- Category: Politics
- Published on Saturday, 27 March 2010 09:40
- Written by Admin
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For the fifth time since 2002, the sale of Nigeria’s national telecoms carrier, NITEL may suffer another privatization setback.
This is a fresh development that causes some worry to watchers of the endless sale palaver of the company reputable as highly valuable and profitable and really viable for purchase.
Last month, there was a hope raiser in the sale of NITEL after the abysmal management of the outfit by the Transcorp that bought 51 percent of the shareholding since 2006. The buy was fraught with controversies as many alleged that the Transcorp was owned and sponsored by former president Olusegun Obasanjo who was in power during the sale.
During the latest sale last month, the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) and National Council on Privatization (NCP) supervised by the Vice President, now Acting President had announced that the revocation and take over from Transcorp was on grounds of poor management and lack of investment.
Right now tongues are wagging that the bid which some labour leaders in NITEL described as the “best thing to happen to NITEL and the nation to recover part of the wasted years of the national carrier is being frustrated because some people loyal to the forces that created Transcorp are out to make sure any sale to another company is frustrated. They see the sale to New Generation as a denial to Transcorp that has proved its incompetence to manage or do anything reasonable with the company in four uninterrupted years”.
Their grouse and resolve that “if Transcorp should lose, let everybody, including the nation that would make an income of $2.5b, the best and most wonderful offer ever on NITEL since 2002 the sale controversy started also lose. They don’t consider that there are close to 3000 workers in the employment of NITEL who have been left stranded without any income in the past two years. What is important to them is their personal interest and gain.”
Saturday Sun sources also revealed that the renewed agitation and kick against the sale even at a time the New Generation buyer has not been asked to pay the initial advance of 30 percent is on the grounds that the company that made the purchase is partly owned and allegedly encumbered with substantial business interest of General T. Y. Danjuma. The Transcorp gladiators therefore have taken the fight beyond the sale of a company owned by the Federal Government to an issue of the extension of the personality clash of Obasanjo and Danjuma. It is now a matter between an Obasanjo’s Transcorp and a Danjuma’s New Generation as alleged.
From all indications, the obstacle put in the way of the new buyer “is not yet founded because if they had failed to pay the initial advance, there would have been enough reasons to ask them to hands off. The reason they give that Unicom of China denied being technical partners of New Generation is not enough to toss them aside. Meanwhile, the European office of Unicom has admitted knowledge of New Generation and the bid to acquire NITEL. I think that was enough to convince any seller that this company has the competent technical backing to make good the offer”, Saturday Sun was told.
Another big twist in the bargain that is trying hard to throw a spanner to the works is the interest of about two existing Nigerian GSM firms that had interest in the purchase of NITEL but were stopped on rounds of spreading out the territory rather than concentrate all forces in the sector in the hands of one entity. One of the two interested companies which owns a premises next to that of NITEL in Victoria Island, Lagos, was accused of taking the top team of BPE to Dubai sometime late last year to induce them influence the sale to them. “After the inducement and the failure, this company had to get a surrogate technical partner to bid for NITEL.
That also lost and the loss is what the company would not want to bear. They are out to frustrate the NITEL sale until such a time the facilities and equipment that make NITEL strong and buyable decay and someone would be asked to take in for a pittance. They all want the company at all cost because they know its viability in equipment, assets, and technical manpower. If NITEL was a bad offer, I can assure you that the sale would have been over a long time ago”, he said.
Because the forces opposed to the sale won’t let go, some odds were introduced into the mix, including the revelation that the management of BPE compromised in the bidding by leaking the facts of the viability of NITEL to the winner of the bid. “New Generation made one of the lowest offers at the first round of bids. But it was later revealed to them that contrary to their fears, the sale value placed on NITEL is to the exclusion of its liabilities. Many of the bidders had not known this fact earlier. “That finding made New Generation come up strong in their second round of bids to make the best offer.
The position of some of us who understand the internal politics of the sale is that since the company’s bid was accepted and it has announced the winner; it should be allowed to manage NITEL. Meanwhile, some other forces commenced their fight from the NCP office, most of them advisers to the Acting President who kick that BPE leadership and its DG, Dr. Christopher Anyanwu, never consulted or carried them along. Their contention is that since Anyanwu rather decided to deal direct with the Ag. President, they will do their best to rubbish the sale. That is the real reason Anyanwu has become their victim now in suspension.”
To worsen the jinx in the deal, a committee the Acting President set up to look into the controversy of the sale that was supposed to submit its findings on Friday last week has not been heard from. In fact, most of the members, including the chairman, the former Attorney General have been removed in the federal cabinet shake-up. Nobody knows whether it sat or what it came up with. As the delay lingers, the fear is that it might get so long that the winner of the bid would opt out and we would start all over again”, our sources alerted.
The juice in NITEL
The total liabilities of NITEL is in the neighbourhood of $1.8b, and most of them in salary arrears, Saturday Sun found out. The workers have not been paid for over two years now and the Federal Government long ago made it clear that it has no money and would not be part of any deal to borrow and pay the workers when the future of the company is uncertain. “The hope had been hinged on the possibility of raising money from the sale to settle the workers. But that has been dashed. The fighters are oblivious of the interest of the workers who are stranded and would not get any attention until the company is sold.”
“NITEL up till today is a profit-making outfit, and from its Sat-3 equipment, it still nets about N20 billion per annum as it remains the data transfer backbone to all telecom service providers. For every use they make of the Sat-3, NITEL makes an income. The outfit in addition has choice property all over the nation and other very expensive equipment”, the worker stated.
