A Scandal Comes Up Short


Mahmud Jega


For two weeks, the air was rife with the smell of another national scandal. Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee SENATOR BODE OLOWOPOROKU alleged that Minister of Agriculture MALAM ADAMU BELLO unilaterally awarded fertilizer contracts worth N14 billion and ripped-off the nation of N3.5 billion. The minister said Olowoporoku was blackmailing him because he failed to get a N1.5 billion fertilizer contract that he tendered for. Who was telling the truth? This is the story of a national scandal that came up short.

It was meant to be the natural successor to the two epic corruption scandals of the year, namely the N13 billion Tafagate and the N55 million Osuji-Wabaragate bribery scandals. However, in more ways than one, this one came up short, far short.

Malam Adamu Bello should have been much more visible than he elected to be. A life-long banker who found himself in the midst of politics, he did not seem to have made the transition to a voluble, talkative and aggressive personality that his new calling requires.

As Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development for more than four years now, in a country where more than 60 percent of the adult population is engaged in active farming, he has kept a fairly low profile, stepping out into the spotlight only when he could not avoid it, to speak about fertilizer, locust invasion, agricultural loans, revival of cocoa's old glory, alternative uses for cassava or some other such issue. Not any more. For nearly a month now, Malam Adamu Bello, Dan Iyan Adamawa, has engaged in a very public spat on the airwaves and on the pages of newspapers with the now sacked Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Chief Bode Olowoporoku. It is now clear that the conflict between the two men had a long gestation period, but it burst into the open on Wednesday, May 4, when Senator Olowoporoku addressed the press at the National Assembly Complex in Abuja. He said his Senate committee had dragged the Minister to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission [EFCC] as well as the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offenses Commission {ICPC]. For what? Olowoporoku made four major allegations that day. In the next fortnight, he elaborated on some, tactfully withdrew some of the charges, and added a few new ones.

Of the original four charges, the first was that Minister Adamu Bello "unilaterally" awarded a N14 billion contract for fertilizer procurement. Secondly, he said the largest chunk of the contracts went to a company allegedly owned by an Indian national, whom he suggested was the minister's front. Thirdly, he said the contract sum of N2,800 per bag was inflated and that government lost N3.5 billion in a scam. Lastly, Olowoporoku alleged that another Minister imported fertilizer from Ukraine at a "real" price of N1,500 per bag.

In time, the Senator backed away from the charge that another Federal Ministry imported fertilizer at a price far lower than the Agriculture Ministry's, but he added two new charges. One was that both the Minister of State and Permanent Secretary for Agriculture "washed their hands off" the 2004 Federal fertiliser contract award process and denied any knowledge of it. He also said "wretched quantities" of fertilizer contracts were awarded to many companies who won the bid, while a huge order was made from the "Indian" firm. What is the truth of all these charges? Documents that have since tumbled out of the deep vaults of the Agriculture Ministry and some other agencies of government, as well as the accounts given by many knowledgeable persons, now enable us to examine all these charges fairly up close. The first charge, that the Minister unilaterally awarded a N14 billion contract, was always difficult to believe because without Presidential and Federal Executive Council approval, not to mention the feared Due Process Certificate, a minister may "unilaterally" award a contract if he so wishes but has no way to ensure payment.

Anyway, several documents from the Agriculture Ministry now show that the Year 2004 Wet Season Fertiliser Supply Programme went through a long, delicate and very thorough process. The ministry called for bids from prospective suppliers sometime in late 2003 and outlined some tough conditions, including a six-week supply period. Later on, the very tough condition that no mobilization fees would be paid was also added. 161 firms applied in sealed bids; the tenders were opened and analysed by a Technical Evaluation Committee. Next, the ministry's officials undertook a Fertiliser Market Sample Survey in several parts of the country to determine prevailing prices.

Then, the MARD officials analysed international fertilizer market and price movements by downloading from the Internet and calling the Fertiliser Market Bulletin, the Fertiliser Institute, International Fertiliser Development Center and International Fertiliser Market Advocate groups. Next, a price analysis was made, as were recommendations, which were forwarded to the Due Process Committee. A memo recommending 89 successful contractors for awards was then made to the President. Chief Obasanjo was not happy; he said the contractors were too many. In the end, though, he approved the memo, and the contracts were signed. Due Process certificates were obtained for all of them. Most of them have now delivered the ordered supplies of fertilizer and, to boot, are yet to receive payments. The charge of "unilateral" award by a minister therefore fails to stand up to the weight of documents.

The allegation about an inflated contract sum is only a little bit trickier. In making the charge, Olowoporoku quoted a fellow senator who said he bought fertilizer from the open market at a price of N1,800 per bag. The Agriculture Ministry and the Due Process Office were however convinced that they had worked out the best price possible with a 15% profit margin for the importer, rather than the maximum 30% allowed. So what accounts for the price difference? When he was asked about this, Agriculture Minister Bello said, "The Federal Government procures fertilizer at N2,800 per bag. This is delivered directly to the states and FCT, but they pay the Federal Government only N2,100 per bag because it is subsidized. Then, most of the states have their own subsidy regimes. Kaduna State, for example, resells the fertilizer to farmers at N1,600 per bag, having added its own subsidy of N500 per bag. Now, this fertilizer is not supposed to be diverted and sold at the open market, but we all know it happens.

