Nigeria: Bala-Usman - Perils of Championing Reforms, Fighting Corruption in Nigeria

17 May 2021

Abuja — Taking a stand against corruption and in defense of the national interest is a tough and risky call. Patriotic technocrats and principled Nigerians who head critical public institutions and chose to uphold the tenets of transparency, accountability, while leading historic reforms to make a difference put their lives, families, and reputations at great risk.

This is because corruption is not only entrenched but also pretty skilled at fighting back. More so, vested interests and their agents - in high and low places - that seek to plunder the commonwealth in pursuit of selfish agendas possess such a fierce capacity and willingness to use all means necessary to destroy those who stand in their way.

Consider the recent trials of one of the stars of the Buhari administration, Ms. Hadiza Bala-Usman, and the high-caliber schemes to remove her as the MD/CEO of the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) on the back of trumped-up charges that are not only weak but keep changing like a chameleon.

It's Not about Performance or Accountability

This unfortunate move is coming after close to five years of her "not business as usual" leadership of the NPA, during which time, she dared to step on big toes as she championed bold reforms that should qualify her, unarguably, as the most consequential head of the institution in recent history.

This includes a prudent and transparent management style of the NPA that saw the agency build and sustain an impressive trajectory of revenue growth from N173 billion in 2015 to N300 billion as of 2019 (the first time in NPA's history); an uncompromising and patriotic stand against dodgy contracts that in-subordinated the national interest which led to the cancellation/restructuring of many agreements that defrauded the country including INTELS' monopoly on oil and gas cargo, JV with Calabar Channel Management and Niger Global, cancelation of the Secure Anchorage Area amongst several others.

She pursued a vigorous dredging and facilities upgrade campaign that helped to open up the South Eastern Ports including Warri and Onne Ports in River State that had been close to dead and the actualization of the Lekki Deep Seaport in Lagos. As a result, the NPA in 2020 made history by successfully berthing one of the biggest gearless Maersk line - 300 meters length, 48 meters wide, vessels at Onne in Rivers State, the biggest ever container vessel to arrive at any Nigerian ports.

Additionally, she never shied away from "necessary" confrontations to protect the national interest and insisted that operators carry out their contractual obligations, pay their due without cutting corners as was the practice in the past. Bala-Usman's tough stance against corruption helped to save Nigeria billions of naira, improved NPA's contribution to the national purse, introduced efficiencies in the operations of NPA by blocking points of revenue leakages, stopping cronyism amongst several other radical changes that are designed to reform the NPA.

Is Corruption Fighting Back?

So, if positive change, a record of sterling performance and ability to lead institutional reforms, that Bala-Usman has demonstrated so eloquently at the NPA, are the key objectives of leadership, especially at this time of declining national revenues that require prudent management of available resources, why would anyone, who genuinely cares about the progress of this country, want her out of the NPA? Whose interest would be served by removing her from NPA? Clearly, given the value that she added, her departure would not be in pursuit of the national good. One would expect that the patriotic thing to do would be to encourage her to use the remaining time in office to consolidate the reforms and complete the turnaround of the NPA, an important institution that is a key revenue driver for the country.

This leaves one possibility: That the hurried attempt to take her out of NPA is simply a classic case of vicious corruption fighting back so NPA can revert to, "business as usual" and a free rein for looters of our commonwealth. It is not about the lack of accountability, transparency or positive change or any wrongdoing by Bala-Usman, but rather a hostile takeover of the NPA that would reverse the gains made in the past four years of reforming the institution and possibly weaken its contribution to the national purse while fattening those of vested interests and their acolytes. This should concern all well-meaning Nigerians and the government.

The Shifty Terms of Reference

It is clear from the shifty nature of the case laid against her that those who want her out of NPA, do not have substantial basis for their actions, but have rather ignored laid down procedures, engaged in executive overreach while shopping for any available reason to indict her as evidenced in subsequent actions taken by the Ministry of Transportation. This is wrong and Nigerians must not be taken for a ride.

The initial case against her in a letter to Mr. President in March was built on a Budget Office report which alleged a shortfall in NPA operating remittance to the federal government coffers totaling about N165 billion for the period 2016 to 2020.

First, according to laid down procedures, a simple query to the NPA MD requesting for an explanation of the alleged disparities in the Budget report would have been the ideal thing for the Minister to do. That is, if ensuring financial probity and accountability were the actual goal. However, by hurriedly escalating the issue to the President and requesting for an investigative panel to be set up without exploring due process of handling such matters as stipulated, the action betrayed the Minister of Transportation's malicious intent to advance a hideous and unpatriotic agenda.

