The media, critics and the $9.6bn judgment debt albatross

Protesters against the P&ID judgment debt

Rotimi Ijikanmi, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

The 9.6 billion dollar judgment debt by a UK court against Nigeria came like the dead albatross, forced about the neck of the Mariner in Samuel Coleridge’s lyrical ballads “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Like the Coleridge’s ballads, the longest poem by the English poet, Nigeria was slammed with what has been described as one of the largest arbitration awards in human history.

The country is to pay a whopping 9.6 billion dollars, about N3.5 trillion over a botched 20-year Gas and Supply Processing Agreement (GSPA) with an Irish company, Process and Industrial Developments Ltd. (P&ID)

The UK court, in a ruling, authorised (P&ID), a little known Irish engineering and project management company to seize 9.6 billion dollars in Nigerian assets over the failed contract.

The court ruling was a fallout of the contract purportedly entered into in 2010 between the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources and P&ID and the subsequent award made in July 2015 in favour of P&ID, by an arbitration panel sitting in London.

In the failed contract, P&ID was to build a gas processing facility to refine associated natural gas into non-associated gas to power the national electric grid.

For its part, the Ministry was to build pipeline to supply gas to P&ID facility to be located in Adiabo, Odukpani LGA, Cross River state.

The agreement went sour because the company which did not build any facility at the agreed site, blamed the Ministry for not constructing the pipeline for gas supply alleging that it had committed 40 million dollars into the contract.

When the news of the ruling of the UK court, presided over by Justice Butcher broke on August 16, many media houses sourced their reports from the website of P&ID which, as expected detailed biased and unbalanced history of the contract, arbitration and court proceedings leading to the decision.

Critics and some section of the media who relied on the website and the reports were quick to conclude that the Federal Government failed to take advantage of the gas to power contract which would have annually boosted the nation’s electricity supply up to 2,000 megawatts.

They also concluded that the GSPA, apart from ending the challenges of gas flaring, the lucrative natural gas liquid by-products: propane, ethane, butane, from the gas processing would have earn, not only P&ID, but also the country billions of dollars.

Some columnists, opinion writers in national dailies and commentators on live television shows concluded that when the contract went sour, the government failed to properly and diligently defend the case both at arbitration and in courts.

They believe that the 9.6 billion dollars judgment debt was a self inflicted albatross which the defence of immunity as a sovereign nation being canvassed by the government could not suffice as defence.

Just like the Coleridge mariner spends the rest of his life trying to atone for his sin of killing the albatross, the country will have to pay dearly with its assets and foreign reserves for the botched contract,

However, to correct the negative narratives and put the issues on proper perspective, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed addressed a news conference in Abuja on August 26.

The media briefing which was the first major outing of the minister after his reappointment by President Muhammadu Buhari as the government image maker, was also attended by the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN).

Also at the briefing to give their perspectives on the issue were the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Hajia Zainab Ahmed and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Godwin Emefiele.

Mohammed clarified that unlike the Coleridge mariner who has to pay for the atonement of sin of killing the albatross, Nigeria is rather, being hounded by fraudulent elements with local and international collaborators with intention to defraud the country

He noted that the purported contract from inception, was a calculated move by international and local scammers to deplete the country’s rising foreign reserves.

“.We want to place on record that the Federal Government views with serious concerns the underhanded manner in which the contract was negotiated and signed.

“Indications are that the whole process was carried out by some vested interests in the past administration, which apparently colluded with their local and international conspirators to inflict grave economic injury on Nigeria and its people,” he said

The minister said that the contract was conceived and designed to fail and there were deliberate efforts to circumvent all the checks and balances to prevent breach.

Corroborating Mohammed’s position at the briefing, Malami, the nation number one law officer, said preliminary investigations revealed local and international conspiracy in the purported gas contract.

The Justice Minister said the investigation revealed that the contract from conception was bound to fail because of deliberate inherent elements designed into it.

“I want to draw attention first to the composition of parties in the agreements which are the Federal Ministry of Petroleum Resources (FMPR) and the company, Process and Industrial Developments Ltd. (P&ID).

“As you rightly know, the federal ministry of petroleum resources is not a producer of gas. Gas products are produced by International Oil Companies (IOC) and NNPC.

“When you conceive, sign and execute a contract for the supply of gas products without involving the IOC and NNPC as parties to the agreement, you know very well that there are lot of questions to answer arising from the conception of the contract.

“This, among others, gave rise to the insinuation of fraudulent conspiracies right from the conception of the agreement,’’ he said.

