By Okey IBEKE
Coming after his humiliation over his ill-advised opposition to the setting up of the Maritime University, Okerenkoko in Delta State, the recent cancellation by President Muhammadu Buhari of the contract for the provision of security within Nigeria’s maritime domain is definitive pointer to the changing fortunes of the ruling party’s favourite son in the Niger Delta, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi.
The former Rivers State governor who was largely credited with oiling the machinery for the election of Buhari in 2015 with his state’s rich resources had superintended the award of a security contract for securing Nigeria’s maritime assets to HLSI Firm Security and Technology touted as an Israeli company for $195 million over a three-year period. This is equivalent of N70.2 billion at the current exchange rate. Amaechi has however on various occasions denied using his state’s resources in financing Buhari’s 2015 campaign.
As the minister of one of the most powerful portfolios in the Buhari presidency – Ministry of Transportation – it was his recipe for upturning a controversial contract where the job of securing the water ways was outsourced to Chief Government Ekpomupolo, popularly known as Tompolo, a former militant leader.
Global West Vessel Specialists Nigeria Limited (GWVSNL), Tompolo’s company, was the beneficiary of the contract for a job that perfectly suited the Nigeria Navy which only needed to be equipped with requisite gear to undertake the job.
However, Amaechi had a different agenda. It was not to bring the Navy into the loop. It was not to halt the unnecessary hemorrhaging of the economy. It was simply to substitute GWVSNL with another company which ownership will be loyal to him. The arrangement fitted an established pattern by Amaechi at the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) where he had installed his political protégé, Dakuku Peterside, director general.
Tompolo’s company had earlier been contracted by NIMASA under Patrick Ziakede Apkobolokemi as director general of NIMASA to also drive the recovery of debts owed the agency. Amaechi’s change agenda was to substitute Tompolo’s company with one owned by one of his cronies. Up came Snecou, a firm where the Rivers State chairman of APC had considerable interests, as the new debt collector for NIMASA. For its efforts, Snecou was entitled to up to 15 percent of all funds recovered through its intervention as commission.
President Buhari terminated the controversial security contract via a memo dispatched by his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari. The President, in the memo, directed the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, to terminate the contract with immediate effect.
He also ordered the National Security Adviser (NSA) and the Nigerian Intelligence Agency (NIA) to investigate how the contractor obtained security clearance for the job without an end user certificate.
President Buhari also ordered HLSI Security Systems and Technologies to supply items equivalent to the $50 million upfront payment it received from government.
The coming of HLSI Firm Security and Technology has characterised in even greater controversy than the arrangement it supplanted. It was shrouded in secrecy but dressed in pseudo patriotic garb. The minister claimed that Maersk Line, one of the global dominant carriers that lifts a significant part of Nigerian cargoes, was spending up to $18 million annually to escort its ships through the channels leading to Nigeria’s ports.
It was a narrative that resonated with the government and impressed President Buhari enough to approve the arrangement which lacked the transparency and competitive bidding. An operations executive with one of the foreign-owned shipping companies told Business and Maritime West Africa the minister’s figure was strange.
There is concern, however, that in the absence of effective monitoring, the initial $50 million upfront payment made to the company which Buhari had ordered it to supply equipment commensurate with the amount may be lost to officialdom. There had been doubts on the true status of HLSI Firm Security and Technology.
In fact, discreet investigations and background checks on the company cast doubt on its claim of being an Israeli company. The checks revealed that contrary to claims by Amaechi, HLSI Firm Security and Technology is after all not an Israeli firm as it was registered in Seychelles and has its headquarters in Cyprus.
The unravelling of its doubtful status was the final nail on the coffin of the contract with President Buhari frowning on the misrepresentation.
It was at the point of inquiry into the contract by the House of Representatives that the minister employed every maneuver to shield the specifics of the contract from the public. The House Committee on Public Petitions, has invited Amaechi, Chief of Naval Staff, Rear Admiral Ibok Ekwe Ibas, Director General, Nigeria Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA and the contractor, HLSI Firm Security and Technology to appear before it. Ten Civil Society Organisations, had petitioned the National Assembly on the contract, citing security implications if a foreign company is given the right to secure Nigerian waterways.
Relying on his oft repeated line, Amaechi said the three-year contract would also see the firm train members of the Nigerian military personnel on water security, saying the intervention will save huge security cost for the likes of Maersk line shipping firm that spends between $15 million and $18 million annually on escorts.
“The Israelis have assured us that after the training of our security operatives, such harassment and attacks on our waterways will not happen again.
“They even said we should hold them accountable if such harassment persists on our waterways after the training. That is one achievement that has happened under our leadership in the maritime sector,” the minister said. But when the House asked for the contract documents, Amaechi hedged and pointedly declined to let the committee have a copy despite repeated deadlines.
It was learnt that President Buhari’s decision to terminated the contract caught Amaechi unawares and may signpost a growing unease within the presidency of the political costs of the public’s perception of the minister as it tries to shore up its image in the run up to the 2019 elections.
It was gathered that the presidency can barely wait for Amaechi’s political son and boss of NIMASA, Peterside, to make good his ambition to take another shot at Rivers State Governor’s Lodge so he can be eased out of the agency.
As President Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign has been hit with accusations that it is targeted mainly at opposition leaders, Amaechi’s less than endearing record as governor and minister is said to have posed a dilemma for the presidency which is looking to make its efforts more credible.