With Nigerians yet to come to grips with the absurdity of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company not remitting billions of dollars of oil income to the national treasury, another public corporation has been fingered for engaging in the dubious act. Last week, the National Conference Committee on Finance told a shocked plenary that the Nigerian Ports Authority had failed to remit N713 billion to the Federation Account over six years.
This is impunity at its worst. It is a reckless regime of sleaze that has weighed down Nigeria’s maritime industry from playing a leading role in West Africa. A combination of pervasive corruption and mismanagement has relegated our maritime industry to an also-ran in the sub-region, when, with its trade volume, it should be the hub of the shipping industry.
All the NPA board members, spanning the six-year period in question, have to be called to account. In a country which has the worst figure – 10.54 million – of out-of-school children in the world, according to UNESCO’s 2013 report, this fund would go a long way in giving these children a secure future. The unpaid funds could also build top-class social infrastructure in a nation where roads and health infrastructure are totally decrepit. This scenario makes it critical that all the withheld money be recovered and efficiently deployed in making the country better. Those who broke the law should also be prosecuted.
Citing lack of transparency in the operations of the NPA, the committee’s report is a disturbing sign of the degeneracy within revenue-generating public institutions in Nigeria. It said the NPA generated N91 billion in 2009 but remitted N5.2 billion; raked in N102 billion in 2010 but paid only N3.5 billion to government; and made N120 billion in 2011 and remitted just N1 billion. In 2012, the NPA reportedly made N128 billion but remitted only N17.8 billion to government coffers, generated N131 billion in 2013 and remitted N3.2 billion, while N172 billion has been realised up to May this year without any remittance so far.
A major loophole that makes the operations of the NPA fraud-prone is the law that set it up. Section 14 (1) of the NPA Act that permits the authority “to set aside from its revenue, appropriate amounts for replacement, contingencies and other purposes…” is instructive. So also is the subsequent provision, which states that the NPA may, “with the approval of the Minister,” (of Transport) determine how to spend its “reserve funds.” Successive NPA boards and managements have hidden under this law to plunder at will.
This is clearly in conflict with the 1999 Constitution. The NPA has been acting above the law, denying the federating units of their much needed income. NPA, therefore, has to be tamed. Like every other organisation, its operations should be in line with the constitution, which states that any money generated must first be paid into the Federation Account before distribution to the relevant units of government. The constitution affirms its supremacy in Section 1 (1), and states further in subsection 3, that “if any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this constitution, this constitution shall prevail and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void.”
Unfortunately, the NPA and the NNPC are not the only culprits in this illegal withholding of public funds. Agencies such as the Central Bank of Nigeria, Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria and the Nigerian Maritime Administration, regularly tamper with revenues before remitting whatever is left to the Federation Account.
The National Assembly is, therefore, complicit in this unfolding saga, as it cannot claim ignorance of the injurious legislation that gives the NPA a self-accounting status. It should not take a parliament, where excessive reward is the order of the day, forever to amend this law, and make the NPA accountable to the taxpayer. Indeed, the parliament must earn its keep by amending all the other laws governing revenue-generating public agencies so that a recalcitrant body like the NNPC would not commit more havoc after already spending more than N600 billion as so-called subsidies on kerosene and over N2 trillion on petrol subsidy in 2011.
If properly run, the ports are a source of huge revenues for the country. To curb the excesses of the NPA, the National Assembly and the executive arm of government must deal with the corruption that is emasculating port operations in Nigeria. The graft in the organisation shows in the poor development of infrastructure and the notoriously tardy downtime in clearing goods.
According to “Corruption Risk Assessment in Nigerian Ports,” a study conducted by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission last year, Nigerian ports are “swimming in corruption and (are) manned by unqualified personnel.” Consequently, the rot at Nigeria’s ports is the gain of ports in Benin Republic, to which importers turn to escape corruption and delays that are a way of life here.
This alarming situation tallies with the 2013 audit report of the United States Coast Guard on port operations in Nigeria. Threatening to lead a boycott of our ports if things – especially security – failed to improve, the USCG, in that evaluation, said Nigerian ports “seem like a regular market- place where all kinds of people have unrestricted access, while broken down vehicles litter the ports’ access roads.”
Almost a year after the report, things have not changed. The ministries of Finance and Transport, under whose purview port operations lie, should carry out a transparent, holistic review of the NPA, handing out specific terms of engagement to the organisation.
The National Assembly should swiftly bring the laws governing the NPA in line with global best-practices, while all those who have soiled their fingers in the handling of the N713 billion unremitted funds should be prosecuted to deter others.
Also, the federal, states and local governments should use the available legal instruments to force the NPA to remit the money so that they can have access to their fair share for development in their domains.