Malami said President Buhari had directed that a full scale investigation be carried out on the circumstances that led to the award.

He said the country, through the contract, was subjected to unnecessary economic sabotage and investigation would unravel those involved in the deal.

On his part, the CBN Governor said the claim by P&ID that it spent 40 million dollars on the botched contract was not correct.

Emefiele said: “we have gone through our records but we do not have any information to show that the company brought in one cent into the country for the purported project.

“We have accordingly written to the EFCC and other agencies investigating the case.

“Time has come that Nigerians should rise against those who claim to do business in Nigeria without investing a penny in the country but all with an intention to defraud the country,” he said

Also speaking at the briefing, the finance minister noted that the case was weighty, considering the fact that the awarded 9.6 billion dollars is equivalent to N3.5 trillion and about the sum of the nation’s recurrent expenditure.

“Apart from being exorbitant, it is unfair and an assault to every Nigerian,’’ she said

According to Ahmed, every Nigerian must come together to ensure that the judgment is set aside because the consequences will affect everyone.

The information minister did not end the engagement at the briefing, but further took the message to the doorsteps of media houses, featuring on prime radio and television programmes.

The minister also paid working visit to the headquarters of a national daily in Abuja where he engaged the management and editorial board of the medium, principally on the purported contract.

Mohammed believed that some media outfits have clearly thrown overboard objectivity and patriotism in their very biased reporting of the matter.

He said the engagements, therefore, would help to guide their reportage and as well create the opportunity to appeal to their sense of patriotism in handling the very sensitive matter capable of threatening the very existence of the country.

In the course of the media engagements, the minister further disclosed that the contract was not approved by the Federal Executive Council as required by law.

He said when the contract was purportedly approved in 2010, there were about seven other gas development projects that were signed about the time that followed due process.

The minister said the insinuation in certain quarters that the government did not defend the case both at arbitration and court stages was “untrue and unfair’’.

“It is not true that we did not defend it or we were not represented,’’ he said.

He said the government successfully applied to have the award set aside by the Federal High Court in Lagos, but the Tribunal ignored this decision.

“Nigeria was represented on the arbitration by the former Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Chief Bayo Ojo (SAN).’’

The minister said that after the award in July 2015 by the arbitration panel sitting in London, the government went into negotiations with the company, but all to no avail.

Mohammed said that when the company also filed the case for the enforcement order in both the UK and the U.S. courts simultaneously, the government engaged services of solicitors to defend the action.

“We succeeded to some extent in the U.S. court and our lawyers are still there trying to defend the action.
He assured Nigerians that there is no immediate threat to Nigeria’s assets as has been wrongly interpreted by a section of the media.

The minister assured that the Federal Government would avail itself of all defence customarily afforded to sovereign states under the United Kingdom Sovereign Immunity Act to stave off any enforcement of the award.

“Nigerians should be assured that the Federal Government is taking all necessary steps to appeal the decision of the UK Court.

“The government will seek for a Stay of Execution of the decision to defend its rights and to protect the assets of the people,’’ he said.

Observers of the trend of events believe that the interventions by the ministers have helped to change the negative narratives around the purported contract

They said with the briefing and media programme appearances by the ministers, most Nigerians have understood the need to put Nigeria first and protect their common patrimony from foreign hawks with local collaborators.

Little wonder, members of Coalition of Civil Society Group, recently, stormed the British Embassy Abuja protesting the $9.6 billion dollars judgment debt.

Members of the group on that day defied heavy morning downpour wielding placards and banners chanting anti-government songs asking for the reversal of the judgement.

Some of the inscriptions on the banners read: ‘$9.6bn Judgement Is a Big Fraud; 200 Million Nigerians Are Against $9.6bn UK judgment; Nigeria First, Always, Nigeria and Britain Are Friends Not Enemy.

The protesters called on the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson to help President Muhammadu Buhari to fight corruption.

Similarly, Constitutional and international lawyers have been offering their legal opinions on ways out of the quagmire.

They advised the government to among others, plead sovereign immunity and raise the issue of fraud in the manner the contract was conceived and signed, to repudiate the judgment debt.

On the whole, most Nigerians have come to realise the fact that the purported contract was conceived by international fraudsters with local collaborators to loot the nation’s foreign reserves and the urgent need to collectively resist the fraudulent move against Nigeria’s assets

They, therefore, called on government to deploy legal and diplomatic means to block the execution of the judgment debt, unravel those behind the move to inflict economic injury on Nigeria and its people for punishment.