The Nigerian Ports Authority has threatened to sever ties with its joint ventures partners unless they come clean on recently-uncovered allegations of corruption, PREMIUM TIMES has learnt.
The threat was handed down at a meeting Thursday, as ports' management officials scrambled to contain the fallout of an audacious bribery scandal that calls the operational ethics of the agency into question.
The suspicious activities of Bonny Channel Management Limited (BCML) were put in the spotlight by a PREMIUM TIMES' report which detailed how the technical partners were indicted in Switzerland for bribing former NPA officials to fast-track payments for contract awards.
The Managing Director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala Usman, reprimanded BCML officials and demanded they furnish her with all they knew about the bribery allegations or risk prompt termination of their partnership, two sources with details of the meeting, which held in Lagos, told PREMIUM TIMES.
The BCML runs the Bonny Channel Company (BCC) with the NPA in a joint-venture -- public-private partnership.
The BCML is a consortium of technical partners that include Dredging International Services (Cyprus) Ltd, Vinci, IPEM and Dapesa Limited.
The NPA holds 60 per cent stake in the BCC while the BCML controls 40 per cent.
On its website, the BCC said its responsibility was to "create and maintain a safe navigational passage for all marine users to and in the Eastern Ports of Bonny Island, Onne, Okrika and Port-Harcourt".
As PREMIUM TIMES reported last week, Swiss prosecutors, in early May, named four former Nigerian government officials in a multinational bribe scandal relating to contract awards at the NPA.
A former Managing Director of the agency, Adebayo Sarumi; a former Managing Director of NPA's Eastern Ports, Felix Ovbude; a former Executive Director of Finance at the NPA, Abba Murtala Mohammed; and Sullivan Nwankpo, ex-President Goodluck Jonathan's special adviser on technical matters, were said to have received illicit payments from a firm working for the NPA.
Swiss authorities believe Daniel Afam-Obi, a former executive assistant to Mr. Nwankwo, acted as a front for his principal.
They were indicted alongside Dredging International, one of the technical partners that was sentenced to a fine of one million Swiss Francs and asked to refund 36 million Swiss Francs in illegal profits for allegedly making the illicit payments to the Nigerian officials.
While Messrs Sarumi, Ovbude and Mohammed allegedly collectively received $2.6 million in kickbacks, Mr. Afam-Obi was said to have been paid $157,000 for unknown reasons.
Another $18 million was passed to companies in which some yet unknown Nigerian officials have interests.
Mr. Sarumi, a 72-year-old retired maritime official who led the NPA from October 15, 2003 to May 2007, denied the allegations while Mr. Ovbude claimed ignorance of the matter, even though he was once quizzed by the EFCC over the case, our report said.
In her reaction to the original story, Ms. Bala Usman had said last week that a "deeply embarrassed" NPA management would open an inquiry into the allegations and bring all culpable individuals to book.
"We are reviewing the indictments and we will call for a full-scale investigation as it relates to companies and individuals in Nigeria said to have been involved," Ms. Bala Usman said. "This corruption revelation is a helpful development."
Our sources said Ms. Bala Usman informed the BCML officials that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission will be invited to investigate the indictment by Swiss authorities and other suspicious deals.
The NPA will also seek legal clarification from the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, on how to review subsisting terms of the joint-venture.
Mr. Malami's predecessor, Mohammed Bello Adoke, had told Swiss authorities in 2012 that Mr. Sarumi and other Nigerians named in the bribery did no wrong and could not be prosecuted, a claim that shocked authorities of that European country.
Mr. Adoke told the Swiss that he directed the EFCC to investigate the matter, but the anti-graft agency found no evidence of bribery and exonerated all participants.
Yet, an EFCC source familiar with the investigation at the time told PREMIUM TIMES there was no truth in the former AGF's claim, especially since the individuals were public officials at the time the alleged crime took place.
"These were public officers and there is no way we could have told the minister they received legitimate consultancy fees," the source said. "We only sent him our findings. Sad that he drew inaccurate conclusion."
"The NPA is very worried about dealing with joint-venture partners going forward," one of our sources said.
But another source said, in the past, NPA officials would tactically sit on payments due to contractors until they become desperate and offer a percentage of their pay as bribes to the officials.
If the NPA terminates the joint-venture, the BCML could lose up to $70 million worth of yearly contracts from the agency, where it had received preferential business deals in violation of the country's public procurement laws, officials said.