By Owei Lakemfa
HADIZA Bala Usman, politician and social activist, was until last Thursday, May 6, the Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority, NPA. But on that day, President Muhammadu Buhari yanked her off and ordered an investigation of her stewardship in the agency. As in almost all such cases, the report of the investigation may never not see the light of day. Usually, such investigations are to keep the concerned official quiet while the report will be kept handy, in case the need arises to descend on such officials. In Nigeria’s dog-eat-dog system, the father can devour the daughter and life will simply go on.
However, I am more inclined to sympathise with her because in my analysis, she was built to fail; the job given her was a technical, not political one.
The mandate of the NPA is to develop, own and operate ports and harbours, provide safe and navigable channel, offer cargo handling and storage services, maintain port facilities and equipment, ensure safety and security and develop and own property. The agency is involved directly in, or supervising cargo handling, stevedoring, warehousing and delivery, acquisition of cargo handling and operations related equipment, development and maintenance of ports’ superstructure, maintenance of safety and security within the terminal, towage, mooring, bunkering, ship chandelling and ship repairs. These are core technical jobs, not job for the boys or girls.
To head such a technical octopus organisation, Usman came with a first degree in Business Administration and a second in Development Studies. Her work experience was mainly in the Non-Governmental Organisation, NGO, world. She began work in 1999 as a Research Assistant in the Democratic Development and Research Training Centre established by her father, professor Bala Usman.
Then as Enterprise Officer with the Bureau of Public Enterprises from July 2000 to August 2004. From October 2004 to January 2008, She was Special Assistant, Project Implementation to the Federal Capital Minister, and was from 2011 to July 2015, Director of Strategy of the NGO, Good Governance Group for Nigeria when she was appointed Chief of Staff to the Governor of Kaduna State. The following year, she was handed the NPA post.
So, with no requisite technical knowledge or competence and insufficient managerial experience, she was placed at the apex of the NPA and made to run the agency even before learning how to crawl. It was like placing the head of an elephant on a child’s head to carry. That was what the Buhari administration did to poor Hadiza.
Given the circumstances and the mindset, her performance was bound to be controversial. To me, her most controversial steps and decisions evolve around a dispute between an indigenous company and a foreign contractor who had entered into a partnership on a project.
The Federal Government had in 2006 leased a Free Zone land to the company. But the contractor had in 2017 approached the NPA for direct deals, thereby bypassing the Nigerian company. However, the NPA under Usman, in a November 6, 2017 letter, advised the foreigners to channel their applications through the Nigerian company which had the land lease.
On November 26, 2018, President Buhari approved a new 25-year Presidential lease of the land to the Nigerian company. This was conveyed to the company by the parent Ministry of Transport, while the NPA under Usman implemented the Presidential approval by accepting the Nigerian company’s consent letter and receiving its lease payments for the years 2018 –2020 for which it issued receipts.
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But in a strange twist, the Usman NPA management on November 14, 2019, without giving the Nigerian company any hearing or notice, carved out 11.2426 hectares of the leased land and handed it to the foreign contractors.
When the company protested and pointed out that the NPA’s actions amounted to overriding a Presidential decision, the Usman administration began to give excuses for its illegal actions. First, it claimed the company subleased that portion of the land without permission. But the company put a lie to that by producing the permission the NPA had given it five years earlier.
Then, it changed gear by claiming the Nigerian company did not forward the sublease agreement timeously. Again, the company punctured this claim.
Then the Usman management accused the company of subleasing the land at a higher rate than it pays NPA. The company’s response was that first, there is no rent control or ceiling. Secondly, that it had developed the leased land with over $100 million, including a $25 million loan from the Bank of Industry, N6.09 Billion loan from the Central Bank and a $25 million loan guaranteed by the Nigeria Local Content Development and Monitoring Board, NCDMB. So, it cannot sublease a developed land at the same rate it pays the NPA for a swampy land.
The Nigerian company also claimed that the foreign contractor had manipulated documents leading to the watering down of its shared ratio from the initial 80:20 per cent, to 30:70 per cent in favour of the contractor.
The contractor used the lease documents the NPA had given it to apply to the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority, NEPZA, to be granted the status of a free zone. But the latter rejected it on the basis that the company needed Presidential approval and that from its records, the land in question belonged to the Nigerian company.
The company petitioned the Federal Government, and the Ministry of Justice stepped into the case. The foreign contractor agreed to abide by the Ministry’s arbitration. The Ministry having heard all sides and consulted bodies like the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NEPZA, NCDMB, Customs and the Industry and Trade Ministry, on January 30, 2020, issued its 14-page findings personally signed by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Abubakar Malami, SAN.
The Ministry found that the NPA’s “actions amount to an attempt to unilaterally overturn Mr President’s 2018 actions(that) NPA did not follow the law and due process…”
The findings also showed the NPA violated the indigenous company’s tenant rights and worked with the foreign contractor “to attempt to usurp” the company’s lease and investments in favour of the foreign contractor.
The Justice Ministry also directed the restoration of the 80:20 per-cent shareholding ratio of the project in favour of the local company because a so-called agreement cannot be used to amend a subsisting law.
But Usman felt she was the authority at the NPA, was untouchable and would not abide either by the Ministry’s findings or the country’s laws.
While having a good pedigree as the daughter of the dogged fighter, Prof Bala Usman, who was a mentor to many of us, Hadiza Bala Usman is symbolic of some of the things wrong with Nigeria and why we are not developing.