THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE REIGN OF HADIZA BALA USMAN AT NIGERIAN PORTS AUTHORITY (NPA)
Ibrahim Zubairu, Ph.D
Since the news of the suspension of the Managing Director, Ms Hadiza Bala-Usman broke, both her supporters and critics have been speculating about what could have led to the action by Government. Many campaigners, activists, politicians, feminist organizations have taken sides against each other. Some accused the officials of the Ministry of Transportation for not yielding to due process in their actions while others insisted that her travails were merely because she was a woman. For many observers such sentiments were not expected. The suspended Managing Director is a woman, member of the ruling party, former Chief of Staff to Kaduna State and a cofounder of Bring Back Our Girls Movement among other things. She is also a daughter of late Fulani historian and popular academic Dr. Yusufu Bala-Usman of the ruling family of Sullubawa clan. In a country in which where you come from contributes substantially to how far you can go, she appears to have some of the most interesting recipe for upward mobility suited for the time. And she probably knew it. So as the head of an important agency like the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), from the same state as President Buhari, she conducted herself with a certain feeling of entitlement close to invincibility. An attitude that some people consider as hubristic.
Was Creating Sensation meant to distract the Panel from their assignment?
Articles have been flying in the air as if the suspended Managing Director is being persecuted and punished for refusing to compromise. A big media mogul fired the first salvo in her favor. The whole matter appears to be a difficult argument simply because she is pitched against politicians and we all know how we perceive them. However, the simple truth is that what is going on is a little beyond politics. Those who are politicizing it are doing so out of sheer mischief. From available documents flying around the internet, it is obvious that Ms Usman’s accusers do not need to do much work to prove their cases against her. That may be why her supporters are up in arms firing from all nozzles in the social media. The hashtag is trending already but whether that is sufficient to cover up the issues that have been raised is another conversation altogether. As an activist, engaging in a media campaign is a familiar terrain for Hadiza. She co-founded an organization that ran one of the most successful protests in the history of modern Nigeria. However, a more useful way to spend the next few weeks could have been to prepare to face the administrative panel to state her own side of the story.
Skills for mobilizing for street protests differ from those used for constructive policy making
There are many people who are passionate yet when they get an opportunity, they end up performing poorly. This is because passion cannot be equated with competence and activism is not the same thing as expertise. Mobilizing people on the streets for protests and carrying placards are worthy assignments but they require a different skill set from constructive policy making. Granted, activism provides critical and alternative voices necessary for democracy to thrive but in some cases it can become a liability to governance. It must be admitted that some activists are quite naïve about issues of process and procedures that when they get into government, they believe the only way to prove themselves is to disrupt governance in a way that could become counterproductive. Such was apparently the case of the reign of Hadiza Bala Usman in NPA. This awareness amplifies the perception of doubts about her capacity to handle the position that greeted her appointment in 2015. A closer review of her decisions clearly indicate that many of them were arbitrary knee jerk reactions that protects the privileged few, ignoring the greater good of many. Clear examples are those involving Global Marine Systems Limited and INTELS Group whose leases were suddenly cancelled after they were approved by NPA. As a result an atmosphere of instability was created which sent wrong signals to potential investors in Nigeria and beyond as a country that does not respect the sanctity of agreements. Some of those who became casualties had to go to court. So far there are about fifty two of such litigations pending with different courts which has stalled the activities of the agency and increased operational costs.
NPA’s impulsive and arbitrary actions created reputational risks
Expectedly, it did not take long for Hadiza Bala-Usman to export her self-conceited attitude to her job. Her admirers insist that her attitude is that of a reform minded individual who is in a hurry to deliver results. While some see it as pretense she uses to fast-track approvals to service pre-determined interests. There is a possibility that the suspended MD may have the best of motives but is obvious she did not use the right methods. For instance it was reported that she continuously flouted extant civil service regulations and obtained her approval directly from the President. This was a problem to the Ministry officials as it made coordinated policy making and oversight of the maritime sector quite difficult. However when she learnt that the approval for her suspension and probe was obtained from the same Presidency, she reportedly turned around and accused the President of breaching government procedures. Her record of going above the head of her Ministers to obtain approvals from the President places her in a shaky moral ground in insisting that due process should be followed in her suspension. Apart from cancelling the concessions given to GMSL and INTELS, she also cancelled the concession given to a company called Lilypond Container Terminal without the knowledge of the Ministry and converted it to a truck park. She once shut down a terminal in Port Harcourt belonging to BUA Group for alleged safety infractions, resulting to an annual revenue loss of about 2.0 billion naira to both federal government and terminal operators. A few weeks ago against subsisting court orders, she directed that all BUA ships should not be allowed to berth. She had transferred the procurement office away from the Executive Director in charge of Finance to be directly under her office. With that decision she took firm control of the procurement process and easily manipulated to suite her interests. Dangote Group of Companies owned by Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote was reportedly one of the major beneficiaries.
