BPE PROBE: SENATE TESTS JONATHAN'S WILL

By NBF News
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Senate's July 19 decision to investigate the privatization and commercialization activities of the Public Enterprises (BPE) raised eyebrows in some quarters as to the timing of such exercise.

Some critics wondered why the Senate would embark on an investigative hearing shortly after its inauguration in June and standing committees are not even in place.

Sequel to a motion raised by former Public Accounts Committee Chairman, Senator Ahmed Lawan, the nation's upper legislative chamber decided to raise an Ad-hoc committee of seven members to unravel why '80 percent of government companies that have been privatized have failed to operate properly due to lapses in the privatization process.'

With Yobe State-born Lawan (ANPP, Yobe) as chairman, other committee members included Senators Babafemi Ojudu (ACN, Ekiti), Ali Ndume (PDP, Borno), Phillip Aduda (PDP, FCT), Ifeanyi Okowa (PDP, Delta), Hope Uzodinma (PDP, Imo) and Mohammed Magoro (PDP, Kebbi).

But the committee was specifically restricted to BPE activities and not the 23-year old privatization exercise, which actually started during the regime of former military President Ibrahim Babangida.

Skeptics immediately drew a link between the critical stance of former BPE Director General, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai on the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan administration and the probe which was restricted to BPE activities from 1999 till date. Two factors immediately came up before the probe: el-Rufai was the BPE DG from 1999 to 2003 after which he was appointed by former President Olusegun Obasanjo as the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Administration (FCTA).

The second was that Obasanjo's deputy, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar was the Chairman of the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) which has supervisory duties on the BPE. The other is that the race for the 2015 Presidency within the northern geo-political zone was on. Some critics of the probe had expressed worry that the exercise could be a witch-hunt of el-Rufai, a fact the former minister also alluded to when he appeared before the committee on its fourth day of the investigative hearing.

The former BPE DG would later express confidence in the impartiality of the committee and even go on to shed more light on the various directives from Obasanjo derailing the steady train of the privatization exercise with the appointment of an outsider as the BPE DG, but also that of some government companies.

In addition to unraveling why majority of the privatized companies were performing below expectation as its term of reference, the ad-hoc committee was also mandated to unravel and determine how much was realized from the sale of the companies and where the proceeds were paid into.

Senate President David Mark exhorted the committee to conduct the investigation 'sharp-sharp' but charged them not to embark on any witch-hunt. The Senate President assured Senators that the investigation is supported by sections 62 and 88 of the 1999 Constitution reiterating that the committee has should approach it with an open mind. Let's do a thorough work so that it can stand the test of time.

'Definitely, the searchlight would be on members and you must be above board. It's not just to apportion blame. Give us recommendations so that past mistakes are not repeated.'

At the public hearing, Mark reiterated that Nigerians expected better perfoming privatized companies which would enhance employment opportunities for Nigerians, thereby improving the economy. The Senate President bemoaned the 'significant loss of valuable revenue to the Federal Government.' He only stopped short of saying that the public hearing that Nigerians have been shortchanged. With the charge to unravel what went wrong with the privatization exercise, the committee was stunned to learn that due process was not followed in the privatization of some government companies.

In fact, some Senators personally expressed disgust, in private, at how federal companies, set up with public funds, were sold to cronies and children of some former top shots in the Presidency 'without any regard to due process.' Shocked at how the sale of Delta Steel was concluded without allowing the preferred bidder to take up the offer, Committee Chairman, Ahmed Lawan expressed the panel's readiness to recommend to the Senate that the federal government should cancel the sale outright. Delta Steel which was established in 2005 at the cost of $1.5 billion, was sold to Global Infrastructure for $30 million.

'Rather than sell the company to BUA Group Limited, which emerged as the highest bidder, the company, allegedly on the directive of the former President, was sold to Global Infrastructure, which BPE admitted before the committee didn't participate in the bidding process.

In flagrant violation of the NCP Act, the Ministry of Power and Steel, allegedly acting under directive of the former President approved sale of Delta Steel to a company that did not participate in the bidding process.

