Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
When would the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties, Loans and Protocol resume its investigation into the various loans obtained by the Federal Government from China? The question is begging for answers.
The probe of the Chinese loans obtained by the Federal Government from 2000 to date has been a source of controversy within and outside the House.
The House had on May 12 adopted a motion mandating the Committee “to examine all extant China/Nigeria loan agreements since 2000 with a view to ascertaining their viability, regularising and renegotiating them” and “to liaise with the Ministry of Finance, and the Debt Management Office to seek the review or outright cancellation of the latest China loans to Nigeria, on the principle of force majeure in the light of the COVID-19.”
The sponsor of the motion, Ben Igbakpa, in his motion had informed the House that the country has borrowed $6.5 billion (or N1.9 trillion) from the EXIM Bank of China since 2002.
According to him, “at the last count, Nigeria has obtained 17 Chinese loans to fund different categories of capital projects and Nigeria would still be serving the Chinese loans till around 2038, the maturity date for the last loans obtained in 2018.”
The Committee Chairman, Ossai Nicholas Ossai, at the inception of the investigation on July 28 raised the alarm that some of the loan agreements signed by the government constitute threats to the sovereignty of the country.
Ossai stated specifically that the loan agreement on Nigeria National Information and communication technology infrastructure backbone, phase II project between the government of Nigeria, represented by the federal ministry of finance(borrower) and the Export-Import Bank of China (lender) dated September 5, 2018, puts the country in jeopardy in the event of a default.
According to him, Article 8(1) of the agreement states that “ the borrower hereby irrevocably waives any immunity on the grounds of sovereign or otherwise for itself or its property in connection with any arbitration proceeding pursuant to Article 8(5), thereof with the enforcement of any arbitral award pursuant thereto, except for the military assets and diplomatic assets”.
The disclosure caused a stir in the polity, as stakeholders berated the government for allegedly jeopardising the sovereignty of the country with endless loans from China.
Regardless, Amaechi had at the commencement of the probe panel appealed to the committee to suspend the probe of the latest $500 million loan, the country is seeking from China to complete rail projects in the country, until the loan has been obtained.
“Let the government of China not say there was a disagreement in government on this loan and so we will not give this loan. So, I appeal to the chairman to give us from now till December, when we are likely to secure the loans, “ the minister begged. However, the committee rejected the plea and directed Amaechi to appear before it on August 17.
Ossai, at the resumed hearing on August 17, noted that the committee observed that government officials sign “empty pages of loan agreements repayment schedule and other key documents required for the loan agreements to become effective.”
There was, however, a twist when Ossai pointedly told the chairman, House Committee on Public Accounts (PAC), Oluwole Oke, was present at the investigative hearing, that he was not a member of his committee. Oke had raised a point of observation, saying he needed to guide the panel chairman, so that “ we have a very fruitful and result oriented” hearing.
However, the chairman retorted:”you can’t guide me. Honourable member, you are co-opted into this committee. I am in charge of this committee. Thank you.”.
Amidst intrigues, on August 18, on whether the panel should adjourn for one week or sine -die, the Committee adjourned for one week to enable the Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed and other key government functionaries, who have anything to do with the loans appear before it.
Ironically, two days later, the House leadership suspended all Committee probes, thereby stalling the Chinese loans investigation. The House leader, Alhassan Ado Doguwa had in a letter dated August 19, directed chairmen of standing and ad-hoc committees in the House to suspend all investigations and other committee activities pending the resumption of the National Assembly on September 15. According to him, committees should not sit during vacations.
The failure of the House to resume the probe seven weeks after resumption, has given room to all sorts of conspiracy theories and conjectures, with many reading political undertones to it.
Pundits say the suspension of committee activities was more or less an alibi to stall the Chinese loans probe, which is considered embarrassing to the All Progressives Congress (APC) government. Prior to the directive to committee chairmen to suspend all investigations, Ossai had reportedly come under pressure to either apply the brakes or soft-pedal on the probe.
Recall that Amaechi at the second hearing of the Committee had described the investigation as politically induced, threatening to open a can of worms about the dealings of past Peoples Democratic Party (PDP)-led Federal Government in his ministry. Ossai is a member of the PDP.
According to the PDP spokesman, Kola Ologbondiyan, “It is clear that the shutdown directive is targeted at frustrating revelations from ongoing investigations on the $500 billion foreign loan from China, particularly as it relates to the mortgaging of our nation’s sovereignty to China.”
