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BPE PROBE REPORT: THORNY ISSUES BEFORE THE PRESIDENT

By NBF News
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•El-Rufai
On December 20, the Senate finally summoned courage to consider the recommendations of its ad-hoc committee, which investigated activities of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) from 1999 till date.

Five months earlier, the Senate in plenary mandated a seven-man team, led by the Public Accounts Committee Chairman, Senator Ahmed Lawan, to investigate BPE and report back in just four weeks.

Aside from Lawan, other members of the committee were: Senators Babafemi Ojudu, Ali Ndume, Philip Aduda, Ifeanyi Okowa, Hope Uzodinma and Mohammed Magoro.

The Lawan-led committee was also mandated to determine how much was realised from the sale of the companies and where the proceeds were paid into while also determining how many jobs were lost and gained after the privatisation of companies; identify factors militating against the expected improved and good performance of the privatised companies as well as determine the best way forward with the privatisation exercise and the desirable development and growth of the sold companies.

The week-long public hearing of the committee threw up some thorny issues for the ad-hoc committee to resolve. Some were alleged involvement cum interference of former President, Olusegun Obasanjo in the privatisation process, which he initiated; alleged underhand deals in the sale of some of the companies and failure of core investors in carrying out the Share Purchase Agreement (SPA) they signed with the BPE.

Nevertheless, shortly after the public hearing got underway and sordid revelations came tumbling out, there were reports that a former president was leaning heavily on presiding officers of the Senate to 'tone down' the investigation.

Months after, that pressure would later reverberate in the Senate during consideration of the committee's report in the chamber. But then the crux of the public hearing was that most BPE officials, particularly former helmsmen, fingered the former president in the underhand sales of some national assets.

Some of them included: Ajaokuta Steel, Delta Steel, Nigeria Iron Ore Mining Corporation, Itakpe, Daily Times Plc., Jos Steel Rolling Mills, Nigeria Re-Insurance Plc., NICON Insurance Plc., among others.

In fact, so bad was the sale of Daily Times, founded in 1923, that the core investor, Folio Communications, was said to have bought the national media edifice without investing one kobo in its purchase. Folio, the committee heard, only invested after it had used Daily Times' money to buy the company!

The public hearing afforded Nigerians the opportunity to hear first-hand how the constituted authority on the privatisation process, the National Council on Privatisation (NCP), was deliberately by-passed in some decision-making processes. The president, who had no known constitutional role to play in the privatisation process was allowed to sign off some national assets without the knowledge of the NCP, the Senate heard at the public hearing.

Statutorily, the NCP takes final decisions on any sale but for the better part of the Obasanjo administration, this process was by-passed. That was what the Lawan-led committee heard during the public hearing, which was also televised live to Nigerians.

Curiously, the Lawan committee didn't invite the former president to clear his name that was mentioned in all the under-hand transactions of signing off of national assets. Daily Sun asked the committee chairman whether they would invite Obasanjo to respond to the allegations in public but met a brickwall.

During one of the lunch breaks at the public hearing, Daily Sun directly asked Lawam whether the committee was considering inviting Obasanjo on the strength of some revelations from past heads of the BPE but he retorted that the committee was not given to sensationalism, hence there was no need to invite Obasanjo!

Were the committee to invite the former president, he might likely have honoured the invitation because during the Justice Chukwudifu Oputa panel investigation on abuse of human rights during the military regime, the same Obasanjo waived his immunity and did appear before the committee to state his side of the injustice he suffered during the period.

Another noteworthy omission from the committee was its inability to compel former BPE Director General, Mrs. Irene Chigbue, to appear before it. After four months of criss-crossing the country, verifying claims of core investors and those aggrieved about the privatisation process, Lawan submitted the report, which was only debated after some weeks. Surprisingly, there was no mention of the former president's complicity in the abuse of the privatisation process in the committee report. This irked some Senators when the chamber commenced debate on the report. Deputy Minority Whip, Abu Ibrahim, asked the Senate to summon the courage to bring the former president to book over his actions in office.

'This Senate should have the courage to indict the former president for breaking the privatisation laws. He personally sold some companies off. We shouldn't shy away from doing so. The Senate Committee on Privatisation should re-consider these companies…If the former president is involved, he should be reprimanded and prosecuted.'

On his part, Senator Olubunmi Adetunmbi slammed Obasanjo for abusing oath of office and that his actions in the privatisation exercise smacked of executive recklessness.

