Furore over sale of Nigerian Coal Corporation

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The sale of Nigerian Coal Corporation (NCC), Enugu, by the Bureau for Public Enterprise (BPE) for the sum of N160 million, has come under scrutiny. Hundreds of angry villagers from Enugu communities gathered at the premises of the corporation recently with placards, protesting what they termed the frittering away of assets of the corporation and urging President Muhammadu Buhari to revoke the sale.

Petition demanding a thorough investigation of the said transaction was reviewed recently by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, chaired by Prof Itse Sagay, and forwarded to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for necessary action. Indeed, a human rights group, Socio-Economic Rights Initiative (SERI), led by the Chief Executive Officer, Raymond Onyegu, had, in a petition to the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, demanded the cancellation of the purported sale. The group noted that underthe sale of non-core assets of the Corporation, the BPE transferred the entire core and non-core assets of the corporation for a paltry sum of N160 million. The land, according to the group, covers an entire area of 55.99 hectares or 996 plots of land in the state capital.

"Therefore, the land was sold at N150, 000 per plot in an area where the going price for land is N10 million per plot. Besides, the claim of sale of non-core asset is misleading because what was sold was 56 hectares, which included all the core assets of the corporation," the group alleged.

The Socio-Economic Rights Initiative, which has an observer status at the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and also collaborates with the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, alleged that the sale of the corporation was bereft of due process and openness as required by the law, establishing the Bureau for Public Enterprises.

In an interview with Daily Sun, Onyegu alleged that the buyer of the property, Mr. Eric Chime was producing table water, instead of investing in coal mining. He also accused the investor of massive cannibalisation and asset stripping of the property of the corporation.

Onyegu said the consent of the Minister of Solid Minerals Development was not obtained, prior to the transaction, as required by Section 12 (4) of the Nigerian Coal Corporation Act, 1950, Cap 299, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 1990.

A former staff of Nigerian Railway Corporation, ChiefReuben Ozonnadi, regretted that the corporation and its mines had been turned to a table water company. He said the facility had coal washing plant; the largest in Asia and African continents, which was installed by former President, Olusegun Obasanjo, to revive the sector. He claimed that thecoal washing plant had been vandalised.

"This area is a core asset of the Nigerian Coal Corporation. Government never advertised for the sale of core assets. The mines are still there. Nobody sold the mines. We have mines in the northern part of the country. This is the first mining site in Enugu. Westill have coal reserves in this area. I worked here as head of department. I championed the research on coal brickate, which was launched in the year 2000."

He said coal could still be mined in Enugu if government takes the required step to revive the sector. Aside from the coal reserve, he explained that the area had huge deposits of refractory crates, the only place where such treasure could be found in the entire southeast.

Ozonnadi, an engineer by profession, said he joined the Nigerian Coal Corporation in 1975 and worked till 2015.

"Nobody is happy with what is going on. Go to the northern part of the country and you will see that all the property and assets of Nigerian Coal Corporation are still intact. Why should they sell the one in Enugu? It is only in the eastern part that people are vandalising the property of NCC," he explained.

Ozonnadi urged Nigerian government to borrow a leaf from South Africa, China and India that had maintained profitable coal mining industry. He expressed disappointment that such an important sector, which could have been an economic lifeline, was jettisoned and auctioned off at a ridiculous price. He said coal could be used to generate power at reduced cost. The Oji River Power Station, he said, had been vandalised, while the Ijora Power Station that was fired by coal has also been abandoned.

The Chairman of Enugu-Ngwo community, Sir Chris Ejike Agu, told Daily Sun that the landed property of the corporation belonged to Enugu Ngwo people, an inheritance from their forefathers. He said the community entered into an agreement with the colonialists on rental basisfor the establishment of the coal corporation.

"It wasn't an outright sale. My people knew that it was a taboo for anybody to sell land. An Ngwo man regards it as a sacrilege to sell a land he inherited from his forefathers," he explained.

Agu said government could exercise the right to take land in the overriding interest of the public, but argued that such land must not be acquired and transferred to an individual.

He said during the olden days, there was a rope linefrom the Bunker to Okpara mine, which transported coal safely without any interruption. The coal would later be loaded onto the train coaches and transported through the rail to Kano, Kaduna or Lagos.

"If you go up to that point, they have started excavating the rail line. When we talk of asset stripping, the rope line has been vandalised and carted away. This impunity must stop. So far, the transaction is illegal in the sense that what was sold was non-core assets. How can you sell land by auction?" he wondered.

