shedding tears during an inspection tour of the deplorable Benin-Ore expressway endeared her to many. Her protests that she did no such thing fell on deaf ears, and for some she instantly became the queen of hearts.

This is why it is difficult to reconcile that Diezani – who looks as fetching in workstation overalls as she does in native attire – with the current power crazy, profligate, private jet flying bully who assaults public sensibilities with her superior air and palpable indifference to the plight of ordinary Nigerians. Stanley Azuakola, executive editor of political online website, The Scoop, says, “DAM is someone that Nigerians wanted so badly to believe in; especially after she shed those tears, but her actions and record in government have not exactly endeared her to the common man.”

It seems that though her already battered reputation takes constant fresh hits, she continues to rebound without as much as a bat of an eyelid. Gbenga Obadara, chairman of the Senate Committee on Privatization, said of her after the fuel subsidy probe, “She ought to have resigned honourably as a decent person… not because she is guilty but from the series of revelations coming from the probe, she is not innocent.”

Resigning would be admitting complicity, however, and Alison-Madueke has stated times without number that she is innocent of everything. This is why there isn’t much hope on the streets for a comprehensive outcome to the current legislative probe of her private jet expenses. “It has happened before; the cycle is tiresome,” says Victor Adegoke, an estate surveyor from Lagos state. “They bombard us with these startling revelations, she is indicted, and nothing happens, committee is later found to be compromised, she walks scot free. I don’t even bother myself anymore,” he says.

It is therefore highly likely that DAM will get through this current travail like she has countless others, in spite of the increasing hostility towards her. Already, presidential spokesperson Doyin Okupe has announced that the presidency has no interest in probing her latest private jet drama, as the allegations have not been substantiated and GEJ has practically absolved her of all her sins.

Her capacity to rebound, second to none in the current administration, is almost intimidating. No one man or woman should have all that power, but when that person is Diezani Alison-Madueke, all bets are off.

All hail the queen.

– See other long read pieces HERE

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