NIGERIA’S Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, says that the federal government spends a total of N3.5 million every month to feed Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), also known as the Shi’ite Islamic sect.
Mohammed made this claim while addressing State House correspondents after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) on Wednesday, a video clip of which was captured by Oak TV and has gone viral on the social media.
“The issue of where he (El-Zakzaky) is, let’s keep it off record, (but) it costs the federal government about N3.5 million every month to feed him,” Mohammed said.
(Mr Rotimi Amechi by his side was overheard jokingly saying he too should be taken in. He continued by saying he can go in for N500,000K).
“Honestly, these are the facts. I asked, I asked,” he insisted. “We don’t want to inflame passion because this is a very sensitive matter, but that is the situation.”
While this is not a fact-checking report as The ICIR is not privy to the information that may be available to the Minister, this is rather an attempt to juxtapose Mohammed’s claim side by side with available facts and try to make sense of it.
El-Zakzaky, together with his wife, was arrested and taken into custody on December 15, 2015. This means that they have spent about 34 months in detention. And if Mohammed’s claim is anything to go by, the federal government has spent about N119 million on their feeding.
Another fact is that the Federal High Court, Abuja, had ruled that the continued detention of El-Zakzaky and his wife without trial was unconstitutional and a violation of their fundamental human rights. The court ordered the Department of State Service (DSS) to release them and also asked the federal government to pay them N25 million each in damages, as well as provide an accommodation for them in any Northern State of their choice.
The Muhammadu Buhari-administration has prided itself as a very prudent government. However, if the information by Lai Mohammed is to be taken seriously, then it does not appear federal government has been that prudent in the case of El-Zakzaky.
If the government had complied with the court judgement and released El-Zakzaky and his wife, it would have paid the couple N50 million only in damages, and perhaps, another N5 million maximum to secure accommodation for them, and that would be it. Deduct N55 million from the N119 million purportedly spent so far in just El-Zakzaky’s feeding (asides medical expenses), and the government would have saved about N64 million, which could have been used for other government programmes.
What is Zakzaky being fed?
Regardless of the fact that the Nigerian currency has depreciated in recent times and currently exchanges at N305 to one US Dollar at the official market, and about N360 per dollar at the parallel market, N3.5 million remains, no doubt, a huge amount of money.
So, assuming Lai Mohammed is right, and El-Zakzaky actually consumes food worth N3.5 million every month, what could he possibly be eating?
According to figures by the National Bureau of Statistics, a bag of rice, Nigeria’s number one staple food, sells for about N18,000 in the open market, and a kilogram of yam sells for N280. Therefore N3.5 million would purchase about 194 bags of rice or 12,500 kilograms of yam.
A live cow sells for between N100,000 and N300,000, depending on size, according to prices gotten from online shopping platforms, meaning that N3.5 million can purchase between 12 and 35 cows.
Who can eat all that in one month?
Reactions on social media
Of course, many Nigerians, including some core Buharists (as supporters of President Buhari refer to themselves) believe that the information minister was not being very factual. At present, the name ‘Lai Mohammed’ is the number one trending issue on Twitter as many continue to bare their minds on the minister’s latest controversy.
“So I saw Lai Mohammed during an interview saying (the) Buhari (administration) spends 3.5 million in feeding El-Zakzaky monthly. Please are they feeding the Man with gold rice and diamond beef? They’re keeping him in custody as their leakage for siphoning funds,” tweeted Zain Ameen.
Another Twitter user wrote: “N30k is enough to feed a family of 4 for a month.” – Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour & Productivity. “It costs FG N3.5m to feed ElZakzaky for a month.” – Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information & Culture. These people don’t value us.”
Yet another tweet from a handle with the username Concerned Nigerians read: “It costs the Nigerian government N3.5m per month to feed ElZakzaky. – Lai Mohammed. Dear Lai Mohammed, there’s a valid court order that says Zakzaky should be released. Why wasting taxpayers’ money feeding a man that should be fending for himself?”
The federal government has launched a number of campaigns against “fake news” and the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, has been the major driver of the campaigns. However, many have expressed concerns that some of the minister’s remarks are hardly believable. This was captured in a short tweet by one ‘Kellz’ who asked a question on Thursday: “Do people still believe Lai Mohammed?”
Oak TV Apologises
The Ministry of Information and Culture posted a tweet on Thursday, claiming that Oak TV has apologised and “regrets” the “error in its reporting regarding a conversation with the Minister of Information.
The letter of apology by Oak TV also stated that “all the team members involved have been sanctioned”.
It is not exactly clear what error Oak TV was referring to in its apology letter, but Premium Times is reporting that Lai Mohammed had made the remarks off the record, hence it would be ethically wrong for Oak TV to have made the information public.
But it is also morally and professionally wrong for a government official to give misleading information to journalists in the guise of being off the record.