How N14.5bn diversion controversy affects Nigeria’s export project

Minister of Trade and Investments, Dr Okechukwu Enelamah.
Minister of Trade and Investments, Dr Okechukwu Enelamah.

The Federal Government’s ‘Made in Nigeria for Export’ (MINE) project has suffered a huge setback following a controversy surrounding alleged plans to divert N14.5 billion from the N20 billion released for its implementation.

The government had disclosed that N250 billion would be spent for the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) across the country and that it would be captured in the budget over some years.

N46.17 billion was included in the 2017 budget of the Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority (NEPZA) for upgrading and establishment of new SEZs. NEPZA’s 2018 budget also captured about N40 billion for the same purpose and there is also another provision of N42 billion in the 2019 budget of the authority currently undergoing consideration in the National Assembly.

Investigation revealed that NEPZA had initiated the processing of upgrading and establishing new industrial parks also known as SEZs across the country as indicated in the budget before an instruction from the minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, Dr. Okechukwu Enelamah, that part of the fund should be transferred to a private company, brewed a controversy.

Documents seen by Daily Trust showed that the minister wrote to his Finance counterpart requesting for the transfer of 2017 appropriated funds for MINE project to the private company and in November, the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation wrote to NEPZA requesting “disposal instruction” to transfer N14.38 billion to the company as requested by the minister.

The former Managing Director of NEPZA, Barrister Emmanuel Jime, sought the counsel of the Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF) and Minster of Justice on the legality of allowing the minster transfer funds budgeted for NEPZA’s capital projects into a private company’s account.

To advise NEPZA accordingly, the AGF got an explanation from the trade minister on the controversy.

The minster’s response seen by our reporter showed that he said NEPZA had misrepresented facts aimed at stalling the MINE project.

Dr. Okechukwu said the funds allocated in NEPZA’s budgets were for MINE project and were only “domiciled” in NEPZA for ease of appropriation and not for NEPZA to implement the project itself.

The minister said the Nigeria Special Economic Zones Company (NISEZCO), to which he requested a transfer of N14.38 billion to be made, was created as the vehicle for the implementation of MINE project.

The minister said he requested the Budget Office to domicile the funds for the MINE project in NEPZA’s 2017 and 2018 budgets because as at then, NISEZCO had not been created.

Dr. Okechukwu said he sought and got the approval of the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for the transfer of the funds to the company.

Therefore, the AGF, Abubakar Malami, advised NEPZA not to frustrate the transfer of the funds “in seeking to retain such funds on technical interpretation of the NEPZA Act.”

Sources within NEPZA told Daily Trust that the authority was concerned that there is nowhere in the Executive Bill for the year 2017 and 2018, submitted by NEPZA through and in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, that proposals or provisions were made for MINE project.

“It is therefore not correct for the honourable minister to say that those line items funds under NEPZA are Project MINE money,” a source not authorised to speak said.

The source said the funds being targeted by the minister were specific line items appropriated and allocated to be administered, operated and managed by the NEPZA under the supervision of the trade minister.

Investigation shows that at NEPZA’s budget defense before the National Assembly for the year 2018, NSEZCO was not in attendance to defend any Executive Bill proposal or provision and NEPZA said as at 2017 and 2018, NSEZCO was not in existence; neither was it known to the Budget Office of the Federation nor even the Trade Ministry as it was incorporated on June 12, 2018.

“It is therefore unusual to claim those line item funds under NEPZA belonged to NSEZCO as it is a private company incorporated under the Corporate Affairs Commission while NEPZA is a creation of the Law vide NEPZA Act 63 of 1992 as amended,” the source said.

The source noted that the best option for the minister is to forward an Executive Bill for the amendment of the NEPZA Act before funds appropriated and allocated to NEPZA can be transferred to NSEZCO or any other organ the honourable minister may wish to.

Meanwhile, the Senate and the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria have also waded into the controversy, with both kicking against the transfer of the funds.

The Senate had on January 8, 2019, written to the Accountant-General of the Federation, insisting that on no account should the company be recognised “for the purpose of transferring funds meant for NEPZA as requested by the Honourable Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment (via a letter dated 22nd October, 2018).”

The Senate urged the Accountant-General to release the funds “only” to NEPZA as they were “only budgeted for the NEPZA capital projects in the 2017 Appropriation and not an intervention fund.”

Similarly, the Association of Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria has written to President Muhammadu Buhari to bring his attention to the development, which the association described as “a scam”.

The association said there was no need to establish a new company to administer free trade zones in the country as it would amount to duplication of functions of NEPZA and too many expenses for the Federal Government to bear.

“The minister, in his desperate move to achieve his unpatriotic objective is already transferring the fund appropriated and deposited into NEPZA Project account with CBN into a new account to be opened with CBN in the name of an SPV company which is not a product of any legislation,” the letter read.

Note that Dr. Enelamah had explained that the shareholders of the company were the Federal Ministry of Finance, Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (NSIA), Africa Export-Import Bank (AFREXIM Bank) and the Africa Finance Corporation, but NEPZA insisted that the company is a limited liability company registered with the CAC that cannot duly execute its lawfully approved capital projects with funds appropriated to the authority by the National Assembly.

While the controversy raged, Daily Trust noted that the MINE project, meant to increase Nigeria’s export volume and value through new special economic zones and upgrading of existing ones, is still suffering three years after President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration conceived it.

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