ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — Nigeria's finance minister on Monday blamed her 83-year-old mother's kidnapping on those angered by the government's decision to stop making some payments for gasoline subsidies, directly linking the abduction to a program that lawmakers have described as a multi-billion dollar scam.
After calling journalists to her office to thank the country for its prayers while her mother was abducted, Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made the claim that seems to implicate some of the country's top business and political elite. Those are the same people linked to the ruling People's Democratic Party, the party of President Goodluck Jonathan, who appointed the former World Bank official.
Okonjo-Iweala's mother, Kamene Okonjo, was kidnapped Dec. 9 from her hometown of Ogwashi-Uku in Delta State. During her time held captive, Okonjo received no food or water, her daughter said.
Instead, her abductors talked to her about fuel payments and another government program aimed at reinvesting money saved from not making the payments, Okonjo-Iweala said.
"They told her that I must get on the radio and television and announce my resignation," the minister said. "When she asked why, they told her it was because I did not pay oil subsidy money."
Okonjo-Iweala declined to take questions from journalists at the news conference. Her mother was released by her kidnappers Friday. It is unclear if a ransom was paid, though most abductions in Nigeria only end once a payment is made.
Okonjo-Iweala, is a respected economist who became Nigeria's finance minister with extensive powers last year. She was also a possible candidate to head the World Bank before losing the position to the United States' nominee Jim Yong Kim.
As finance minister, Okonko-Iweala pushed a government policy to end subsidies for gasoline in January, a decision that sparked a nationwide strike and widespread protests in Africa's most populous nation. President Jonathan later reinstated a partial subsidy.
In April, lawmakers studying the program called for $6.7 billion to be refunded by oil marketers and others associated with the subsidy plan, which makes payments to companies for bringing in gasoline and selling it at a below-market price, because Nigeria does refine enough oil to meet demand. The parliamentary report found gasoline importation licenses became a means of patronage, as the number of companies involved jumped from six in 2006 to 140 in 2011. In 2009, when there were 36 companies licensed to import, government officials once issued about $800 million in 128 transactions in a 24-hour period without proper documentation, according to the report.
Companies also won approval without any real oversight. In one case, two businessmen who made a pitch to handle waste management at the state-run Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. instead applied to become importers and got a $12.4 million contract in 2011 for fuel they never supplied, according to the report.
In recent months, Okonjo-Iweala has again said the subsidy must be entirely removed because the country cannot afford it. That has led to panic gasoline buying and fuel shortages around the country as importers have held back from bringing it in. Citizens also believe the fuel subsidies represent the only benefit they see from the country's oil production, which has benefited the nation's kleptocratic ruling class for decades, according to many reports.
Speaking Monday, Okonjo-Iweala said her mother's kidnapping would not change the government's stance.
"For marketers whose transactions are proven to be fraudulent, the position of the Jonathan government is also clear: We cannot and we will not pay," she said. "We will not back down on this. We will continue to stand firm."
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