By Hugo Odiogor
Prince Ned Nwoko is an international lawyer and a former member of the House of Representatives. In this interview, the Chairman of Linas International Limited, bares his mind on the challenges of pursuing creditor-countries to refund the excess deductions creamed off Nigeria’s repayment of foreign loans and other matters.
How would you describe your experience of the Paris Club refund?
Let me say that it is a mixed bag in terms of what Nigerians know of it and how the three tiers of government have treated it.At one level, there is a sense of accomplishment of what one has done for his country. When you do a patriotic duty and accomplish the task, there is a sense of accomplishment. Like the Association of Local Governments in Nigeria (ALGON) mentioned in their letter, it was a patriotic duty that involved a lot of risks and hard work, it took a lot of time and expertise to pursue the creditor-countries to refund the excess deduction of funds that they creamed off from Nigeria’s repayment of the foreign loans by the creditors. Of course this was a process that began in 1992 to 2002. The state governors are simply treating it as a windfall from the sale of crude oil or a form of bailout fund.
We pursued the matter from 1992 to 2002, when most of those who are treating the refund as bailout fund or windfall from the sale of crude oil have not even dreamt of venturing into politics.
You can imagine what it meants for a cash-strapped government to realise that it had such a huge sum of money somewhere and the federal and state governments have so far shared the sum of N413, 464,646, 605, from the Paris Club refund but I can tell you that it did not come that easy.
What do you mean by that?
We encountered hostility from the creditor-nations, some of them sent their security agents after us, some employed blackmail by threatening to severe diplomatic relations with Nigeria, some felt that we were impugning their national integrity, some even went ahead to instigate the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission against us to force us to pull back. Some government officials who felt that we were meddling in their affairs also built walls around us. It became an uphill task to obtain the documents where we needed forensic evidence to support our work.
How did you get involved in this assignment?
As an international legal firm, we had worked for some countries in Africa. The countries engaged our firm to assist them to verify the process of repayment of their foreign loans and, in the process, we discovered that there were unethical things that had taken place. With that as our background, we approached some state governments to act as their consultants to verify the issue of repayment of the foreign loans.
We entered into legally binding agreements with some of the states and, as we progressed, other states and local governments became interested. For instance, under the doctrine of collective sacrifice that was adopted by the Federal Ministry of Finance to deduct funds from states and local governments, deduction were made from the allocation to the states and local governments from the Federation Account.
The implication was that some states that were not in existence when the foreign loans were contracted suddenly found themselves making repayments for loans that they did not contract. The 774 local governments that never contracted any foreign loan were brought into the repayment. We found that some of the loans were of dubious origin. Old Gongola State was listed as having contracted a huge amount of foreign loan from an Austrian bank to build an international hotel. In the process of our investigation, the bank wrote to say that it had no business relation in Africa, let alone in Nigeria.
What is this controversy behind the Star University and International Golf Course?
Let me start by saying that there’s no controversy about the projects and what you refer to as controversy borders on the voices of dissent which exist in every environment. To me, that is normal and natural as people come from diverse backgrounds, we have different opinions, world views. The process of socialisation and social engineering is to mobilise and aggregate such different views to achieve a dominant position and galvanize it for a positive course.
There are people who don’t understand what the projects are all about and our duty is to educate them rather than alienate them.
There are those who feel that their positions would be threatened by the changes the projects would bring but there are others who are driven by envy because they are not the ones behind the projects or because they have not been invited to get involved. Of course there is a place for everyone as we move along. This is a long distance race.
We are embarking on legacy projects that would lift our rural communities to global recognition. It has to be started by someone and that is what we are doing. We don’t have the energy to dissipate on needless controversy.
What about the rash of publications?
There’s only one publication where some persons tried to mislead the people of Idumuje Ugboko and the general public. The rest have been responses from the elders, youths and other interest groups. They are reacting to the manner a group was used to issue a communiqué condemning the university and international golf Course projects. The way they obtained signatures to the communiqué has been condemned to the point that the youths have threatened to bring in the police to investigate it and bring criminal actions against those behind it. It is a needless distraction.
How far have you gone in meeting the requirements to start the projects?
We have spent over one year to prepare all the documents required by the NUC and we have paid the application fee required by the regulatory authority. We have a change of name from Sports University to Star University but our vision and mission to promote tourism and human capital development through sports remain the same.