He said it wasn't realistic that 996 plots of land, from hill to hill, could be sold, as such could mean selling off an entire community. He alleged that the purported buyer demolished 27 buildings where several families lived. "Sadly," he said: "Teams of policemen were at the scene of the demolition to supervise the exercise."

Agu insisted that the claim by the state government that the demolished structures could collapse was barefaced lies because the area never experienced any building collapse. He urged the Federal Government to cancel the sale of the property and bring all those involved in the transaction to book.

"They should pay adequate compensation to those that they demolished their houses. How can they be deceiving people and the entire country? How can the government promise to revive the coal industry and the Oji power station, but turn back to sell off the Nigeria Coal Corporation?"

Further investigation revealed that former President Goodluck Jonathan raised the hope of resolving the prolonged crisis in the power sector when his administration signed $3.7 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with a Chinese firm on coal energy. The MoU was a defining moment for most Nigerians, with the promise that the coal-to-power project would generate additional 1200 megawatts of electricity to the national grid.

The project was designed to run in two phases – the development of the coal mine and the construction of the power plant. Sadly, the end of Jonathan's administration nailed this dream, while the auctioning off of the assets of the Corporation seemed to have snuffed out the additional 1200 megawatts to the national grid.

When Daily Sun contacted Mr. Chime, he denied any wrongdoing, noting that government took the decisive step to privatise the property due to the vandalisation of the assets by self-seeking individuals in the community.

"What is their interest? Are they protecting the government or do they have any stake in the property? The government had to sell the property of the corporation because people were vandalising them. The government had no option but to privatise it and sell it off," he said.

Chime explained that he never bought the coal mine, but rather the analogue and moribund coal washing plant, which cannot be used in the modern technology for coal processing. According to him, he followed due process in the buying of the property.

"We bidded and I won. I was not the only one that bidded for the property. I paid for the property. I have established six industries in the place. We are employing almost 1, 000 people. This transaction was done four years ago. We have done a lot of work in the place. These peopleare the same group that went and even vandalised my property there," he said.

Chime said some land grabbers were collecting money from some individuals and selling portions of the land to them to build residential houses, despite government's explanation that the area was prone to land slide and unfit for habitation.

On the claim that he had encroached onto the core assets of the corporation, as against the non-core assets spelt out in the initial agreement, he said: "If the government didn't sell the asset to me, they would have called me to order. But the government assigned all those property to me and gave me the certificate of occupancy. These protesting groups are the ones that want the government to lose its property. Those people are claiming that they are Enugu Ngwo people, who own the land and not the government. They collect money from people and allocate them portions of land to build residential houses."

Chime said he had the right to use the property as he desired. According to him, as an industrialist, he decided to establish industries in the area to create more employment opportunities for people.He said the Enugu State Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, visited the area last month to encourage the industrial development of the area.

"My own is just part of what the Coal Corporation is selling. The hospital there was sold; their head office was sold. More is being sold even now, including houses that Coal Corporation people were using. Even the one at the Express, the state government bought it from the Federal Government and they are mapping the place out now," he added.

A chieftain in the area, Chief Friday Ani, who is also the Chairman of Ngenevu Landlords Association, saidthe purportedsale of the property brought distress on Ngenevu and Bunker communities in the area. According to him, members of thecommunity were shocked when bulldozers moved into the area and started demolishing people's houses.

"We tried to stop them but they said they were sent by the government. After the demolition, we went to complain to the state government that members of the community were losing their homes and 21 of us were arrested and unlawfully detained for 14 days by the police. Even the serving Councillor then in Ngenevu was equally detained," he said.

Ani said the clampdown on poor communities was uncalled for, as he urged the relevant authorities to revisit the matter and revoke the sale of the Nigerian Coal Corporation.

Further investigation revealed that Enugu, the Coal City, still had an estimated coal reserve of two billion metric tonnes, yet, the Nigerian Coal Corporation went moribund in 1999 when it lost its monopoly over the nation's coal industry. Experts argue that the privatisation of the corporation and its assets was like killing the goose that lays the golden egg. The initial plan by the FG to sell off 40 per cent to private investors, 20 per cent to the Nigerian public, and retain 40 per cent, never yielded the desired result.

In 2002, work stopped at the NCC operated mines. Not even the technical advisory committee set up in 2003 could revive the ailing coal industry.