A dispute over missing money from a science and technology fund has turned into a full-blown battle for the Nigerian presidency.
Vice-president — and 2007 presidential candidate — Atiku Abubakar has claimed that the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) was being misspent. But Atiku himself has been indicted over money missing from the fund, established by the Nigerian government in 1973 to produce skilled workers and scientists in the energy fields.
Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, as well as a formal senate-level panel of inquiry, has indicted Atiku on charges of "corrupt practice".
According to The Daily Champion newspaper, several witnesses have implicated Atiku in the fraud.
In December Adamu Waziri, former executive secretary of the PTDF, testified that Atiku ordered that the equivalent of US$125 million be taken from the fund and placed in two commercial banks, which have since failed. The money has not been seen since, according to media reports.
Atiku has denied the charges, opposed his suspension as vice-president and refused to recognise his expulsion from the ruling party.
He has also implicated outgoing president Olusegun Obasanjo in the scandal. Atiku blamed the accusations against him on his falling out with the president, claiming that Obasanio needed PTDF money to bankroll his bid for an unconstitutional third term in office.
It is not yet known whether Obasanjo will testify formally, although This Day newspaper reported that he had met informally with members of the inquiry panel.
Atiku claimed in his defense that PTDF money was being misspent on projects outside its mandate in the oil and gas industries. Among those funded are an initiative to ensure the compatibility of all communication networks in the country, another promoting computer literacy and a school science equipment project.
Science and technology minister Turner Isoun dismissed the allegation as "completely ridiculous and incorrect", reported the Vanguard newspaper. He said the fund supported science projects that worked towards achieving the UN Millenium Development Goals as well as the more specific focus of skilled staff in the oil industry.
It was hoped that the PTDF would combat the brain drain and reduce reliance on foreign expertise in the oil, gas and solid minerals sectors.