What is the stake or position of the workers in the whole game? That is an essential question many ask. There are close to 3000 of them, although with a depleted upper scale force. But these workers are so bereft of any stamina to fight the debtor company that has starved them and their family members and dependants for two years without pay. “Let’s take it that each of the 3000 worker has five dependants, that means 18,000 Nigerians are direct victims of the stalled NITEL sale. It is the well being and existence, health, education, feeding, housing and the rest of these 18,000 direct victims that the players who stop the sale of NITEL out of selfish aims stall. That is the bitter truth in the matter. But the players don’t give a hoot on whether the workers and their family members are alive or dead, all they want is their intention fulfilled.”
Workers who have not been paid for two years are too poor, too weak, too powerless and too frustrated to lift a finger in protest. “We don’t have the means to stage a protest and lack the medium to express our anger in any form. As a result, we die in silence while the politicians over the possession of NITEL play on.”
These players were described by the worker as unpatriotic and callous to the sufferings of other Nigerians. “If NITEL is sold, the nation will make an income that would be ploughed back into the system. The workers would be paid and they will have their lives revived. The new owners would also employ more Nigerians and through that the society expands and benefits. But they won’t hear any of these”, he asserted.
The workers would not take any suggestion that the matter be forwarded to the National Assembly as they said past attempts never yielded any dividends. “We have been there and have sent petitions in the past for so many times until we discovered that the National Assembly acts like a people compromised. The committees of the two arms on Communications never did anything worthy of commendation towards our past efforts.”
They also lament that the major cause of increased unemployment in the nation is the closure and balkanization of government agencies that used to be heavy employers of labour. “The Railway Corporation is down, the NPA, Nigeria Airways, NAHCO etc, the government, either as the legislature or executive have never asked questions or probed to know why these agencies are down, even some of them already privatized. So, we can’t see the serious effort at solving the problem of joblessness. We have closed the chapter of taking our complaint to the NASS.”
In about 2006, NITEL was divested of some of its assets, which were tagged ‘non-core’ One of them is the large NITEL Training Institute in Oshodi, Lagos that NCP, through BPE ceded to the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI). The rumour today is that the property is likely going to swing to the Bells University owned by Chief Obasanjo or at least have an affiliation with it with the Bells likely going to share the space with DBI. Saturday Sun visited the institute for confirmation of the allegation. The premises are already bubbling with activities as the DBI has started business. All the structures the institute is made of all inherited from NITEL have been refurbished and wear bright paints with deep blue doors.
The Marketing Manager in the Lagos campus, Mr. Akin Ogunlade declined powers to speak to Saturday Sun and rather passed the buck to Mr. Samuel Olanrewaju, Operations Manager at the Lagos campus who was battling with technicians to fix underground cable lines.
Olanrewaju however declined knowledge of the story of ceding the premises to Bells University. He instead said the premises are not enough for the business of the Institute, a reason it is building its Abuja campus simultaneously. He also noted that DBI later this year, subject to the approval of the Nigeria Universities Commission, (NUC) will upgrade to a university and the campus would not be enough for its operations.
“I can honestly tell you that I never heard what you asked me. It is a rumour. Yes, there could be no smoke without fire but given the scope of operations DBI wants to embark on especially after converting to a university, the place cannot accommodate us. We have been finding means of acquiring some more space around here because we want to establish the ICT Park here. The facilities and equipment required to have a standard ICT park can’t be contained here. The park would involve having Microsoft, HP, Siemens and other ICT and communication giants co-located here. Where is the space for another facility because we don’t even have enough”, he asked.
History of woes
The first attempt at relieving the FG of the burden of NITEL management was in 2002 when IIL won the bid to own 51 percent of the company. When the company ran into bad economic weather, it could not comply with the required initial payment. This failure made it lose its 10 percent non-refundable deposit. That was the reason the then MD of the financier bank, Mr. Bernard Longe of the First Bank to lose his job. Ironically, the day the Supreme Court reinstated Longe was the same day the BPE’s DG, Anyanwu was removed over the brouhaha of the latest sale.
About 2004, the worst blunder of NITEL sale was dabbled into – that was the purported sale to Pentascope of the Netherlands, a company later found to have existed only in paper and not in any location in the world. The former Minister in the Presidency in charge of the FCT, Nair El-Rufai was neck deep into the deal and accused of vendetta against the board of the NITEL over a past disagreement. El-Rufai was the head of BPE then. Pentascope had neither manpower nor technical know-how or the money to run NITEL, and after that lethal blow, NITEL never recovered. By the time the virus called Pentascope came, NITEL had over 500,000 serviceable lines and sustained annual revenue of about N50b. All these were rubbished.
Because Pentascope had ruthlessly clipped NITEL’s wings, the two subsequent attempts to sale it flopped with dismal and scandalous bids. Orascom of Egypt bid NITEL for an embarrassing $250m and that closed the case until in 2006 when Transcorp, concocted over night, according to reliable sources came from the blues to place a bid of $750m.
At the point of payment, the poor Transcorp with unclear details of its mission in NITEL buy beat a retreat and settled for a reviewed bid value of $500m.
At the end of the day when NITEL was up for sale again last month, BPE said that Transcorp made no positive impact on NITEL ownership and management – a sign of its gross incompetence and the exposure of the shady nature of its inroad into NITEL. Prior to this latest drama, in 2008, the then Communications Minister, Mr. John Odey had once pronounced Transcorp’s ownership revoked. President Umar Yar’Adua, through his media spokesman, Mr. Olusegun Adeniyi countered. But it took two years for the FG to go back to that factual verdict, in a yet inconclusive deal.