By Yemie Adeoye & Luka Binniyat
BORN 5th July, 1963, Hon, Aminu Shehiu Shagari, Chairman, House of Represenatives Committee on Steel, graduated from the Ahmadu Bello University Zaria with a Law degree in 1988 and went to the NigerianÂ Law School that same year. HeÂ carried out his National Youth ServiceÂ Ibadan, in 1989.Â He then went into private Legal Service, with his Cousin, Alh. Muktari Shagari (former Minister of Water Resources and now Deputy Governor of Sokoto State.)
Shagari told Vanguard in this exclusive interview, that, â€œI was so sure I would make a change, I was so serous and determined that I must make a change within the constitutional powers available to our committeeâ€, he said. â€œAnd I told him soâ€, he said.
But, in this interview with Vanguard, two months later, he said he was not too sure if he could truly effect that change at ASCL.
What has been your experience as the Chairman of the committee on Steel of the House of Representatives?
My experience, I must say, has not been pleasant. You know that the sector has been bedevilled by a lot of problems. And the problems have been there for quite a while. When we came on board, we went to see the Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited (ASCL) and what we saw there was really saddening, to say the least. And we also went to see the Nigerian Iron Ore Mining CompanyÂ (NIOMCO), Itakpe, and it was the same sad story. When we went to Ajaokuta, we were received by the workers. The gave us a very nice reception. But before we went, we had sent a letter to the Ministry Of Mines and Steel Development asking them of the situation in these two companies, to prepare us to meet the workers when we would have arrived there.
Before I go on, I want to remind you that after the Federal Government Terminated the concession given Global Infrastructure Holding Limited (GIHL), the salary of workers had not been paid for some period. Even when we came on board this year, there salary was not added to the Budget of this year.
So, we had written asking the Ministry what we were going to tell the workers on this and other matters. The Ministry had then replied us saying that a memo has been written to the Presidency asking for N2.6 (or was it N2.7) billion for payment of Staff Salary and arrears.
That was after the 2009 budget was passed?
Yes! That was just about a month or so ago. So armed with this information, we went to Ajaokuta Steel and we informed the workers that a memo has been written to Mr. President on their salary, assuring them that they would be paid. We then moved on to inspect the Steel complex, and we were indeed very sad with what we saw. We were very, very sad. Sincerely, I could not s sleep for most of the night when I returned.
It was reported in the papers that you could hardly control your emotion as you shaded tearsâ€¦ (laughter) Before going there, I had told myself, that no matter what I find there, I would control myself. But when I we got there, and I saw the magnitude of effort, the amount of money sank, and how everything seemed so rubished, I could not help but pity the founding fathers of this project. How there dream had been thwarted.Â How there dream has come to nothing.That could be quite moving, no doubt about that, .more so that the plant was built when your father (Alh. Shehu Shagari ) was President.
Not, really because of thatâ€¦ When we were there, _Â I must tell you this story _Â one Journalist , asked me, saying, â€œlook, Ajaokuta Steel Complex has turned into more of a tourist attraction for big men and women over the year. We would be told that some important person would be visiting. We would be around as they take the VIP around. This big men would make big promises and go and nothing ever changes.. How can you assure us that this is not just one of these trips?â€ I told the Journalist that the way I feel, that when I returned, I would use all my powers as the Chairman of the Steel Committee of the House to make sure that ASCL was revitalised. And I meant it. So, when I came, I thought I could really make a change. But, my brother, the hurdle I am seeing right now, I am not sure if I could effect that change anymore. I am becoming very, very demoralised. Because as I am speaking now, the salary of these workers have not been paid.
From November last year till now. And even if you pay these arrears, you have to talk about the rest of the year. This was one of the reasons that we called the Minister of Mines and Steel Development last week. When she came, after several attempts to get her here, we asked her what she was doing about the salary of these workers. All she told us was that negotiation was going to start tomorrow. After they had told us before our trip to Ajaokuta that workers salary was to paid around that time.
Negotiation with whom?
That negotiation was going on â€¦ whether they are going to pay 40 or 50% or whatever. And that whether they were going to retain 40 or 60% of the workforce, I didnâ€™t quite understand what they were saying. At the end of the meeting, the Minister left with more questions than answers.
When the Minister came for the budget defence of the Ministry last December, we were there when you asked her if the salary of the workers was captured in her proposed budget, and she turned to one of her Directors, who whispered into her ears. She then turned to you and said, â€œyes it has been captured in theÂ budget of the Interim Management Committee (IMC)Â of the two companies. But, we knew it was a lie â€¦Of course I alluded to that even in my inaugural speech. I said that the workers had not been paid. We tried as much as possible to â€¦ I understand why their salary was not captured in the last budget.
It is because they were under GIHL. But when the concession stopped, and the matter went to court, the fate of the workers had not been determined whether they are now staff of the Federal Government or staff of GIHL. So the workers were cut in between. Unfortunately, we could not say who was responsible for that. And that was why their salary wasÂ not put in the budget. But, if you employ workers, you have to pay them. They have to survive; they have to live; they must cater for their families. So it is so unfortunate that they are still left unattended to for so long.