Suspended MD’s unending battle against INTELS despite initially offering to integrate Berths 9,10 and 11 in their agreement.
The withdrawal of the licenses of Integrated Logistics Limited (INTELS) is another decision which drew a lot of public attention. This was because the former Vice President and Presidential aspirant of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the last election, Atiku Abubukar was at that time a major shareholder in the company. The suspended Managing Director used a cloak of partisanship to create unfounded disputes between NPA and INTELS to further what has now been seen as a different agenda. Curiously it was the same MD who authorized that Berths 9, 10 and 11 be integrated in a preexisting concession agreement with INTELS and informed them about same in a letter on the 7th of November 2018 REF ONN/LG/AD/T.3/599 signed by one Alhassan Ismaila Abubakar, Port Manager, Onne. A reminder was written on the same issue on the 23rd of November. An acceptance from INTELS was conveyed to NPA in a letter Ref INTELS/2018/11/27/OUT/001752 dated 27th November 2018 signed by the Managing Director where he pointed out that the computation of the fees for the berths for 2013 was erroneous. A reconciliation meeting was proposed for the integration process to commence.
Agreement was reached between INTELS and NPA. Payment commenced and midway NPA reneged .
On the 4th of December a debit note of 1,035,000,000 was issued to INTELS by NPA which was accepted on the 20th of December and reiterated its acceptance for Berths 9,10 and 11 into their concession agreement and agreed that payment will be in three installments commencing from January 2019. Payments commenced on schedule. Things were going on smoothly and INL was waiting for the final execution of the agreement when it was revoked by NPA in a letter signed on behalf of the Managing Director by one Engr. A. R Mohammed, General Manager, Engineering, asking INTELS to vacate the premises on Berths 9, 10 and 11. INTELS had no option than to head to court to protect their rights. While the controversy raged, the Minister of Transportation tried to direct her to halt the hostilities against the company and she rebuffed the idea. Although a court order granted by a Rivers State High Court ring fenced INTELS from being ejected from berths 9/10/11, Hadiza went ahead and kicked them out. At one point she manufactured an alibi to make it look like the Ministry was blocking her from commencing procurement because someone up there apparently had pecuniary interest. Meanwhile, officials of the Ministry had clarified the position of the Minister of Transportation is for the Ministry to purchase the relevant equipment in order to build domestic capacity for dredging.
INTELS GROUP removed Atiku as their shareholder to placate Hadiza, yet she stood her ground.
The optics of the action of NPA appeared political as they were speculations that the fate that befell the company was a direct way of targeting for Vice President Abubakar Atiku. Some people even assumed that the orders expressly came from Buhari himself. The management of the company panicked. Few weeks later, the company announced the removal of Atiku from their board. In a letter addressed to the suspended MD on the 29th December 2020, the Managing Director of Orlean Invest Holding Limited (holding company of INTELS) formally communicated the exit of Mr. Atiku Abubakar from the shareholding structure of INTELS group. According to him, this was to break free from any form of political interference and pave a way to resolve the lingering multiple disputes between the company and NPA especially the aftermath of the cancellation of some of their contracts.
Prevailing Climate of Uncertainty came with negative economic consequences
An interesting part of it is that when some of these decisions were taken and parties go to court, NPA under Hadiza never respected court orders thereby posing serious reputational risk suggesting that Nigeria is lawless and does not respect the sanctity of agreements. Potential revenue sources were lost which negatively impacted on the economic status of the country at a time when the covid 19 pandemic and fluctuating commodity prices had distorted budgetary projections. Yet figures of her overhead cost appear bloated. So far the extent of damage done to the sector is yet to be fully determined and quantified. Whether and to what extent this will be revealed depends on thoroughness of the work of the administrative probe panel. Although maritime stakeholders are already celebrating her exit may observers suggest that it will be best to adopt a wait –and – see attitude.
Dr. Zubairu is a Public Policy Analyst and contributed this piece from Apapa Lagos. He can be reached on [email protected]