A lot has been said about why Nigeria has failed, in over five decades as an independent country, to attain the level of development that is commensurate with its abundant natural resources. In nearly these oral and written treatises, the word corruption is a common factor. However, sifting through basket of public discourse in Nigeria, the apparent reality is that Nigerians have developed an apathy for all news related to corruption – both in perpetuation and/or prevention.
This apathy is more of a coping mechanism for living in a climate in which corruption headlines have become as regular as weather reports. And when a nation survives a tsunami of corruption as Nigeria did during the years the Deziani’s of this world held sway, the people could be forgiven for barely paying attention to news involving any amount that is not of Diezani proportions, for example the contract saga between the management of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), and Senator Hope Uzodinma’s Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited.
Actually, it is anything but a contract saga. It is the empirical manifestation of the perpetuation of corruption in leadership that has held Nigeria back for half a century. Long story cut short, the NPA has found itself in a forced and abusive business relationship with Niger Global Ltd in which the latter collects money (billions of Naira) from the former for contracts that are not executed by it.
Every patriotic Nigerian would sanction within a minute the dissolution of such an unwholesome relationship that channels public funds into the pockets of a few corrupt elements in the society. But standing in the way of such a progressive change is Senator Hope Uzodinma, majority shareholder in Niger Global Ltd, direct beneficiary of funds collected by Niger Global Ltd from NPA, Chairman of Senate Committee on Customs and most recently Chairman of a Joint Committee set up to investigate the same NPA.
Niger Global Ltd made its entry into the purse of the NPA in 2001 when it was awarded a $600,000 per month one-year contract to carry out maintenance dredging of the Container Terminal Berths, Tin Can Island, Roro Ports and Calabar access channel. Not satisfied with the quality of the work done, the NPA refused to renew that contract but Niger Global Ltd wouldn’t let go. That was the beginning of the parasitic arrangement that has cost Nigerians millions of dollars and currently threatens to derail all ongoing reforms at the nation’s Sea Ports.
Niger Global Ltd was paid off for the 2001 contract despite not doing the job to NPA’s satisfaction. 11 years later, under the administration of Goodluck Jonathan, Niger Global Ltd knocked on NPA’s door, this time armed with a presidential approval which practically forces the NPA to enter into a Joint Venture partnership with Niger Global Ltd for the purpose of managing the Calabar port channel.
NPA’s dredging activities are carried out through channel companies – these are joint venture companies in which the NPA has 60 percent and the technical partners have 40 percent. The joint venture for the maintenance dredging of the channels into Lagos and Bonny ports were entered into in 2006 leading to the establishment of Lagos Channel Management Company and Bonny Channel Management Company.
In 2010, the NPA initiated the process for the dredging and maintenance of the Calabar channel and received bids from six companies. The presidential approval issued by Goodluck Jonathan in 2012 essentially scuttled the procurement process already in motion by the NPA in line with the legal requirements. Jonathan’s directive called for a joint venture between NPA and a consortium of companies led by Niger Global Ltd (owned by Senator Hope Uzodinma), to birth the Calabar Channel Management Company.
Investigations reveal that the Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP) – the officiating minister in charge of these kind of arrangements – expressly objected to this union between NPA and Niger Global Ltd for many reasons. According to the Director-General of the BPP at that time, Niger Global Ltd did not bid for the contract in line with the due process and the President had no legal standing to direct that the NPA give such contract to the company without competitive bidding. It was also noted that Niger Global Ltd had failed to properly execute contracts given to it by the NPA in the past.
All entreaties fell on deaf ears and the joint venture deal between NPA and Niger Global Ltd was sealed to give birth to the Calabar Channel Management Limited. However, the leopard in Niger Global Ltd could not hide its spots and so it submitted invoices in total of $12.5 million for work done on the Calabar channel in 2015. The NPA was not satisfied with the quality of the work done by the company and thus refused to issue any payment to it.
Some people believe the refusal to pay Niger Global Ltd the sum of $12.5 million cost Habibu Abdullahi his job as Managing Director of NPA. His replacement, Sanusi Bayero, proved to be more cooperative and paid $12.5 million to Niger Global Ltd without any certificate of completion, a crucial requirement for compensation, in line with the Public Procurement Act. This was done barely two months to the end of the Goodluck Jonathan administration.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) raised an investigation into the $12.5 million payment made by the NPA to Niger Global Ltd and requested that bathometric forensic auditing be conducted to determine the dredging work paid for was indeed done by the company. A consultant was engaged by the NPA to carry out the barometric audit. This was ongoing when Niger Global Ltd submitted another invoice requesting that the NPA pay another $22 million or face legal actions.
By this time President Muhammadu Buhari had appointed a renowned human rights activist and anti-corruption crusader, Hadiza Bala-Usman as the Managing Director of NPA. Under the leadership, the NPA constituted a committee to conduct a detailed investigation into the dredging work Niger Global Ltd claimed to have done at the Calabar port and establish the validity of the $22 million invoice submitted by the company. Niger Global Ltd, not for the first, or second, or third time in its history with the NPA, was found wanting. Thus, NPA refused to honour Niger Global Ltd’s $22 million invoice and then took it a step further in asking to terminate the entire joint venture arrangement.
What has since followed are attempts by Senator Hope Uzodinma to use his position as a Senator of the Federal Republic and Chairman of Senate Committee on Customs to intimidate the NPA into paying his company the $22 million it requested for a job it did not do or do to specifications. First came allegations of 282 missing vessels and a probe by a Senate Joint Committee on Tariffs, Customs, Excise and marine Transport chaired by Senator Uzodinma himself which clearly constitutes a conflict of interest.
It is a somewhat familiar tactic. In 2016 a rice trading company imported 1,200 metric tons of rice and attempted to evade paying the correct custom duties by declaring the rice consignment as yeast. The Controller-General of Customs, Col. Hamid Ali (rtd) ordered the interception and seizure of the goods. Senator Uzodinma as Chairman of Senate Committee on Customs wrote to the Colonel demanding that the consignment be released, a request that was flatly rejected by the Customs boss. The Senate went on to take on the CG of customs, even playing childish games like ‘you must wear your uniform.’
This is an insight into why Nigeria fails to make progress. The ongoing reforms at the NPA should not be derailed because the channels of access into public funds opened for the corrupt elite by previous administrations are being blocked. This is the reality of the current face-off between the NPA and the Senate and Nigerians should watch closely lest their commonwealth be cornered by those they elected to represent their interests.
Arenyeka Peter is a public health consultant based in Port Harcourt