By Levinus Nwabughiogu
Before speaking to the issues, they first entertained Nigerians. These were the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties, Protocols and Agreements, Hon. Ossa Nicholas Ossai and the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Ameachi at the National Assembly probe on the Chinese loans
The theatrics were entertaining yet very absurd and infantile. They were supposed to speak to the issues and give tangible clarifications but they resorted to verbal fisticuffs. They were combative, argumentative and fierce, throwing temper tantrums. Incidentally, the room was hot. The air conditioners had since packed up and so, everyone swallowed hard in a muzzled up sweat fight.
Those were the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties, Protocols and Agreements, Hon. Ossa Nicholas Ossai and the Minister of Transportation, Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Ameachi.
The day was Monday, August 17, 2020 and the Minister had appeared before the Committee to answer to questions arising from the terms, conditions, procedures and implementation of the $500 million Chinese loans to Nigeria.
The Committee had sat on a previous day and in the course of a painstaking scrutiny of the loan agreements, sensitive discoveries revolving around the sovereignty of Nigeria, local content components, arbitration centre among others were made.
And so tempers flared up from across the divide and the issues apparently got well politicized even before the next adjourned date, August 17.
For purposes of recapitulation, Nigerians heard and read the lawmakers saying that a part of the Nigeria’s sovereignty was ceded to China and in return, the Minister warned that probing the loans could cost Nigeria the full package of the facility to complete the ongoing rail projects.
And so, on Monday, both parties came apparently prepared to further push their convictions albeit in a fierce manner.
Before them were their counterparts from both sides who helplessly turned to spectators. While Ossai led his colleagues seated on the podium, Ameachi was not only accompanied by some officials of his ministry, he had his colleague Ministers such as Mohammed Bello (FCT), Babatunde Fashola (Works and Housing), Ali Pantami (Digital Communication) and Police Affairs Minister seated across the aisle.
In his opening remarks, Ossai noted the issues. He said it was the responsibility of the lawmakers to ensure that Nigerians were not shortchanged in the loan processes, adding there was another $33m to the loans.
He said: “The National Assembly through this Committee will work to ensure that proper due diligence is taken by various MDAs before, during and after negotiations/signing of all bilateral loan and contractual agreements. We believe that both the Government and Nigerians appreciate the fact that bilateral loan agreements are not just about of infrastructural development but also a matter of national interest and national security; because the future of our children and unborn children are involved.
“As such, the efforts of this Committee to review the status of these agreements to ensure that it’s done with the best interest of the Nigerian people in focus, monitor the progress of its operation, management and administration by the relevant agencies of government in line with the terms of the agreements and recommend a more transparent and open process in accordance with our enabling laws and international best practices, should be seen by all stakeholders in the Nigerian project as a welcome development.
“Based on public statements and reporting alone, especially since our last meeting here, we have heard/seen comments and analysis on major television networks and national dailies by key actors, which have not accurately conveyed the severity of the issues and what the current structure of these loans/contracts agreements may portend for our nation if not properly planned and managed well…
“We have noticed from documents available to us that commercial contracts prices signed by Federal Ministry of Transport alone within this is over USD$33billion Dollars without any clear cut financing arrangements. Most of these commercial contracts agreements didn’t also have local content clauses and were witnessed by none properly designated and authorized officials. There are observable issues relating to procurement process, evidences of 15% advanced payments, payment of management fees, drawdown process and remittances and a whole lot of other matters, which we are strongly poised to ask questions on and hopes to get honest answers that will fine tune the current process, plan for possible renegotiation of some of these agreements in order to serve Nigerians better.”
Committee hearing in heated argument
The hearing had begun on a friendly note with the Director-General, Debt Management Office, Mrs. Patience Oniha on the hot seat, taking questions on the detail of the loans. It then progressed to the Minister of Finance, Zaniab Ahmed who was represented by Permanent Secretary, Special Duties, Aliyu Ahmed.
The proceedings later panned to the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Rotimi Chubuike Ameachi.
Questions put to him by the Chair of the committee on the local content components of the loan agreements however returned in monosyllabic answers without details. It later degenerated to an altercation, prompting the intervention of a member of the Committee, Hon. Wole Oke who wanted to make an input probably to break the flow of the sprawling hot exchanges. There were altercations between Amaechi and Ossai. It was explosive.
Gbajabiamila’s unannounced intervention
With the House getting more heated up, the Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila stormed into the Committee hearing unannounced and demanded for 10 to 15 minutes break.
“Can we, please have a 10 to 15 minute break?” Gbajabiamila pleaded and stormed out almost immediately.
In quick succession, the Chairman of the Committee formerly announced a 30 minute break and the House broke up. When it reconvened, both men wore decorum even though they later sweated again. But this time not out of the palpitation of the heart but the weather in the stuffy and suffocating room.
The committee also took oral presentations from other officials of government and adjourned to the next day, Tuesday, August 18. But on resumption the next day, the Chairman frowned at late submissions of documents by the head of agencies and announced one week adjournment to enable the members to study the papers. Before leaving, he announced the inclusion of the Ministers of Justice and Finance, Abubakar Malami and Zanaib Ahmed into the probe, saying it has become necessary to bring them to answer some questions.
Obviously, the altercation between Ossai and Ameachi shouldn’t come to Nigerians as a surprise. To the keen analyst, the unhealthy developments at the Committee are telltales of an unsavory outcome. Doubts are now in rife in some quarters that should both parties eventually yield grounds for a frank talk, the report of the Committee may still be ignored and consigned into the dustbin of history.