The two senators made sense that time – Ike Ekweremadu and Victor Ndoma-Egba. One mentioned the need to make law breakers pay for their acts; the other pointed out that privatization programme worked in his state, Cross Rivers – a way of saying that the nation has a place it can copy from. The debate was about privatization. Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) was at the centre of it. Distinguished senators argued that public-owned companies had been sold two per kobo. Investors that bought the companies did not turn them around; they stripped them of assets, instead. In the end, the purpose for selling them to private investors is defeated.
It was a harvest of revelations when the Senate Ad-hoc committee, led by Senator Ahmed Lawan, sat at hearing. He and his members wanted to know why privatized companies didn’t work. Members shared their experiences about public but privatized companies that are in their constituencies. No Nigerian could have been shocked with what was said; Nigerians are beyond shock. Government officials have been known to pay unregistered companies one hundred percent upfront for contracts that were never executed, and nothing came out of it. Now under the watch of the BPE, investors used papers of the public companies they intended to buy as collateral to obtain loans from banks in order to buy the same companies. Other investors forged papers to buy companies. And Nigerians with big names in big places bought public companies with the funds of the same public companies, as well as with the approval of a past number one citizen. The list is unending.
A testifier at the hearing gave insight into how public companies ended up in the hands of investors that didn’t qualify to have them. He is Julius Bala, the second BPE Director-General after the first, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. It happened that an investor qualified in his bid to buy Delta Steel Company, but another company got it. The winner did not even bid at all. Julius Bala was asked why that was so. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo gave the order, Bala said. And why did he give in to pressure to sell the nation’s steel company to an investor that has so far failed to turn it around? Because of the political situation at the time, and “I was made to know that I was on my way out of BPE, so I had no option,” he further explained.
The asset of the Nigerian people was to be sold, the man in charge sold it to an investor that did not follow the process laid down in law; he overlooked the ethical ramifications of his action. He broke rules and regulations under the excuse of “I am directed to…,” a favourite phrase in official circles. Another testifier at the Senate hearing would give further insights. The first BPE Director-General, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. He said not for once did he obey either the President or the Vice-President when they said he should sell companies to investors whose applications did not follow due process. When he left however, the man who replaced him sold a public company to an outfit that was not part of the bidding process on the order of the then president. “When I left, the government of the day went and brought back a man who was literally sacked from BPE to head it; and now we have the results of discarding rules, of doing things with capriciousness…,” El-Rufai submitted.
Often cases such as this are never seen to their conclusion – that is, the man who circumvents due process is never made to pay. It was what Ekweremadu referred to in his contribution to the debate on BPE. The deputy senate president said he and his colleagues should make a law to ensure that people who break laws under whatever excuse are punished. He mentioned other options before he arrived at the option of making a law that will enforce laws. Desperate situations require desperate measures. If a law that specially makes it compulsory for officials to be held responsible for their actions needs to be made, the lawmaker thought it should be made. He reasoned that this is necessary if lawmakers and the laws they made must be taken seriously.
Ndoma Egba spoke about his state where moribund government owned companies are privatized, and now they perform. One of the things that must have been in place in his state is the commitment of the leadership to do things straight, and make things work. Nigerians know that, across the land, leaders they saddle with responsibilities to watch over their national assets rip them off as a people, and strip them of their assets. It is a national problem, the thing that makes subordinates in diverse places give in to pressure from superiors to commit acts of illegality, or look on even in places such as financial institutions where CEOs loot their banks to the point of collapse. Now there is an issue, and it is vital if a bulwark to the culture of impunity among public officials must be put in place.
Why, for instance, would a public official bow to pressure to break the law rather than blow the whistle and protect his own integrity? One reason is because responsible agencies do not do their job of enforcing laws that make subordinate officers account for aiding acts of illegality. Two, the system does not offer protection to officers who would rather blow the whistle than break the law. The reward system is another; it has consistently rewarded those who clean the treasury. Nigeria gives national honour to men and women who feed on the nation and have questionable integrity, meanwhile a country such as Zimbabwe ignores political office holders, but mostly gives its national honour to young men and women who are active in diverse sectors of the economy, making meaningful contribution to the development of their nation.
The senate hearing on BPE is revealing enough, but what the Senate makes of it is the issue. The lawmakers are in a position to ensure that it becomes mandatory for responsible agencies to investigate every case that has to do with circumventing the laws of the land. And the law Ekweremadu recommended should not be limited to bringing law breakers to justice, it should make it impossible for them to be recycled and used to further dislocate the nation as the BPE case has proved.
Tunji Ajibade is a Communications Consultant. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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