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PROBE OF PRIVATIZED COMPANIES

By NBF News
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The decision of the Senate to set up a seven-member ad-hoc committee to investigate all the privatization projects of the Federal Government since 1999 could, indeed, be a worthy exercise if it is motivated by national interest, and not a political witch-hunt or parochial, selfish interest.

The probe, which is already underway, was sequel to a motion sponsored by Senator Ahmed Lawan (ANPP, Yobe North) titled: 'Collapse of some privatized Federal Government companies in Nigeria'.

Senate president, David Mark has assured that the probe was not meant to witch-hunt anybody but a national assignment to determine what went wrong in government privatization efforts.

He urged members of the probe committee to be open-minded in the discharge of their duties. It is noteworthy that the Bureau for Public Enterprises  (BPE) is the official government agency set up by law and saddled with the responsibility of overseeing and implementing government's policy on privatization and disposing of government equities by ensuring that service providers are brought in the running of some state-owned businesses. It is believed that businesses are more efficiently run by private concerns.

Right from its inception in 1999, the Federal Government has repeatedly claimed it is determined to make privatization a crucial plank of its socio-economic reform agenda through full or partial divestment of its interests in the companies in which it has controlling interests. Undoubtedly, only a deliberate policy of restructuring the public sector in Nigeria through a transparent privatization exercise can bring about efficient and service-oriented enterprises. Nigerians, it must be said, have always been in full support of efforts that will make public institutions better run in terms of customer-satisfaction.

However, that aspiration is yet to be met as many of the government enterprises still suffer from manifold problems of defective capital structure, excessive bureaucratic control, gross incompetence and mismanagement, corruption and complacency. All of these have had their negative effects on the economy. This places enormous challenge on the BPE. But facts and figures suggest that the manner in which many government-owned companies were sold, leave much to be desired. In that regard, the current probe of the privatization  exercise makes much sense.

But the full benefits would ultimately lie on the sincerity of purpose of the entire exercise and ensuring that in those privatized enterprises whose transactions were shady, the culprits are dealt with according to the law.  It will be a waste of tax payers' money if the probe ends up as another public entertainment reminiscent of past probes that led to nowhere. In the past, and perhaps even now, probes are taken with a pinch of salt by many Nigerians. That should not be the case with the ongoing investigation.

We urge the committee members to be mindful of public expectations. They should not compromise themselves in their assignment. The nation is still reeling from the sordid probe of the power sector two years ago by the House of Representatives, an exercise that was sullied by scandal. Nothing short of a thorough probe is expected from the ad-hoc committee on the privatization exercise.

Many of the privatized companies since 1999 might not have followed due process. Some of them may have been grossly mismanaged, either because their assets were overvalued or their net assets undervalued. Whichever way, the committee should get at the root of the problems. The case of the Nigerian Telecommunications Ltd (NITEL) and the Ajaokuta Steel, are two sorry examples. Overall, let the probe leave no shadow of doubt that it is for altruistic reasons and nothing else.