By Hakeem Baba Ahmad
“Price, (n). value, plus a reasonal sum for the wear and tear of conscience in demanding it.” –Ambrose Bierce.
THE nation is being reminded that the interests of politicians is superior to all institutions, rules and processes, including the public service and procurement processes. Events are unfolding which explain why our politics in Nigeria is so anti-people, and how politicians are running our economy aground.
Just when you thought that the murky waters that swallowed former Minister of Power, Barth Nnaji may have receded to reveal slightly more level grounds, very powerful Governors are opening up a new front in a fight involving poorly-masked personal interests.
By the time this drama is concluded, the vital interests of Nigerian citizens in the pivotal privatisation of the power sector may have been further compromised. The integrity of the exercise will be questioned, and it is very likely that other quarrels over the process of selecting firms would be heard in the near future.
The crown jewel in the reform process is in danger of being plucked by a dispute over what is the most appropriate process to follow in privatising distribution companies. Governors of Edo, Delta and Ekiti last week complained that the company they have backed, Southern Electricity Distribution Company, which lost at a critical stage of the bidding process, has been unfairly assessed.
Therefore, it is in danger of losing out in the final analysis to Vigeo Power Consortium, which emerged as leading bidder.
Although the process was at that stage incomplete, the Governors came, guns ablaze, to denounce the entire exercise, and threaten that they will prevent Vigeo from taking over power distribution in their areas.
They insisted that they had invested heavily in generating infrastructure, and they would rather have the company they preferred, which has extensive knowledge and, presumably, their clout to operate in the zone. Nigerians took note of “area boys” mentality among state governors, and were sadly reminded of the intimate linkages between political power, corruption and violence.
Stung by weighty accusations that the entire ongoing processes of privatising the power sector was fraught with corruption, Chairman of the National Council on Privatisation, Mr. Atedo Peterside, with the mandate of the Vice President who is chairman of the National Council on Privatisation, followed up on the Bureau for Public Enterprises’ repudiation of the claims of the Governors with a detailed rebuttal.
He blasted the Governors for crying foul over an in complete process, perhaps because they feared that their preferred company will lose. But he said more.
The appearance of a “pre-emptive” strike by the Governors may have been a ploy to cover what Mr. Peterside said was evidence of abuse of the process by the governors’ preferred company which may lead to its disqualification. Mr. Peterside insists the entire process is being informed by the highest possible standards of openness, technical competence and transparency.
The governors do not agree. They say they have evidence that Southern beat Vigeo in evaluation scores, and the method being adopted by the NCP is untested and not transparent.
The nation took note of the foundations for widespread disputes over the entire eleven distribution companies scattered all over the country.
These disputes over power distribution companies are severely damaging for an administration which puts out power sector reforms as its flagship, and about the only area in which Nigerians desperately hope the administration’s words would be kept. It has not been without a whole cupboard full of skeletons either.
It suffered loss of credibility in the dismissal of the former Minister of Power; on questions raised over the divestment proceeds (N400 billion); over the high profile nature of the Nigerians backing investors; on concerns over politics and the process; over pronounced regional sentiments and persistent claims that even those who oversee the process have deep personal interests in key outcomes.
These questions around the process, genuine or contrived, may have informed the bellicous demands of the governors to have their own company, qualified or not. Will they get what they want in the end, as a capitulating political concession, and out of the fear that they will make life difficult for any other company to operate in the area?
If one the one hand the process refuses to yield to the demand of the governors, and stands its ground to operate above political interests, it could very well award the Disco covering Edo, Ekiti, Delta and Ondo to Vigeo. What then would the governors do?
If on the other hand, the process is stampeded by political pressure, compromises key indices and hands over the Benin Disco to Southern, it could very well open the floodgates to similar demands from other geo-political units which will demand that they have preferred bidders of their own.
It will taint the entire process, and leave only one conclusion: political muscle and barely-concealed personal interests are still vital elements of the procurement process in Nigeria. This will not be new in Nigeria, but it will sink the entire power sector privatisation programme.
As things stand now, it is difficult to see how confidence over this process can be sustained. The governors of the states appear to have dealt a very serious blow to it. If their weighty allegations are false, it will take more than Mr .Peterside or even the Vice president to discredit them effectively.
This has to be done by President Jonathan himself, or his flagship will be torpedoed by powerful governors in a region which is his strongest political constituency.
Will President Jonathan take on the governors of Edo, Ekiti, Delta and Ondo, and will they blink first?
In the event that the entire process cannot be salvaged by the presidency owing to overpowering political pressures, the House of Representatives should step in and conduct a thorough and open investigation over the entire privatisation process.
Dispute over appropriate process
The disputes over what is the appropriate process to follow in matters where vital public interest is involved and massive resources are at stake is central to the quality of governance.
Isolating the process from very narrow interests which compromise it and deprive the people of huge benefits is one of the most important ways to fight corruption. The world over, this is not easy to achieve; but in Nigeria, it has never been more necessary.
The on-going privatisation of the power sector is a key test over whether President Jonathan has the political will to push through difficult, but ultimately rewarding policies. Nigerians should watch the outcome of the dispute over the Benin Disco with keen interest.