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BPE and tussle over Enugu Disco

By The Rainbow

Last week (on September 9, 2013), a Nigerian newspaper published an editorial which began as a 'Front Page Comment' and continued on page 19. The editorial was titled 'Enugu Disco: Matters Arising'. The 'Matters Arising' is not unrelated to two previous publications, by different newspapers, on the same issue of the unresolved bid for the Enugu Distribution Company (or Enugu DisCo) in which two companies, Interstate Electrics and Eastern Electric, are evidently interested.

One of the previous publications was titled 'Eastern Electric moves to take over Enugu Distribution Company'. The other was titled 'Concern mounts as NCP, BPE fail to invite Enugu reserve bidder'. A common motive runs through these self-explanatory publications. They all campaign for Eastern Electric in the bid for Enugu DisCo and question the reaction of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and/or the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) in the aftermath of Interstate Electrics not paying the remaining 75 per cent of its bid value for the DisCo by the August 21, 2013 deadline. That reaction is summed up as the BPE/NCP having not invited Eastern Electric as the reserve bidder to take over the bid slot that may be considered vacant following the seeming breach of payment obligation by Interstate Electrics.

Here, it should be mentioned that both Interstate Electrics and Eastern Electric are being promoted by two prominent men from southeastern Nigeria, Chief Emeka Ofor and Prof. Bart Nnaji, respectively. But this should be a trivial detail. I mention it merely in response to the ethnicity card the editorial plays in making its case for Eastern Electric and against the BPE, mindful that the rules that govern the transaction in which they are involved were not founded on ethnicity. They are rules of the Federal Republic of Nigeria meant for local and foreign investors interested in purchasing its companies, including the now 'contentious' Enugu DisCo.

Unfortunately, the editorial deploys sentiments and fallacies while making its case for Eastern Electric and against Interstate Electrics, the BPE and/or the NCP. For instance, it tars the BPE with favouritism towards Interstate Electrics. This is evident when it says: 'Already, the Atedo Peterside-led Technical Committee of the NCP has been reported to be keen on meeting to take a decision on the transactions and possibly decide the fate of the bidders, but the BPE leadership is reportedly stalling the meeting. Two facts are evident from the above charges. The first is their source's lack of understanding of the nature of the relationship between the BPE and the NCP. The other is ignorance of what it means to 'veto' a decision. The NCP oversees the privatisation efforts of the Nigerian government while the BPE serves as its secretariat. This implies that, in their relationship, the NCP is the boss while the BPE is the subordinate. And Atedo Peterside, the NCP Technical Committee chairman, personifies this status of boss in the given context.

So, whoever heard of anyone 'vetoing' a decision by their boss, as the editorial suggests of the BPE and the NCP? And since subordinates are not usually in a position to 'veto' the decision of their bosses, it follows that the claim that the BPE 'vetoed' the decision of the NCP Technical Committee chairman to convene a meeting over the unresolved bid for Enugu DisCo should be dismissed as implausible. The claim is illogical and unjustifiable by common sense.

As one Obidike Ochieze wrote in a piece titled 'BPE, NCP and 'Enugu Reserve Bidder', published on page 34 of Leadership of September 5, 2103: '…such … anti-BPE and-NCP publications exposes the reserve bidder to suspicion of blackmail and desperation, which can undermine its image as a corporate entity.' For the reserve bidder seems to be saying to the BPE/NCP: 'You either give us Enugu DisCo now or we tarnish your image!'

The editorial further states that failure to sell Enugu Disco to Eastern Electric 'may well be a tacit confirmation of the fear that has been expressed in some quarters that the government, and the BPE, are unduly interested in selling the Enugu DisCo to Interstate Electric because its promoter, Emeka Offor, is a leading member of the ruling People's Democratic Party'. Again, this charge is another way of saying to the BPE: 'If you and the government do not want to be seen as biased in the discharge of your responsibilities under the privatisation programme, with obvious implications for your integrity, then sell Enugu DisCo to us now!' However, the charge is poorly reasoned. For Prof. Bart Nnaji, the promoter of Eastern Electric who served as a Minister of Power (a political appointment) under a government of the same ruling party, is more qualified to be considered 'a leading member of the ruling People's Democratic Party' than Emeka Offor who has never been appointed to such high public office by the government. So if the BPE were to choose to sell the DisCo to either of the two corporate contenders on the basis of whose promoter is 'a leading member of the ruling People's Democratic Party', it would be Eastern Electric. The charge should also be dismissed as unjustifiable by common sense.

Then, the blackmail intensifies when the editorial says: 'There is no debating the fact that it makes more economic and political sense to sell Enugu DisCo to Eastern Electric, which belongs to the entire people of the South East.' (My italics.) Here, the blackmail consists in having said to the BPE by implication: 'You either sell Enugu Disco to Eastern Electric or risk being regarded as insensitive to the yearnings of the people of the South East who collectively own the company.'

Indeed, I am from the South East and do not have any ownership stake in Eastern Electric. Neither does any member of my immediate or extended family, Local Government Area, etc. So why anyone would create the false impression that the company belongs to 'the entire people of the South East' in order to gain any advantage - whereas it belongs to a few businessmen, or at most a consortia - is confounding. What is emerging from the foregoing analysis is that those behind the criticisms of the BPE/the NCP and are campaigning for Eastern Electric on this matter of the bid for Enugu DisCo seem to have no business with scruples and deserve to be viewed critically like anybody or group which would openly deploy such unethical means to attain any end.

If I were to speak for the people of the South East, I would say that, like a responsible parent, they would rather be neutral in a dispute between any two of their sons, contrary to the suggestion of the editorial. And the liberal people they are, they would be more interested in being supplied regular electricity, affordably, to their homes and businesses than in who owns the company that supplies the electricity. Such self-serving attempt to portray them as blinkered tribalists is a disservice to their image. It contradicts the values of openness, cosmopolitanism and democracy for which they are known, and which drive them to other people's lands to establish businesses and thrive as entrepreneurs.

And to the BPE/the NCP, I must say that character consists in resisting such blackmail and doing just the right thing by the extant rules of engagement. Nothing else should be good for the privatisation of the Nigerian power sector. If the conditions that qualify a company to purchase a DisCo do not include its being owned by the whole people of a geopolitical zone - assuming the claim the editorial makes for Eastern Electric is true - then it should not avail such a company that its ownership is widespread.

Finally, I do not say anything here to hold a brief for the BPE, the NCP or Interstate Electric. Rather, I am playing the role of an ethical watchdog for a privatisation programme whose success or failure can impact heavily on the lives of all Nigerians, mine inclusive.

• Enekwe is an Enugu-based public affairs analyst.