However, Ado -Doguwa, in response to the PDP, noted that the Committee had no right to pry into the last $500million loan to be obtained from China for now.
He said: “It ’s pertinent to know that the government has already captured the recent loan in the 2020 Appropriation law and it should not be a subject of any controversy or query in the committee’s investigation process at least for now.”
Nevertheless, the chairman, House Committee on Media and Publicity, Benjamin Kalu told Daily Sun that the probe has not been thwarted.
According to him, the ongoing defence of the 2021 budget by Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) is responsible for the delay in the resumption of the Chinese loans probe. However, he said the Committee Chairman should know better, why the probe is yet to commence. Nevertheless, when our correspondent sought the reaction of Ossai, he did not give any categorical answer on the status of the investigation.
Unresolved questions from NDDC probe
The controversy trailing the Chinese loans probe is not an isolated case. Since the inception of the ninth House, most of the major investigations and bills before the parliament have been contentious.
Like the probe of the Chinese loans, the probe of the alleged financial malfeasance by the Interim Management Committee (IMC) of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) is trailed by controversy.
During the NDDC probe, the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godswill Akpabio, had alleged that members of the House of Representatives were major beneficiaries of contracts in the NDDC. Embarrased by the allegation, Gbajabiamila gave the minister a 48-hour ultimatum to substantiate his claims or face litigation.
Gbajabiamila, in his reaction, had noted: “I will take this allegation and accusation very seriously. And I will give the minister (Akpabio) 24 to 48 hours to publish the names, the contracts so given, the dates because obviously these things will be documented; unveil the companies of the 60 per cent projects that were given to members of the National Assembly.”
Akpabio, in response to the speaker’s ultimatum, had written to the House to explain himself. However, the minister’s letter, which was read at plenary by Gbajabiamila, muddled the waters, the more as the PDP caucus is accusing the speaker of not reading the entire content to members.
The caucus, in an a open letter by its leader, Kingsley Chinda, to Gbajabiamila, called for an independent probe into the allegations against members by Akpabio.
According to Chinda “…We are worried that after the minister responded to your 48-hour ultimatum, you only read part and not the entire content of his letter to the House. The version of the letter published in the social media was much longer; and it specifically mentioned names including some members of the National Assembly.
“The letter does not exonerate all members of the House as we were told. In fact it directly mentioned some members in different conflicting and problematic situations with the NDDC.”
Regardless, the House spokesman dismisses allegation that the Speaker did not read the entire content of Akpabio ‘s letter as unfounded, insisting that it did not indict members of the House.
Curiously too, the Green Chamber is yet to consider the report of NDDC Committee on alleged financial malfeasance in interventionist agency, over three months after it was laid before the House. The committee report, which was slated for consideration on July 23 was stepped down and had not been called up since then.
Similarly, efforts by the House to enact a bill on the control of infectious diseases and the National Water Resources Bill were trailed by controversies.
The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, which was sponsored by Gbajabiamila and two others, sought to amend the Quarantine Act and empower the Nigeria Centre for Control of Infectious Diseases (NCDC) in the fight against infectious diseases.
The deputy speaker, Idris Wase, after the bill was read for the first time had referred it to the Committee of the Whole, side-stepping public hearing.
Uzoma Nkem Abonta, who raised concerns about the decision of the leadership not to subject it to public hearing, had wondered: “How can you give somebody a right to immunise us; to give us vaccination whether we like it or not?”
Nevertheless, after a barrage of criticism from members of the public, the speaker buckled and referred the bill to the Committee on Health Services for public hearing.
On the other hand, the National Water Resources Bill, which was carried over from the eight Assembly sought to give the Federal Government control of any river that traverses more than one state. The resolution of the House to reintroduce the bill and refer it to the Committee of the Whole had raised suspensions about the real intentions of the parliament.
However, after a heated debate on matter of privilege raised by Bem Mzondu, from Benue, who described the reintroduction of the bill as an ambush and breach of due process, the proposed legislation was withdrawn; to be re-gazetted.
Kalu maintains that nothing unusual has happened about the various contentious probe and bills before the House. “ I don’t see any controversy. The leadership of the House that constituted the committees has the right to once in awhile intervene if there is anything that is being done outside the mandate of such committee. You don’t call that controversy. You call that management,” he stated in particular reference to the Chinese loans probe.