Ministers banking big bucks

Abuja - The Nigerian government confirmed on Thursday that two senior government ministers receive their salaries in dollars rather than local currency and are paid vastly more than their cabinet colleagues, triggering a political storm as commentators and lawyers went on the attack.

Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is paid $247 000 (about R1,6m) and Foreign Minister Olu Adeniji $120 000 annually, according to a statement from the head of the civil service, far more than other ministers, who officially earn a naira equivalent of less than $10 000 per year.

Foreign bank accounts

According to the Nigerian constitution, it is illegal for public officials to maintain foreign bank accounts, although it was not immediately clear if the two ministers are indeed banking their dollars abroad.

Human rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi said he had lodged a legal challenge to the salaries at the high court in Abuja in a bid to have them cancelled and was waiting for a judge to set a date for the first hearing in the case.

President Olusegun Obasanjo's government defends the wage deals, arguing that it was necessary in order to recruit high-flying Nigerian expatriates who would otherwise have to accept a massive cut in their income if they returned from abroad to serve their country.

Okonjo-Iweala was working as vice-president of the World Bank and Adeniji was a senior United Nations diplomat before they were lured home by Obasanjo last year as he promised an ambitious reform programme during his second term.

The secretary to the government, Uffot Ekaette, said that both ministers had taken a pay cut from their former international roles and that Okonjo-Iweala had lost out on significant pension rights by leaving the World Bank ahead of retirement age.

A secondary school teacher or junior civil servant earns around 30$nbsp;000 naira (about R1 650) per month.

Meanwhile, many Nigerians argue that it is unpatriotic for ministers to be paid in dollars, and allege that in Okonjo-Iweala's case this could lead to a conflict of interest in her exchange rate policy.

It smells terribly

"It smells terribly of immorality. It gives the impression that she is not there to serve, but to eat. It is illegal and unconstitutional to pay them in dollars," Festus Keyamo, a respected lawyer, told reporters.

"The implication of this is that as finance minister, her salary is not affected by the vagaries of appreciation or depreciation of the naira. She can even advise that the naira should continue to depreciate because it favours her," Fawehinmi said.

Few Nigerians, however, believe their ministers maintain their sometimes lavish lifestyles on their meagre naira salaries alone.

As journalist Olusegun Adeniyi noted in his weekly column in the newspaper This Day, a former minister is now on trial charged with having collected far more than Okonjo-Iweala's salary in a kickback on a national ID card contract.

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