We have paid the statutory application fee and we have spent over N90 million in preparing the necessary documents, the master plan, etc, which we have submitted to the regulatory authority. We want to state the National Universities Commission (NUC) insist on the following requirements before giving approval for a tertiary institution of this nature: evidence of availability of land as well as evidence like the Certificate of Occupancy and Customary Right of Occupancy, obtained from Delta State Government in 2016, payment of N5 million registration fee, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), report of the project site, preparation of the master plan. All these have taken more than N90 million. There have been inspection visits by officials of NUC preparatory to the take-off of the university.
We have applied and obtained the necessary land titles and documents since 2016. We understand the grouse of some persons who are opposed to the projects but we don’t intend to leave out anybody as Idumuje Ugboko Kingdom belongs to all of us.
It is pertinent to state here that the acquisition of land for the Star University and golf course followed due process and provisions in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) concerning the various stakeholders at national and international levels.
Under the MoU, one of the conditions for acquisition of the land for this project is that the land will revert to Idumuje Ugboko community, if the purpose for which it was acquired is not achieved within five years. This means that the acquisition of the land is not in perpetuity.
Again, the title of the land for the location of the proposed Star University is not in the name of an individual or corporate body but in the name of the project as required by the NUC Guidelines for Establishing Institutions of Higher Education in Nigeria.
We therefore have to develop it through conscious efforts and investments. Look at how much money China is pumping into sports now. Sports is one index of measuring the economic development of nations. In all major competitions, countries that are regarded as developed or emerging nations often occupy the top spots.
We must not treat sports as an adjunct if we must be taken seriously. The idea of the golf course is to create an international event that would bring international visitors to Idumuje Ugboko. This would help to promote the tourist potentials of this kingdom. We are making steady progress on both projects. We had a team of inspectors from the NUC which was at the project site in November 2016.
Don’t you think that the scope of the curriculum is too narrow?
It depends on what you mean by being too narrow. First, you will provide a platform for general and specialised training. There are courses in sports laws and contracts, medical researches into medicine, nutrition for sports people the fields of study are endless. This will be the first of its kind in sub-Sahara Africa and, with a golf course attached to it, there is nothing more that you need to kick-off the tourist potentials of Idumuje Ugboko, the location of the project. The Asaba International Airport will spring to life. Hotels in Asaba and Abuja will boom as international visitors, especially, sports men and women who would come from overseas to study or lecture in the university, participate in golf tournaments.
This is a capital intensive and being funded privately?
You are correct but one step at a time. We have met with the guidelines for the establishment of a university by the NUC, we have paid the application fee and we have spent about N100 million in preparing the documents for acquisition of land, especially the Certificate of Occupancy and Customary Right of Occupancy. We have 90 hectares of land although NUC stipulated 100 hectares in its guidelines; we have prepared the master plan and signed MoU with the community where the project is located.
The land forms forty percent equity contribution of the people of Idumuje Ugboko but there is also a clause that if the land is not utilised within five years for the purpose that it was applied for, it will revert to the community. We will take off on a temporary site while we gradually work on the permanent site. This is a dream come true.
These projects would deprive the community of their land?
That is the impression that the enemies of progress want to create. The opponents of the project want to create that impression but I can tell you that there is nothing like land-grabbing here. There is nothing like land-grabbing because the land in question forms 40 percent equity of Idumuje-Ugboko’s equity that is invested in to the university and Golf course project.
Before the town became officially involved, we had bought and paid for the required land from most of the farmers. However, when it came to the attention of the land allocation committee and the traditional Onotu group charged with dealing with land disputes, they invited me and informed me that the land in question belongs to the community and not the farmers. It was at this point that I was told that I should make a formal application to the community for the land and pay the relevant fees to the land allocation committee.
This was to ensure that the benefits went to all sons and daughters of Idumuje-Ugboko. In addition to that, we signed the Memorandum of Understanding, which had a condition that the said land would revert to Idumuje-Ugboko if, after five years of allocation the land had not been put to use in the manner for which it was allocated.
We have pursued our requests for land legally. We have paid compensation to community land users and, for two years now, we have pursued the Certificate of Occupancy and the Customary Right of Occupancy which we obtained in 2016.
Our vision to build a university and a golf course in Idumuje-Ugboko, if after five years of the land allocation did not developed, the land will revert to Idumuje-Ugboko people. Either way Ugboko will not suffer any loss.