Therefore, if one buys fertilizer in the open market for N1,800, it is likely to be one of this diverted consignments". Then there was the matter of the "Indian firms" Morris Nigeria Limited and Fertiliser and Chemicals. Between them, they got a contract to supply 40,000 metric tones of the commodity at about N1.5 billion. But the two firms don't see themselves as "Indian" companies at all, having been registered in Nigeria for more than two decades and having established themselves solidly in the fertilizer business. The year 2004 wasn't even one of their best years, the two firms say. In 1993, for example, they got a much heftier fertilizer supply contract from the same ministry, a full decade before Malam Adamu Bello got there. Senator Bode Olowoporoku's charge that another Federal Ministry imported fertilizer at a price far below the Agriculture Ministry's was off the mark because no Federal Ministry ever did so. One wanted to do so, however. Last August, based upon the Agriculture Ministry's encouragement to state governments to try and procure their own fertilizer, the Federal Capital Territory [FCT] Ministry's Agriculture Department drew up a "Comparative Price Analysis of the Cost of Importation of Fertiliser" for 2004 wet season.

It concluded that a metric tonne of fertilizer could be imported for N40,752, as against the Agriculture Ministry's official contract price of N56,000. The Agriculture Ministry responded to the MFCT's and pointed out that the latter essentially used only four parameters, namely FOB price, freight and insurance, 8% port charges and haulage costs to Abuja to arrive at its very low figure. However, the Agriculture Ministry said, a detailed analysis of the cost of a tonne of fertilizer should include not only FOB price and sea freight but the costs of marine insurance, Customs duty, surcharge on duty, commission on inspection agents service of FOB, National Maritime Authority charge of freight, cargo and ship dues payable to Nigeria Ports Authority, and cost of using bagging facility at port, since fertilizer is usually imported in bulk. Other costs to fertilizer importers include labour for bagging, cost of bags, local transport within the port to warehouse, cost of warehouse for storage including loading and offloading, Customs clearing agency fee, shipping agency fee, handling equipment, cost of funds, including management and commitment fees, upcountry transportation and 15% profit margin added to the contractor.

The Federal Executive Council discussed the matter last August and accepted that MARD's calculations were the realistic ones. Given the seriousness of this challenge to the Agriculture Ministry officials' integrity and professional competence, they ought to have celebrated the victory with some strategic media leaks, but their media-shy minister reportedly prevented that. Not that he was not very angry with what happened; the affair reportedly led to a hot exchange of words at the federal cabinet meeting, with President Obasanjo having to wave many yellow cards. Apparently, Senator Olowoporoku relied on this episode to claim that another ministry imported fertilizer at a cheaper rate. The now defunct MFCT never did proceed with the fertilizer imports; instead, it collected a consignment from MARD, for which it still owes N200 million. In the wake of Olowoporoku's allegations, a senior official in MARD said they had only themselves to blame for allowing a major victory at Council to be so misunderstood that it was now being presented as an indictment of their ministry.

Then there were Senator Olowoporoku's two latter-day charges. One was that the MARD's Minister of State, Chief Bamidele Dada and the Permanent Secretary claimed ignorance of the 2004 fertiliser contract process and said the senior minister himself must come and explain to the Senate Committee. Another senior official in the Agriculture Ministry doubted that this happened. He said MARD has a standing Technical Committee on fertilizer procurement in which most of its key officials are participants. It also has in place a very detailed, some say cumbersome, procedure, which lasts many weeks and involves dozens of key officers. However, this official said, when Chief Olowoporoku raised his charges and throughout the period when the affair lasted, senior minister Adamu Bello stood up for the institution and the process and did not blame anyone else for anything that happened or did not happen. Many a political head may rather duck the missiles and leave civil servants holding the hat, this officer said. The matter of "wretched quantities" of fertilizer contracts awarded to the lesser contractors was also more complicated that Owoporoku alleged.

Upon bidding, each contractor was asked how much supply of fertilizer he had on the ground, and most had only a few thousand tones, if at all. If the evidence was so shoddy, why did the chairman of a Senate Committee rush with it to the press, EFCC, ICPC and the Presidency? Malam Adamu Bello had an answer; he said it may well have to do with Chief Olowoporoku's failure to secure a contract to supply 30,000 tonnes of fertilizer to MARD last year. The minister said late last year, in front of many distinguished gentlemen, including the Senate President, the Senate Leader and Minister of State Bamidele Dada, Olowoporoku accused him of refusing to give the senator a contract that would have earned him N200 million. Malam Adamu Bello mentioned seven live persons who were witnesses to the sordid encounter; but none of them has denied that the encounter took place. Olowoporoku however denied it all. At one of his many press conferences, he said he never applied to MARD for any contract since he became a senator in May 2003. When told about the minister's allegation, the senator said, "They have told me of the two letters he is circulating. Let me react that the two companies are not mine but that some members of the public approached us for letters of assistance to the ministry. When they approached us, it is not for me but in the service of assisting people.