His words: 'There is sordid information contained in this report that are codified. We must point really at where the issue lies. A former leader of this country, who was under oath swore to defend the Constitution and the laws of this country, that same person, in an imperial manner, took decisions to issue executive directives and approvals in contravention of the processes that are enshrined in the Privatisation Act, signed by himself.' 'That is the reality of this report. The findings of this committee are revealing of the executive recklessness… the point must be made. As a representative of the people, this institution must take some decisions.

'The enabling environment study around the world says Nigeria is not a safe place to enter into contracts.

'The former president presided over the prodigal sale of our commonwealth. In addition to this prodigal sale, was an expenditure on this returns, part of these proceeds were used to finance other companies. It is left for us to know that what we are doing here is self-censorship because we had privatisation committees during this period.

'When executive directives are given to civil servants by those who appointed them, we cannot reprimand those who were given directives when the givers of these directives are not questioned.'

Senator Sola Adeyeye restated that a former president with vested interests sold off Nigeria's assets to a section of the political class. He urged The News, a Lagos-based newsmagazine to publicly apologise to former vice president, Atiku Abubakar, for falsely accusing him of being the mastermind behind the privatisation scams of the administration.'For more than three years, The News published reports of how the privatisation exercise went and how a former vice president was involved in the acquisition of some of the privatised companies.

'Later, we found out that the buck didn't stop at the vice president's desk. I hope my colleagues in The News would have the courage to issue an apology to the former vice president because it was later discovered that a sitting president had probably not just a lion's share but a leopard's share in Pentascope, which bought some of these companies.

'We also found out that there was vested interest by a section of the political class in acquisition of these assets. Whoever that was found to have done wrong should be brought to court; whether he's a former governor, a former Senator or a former president.' During consideration of the report, which produced 45 recommendations, some Senators had cause to review government's sale of national assets and concluded that the process was not transparent. In fact, some Senators bemoaned the fact that workers in the sold companies had been short-changed by the sale and urged the chamber to do everything possible to protect workers' rights.

Deputy Majority Leader, Abdul Ningi, bemoaned betrayal of trust on the part of those entrusted with sale of national assets on behalf of the Federal Government.'Privatisation is a welcome development but having gone through this report, from beginning to end, it saddens me that the Federal Government invested trust in people to provide direction but what happened thereafter is a sad development.'There's a trust-gap between the executive, which constituted the privatisation programme, and the legislature.' Chairman of the Federal Capital Territory Committee (FCT), Senator Smart Adeyemi, had ready examples from his home state to draw from to hammer home the failure of the privatisation process.

'I salute the leadership of this Senate for allowing this probe. If you look at the report, you come to the conclusion that privatisation at its concept was good but its implementation, to a large extent, was against the national interest.

'Some people bought national assets and only ended up building large empires. Let's take the example of Ajaokuta Steel Complex in Kogi State. Ajaokuta was sold in national interest, so we were told.'The Indians, who bought the complex, rather than turn it around for good, dismantled what they met and exported them to India! Today, we are importing the same steel from India. Mr. President, this government must summon the political will to implement the recommendations of this committee.

'I repeat it that some people bought national assets, then retrenched workers and built personal empires. They refused to honour contractual agreements. The credibility of our Senate will be tested by this report. There are some powerful Nigerians involved in this thing and they must be made to face the wrath of the law.'If we decide to privatise everything, it will come to a point where the children of the poor won't have anything again! If we go ahead to implement the recommendations from the committee, good. If not, someone who has the will come along and do it.'

To Senator Nkechi Nwaogu, the failure of government's privatisation was long foretold. 'We saw this thing coming in 2005/2006. Some of the shares that were supposed to go to workers of these companies were sold to them and it was collusion between the BPE and core investors of some of these companies. The companies should be made to face the wrath of the law.' Senate Services Committee Chairman, Suleiman Adokwe challenged the Senate and by extension, the Presidency, on the need to summon the political will to implement whatever recommendations, which may emanate from the chamber. His words: 'There's need, on the part of government, to have the will to implement this report. I have earlier emphasised that no matter what we did and the executive doesn't have the political will to implement the recommendations, we would just have embarked on a voyage of discovery.'

