The Fraud Called Clean Cookstoves - by Greg Odogwu

There cannot possibly be anything as troubling as the fact that some of our leaders are trying so hard to confuse Nigerians and take us on a tiresome bus ride to nowhere. To be more specific, what transpired at the Presidential Banquet Hall, last Tuesday, where Vice-President Namadi Sambo presided over a short ceremony meant to commence the distribution of the purported 750,000 units of eco-friendly cooking stoves and 18,000 wonder bags procured by the outgoing administration, can only be described as abracadabra.

Sambo, who represented President Goodluck Jonathan, was billed to commence the distribution of the items to rural women who were pencilled down as the beneficiaries of the scheme, but the Vice-President merely unveiled a few of the items on display.

According to one telling media report from journalists who covered the event, “On arrival at the venue, Sambo cut the tape and was conducted round the tables on which a few of the stoves were displayed and left almost immediately. No beneficiary was present at the hall which was dominated by officials of the Ministry of Environment.”

Did I hear that no beneficiary of the much taunted “people-oriented” project was on the ground to receive even if it is one stove, as symbolic offering of the project?

With the type of controversy surrounding this obvious white elephant, one would have thought that the outgoing administration would disabuse the mind of sceptical citizens by showing in all transparency how the project is moving right from the contract award to the distribution. It is already six months since the Federal Executive Council approved the purchase of N9.2bn worth of clean cooking stoves and wonder bags for rural women under the National Clean Cooking Scheme, and yet, there is nothing to show to Nigerians apart from a few sample stoves on an event table.

Ironically, a few days ago, the Minister of Environment, Mrs Lawrencia Laraba-Mallam, was reported to have challenged Nigerians and journalists to come to the unveiling event to see the procured cookstoves. In that news report, the minister was perceptibly full of fury for those journalists she said “kept writing lies” about the project without coming to verify the actual facts from “myself and the Permanent Secretary.”

So, having read that report (by Daily Trust of last Monday), I was so sure that the unveiling event was going to be a huge truth-telling event in order to prove to the so-called lying reporters, and environmental activists, that they had been wrong all along. But, alas, it was business as usual! A few stoves were displayed to show, or is it confuse, Nigerians that the environment ministry and the Federal Government have done a great job.

Therefore, it is obvious that this is another waste of Nigerian people’s money. It is N9.2bn flushed down the toilet. How can we know the so-called rural dwellers that will receive the imported stoves?

To start with, the cost of the project was budgeted on a very wasteful procurement plan. Effectively, what the government did was use the people’s money and buy energy efficient cookstoves at the rate of approximately N12,000 per stove. Meanwhile, the same stove of the same quality and durability is sold for N4,000.

At the inception of the project, I wrote in this column that this project would effectively do two damage: Close the emerging market for energy efficient cookstoves in Nigeria as the entrepreneurs in the sector are shoved off their turf; and erode people’s confidence in the nation’s ecological efforts as the stoves are now seen not for what they are, but as campaign gifts to be torn down by the opposition and misused by the (handpicked) beneficiaries – who would automatically see it as their share of the national cake.

Today, these two have happened. The Nigerian clean cookstoves manufacturers are shouting on top of their voices over the project. They are not happy that the government has taken a thriving and eco-friendly business off their hands. Secondly, the group set up to come up with a model for the distribution of the cookstoves is now confused on the right path to toe. Most of them see it as an opportunity to share the national cake, and because of this, they are no longer thinking green; they are thinking political patronage.

And the sad part is that this is absolutely unnecessary. If the government had thought through this rash plan and the mad rush to share stoves, it would have utilised those billions of naira for more sustainable and job-creating green plans. N9.2bn is more than enough to start a government-owned factory to manufacture clean cookstoves.

Last year, the Kenyan government launched its eco-cook stove national factory, which employs 300 Kenyans and shall supply 3.5 million stoves in the next 10 years. They are now manufacturing the stove from scratch in Kenya; nothing is imported. Ironically, the amount for setting up the factory is 500million Kenyan Shillings, an equivalent of N1bn.

In any case, I think the most important issue here is that nobody counted the stoves that have been procured by the government so far. And this is the key to transparency. Having accused journalists and activists of many sins, the outgoing minister would have allowed them to count the stoves in order to clear all doubts.

In the Daily Trust report I earlier mentioned, the Ministry of Environment said that the procured stoves were stored at the Abuja National Stadium. That was the reason I got the impression that the unveiling ceremony would be at the stadium in order to actually “unveil” those stoves packed at the site.

Meanwhile, it gets more confusing when the details of the execution of the project clearly differ from what Nigerians were told at the onset of the programme. In a recent report filed by the News Agency of Nigeria, the Managing Director of Integra Renewable Energy Services Limited, the beneficiary of the contract, Mr Boma Young-Harry, said the company had supplied over 120,000 gas cylinders and 12,000 ecostoves to the ministry. Nobody told anybody about gas cylinders before now!

In another development, the Secretary of the company, Mr Clinton Biragbara, stated at the third stakeholders’ meeting on clean cookstoves monitoring and financing, in Abuja last week that the company had not been able to import wonder bags from South Africa because it had not been able to get import waiver as promised it by the ministry. Hmmm, did I hear waiver?!

This is disturbing because of the obvious rot in the waiver bazaar that has trailed our financial system and which is a signpost of the rent-seeking rot in our ailing economy.

Nevertheless, the upside to the whole sordid affair is that Nigeria is evolving rapidly. The people can now ask questions and the government will answer; or at least put up an act to suppress the fact that they are rattled by the demand of the people. The way I see it, whistle-blowing shall soon become part of our national modus operandi.

In fact, thinking about the whole affair, we cannot help but realise that, had it been that this project was left to be prosecuted like other government projects shrouded in secrecy, we would not have seen any stove at all, not even the few shown to us on that table at Aso Villa.

Interestingly, when some Nigerian youths initiated that revolutionary resource-tracking project known as Follow The Money, it seemed they would soon hit the brick wall of our socio-political reality tainted by ingrained corruption. But today, it is obvious that the brick wall is cracking, and soon it shall give way to a New Nigeria.