In her robust and detailed response dated May 5, 2021, to the Chief of Staff, Bala-Usman explained that the alleged shortfall was as a result of an error from the Budget Office. Apparently, the Budget Office had wrongly made the calculation of what NPA was supposed to remit based on budgetary provision instead of the actual amounts derived following the statutory audit of NPA's financial accounts. What her response proved was that NPA under her leadership had remitted in full all that it was supposed to. Her response sucked the life out of the allegation that was used to procure Mr. President's approval for her suspension and investigation.

Next, on May 11th, the Minister went on to set up an investigative panel of inquiry with a radically expanded terms of reference. While the initial approval anchored on investigating the shortfall in NPA remittances, the panel has now been given a wide-ranging scope of a total audit of Bala-Usman's tenure in the NPA, a move that is akin to a wild fishing expedition. This includes examining and investigating the administrative policies, strategies adopted by the MD, investigating issues regarding termination of pilotage, contracts, communication channels, procurement of contracts and any other matter that may be necessary in the course of the assignment.

This blank cheque audit is, clearly, nothing but a witch-hunt that is designed to rubbish the hardworking reformer. But Nigerians are smarter and should not be deceived by the well-orchestrated charade to discredit an outstanding technocrat. Questions must be asked, and the focus must be on ensuring that NPA does not return to the old days when it was just a cash cow for political patronage and cronyism.

The first question that Nigerians should ask is with Bala-Usman now suspended, is the NPA in better hands under Mohammed Koko, who was the Zenith Bank accounts officer to River's state government when Amaechi was governor and whom the Minister specifically nominated and now back to act as MD NPA? What is his pedigree, and why is the Minister so particular about him?

Another question is why has the panel singled out Bala-Usman, when the whole management team should be the logical subjects for such an expansive investigation? Managing Directors do not act alone, and it is unlikely that she did anything without the knowledge of her management team, the Board and even the Ministry. The same Koko was the Executive Director, Finance of NPA, so, why is he and other members of the management not persons of interest in the audit?

Moreover, in terms of principles and the capacity to shake down vested interests, there is little in the history of Koko to suggest that he would come close to staring down all corrupt interests that have hampered the growth of NPA over the years and prevented the reform of the important agency.

Another question is why is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Transportation Mrs. Magdalene Ajani suddenly issuing sub-judicial incriminating statements against the NPA MD? Is the action intended to influence the outcome of the administrative panel?

A key point of conflict between Bala-Usman and Amaechi has been around INTELS, a ports logistics company, which had until she came on board, allegedly monopolised the highly lucrative oil and gas cargo, and has had a running battle with the NPA for failure to remit revenue that is due to government. It is reported that recently, Amaechi allegedly asked the NPA to drop all matters relating to INTELS including a court case but Bala-Usman drew the attention of the president to the fact that there were no existing contracts between INTELS and NPA that were terminated, following which the approval granted to the Minister of Transportation by Mr. President was withdrawn. However, on the expiration of one of the contracts, the NPA insisted on following due process instead of automatically reinstating the expired contracts, a process in which INTELS participated in.

A Big Loss for Nigeria

All these worrisome posers point to one thing: that the target has always been Bala-Usman, who is seen as a roadblock to doing "business as usual". It must be understood that those who want her out are not doing so to make NPA better. The crass approach, disdain for laid down procedures all but show a resort to muscular tactics to run a lady who has championed the historic reform of NPA out of office. Bala-Usman's travails are, indeed, a sad commentary on the country and the anti-corruption crusade.

For Nigeria to build strong and robust institutions that foster sustainable development, outstanding leaders who demonstrate the unique ability to uphold and prioritise national interest, champion positive change and a new way of doing things as well as add value to the country must be protected from the devious schemes of these unpatriotic elements. This would enable them to serve out their tenures, deliver change and build impressive track records as exemplary figures for others to follow. Doing otherwise amounts to a surrender to retrogressive forces. Surely, time will vindicate Hadiza. However, the country has lost a rare gem and a chance to sustain reforms at the NPA.

Continuous witch-hunt and destruction of persons genuinely willing and interested in changing the sad trajectory of the Nigerian Narrative, will only alienate quality Nigerian citizens from aspiring to hold public office.

Ikyaave is a public policy analyst based in Abuja

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