And so, on December 20, after suffering so many delays and postponements, with the report appearing and disappearing on the Senate order paper, the chamber finally took the recommendations of the ad-hoc committed but not without first going into an executive session. Among others, the committee recommended the removal of the Director-General of BPE, Ms. Bolanle Onagoruwa, for 'her gross incompetence and for the illegal and fraudulent sale of the Federal Government's residual shares in Eleme Petrochemicals Company Limited.' Former heads of the bureau, Mallam Nasir el-Rufai, Dr. Julius Bala and Mrs. Irene Nkechi Chigbue were also indicted for seeking approval directly from the president instead of the NCP as stipulated in the Public Enterprises Act, 1999.

For the failure of their respective core investors to deliver on the fundamental provision of Share Purchase Agreement/Post Acquisition Plan, the Senate also asked the NCP to rescind the sale of Abuja International Hotels Limited (NICON Luxury Hotel), Abuja; Sheraton Hotel and Towers, Abuja; the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria (ALSCON); the Delta Steel Company and re-advertise the affected companies for fresh sale.

The upper chamber also called on the NCP to rescind the sale of Daily Times of Nigeria (DTN) to Folio Communications Limited in keeping with the court judgments in suit (1) FHC/L/CP/1328/2009, (2) FHC/L/CP/244/10, and (3) FHC/L/CP/130/2010.

The Senate also advised the Federal Government to implement the Inter-Ministerial Technical Audit Report on Ajaokuta Steel Complex, dated July 2011, which recommended the completion and inauguration of the plant by the Federal Government. Furthermore, it recommended that the BPE should discontinue the use of privatisation proceeds to settle staff terminal benefits, consultancy fees, transaction expenses and execution of capital projects.

'It should approach the National Assembly for appropriation as provided for in Section 80 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended,' said the report, directing the bureau to close all privatisation proceed accounts in commercial banks and henceforth put all proceeds in Privatisation Proceeds Account in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in compliance with section 19(1) of the Public Enterprises (Privatisation and Commercialisation) Act 1999.

The lawmakers also recommended that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) should be immediately drafted to investigate the economic crimes being perpetrated against the nation at the premises of VON Automobile Nigeria Limited in Lagos by Barbedos Ventures Limited (BVI) while the taxes and import duties accruable to the Federal Government on all goods smuggled into the warehouse of VON Automobile Nigeria Limited should be computed and recovered by the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) andFederal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) respectively.

On the recommendation that former Minister of Federal Capital Territory, who was also the pioneer Director General of the BPE, Malam Nasir El-Rufai, be reprimanded his media adviser, Mr. Muyiwa Adekeye, said there was no justification for such order.'Recommendation 38, which asks that the former BPE boss be reprimanded for seeking presidential approval for privatisation issues is without basis,' adding that 'a careful reading of the entire 172-page report yields Annexure 38, pertaining to the privatisation of NITEL/MTEL, and that does not support the recommendation.'

Adekeye further explained that, 'the decision to sell NITEL to IILL was approved by the NCP chaired statutorily by the vice president and it was the same NCP that approved IILL's request for extension of time to pay for the purchase and the failure to meet the new deadline led to IILL forfeiting its deposit to the treasury.'Nowhere in the report is any document shown, alluding to the request for or the granting of presidential approval in the NITEL/IILL matter. Once again, El Rufai challenges the Senate to present any evidence to support this spurious recommendation.

'Mallam El-Rufai notes that while he is recommended only for a reprimand, other persons are mentioned for criminal investigation. There is no mitigation in this for him as he has not done anything to warrant a reprimand, even if he was still in the service of the BPE/NCP, which is no longer the case.' In his comments on the committee's recommendations, the Senate President frowned at some media reports (not Daily Sun) that the Senate was under immense pressure to do away with the report.'Nobody forced us to undertake this investigation; we did it on our own and nobody should make effort to stampede us. We have our own time-table and there was no time the report was withdrawn because of any external pressure or because there was conflict in the Senate. The Senate is one,' said Mark.

Regardless, it may safely be surmised that the Senate has merely embarked on an academic exercise because its resolution on the BPE probe is not binding on the executive to implement. Resolutions of investigations from the National Assembly have never been implemented by the executive. Such resolutions are usually advisory in nature and it is left to the executive to heed such advice or leave it. Proceedings after the closed door session of December 20 showed that approval of the recommendations of the BPE committee would be an unusual one. For the first time in the Senate, no debate or amendment was entertained on the recommendations.

Swiftly, and in less than 10 minutes, all the 45 recommendations, which ordinarily would take the Senate at least two days to conclude, were dispensed with and today, the Senate is looking up to President Goodluck Jonathan to implement those recommendations.

It may be akin to waiting for Godot, Daily Sun gathered.