By Henry Umoru & Inalegwu Shaibu
THE Senate adhoc committee investigating the activities of Bureau for Public Enterprises, BPE, from 1999 till date was told yesterday that the rift between former President Olusegun Obasanjo and his vice, Atiku Abubakar, frustrated the privatisation exercise, especially the sale of Aluminum Smelting Company of Nigeria, ALSCON.
Disclosing this, former Director-General of BPE, Mrs. Irene Chigbue, noted that the sour political relationship between Obasanjo and Abubakar at the end of 2006 killed the process, just as she said that the BPE didn’t bypass the former vice president, who was the chairman of the National Council on Privatisation, NCP, the BPE supervisory body, until 2007.
Meanwhile, Lagos lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana, who appeared before the Senate committee, urged the panel to summon Obasanjo to give his own side of the story against the backdrop that he has been fingered in the mess that happened during the privatization exercise.
Falana, who commended the Senate for setting up the ad-hoc committee, described what happened, following the revelations, as the looting of Nigeria, adding that there is no country in the world that carries out a wholesale privatization. He stressed that if the committee fails to bring the former president and others to testify before the panel, the Senator Ahmad Lawan-led committee would be accused of covering up.
Chigbue’s position was confirmed by the incumbent Director-General, Ms Bolanle Onagoruwa, who said the feud between Obasanjo and the then vice president led to the BPE bypassing Atiku over the privatisation.
According to the former BPE boss, this then led to the violation of due process and the Act establishing the body where all documents were now passed straight to the former president who gave all the approvals without inputs from Atiku. She added that former minister of finance and now a senator representing Kaduna South usurped the power and functions of the then vice president as the chairman of the NCP.
Many preferred bidders were said to have been replaced by those favoured by the former president and even those who never bidded for the companies.
The former Director-General, who described the period of political logjam as ‘a lacuna’, said, “There was a political lacuna between the office of the president and that of the vice president and the president, in his wisdom, said we should be relating with the then minister of finance, who is now a senator.”
Chigbue, in a separate submission, however, disagreed with Senator Ahmad Lawan, the chairman of the Senate panel, over the lodgement of proceeds from the sale of the government companies privatised in commercial banks when, she stressed, she was, at some point, compelled to be reporting to Obasanjo directly.
While the committee insisted that payment of the money into commercial banks rather than the CBN was a violation of section 19(1) of the BPE Act, the erstwhile DG, who confirmed that the agency raked N230billion from the privatisation exercise under her regime, however, said that it would be more “pragmatic to make such lodgement first in a commercial bank from which only the net earnings could be paid into CBN”.
According to her, proceeds from each sale could not stand as net earnings until liabilities, including cost of the bid transaction, were removed.
Corroborating Chigbue, her predecessor at the BPE, Dr. Julius Bala, told the Senate committee how the rift between Obasanjo and Atiku frustrated the privatization exercise, adding that though the former vice president was the chairman of the NCP, BPE, rather than write or relate with Atiku, would “write straight to Obasanjo”.
Also quoting a World Bank report Bala tendered, he stressed that the bank indicted the former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory Administration, FCTA, Mallam el-Rufai, while heading BPE, adding, “There was no proper internal audit arrangement for the project, a manual financial system is currently being used. There are major lapses in the retirement of advances, charges made by the project commercial bankers are deemed excessive and inconsistent, interests have not been credited on special account balance, expenses are incurred because no-objection was sought from the bank.
“The most important public enterprises, in terms of economic and social impact, have not yet been divested. Moreover, the bank expressed serious concern about inadequate transparency income transaction (e.g NITEL), and failure to comply with FGN’s privatisation procedures in a consistent fashion. “In addition fiduciary oversight and accountability of the privatisation proceeds Accounts(PPA) have been inadequate to date, and audit of these accounts are overdue.”
Also yesterday, former minister of aviation, Dr. Kema Chikwe, appeared before the committee to reply el-Rufai who had, on Thursday, accused her of contributing to the frustration encountered during the sale of Nigeria Airways through the stories she told Obasanjo.
Chikwe alleged that the former minister was not only corrupt, but is today busy “unleashing his political frustration “on innocent people, adding that, contrary to the claim by el-Rufai that she, Chikwe, frustrated the sale of Nigerian Airways, “el-Rufai laid a very controversial formulation in the privatisation of Nigeria Airways”.
She explained how el-Rufai had, in a letter, dated May 12, 2003, apologized to her over his use of inappropriate language over the pension matters in Nigeria Airways, adding that the former minister wanted every company he targeted for sale to remain the way it was before being sold.