The recent recommendation of revocation of the Federal Government sale of Daily Times Nigeria Plc and nine other public enterprises by the Senate is a confirmation of the shortchanging of the country by public officials that managed the controversial privatisation programme.
The Upper Legislative body, on December 20, assented to all 45 recommendations of its Senator Ahmed Lawan-led ad-hoc committee that investigated sales of public assets from 1999 till date, and promptly recommended their reversal. The enterprises are: Transcorp Hilton; Sheraton Hotels and Towers, Abuja; Volkswagen of Nigeria Limited (VON); Delta Steel Company; Aluminium Smelting Company of Nigeria (ALSCON) and Sunti Sugar Company. Others are Bacita Sugar Company, Nicon Luxury Hotel and Ajaokuta Steel.
The Senate approved that former Directors-General of Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) that handled the sales, Mallam Nasir-el-Rufai, Dr Julius Bala and Mrs Irene Chigbue, be reprimanded by the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) for seeking approval directly from the president instead of the council, as provided for in the Public Enterprises Act 1999. It also approved the sacking of the Director-General of the BPE, Ms. Bolanle Onagoruwa, for gross incompetence in the management of the BPE and the fraudulent sale of five percent Federal Government shares in Eleme Petrochemical Company Ltd.
Interestingly, the lawmakers were silent on the alleged culpability of former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, in the controversial sale of some of the companies during his tenure. He was a direct beneficiary of the sale, alongside many of his cronies. Some senators had demanded that he be prosecuted during a debate of the recommendations of the Lawan Committee on November 30.
The problem of improper sale of public enterprises has been a big issue in Nigeria right from the beginning of the privatisation process. The sales were always tainted by scandals, and their reversal is a serious indictment of the programme managed by the BPE. It has been apparent to Nigerians, all along, that the sales were not handled transparently. So many things were wrong about the processes that led to the sale of public assets. Instead of the privatisation of the companies leading to resuscitation and successful operation of the companies, some of them were stripped of their assets by their buyers, with no efforts made to add value to them.
The privatisation programme, which arose following the decision of the Obasanjo regime to anchor its policies on free market economy, led to outright divestment of government from the public enterprises. This is contrary to what obtains in most developed countries where governments still maintain some holdings in sold public corporations. The way the privatisation was handled led to a downturn in the fortunes of many of the corporations, instead of the expected improvement.
In spite of this, Obasanjo, and his then Vice President, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, who headed the NCP, were neither indicted, reprimanded, nor recommended for prosecution. This does not indicate that Nigeria is ready to go the whole hog on the messing up of the privatisation programme. It is glaring that the programme was operated like a fiefdom, yet the matter is being treated with kid gloves.
We condemn the soft landing given to those who messed up the privatization initiative. This approach will not deter corruption. The verdict of the Senate indicates that the body is yet to key into the mood of Nigerians on issues relating to treatment of corruption cases. What the legislative body has done is tantamount to patting persons involved in the opaque privatisation process on the back, instead of inviting anti-corruption agencies to determine the culpability of each person with a view to prosecuting those who deserve to be prosecuted.
Those who benefited from the mangling of the programme ought to be brought to justice to serve as a deterrent to managers of other government initiatives. The recommendations of the Senate on offenders should be implemented to the letter. But, they will be meaningless if steps are not taken to punish those found guilty of wrongdoing. Appropriate legal and administrative steps should be taken on each of the decisions of the Senate. Implementation of the reversal of the sales of the enterprises should be carefully handled in the best interest of their workers and the nation.