BPE DG Ms Bola Onagoruwa told the committee that Global Infrastructure only submitted an expression of interest but did not submit any technical bid.

More shocking was the revelation that government-owned Aluminium Smelting Company of Nigeria (ALSCON), set up with $3.2 billion, was sold to a Russian-based company, Russal, for a paltry sum of $130 million.

More messy details emerged when pensioners of NICON revealed how a highly placed officer of Global fleet Nigeria Limited, allegedly forged the signature of a BPE official to acquire the company, just as an audit report from KPMG Professional Services indicted Global Fleet of stripping the company of N6.3 billion.

But NICON Managing Director, Dr. Emmanuel Jegede who represented Barr. Ibrahim noted that since taking over NICON, its staff strength has increased to 1500 with 60 branches across the country.

He also appealed to the committee to help NICON recover some of its prime assets which has been forcefully taken over.

Jegede cited an example of the 'adjacent plot to the Head Office owned by NICON valued at N4 billion (which) was taken over to develop theNational Secretariat of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).

Mr Awa Mmaju, however, punctured Jegede's submissions and outrightly accused him of lying before the committee. As it was done in the case of Delta Steel, Mmaju pleaded with the Senate to reverse the sale of NICON and give the company back to Nigerians through government.

His words: 'What Jegede has been saying were all lies. When the valuation of the entitlement was made, I told them that what they had done was not correct and I wrote BPE but each time the letter get to them, they will not take any action until recently. The privatization of NICON is a bigger fraud.

'They are talking of 70 per cent sale and in the document I have here, it is stated that the company is entitled to 61.9 while the government is 39 per cent and they are talking about 17 billion as required by capitalisation.

'You will remember sir that the government took over NICON in 2007 when they did that, they appointed the team of foreign auditors - KPMG which came up with a report that between the time the corporation was taken over by Jimoh Ibrahim and the time government intervened, that they have made a substantial loss of N13billion. 'It was KPMG that recommended the co-investor to put in over N17billion to revive the company and they were directed to pay it into an Excess Crude Account in Central London.

'I want Jegede to confirm that this money was paid into the account. Everything about the sale of NICON was shrouded in doubt and there was no sale of NICON in the first instance.

'I urge that they give back the company to Nigerians. They have reduced the staff strength from 1100 that it was by the time they took over to 200. If you go to NICON plaza, it is in shambles.'

After the week-long investigative public hearing, it is obvious that the Presidency holds the ace on whether the recommendations, which the committee would submit to the Senate for a resolution on the matter, would ever be implemented. It is an open secret that the Executive is not bound to implement resolutions coming from the National Assembly.

At the maiden annual retreat of the Senate in Port Harcourt, Rivers State in 2007 late President Umaru Yar'Adua declared in his address that the Executive was not bound to accept any resolutions from the National Assembly. The bearer of that message was the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.This is because there is no provision in the 1999 Constitution binding the executive to obey resolutions from the National Assembly. Since 1999, all resolutions have always been an academic exercise in both chambers. The resolutions do not leave the gates of the National Assembly.

Based on some of the messy revelations which came out at the public hearing, some concerned Nigerians are already asking the committee to invite both the NCP Chairman, Atiku and former President Obasanjo to shed more light on the details of the privatization exercise. Already, critics have issued a stern warning that the BPE probe should not go the way of the Power Probe in the House of Representatives in the last session. The Power Probe report was never implemented by the executive, and it is on record that there was even a minority report from the probe.

It's on record that the only resolution, which was obeyed in record time, was that which made President Jonathan the Acting President in February 2010. Before then and thereafter, the executive has conveniently looked the other way. Another fact is that federal lawmakers are becoming increasingly wary of resolutions which would not be implemented by the Executive.

Some Senators have openly expressed dismay at the 'ineffectiveness' of resolutions being churned out by both chambers. They see such resolutions as 'exercises in futility.' The BPE probe report would surely test the existing rapprochement between the two chambers and the Presidency moreso when the investigation was conducted less than two weeks after President Jonathan vowed not to shield any corrupt minister.