By Femi Akewusola
It is legitimate for Nigerians to express their disapproval of the conduct of the legislature and its members if they feel discomfited on any issue but what is certainly not acceptable is for some individuals to hide behind that prerogative to dodge their own responsibilities to the nation or to even pursue personal vendetta. One of such recent developments is the orchestrated media campaign against the senate committee on Customs, Excise and Tariff. About a fourth night ago, I was in attendance at a public hearing organized by the committee in conjunction with that of (senate) marine transport on the activities of some of the operators –both public and private – in that sector. I was quite impressed with the way the session went, especially the way and manner the committee chairman, Senator Hope Uzodinma, presided. Anybody who witnessed that event would testify that the committee meant well but that it was bound to be misunderstood at best but that it will most certainly be resisted by those who have vested interest in the organizations being investigated by the senate (through the joint committee) on a 30 trillion naira scam in the import and export circle.
One of the government agencies being investigated is the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) on the alleged disappearance of over 282 vessels from Nigerian ports without a kobo collected from them. Consequently, the investigating committee invited the current chief executive officer of the organization, Hadiza Balla-Usman, to appear before it to answer some questions relating to the matter. Four times the committee has invited the young lady and four times she has turned down the invitation.
Incidentally Ms. Bala-Usman is about the only head of the government agency that has so far failed to honor the senate’s invitation. Perhaps out of frustration, the committee chairman, Senator Uzodinma, last week disclosed that the senate may be forced to issue an arrest warrant for the heads of the defaulting organizations if they fail to appear at the next meeting.
Not unexpectedly, there are now attempts to intimidate the senate out of continuing with the investigation. But it is being done in a most tactless manner. The NPA management, led by Hadiza Balla- Usman seems to have chosen to make it a personal matter between it and the joint committee chairman, Senator Uzodinma. Worse, the fellow apparently recruited for the job, retired army Colonel Abubakar Umar, handled the matter so badly that it didn’t require any effort to know who is the sponsor of the recent media campaign against both Uzodinma, as a person, and the senate, if not the entire national assembly.
Umar first went on a fairy tale on how Uzodinma’s company imported rice and declared it as yeast. But when the Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Customs Service, another retired army Colonel, Hamid Ali, seized the goods (the rice), Uzodinma, according to Umar’s narrative, dragged him, Ali, to the senate plenary where Ali was, still according to Umar, humiliated for not putting on his Customs service uniform. Umar didn’t stop there. He went ahead to link the NPA matter with the face offs between the senate and the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, over the well-known matter concerning the latter’s confirmation.
But I ask: how is the issue of 282 missing vessels connected with Magu’s confirmation or even the rice allegedly imported by Uzodinma? In his length press statement, Umar acknowledged that Uzodinma’s rice is in the custody of Ali, that is, the customs service; meaning that it is not among the items that disappeared from the ports.
Both by the design and default, Umar has painted Ms Usman as a fellow (she is said to be in her early 40s) who is unwilling to take responsibility of things happening in the agency she is superintending over. At a time when the buzz phrase is “not–too–young– to rule” or something like that, Ms Bala–Usman’s attitude to her job does great damage to her fellow youths and their current campaign to be given more opportunities in public office. Worse, it puts the 35% affirmative action for women at great jeopardy. At her age, Bala-Uman is expected to be bold and not attempt to hide under the indiscretion of a big uncle; or desire to be spoon. It is not all youths in Nigeria who hanker for big responsibility that have a big uncle that can rush to the press with an ill-conceived statement on their behalf. And in trying to protect his daughter’s friend, assuming that is Umar’s main motivation, witness the superfluity with which the retired Colonel proceeded.
He wrote: “The experience of Hadiza Bala–Usman, the new M.D of the NPA, is particularly sad. The more she tries to fight to reduce graft and perfidy, the more determined they seem to mobilize against her, to neutralize her and see her back”
If I were Hadiza Usman, I would reject the use of such hyperboles to describe her testimonial in a job she has spent barely one year in. At what point will she stop fighting? Rather than “fight”, she should learn to build confidence in herself and the people she will come across in the course of her career. Even more interesting is that Umar, in his enthusiasm to paint a gory picture, claimed that Hadiza is also being fought because she is a woman. He wrote: “Unashamed, they question the wisdom of appointing a woman to such a post”. As far as I am concerned, Umar has inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. Uzodinma does not come from a culture where people disapprove of the appointment of women to top positions.
Umar’s other goof in his disastrous outing is the lie he told about the dredging of the Calabar port, even though like the rice and Ibrahim Magu matters, it has nothing to do with vessels that disappeared. Yes, a company in which Uzodinma has interest, Messrs Niger Global Engineering and Technical Co. Ltd, is the junior partner in a joint venture company, the Calabar Channel Management Company, that is handling the dredging of the Calabar port, the NPA being the senior partner, but that project is not part of the ongoing investigation by the senate.
In other words, it is not part of the reasons Hadiza Bala-Usman is being invited by the senate. So, bringing it up is just in a bid to rake in evidence to nail Uzodinma as an individual, not even to stand up to a perceived high handedness by the senate itself. How cheap? This is more so as the company in reference was incorporate in 1995 and the contract in question advertised and procured in 2004, seven years before Uzodinma became a senator. Interestingly, Umar in his statement claimed that “both the NPA subsidiary called Calabar Channel Management and … Niger Global Engineering and Technical Co. Limited were incorporated in 2014 just for this deal”. Umar went ahead to allege that the contract was awarded without due process and that faced with a rash of petition, “the NPA management under Ms Bala Usman decided that national interest would be better served if the JV scheme as well as the so-called dredging project are terminated”.
National interest indeed! If Hajia Usman could summon the courage to unilaterally cancel a project of that magnitude, how is that she could not pick up the same courage to appear before a senate committee to answer mere questions? What happens to the potential beneficiaries of a fully dredged Calabar port which project, when completed, is expected to change the face maritime industry in Nigeria? Was the matter brought back to the federal executive council since no mention of that was made in Umar’s epistle to the Nigerian press last week?
Writing on the subject in the Daily Sun of Friday August 11 2017, one Majeed Dahiru claimed that the Jonathan administration handed over the Calabar port project to Messrs Niger Global Engineering and Technical Company Limited for asking. Apart from that the claim is a mere platitude, the type Nigerians are now used to, Dahiru is also a victim of the ill-conceived and hurriedly-put-together war against Senator Uzodinma. Had he conducted a simple check, he would have discovered that the Calabar port dredging project was advertised and procured in 2004, six years before Goodluck Jonathan became president and seven years before Uzodinma became a senator. Thus like Umar, Dahiru is also being used to mislead the Nigerian public. But perhaps a more important question to ask is, if it took a presidential intervention, even if it was a wrong step, to get the project started, is Hadiza Usman now arrogating to herself presidential powers since, as admitted by Umar, she terminated the project entirely on her own volition. If a forty something years old woman has acquired so much powers that she could unilaterally determine what is “national interest” in just under one year in office ,then it means that Umar is painting a wrong picture of her.
It means that she is not at the receiving end as Umar wants us to believe. My advice is that the retired Colonel should leave this lady alone to do her job and grow.