By Kanayo Umeh, Abuja
There was a mild drama yesterday as the Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi vehemently disagreed with the Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Loans, Treaties and Protocols, Mr. Ossai Nicholas Ossai, on the award of contracts for the construction of railways to the tune of $33 billion.
The issue, which generated a heated argument, forced the committee to suspend proceedings for about 30 minutes after Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila waded in to restore orderliness.
Ossai, at the start of the hearing, expressed displeasure with the Ministry of Transport for allegedly obtaining over $33 billion loan from China for the construction of rail project without any clear cut financing arrangements.
The lawmaker, who claimed that most of the commercial contracts agreements lacked local content clauses, said it was unfortunate that the deals were sealed by non-designated and un-authorised officials.
Ossai’s claim irked Amaechi who insisted that there was no iota of truth in the allegation that his ministry obtained $33 billion for the construction of railway projects.
The minister, who had a hot exchange of words with Ossai, disclosed that his ministry had so far obtained $1.6 billion loan for the construction of the Lagos -Ibadan railway project.
Amaechi also faulted the notion held in certain quarters that the local content laws were breached by his ministry.
He warned that the activities of the lawmakers would hinder the acquisition of the loans to finance the South South rail projects, insisting that the only loan secured by the present government was the $I.6 billion for Lagos -Ibadan rail.
“Mr. Chairman, I have the right to speak, you invited me, I was once a member of the House. If you say Ministry of Transport has a contract of $33 billion, we want to see it because as the minister of transport, the only contract awarded so far is that of $1.6 billion for Lagos-Ibadan which is under threat.
“The implication of having a contract of $33 billion is that I will have a large number of workers. There’s no $33 billion contract in the Ministry of Transport. What we have is $1.6 billion contract awarded under President Muhammadu Buhari and $800 million contract awarded by former President Goodluck Jonathan.
“By the time we came, the contract awarded by Jonathan, signed by Aganga, had been completed up to 80 per cent, so we didn’t have to do the meeting of local content. The only one that has to deal with the issue of local content is the $1.6 billion contract that was awarded for Lagos to Ibadan for which the Chinese government is providing $1.2 billion and we’re providing the remaining $400 million.
“There are over 20,000 workers, and only 560 of them are Chinese, we need to begin to say the truth. It’s good to tell Nigerians the truth, this is very political and we will show all the contracts awarded by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) government.
“You asked about training, there are over 150 Nigerians in China being trained as engineers. We will provide the document to you by Tuesday. They have built two training institutions in Idu and Daura. We provided you with the list of total number of Chinese workers on the Lagos-Ibadan project,” the minister said.
On the $11.1 billion railway project allegedly signed on July 1, 2016, Amaechi said the contract was signed as a prelude to a loan and Nigeria might not get the loan.
Undeterred, Ossai went on to remind Amaechi that they were not quarreling but rather addressing issues of national importance.
When Ossai said he was not talking about South South rail but Nigeria at large, Amaechi retorted: “You have approached me on south south rail. Have you not?. Until you get the loan, there will be no contract. And there will be no loan.”
The tone of the conversation prompted a member of the House Committee, Wole Oke, to call the attention of the chairman for “guidance”, but the call was not heeded.
The following exchange thereby ensured between the duo:
Amaechi: Because of the Committee you’ve set up, we will lose that contract from Lagos to Calabar.
Ossai: This issue is not about south south but Nigeria and I’m serving Nigeria as a legislator. If we continue to serve our geopolitical zone, this country will not be nice.
Amaechi: Have you not approached me on south south train? You’ve approached me.
Ossai: It is okay, we will not degenerate this issue to south south.
Amaechi: But you’ve approached me.
Ossai: The issue we are talking about today is the one that concerns Nigeria, our priority is to make sure that any area is viable and it will promote the economic activities of Nigeria and bring about multiplier effects.
Earlier, Ossai said that besides the Chinese loans, there were other bilateral loans, commercial contracts agreements and investments treaties with different countries and institutions.
The lawmaker claimed that government officials charged with the responsibility of representing Nigeria on these issues were more “desperate to just take the loans at any condition, possibly using non-negotiated loan agreements templates, rather than go through the rigour of diligent technical review of specific clauses with clarity and for national interest.”
He said it was a common practice that most international loan agreements would adopt “sovereign guarantee’ and a neutral international arbitration centre as opposed to waiving of the country’s national sovereignty in an omnibus manner, “especially in dealing with countries like China, known to possess an absolute state status on their institutions and corporations.”