By DENIS AGBO Abakaliki
Nigeria Cement Company Plc (NIGERCEM) Nkalagu, Ebonyi State, was incorporated in 1954. It was the first cement industry in Nigeria established by the then Eastern Nigeria regional government. Its fortunes, however, started dwindling in the 80s and by 2002 the five states of the South East decided to sell it to private investors. By then the factory had closed shops and was in huge debts.
The Eastern Bulkcem Company Limited (EBCL), owners of Eagle Cement in Port Harcourt emerged core investor in the bid, inheriting both assets and liabilities of Nigercem.Â It was expected that EBCL would immediately move in to save the company, resuscitate the factory in the face of high cost of building materials, create jobs and restore the philosophy of the founders of the cement industry but that was not to be as the company even at this moment remains a ghost of itself. Last year, Ebonyi State governor, Martin Elechi, mobilised the natives to overrun the factory and took possession of it, sending EBCL that had started gradual repairs of the factory packing. EBCL managing director, Vincent Nehikhare in this encounter exposes the intrigues, the handicaps and the fears of restoring production at Nigercem
WHAT is the Eastern Bulkcem Companyâ€™s side of the story in the impasse between it and Ebonyi government over the revitalization of Nigercem?
You see, right from the word go, I was party to acquisition of Nigercem and so there is nothing about Nkalagu that I donâ€™t know. It is our gesture of allowing Ebonyi State purchase 10 per cent out of our former 70 per cent as core investor on Nigercem that has put us in this problem.
Ebonyi appealed to us as owners of the land to have 10 per cent and we granted them that so they could take care of community problems. Let me quickly add here that the former governor of that state Dr. Sam Egwu has no share either in Eastern Bulkcem Company Limited (EBC) or Nigercem. He only asked us to sell 10 per cent to Ebonyi government. Egwu has never been to EBC. All these while, the present Ebonyi State government did not know the people that sold Nigercem.
The Ebonyi government among other allegations, says that Bulkcem lacks the financial muscle to turn around Nigericem. What are your reactions?
The issue is that for you to rehabilitate a plant as big as Nigercem, you will require some fund. Our financial capability is not just that you have cash. All the people that have built cement plants, Dangote, Flour Mills and Co, and Lafarge, they never took money from their pocket to go and start building a plant, nobody anywhere in the world does that. For one to have financial capability means that the person has the wherewithal, the muscle, the ability to raise that money.
If I can go to bank and they give me N200 million, but I donâ€™t have the immediate cash with me, it means that I have the capability. For instance, I can sit down here, call a bank and raise fifty million dollars without even leaving my office; that is financial capability. I have sat down in my office on several occasions and raised N500m, N1 billion without even signing any paper and later the bank will come to me and I will sign.
So our financial capability is not in doubt. It is not as if we donâ€™t have money that we did not immediately go into Nigercem after buying it. We were only playing safe. Normally, after you have acquired a plant like Nigercem, there is usually an all-parties meeting, where it will be announced that the plant has been sold and the media will cover it, but we did not do that because we kept waiting for the share certificates from the five states. The next thing we heard was that the TOCP that sold it to us had been disbanded and so what do we then do? Governments you cannot see, the TOCP members some live in Aba, some in Lagos, Abuja, they are all scattered.
So we now started going to the governors one after the other, what the TOCP would have done, the assignment of getting the cheques crossed in our name. The first state we started with was of course Ebonyi, who owns part of the company and they didnâ€™t waste time,.Â Immediately they gave us power of attorney.Â From there we moved to Enugu and Enugu refused, they dribbled us.
The Ebonyi government alleged you were cannibalizing the place and taking some equipment away.
It is not true. A lot of stealing and vandalization was going on even after we bought the place and we asked the state government to help us with security but they refused. The board decided that those equipment that are attracting thieves to that place, that we should sell the scraps and obsolete equipment. People were even called to bid for it and it was advertised.Â Even if we didnâ€™t do it at that time, we would have done that eventually because we donâ€™t need those things in our rehabilitation. We are bringing brand new items. The government makes me laugh.
The state government also accused you of abandoning Daewoo, the technical partner that you used to bid for Nigercom.
Yes. Daewoo was supposed to be our technical partner, we only signed a memorandum of understanding, not a full contract; that we are going to use you people as technical partners. Daewoo went to the plant to carryout a fiscal evaluation of the place, to give us a technical evaluation on what they would use in rehabilitation the place. Daewoo spent about five or six days going through the plant, they came up to tell us that yes it is doable, we could build a new plant that they donâ€™t advise us to rehabilitate anything but to just build a new plant and we said okay, go and give us a cost estimate on what you can use to build a new plant for us.
Gentlemen, as I am sitting here today, I have not received any cost estimate from Daewoo. We are not bound hands and legs with them and we even have right to dump Daewoo even if they had come up with any estimate. Even in our agreement with Daewoo, part of it states that actual contractual relationship can only commence after the acceptance of the cost for rehabilitation of Nkalagu. It is in the agreement. We were not bound to use Daewoo. After them, we even went to India. If we actually dumped them, they would have gone to court but they didnâ€™t. These are lies from Ebonyi and if the governor had sat down with us, all these would not have arisen. I think that the governor now is ashamed of how to turn around and say I am sorry.