They can go to the Corporate Affairs Commission and find out. I can't really remember those [to whom] we gave letters". Is that so? Then Senator Bode Olowoporoku's memory must be very dim indeed. MARD officials soon tried to remind him. In December 2003, two bulky contract tender papers were submitted to the Agriculture Ministry, one by Bafar International Concept Limited of 5, Adepegba Street, Ilupeju, Lagos and the other by OA-Business Associates Limited of 49, Bode Thomas Street, Palmgroove Estate, Lagos. The former was signed by Mrs. Mercy Olowoporoku as managing director, while the latter was signed by Adekunle Yekini. However, on December 1, 2003---and this was the knock out punch--- Chief Olowoporoku wrote a letter, on the Senate's letter-headed paper and in his own handwriting, to Alhaji Dan Bello, Director, Fertiliser Division, Federal Ministry of Agriculture. In it he said, "Please be informed that we have decided to use two companies for the bidding. They are 1] Bafar International Concept Limited 2] OA Business Associates Ltd. We have completed the filling of the forms and they are here enclosed. Please let the Honourable Minister get this necessary information that we have completed forms for the 30,000 MT [metric tones]. I enjoy your cooperation and extreme high human relations always. Regards, Senator Dr. Bode Olowoporoku. Chairman, Senate Committee on Agriculture".

That wasn't all. Before his election to the Senate in the PDP landslide of 2003, Chief Olowoporoku was an active contractor with MARD. Papers soon surfaced to show that in those days, he executed several contracts in the name of these two companies and others. On March 18, 2003, as the last elections neared, Chief Bode Olowoporoku received four different contracts form MARD in the name of four different companies for a total N23.55 million. The letters, all signed by Mrs. K.A. Ajao on the Minster's behalf, were to managing directors of Bafar International Concepts Limited [N7.2 million for supply of Endosulfan insecticide]; O.A. Business Associates [N7.2 million for supply of Endosulfan insecticide]; Pilgrimage Medica Manufacturing Limited [N6 million for supply of copper sulphate fungicide], and Abikol International Limited [N3.1 million for supply of Endosulfan insecticide]. What's the evidence that Chief Olowoporoku owned these companies? The day that the contract letters were signed, he personally collected all four letters and countersigned the ministry's file copy as having received them. Two days later on May 20, 2003, Chief Bode Olowoporoku wrote four different letters to the Minister of Agriculture, as chairman of the Cocoa Development Council, one for each of the four firms, asking for 25% cash advance. It also transpired that the Senators spat with the minister had other less-than-altruistic motives. Early last year, the two men had clashed in the course of the work of the National Cocoa Development Council.

The minister was its chairman, with the deputy governors of all the cocoa producing states as well as the many cocoa farmers associations as members. Olowoporoku, then a private citizen, was a council member. After his election to the Senate, he asked to continue, and was even made chairman of the Sub-Committee on Monitoring and Evaluation. Each sub-committee chairman was assigned a Prado jeep to facilitate his work, and the senator rushed to collect his. Only a few months later, though, he turned in a report to the full council, after an evaluation tour, alleging that millions of naira worth of chemicals had been seen wasting away in a certain Southwestern state. The matter was investigated and found to be untrue; the minister then removed the senator from the committees headship and replaced him with the Deputy Governor of Cross River state. Chief Olowoporoku was also asked to return the Prado jeep. He refused, and the matter was referred to the Police Inspector General. Soon afterwards, several petitions were addressed to the presidency on the cocoa councils operations. A flood of critical letters to newspaper editors also followed. Early this year, the two men were again at loggerheads, over money.

The Senate Committee Chairman wrote a letter to the Minister asking for N7 million to finance a 4-day committee retreat at Lokoja or Jos in order to brainstorm on the Agriculture Development Fund and the Agricultural Revolution bills that were lying before the Senate. Olowoporoku said the money was to feed, transport, accommodate and pay DTA and daily allowances to the committee members, their personal staff and consultants. Apparently, he never got the money. The Senate leadership had had enough. On Wednesday last week, it unceremoniously removed Chief Bode Olowoporoku from chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee. When he spoke to newsmen a day later, Senate President Ken Nnamani dropped broad hints that Olowoporoku's removal had to do with the controversy that he started, but which spectacularly backfired against him. In the banking halls of Habib Bank, where Malam Adamu Bello was once the boss, a regional manager heaved a sigh of relief and said;He was our managing director for a decade. His integrity was very well known. Everyone called him Mr. Clean. I would be very surprised if he begins to break the rules at this stage in his eventful life.

JEGA is Editor of the New Nigerian, Kaduna.