Charles Nwaoguji, [email protected]
Manufacturing business across the globe remains a critical aspect of industrialisation . It is indeed one aspect of industrialisation that deals with the process of transforming materials by means of specified skills and technology into the intermediate or final stage of development.
In Nigeria, cement manufacturing is a sub-sector of non-metallic mineral manufactures with the others being glass manufacturing, ceramics manufacturing asbestos manufacturing, school chalks and crayons production. Limestone and gypsum are the principal raw materials for cement manufacturing. While limestone abounds in Nigeria more than in any other West African country, gypsum has not been found in commercial quantity. The nearest potential source of gypsum for Nigeria is Mali Republic, where millions of tonnes of mineable salts occur.
However, cement manufacturing in Nigeria, dates back to the twilight years of the colonial period in 1957 when the first cement industry, Nigerian Cement Company (NIGERCEM) was established in Nkalagu in present day Ebonyi State. NIGERCEM was one of the earliest attempts by the government to introduce the Import substitution Industrialization (ISI) strategy. Prior to this time, all cement used in Nigeria was imported.
Also during the colonial period, local manufacturing was discouraged and production of raw material for export was encouraged. Thus Nigerians were encouraged to produce what they did not consume, such as cocoa and cotton and import much of what they needed to consume such as flour and cement.
After the Nigercem experiment , the West African Portland Cement Company was establishment at Ewekoro in 1960. As demand increased with growing economic prosperity following the oil boom, there was incentive for more manufacturers to come into the cement business.
Accordingly, Benue Cement Company Plc was set up in 1980. Thereafter, there was a lull in setting up such plants as no new plant came on stream until 2006 when the Dangote Group commissioned the 5mmt Obajana Cement Plant.
Since then, several other cement plants have come into being. However owing to various political, economic and social problems, many of the plants were either shut down or were acquired by others. The Dangote Group and Lafarge remain the dominant operators and highest investors in the cement production in Nigeria. Today, Nigeria is the third largest importer of cement and clinker and the cement market is shared between manufacturing and importing /bagging plants without NIGERCEM.
For over a decade, the Nigeria Cement Company, NIGERCEM, once the pride of the people of the South East has been left in ruins. All efforts at reactivating it, including privatisation by the five south east states in 2002 failed to work.
Instead, the company is now enmeshed in controversy as Ebonyi State Government and the core investor, Eastern Bulkcem Company are battling for the soul of the foremost cement company.
One issue that has been agitating the minds of major stakeholders and indeed the people of the five south east states since the Nigeria Cement Company Plc (NIGERCEM), Nkalagu was sold to its current core-investor, Eastern Bulkcem Port Harcourt in 2002, by the governments of the states through a technical committee is: “When will this our common heritage come back to life again in Eastern Nigeria”?
“The people of Ebonyi State, in whose soil the industry is situated, are still asking what has become of their God-given limestone-based industry.”
However, what seemed as a decisive push to settle the rift between Ebonyi State Government and EBCL management occurred during the tenure of Charles Ugwu as Minister of Commerce and Industry.
But the light dimmed again as soon as Chief Achike Udenwa came on board as Ugwu’s replacement. Udenwa, was the Governor of Imo State between 1999 and 2007.
It was alleged that Udenwa’s colleague both as governor and then Minister of Education, Dr. Sam Egwu, had some commercial interest in NIGERCEM.
The question then was whether Egwu was using EBCL as a proxy to buy back NIGERCEM or did EBCL win the majority shareholding on the sentiment that it was the only Eastern based firm that showed serious interest in acquiring NIGERCEM.
While the battle of wits continued, EBCL got Ibeto Group, a major cement importing and re-bagging firm; to buy over its majority shares in NIGERCEM. Having extricated itself from the Gordian knot, EBCL left Ibeto Group to continue with the endless schism with the state government.
Noticing that Ibeto Group has bought EBCL shares, Ebonyi State government went to court, seeking a declaration that Ibeto Group lacks technical competence to revitalise the cement factory, besides being an intruder. The matter lingered in the court.
After the 2015 general election, when Martin Elechi served out his two terms as governor of Ebonyi state his successor, David Umahi, directed the withdrawal of the case. That reprieve paved way for Ibeto Group to take possession and begin the onerous task of bringing NIGERCEM back to life.
Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi, while addressing stakeholders said prior to its sale in 2002 to new investors, the cement plant was jointly owned by the Federal Government which had 11 per cent, the five south-east states, 65 per cent, and the general public, 24 per cent.
The privatisation led to the emergence of Eastern BulkCem Nigeria Limited as the new strategic core investor with a 65 per cent stake in NigerCem. But for now, Ebonyi, the host community, has 10 per cent equity in the NigerCem.
Already Governor Umahi has said that the Ibeto Group, the new core investor, was fabricating machines that would enable it return to production of cement at NigerCem.
The Governor also said that other major cement manufacturers had indicated interest in the large deposits of limestone in the state.
Meanwhile one of the initial hiccups faced by the company was the issue of Corporate Social Responsibility, bordering on how the investor would give back to the host communities. Those details have recently ironed out, according to those privy to the company’s regeneration programme leading to the signing of Memorandum of Understanding between Ibeto Group, the state government and the four surrounding host communities.