And I praise them for being so patient. I received a letter from them ten days ago, warning us of an impending strike very soon. So IÂ informed the Minister about this and she told me that they are already talking with the Minister ofÂ Finance and that they are trying to see what they can do about it. On my part, I have spoken to the Chairman House Committee on Mines and Solid Minerals. From what the Minister of Mines and Steel had told me, the 1st and 2nd quarter allocation has not been released to them. She told me that because of that, they could not do anything, even from the small amount that was appropriated in the budget. You can imagine that. Now, that is not to even talk of what is not in the budget, like workers salary. So when I talked with the Solid Mineral chairman, we agreed to jointly call the Minister and find out why no money has been released to the steel sector. Because this sector needs to be revitalised, if the small amount N4.7 billionÂ put in budgetÂ is not released, how do you expect the sector to be revitalised? And we are talking about vision 20_20_20.
We cannot ignore the steel sector, if Government continue to ignore the steel sector. Every one knows that the fastest way of attaining the vision 20_20_20 is via steel. This is very, very unfortunate. If donâ€™t revitalised the steel sector, expert have say that we would not evenÂ make number 50 of the most developed countries by 20_20_20. So, now is the time, to start.
What about the Technical Audit of ASCL?
One billion naira was voted for it in this yearâ€™s budget. I think so. We are now over midway of the year. Yet this money has not been released to the Ministry. AndÂ it takes all kinds of procedure to do carry out the technical audit. So now that no money is on ground, when are we going to get started?Â Because, from what I hear, the technical audit takes a long time to complete, even when the consultants are on ground with their equipments. Now, some people are asking if Ajaokuta is really viable or not. Some are saying the place should be auctioned. For goodness sake!
Donâ€™t you now believe that Ajaokuta Steel Complex is jinxed?
Of course not! No! Not at all! This plant, as one of the Engineers has told us, is the â€œRussian Mistakeâ€. That is, the Russians so ruggedly built Ajaokuta to such perfection and durability that, it would look like a mistake on their side to have given us such cutting edge technology then and now. The same way Peugeot 504 is called French mistake and the Mercedes Benze 200, German Mistake. Because even afterÂ abandoning the machines their for over a decade, when we went and some of them were switched on, they were working in perfect conditions. Large cranes that carry raw materials, conveyor beltsâ€¦ and the Light Section Mill are still working.
The man that took us round said that if we give them money, within three to four days, they will start production. That was what they told us. And if you go to the workshop there, they still do some skeletal services. They import billet, melt them and they are turned them into all kinds products. If you bring any metal, they can fabricate it into anything you wantâ€¦ such as this (showing a beautifully carvedÂ standing bronzeÂ plaque with ASCL engravings)
â€¦ They gave me this when we went there. There are so many other things they do, very unbelievable, until you see them. And that makes me feel sad that our leaders could allow such an economic monument to deteriorate to such a level. And let me tell you something quickly. The countries that we started steel voyage together, have long left us behind â€“ Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, India, South Korea â€“ all started their steel development in the late â€˜70s and early â€˜80s. Now, look at where they are? Most of them have gone into nuclear technology. They are heavily industrialised, and we still struggling to complete and start just one steel production plant. Look at Brazil, all these large luxurious buses you see are made their. It is unfortunate that we are where we find ourselves today.
What is the amount owed ASCL and NIOMCO workers?
As at the time we went, they said it was N2.7 billion. But, now we should be talking about N3 billion, going by the submission of the Minister last week.
From a newspaper report, it was Gathered that Mr. Lakshmil Milltall owner of Accelor â€“ Mittal Steel, and the senior bother of Pramod Mital (owner of GIHL) has been holding talks with a high government official. That the official has assured Mr. Mittal of Nigerians government willingness of handing him over ASCL and NIOMCO in view of his reputation as the world leading steel leading magnate. Is your committee aware of this?
Thank you very much. I also read it in the newspapers, in the front page of Thisday Newspaper in March this year, that, â€œFG approaches another Mittal to take over ASCLâ€
When the Minister came, I pointed it out to her, that if the Federal Government is going to do something like this, our Committee ought to have been informed. And to our surprise, she said, â€œhonestly, I saw it in the paper just the way you didâ€. She said it was the Minister of Justice and theÂ Attorney General that is in talks with them. And she said, whether a committee was being set up or something over the issue for her to chair. Now, look at it! We canâ€™t just be doing things arbitrarily.
We are here as representatives of the people. To protect the interest of the electorate. We would not allow a national treasure like Ajaokuta to be sold off to some bounty hunter just like that.Â I have nothing against Mittal. I understand he is one of the richest people in this world and is one of the best when it comes to steel in the world.
If it is looked into by professionals, by well meaning experts that giving Ajaokuta Steel company to another MittalÂ is the best way of moving the steel sector forward, I have no problem with that. What I am saying is that let every relevant official and investor inÂ the steel sector and steel business in NigerianÂ be involved. Let there be due process in selecting the next concessionaire for Ajaokuta â€“ if concession is still the choice of government for running Ajaokuta.Let us all know and be sure that, yes, this is the best thing. Lets not again fall into grips of selfish interest. That is exactly why we are still here â€“ selfish interest.