Wednesday, 24 May 2017

What happened to transparency?

By Simon Kolawolelive
Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, Nigeria's minister of state for petroleum resources
At the annual Nigerian jamboree to the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston, Texas, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, the minister of state for petroleum resources, told a “world press conference” on May 5, 2017 that Nigeria’s refineries would soon have new investors. He said 26 investors had indicated interest in the epileptic refineries. “By September, we will unveil the investors for the refineries,” the minister said smoothly, typically. “When we came onboard, the refineries were not working but as we speak, we have sizeable investment portfolio for them to an extent that we don’t know who to partner with for the investment.”

Let’s say I didn’t go to school at all. Or let’s say it was evening school that I attended. These would still be my takeaways from the minister’s proclamations: one, our refineries are now in a position to attract investment; two, 26 investors have indicated interest in taking over the refineries (on a repair, operate and maintain, ROM, agreement); three, we have not taken a decision yet because there are so many suitors to choose from; and four, we will announce the favoured investors by September. Without attending Harvard Business School, I would still conclude that it appeared the process was going to be competitive and transparent.

On May 11, 2017 (six days later, right?) Mr. Wale Tinubu, the CEO of Oando Plc, told the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) that the group had received approval of the government to “repair, operate and maintain” the Port Harcourt Refinery together with “our partner” Agip, a subsidiary of ENI, the Italian company indicted in the Malabu/OPL 245 affair. Tinubu said: “We plan to increase the refinery capacity from 30 per cent to 100 per cent.” Great news, as far I am concerned. We need the refineries back as soon as possible; we have had enough of the endless TAMs gulping billions of naira and spewing out virtually no products for decades.

Now this is where I need your help. The last time I checked, with the help of Google, May and September are different months. There are June, July and August in-between. With the help of Google, I also discovered that the gap between when Kachikwu spoke in Houston and when Tinubu spoke in Lagos was a whopping six days — or, to make it simpler, less than one week. There are usually four weeks in a month, and from May 5, when Kachikwu spoke, to September, there are 17 weeks, according to the all-knowing Google. With Tinubu’s disclosure, should we assume that May is the new September? Or that September came early for Oando, Agip and Kachikwu?

But I think Google is overrated. There were so many questions it could not answer. For instance, I asked: “Is Oando among the 26 investors Kachikwu boasted about in Houston?” I could not make head or tail of the results. Google came up with “FOX 26 Houston KRIV”. Nonsense. But I got more gibberish for other questions: did Oando and ENI send in a bid? Was it an unsolicited bid? Was it selective tendering? If it was competitive bidding, how many bids were received for Port Harcourt? How much did Oando/ENI bid? How much did others bid? How much did the bidders promise to invest? How many years will the ROM run? Are there concessions for the new operators?

I can understand why Google got stuck — that almighty search machine likes transparency. If you do not make your information public, it cannot make it public for you. The best, or should I say the worst, Google would do is to suggest answers that it thinks are related to your questions, even when there is no connection whatsoever. If you google most of the major concessions and major contracts awarded by this government, you will get irrelevant answers on the process. For the same reason: transparency is very scarce in these major deals. We just wake up one day and hear that one company has been awarded a job. Not a word on the process.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Oando should not take over the Port Harcourt Refinery. I have devoted a significant part of my column-writing career to promoting the cause of Nigerian companies. I believe that one day, made-in-Nigeria will be enjoyed all over the world. I want Nigerian companies to fly our flag honourably. Even though I have been called names and subjected to sickening innuendos for promoting Dangote, Globacom, Oando and Innosons, among others, I am not about to repent. Americans are proud of their Apple, Microsoft and Chevron, and my dream is that our people and our companies will become global brands too.

That said, though, I am very worried about an emerging pattern in this administration. President Muhammadu Buhari campaigned on the strength of correcting the mistakes and misdeeds of the previous government, but I am seeing too much repetition for it to be coincidental. There is too much secrecy in the way many important things are done, and corruption, need we say, thrives on secrecy. Take away competition, take away transparency, take away accountability, and you have a perfect recipe for corruption. We cannot be sealing deals under the table without revealing the details to Nigerians and then claim we are building an open society.

We just woke up one day to learn that GE had secured the concession to take over the railways. How did it happen? What are the details of the deal? Is this the best possible deal Nigeria can get? We were just watching TV one evening and learnt that the federal government had finally signed a renegotiated concession agreement with the Global Steel Holding Limited (GSHL) for Ajaokuta Steel. Up till today, we don’t know the details. Ask questions and what you get as answer is: who paid you to ask? As a journalist, I’m used to the blackmail. I would have quit this job the day I joined if I had to pay attention to personal attacks.

By the way, I know a bit about the procurement options. I know of “sole sourcing”, where you go to one provider only because no other provider does it — like buying a Rolls Royce from the maker. “Selective tendering” allows you to approach a few providers who meet certain criteria. There is “repeat procurement”, where you return to earlier provider because of time constraints and because they did a previous job well. All these need strong justifications because you are restricting competition, which is a major element of procurement. And then there is “competitive bidding”, where you throw it open to all. In all, Nigerians deserve to know the process adopted.

Get me right. I am not saying anything illegal is being done in the case of the Port Harcourt Refinery. It just lacks transparency. That’s my point. And what about other moral issues? ENI again? As I write this, many Nigerians are being prosecuted or wanted by the EFCC for their involvement in the OPL 245 deal. They are being accused of taking part in an elaborate bribery scheme. But ENI, which is at the centre of it all and is being prosecuted by an Italian prosecutor for its role in the $1.3 billion affair, is cornering more deals in Nigeria without getting as much as a slap on the wrist. The impression being created is that our anti-graft war is very narrow.

I sympathise with the government over the limitations imposed by procurement rules, particularly the constraint of speed, but the process was designed for a purpose. More so, this government has been in power for nearly two years, which means a lot could still have been accomplished over the years in spite of the constraints. And, remember, there are many options that can shorten the process which the government has been using for a while now. The biggest headache, though, is that there is too much opaqueness for us to conclude that transparency is a guiding principle. The chaos over the concessioning of Port Harcourt Refinery is a very good example. Dissonance.

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