By NBF News

Since he was released from prison barely three months ago, after serving a two year term of imprisonments alongside the then Chairman of board of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Chief Olabode George and two others, Architect Aminu Dabo who held sway as Managing Director of the cash cow agency had kept off public appearances.

He had reportedly told journalists shortly after their temporary release from the anti-graft gulag, pre-trial, that the incarceration was a sort of 'training as part of leadership requirements'. That was before it probably downed on him that he was actually jail-bound. Unlike his Chairman, the famed Lagos Boy whose release was turned into a political carnival by the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) which he served as its National Vice Chairman, South-West, Dabo would rather quietly tend to his private businesses (or whatever was left of them), shuttling between Abuja and his Kano base.

But one major public event took place in Lagos last week which the Kano-born renowned architect could probably not resist: NPA was rebranding its rested house journal, Nigerian Ports Today, and the occasion provided a veritable platform for the incumbent Managing Director, Omar Suleiman, to invite virtually all past heads of the agency for a 'family meeting' which was strategically packaged in the form of a public lecture, on the way forward for the ports authority. And so, the event saw Aminu Dabo breaking off his self imposed solitude, to grace the occasion and congregate with all his living successors in office (except Engineers Wali Ahmed and Joseph Akagwu), and the immediate past MD of the authority, Abdul-Salam Mohammed, whose absence, no one could explain.

Present at the epoch-making event which took place at the prestigious Eko Hotel, Thursday, May 19, 2011, were the ex-CEOs of NPA led by Alhaji Bamanga Tukur, with a line-up of others such as Bello Gwandu, Felix Ovbude, and Adebayo Sarumi. Much as he tried to resist interviews, Daily Sun managed to corner Alhaji Dabo for a chat, dangling the carrot of 'the need to put the records straight' about his incarceration. He fell for it. With one question leading to another, he spoke on the NPA of today, before and during his tenure, the infamous port reform ala, concessioning ,and eventually opened up on his trial alongside his colleagues-leading to their eventual sentence to a two-year jail term in 2009. To him, the trial and sentence for what the prosecutors called 'contract splitting and mismanagement of public funds' was more political than administrative. He tells you why in this excerpts.

His views about the NPA he managed between April 2002 and October 2004, and the ports of today

The NPA that we managed is completely different from what it is now. During our time, the Ports Authority was completely in charge of operations, regulations, and all the activities were handled by the management. The NPA then as you know had over 13,000 staff, and now they say it is less than 2,00 staff. So it's something that could be managed more effectively and well, considering the shrinking in size. Now it is under concession, and all the ports operations are being handed by the Private Sector and I am told there is much improvement now.

Given another chance, what are the things you would have done differently?

Actually they are two different circumstances. We managed a big, large NPA with very large stakeholders then. The same NPA we managed as one entity is the same organization that is now concessioned to 52 segments now. So the management we have now is really under 52 MD's (Managing Directors) from private sector operators. So it is much easier to handle NPA now, and the management is not bothered with operations. It is just after regulations and I am sure it is much effective with private sector approach.

Any regrets about your appointments an MD of NPA?
We have no regrets at all. We managed NPA very well to the best of our ability under the circumstances. We did it very well and effectively. The stakeholder's, I am sure are well aware that we did our best. We managed NPA when it was fully NPA…. With over 13,000 staff and all the operations

So they are two different things, the NPA, that was owned and managed by government and the NPA that is now concessioned…. So they are two entirely different scenarios. And so you have to judge us based on the circumstances and the real challenges we had then.

Now you don't talk of contracts, the labour has been streamlined, unlike then that there were incessant labour crises. We were the last management that provided the base for the take-off of the privatization. We did all the ground work.

On the concession programme, we still hear some complaints here and there.

What are the things you think government should do to really meet the aspiration of the people?

Now the challenge really is for the private sector. They have to improve, they have to add value and bring efficiency into the system… because the whole thing has been concessioned to them. They have to justify this by ensuring that the revenue generated is increased. They have to add value by bringing new technology and equipment into the system.

And this is the whole reason why government is bringing private sector into the system. So government will now be concerned only with the regulatory aspect. And I think that is why you have chunks of money coming from the private sector so that it can be totally different

Looking back, and possibly reminiscing on the past mistake, what is your advice for the current management of NPA?

The current management is doing well and this MD, in his wisdom, has deemed it necessary to call all past MD's to a round table so that he can tap from their experiences and get advice from them accordingly.

You, see, you can't manage NPA well if you don't look at the history and appreciate the challenges of the past, and the efforts made by the past managements to surmount them.

This is the first time I am seeing an MD of NPA bringing his predecessors together, to seek their advice and share their experiences with him. I am sure he is getting it right with the steps he has taken so far.

The circumstances leading to your trial and eventual conviction appeared controversial. Putting the record straight, do you believe you were given a fair hearing…?

I really don't like to talk about this matter… but as you said, there is the need to put the records straight. I believe what happened was unfair and unjust. For us we were treated badly. The whole issue is not about money, it was really politics at play. We were not asked to refund any kobo, and that is the most important aspect of it. I was the Chief Executive of NPA and I was not taken to court in that capacity as the CEO of NPA… I was taken to court and jailed as a Board member.

So if you are not charging me as the CEO, certainly what you are talking about is a board matter. It is not all about us, but the board.

The board's action and inaction is a collective responsibility, and I was there as a member. So whatever the majority agreed upon, certainly, I have to support fundamentally.

And secondly, the whole issue they are talking about is about approval level. They said we violated approval level. And talking about approval level, common sense will tell you that we were jailed wrongly.

I will tell you why. For example, the approval level for an MD (of NPA) in 1983 was N5 million. In 1999, it was raised to N10 million…. So how do you come and bring the same in 2000 down to N700,000? Is it realistic, is it implementable? Does it make sense? And this is the basis upon which they are saying that we violated approval level! This is something that is clearly unrealistic…. and un- implementable.

So you just charged and jailed as over something that is unrealistic, something that has never been used to judge anybody in civil service. Not just once!

Another issue they were talking about is contract splitting. The so called contracts that they claimed the boards splinted were all verified to be carried out and executed. So what do you mean by split of contract? Split of contract? They were just quarrelling between the ministry and the board.

The Ministry was trying to marginalize the board to make sure the whole projects go to politicians. So it is just political. The fundamental thing is that we managed NPA properly, we did our best. Our tenure was good. We improved the welfare of the people. And we streamlined the process of ports operations. It was this step that gave the background to the concession process.

We started the labour reforms which was the foundation for the entire ports reforms.

So, I believe there are a lot of political issues about our jail. The stakeholders, everybody knows. It is wrong! The violation of what they called 'lawful order' has never been used. It has never been used to asses any MD before me (tenure) and after me up till today.

There is no way you can operate NPA on a N700, 000 approvals level (for the MD) when the same approval level in 1983 was N5million it doesn't really make sense.