by Nimi F. George
I have lived in Port Harcourt for many years; but, until recently, I did not know the richest address in this capital city of our oil-rich Rivers State. I only got the information by happenstance – while reading a petition, and the rejoinder thereto, that were published in the newspapers. The richest address in Port Harcourt, in case you do not know, is situated somewhere on Trans Amadi Road, where three companies, co-located at the same address either received (according to the petitioners) or (according to the rebuttal) bought the hard currency equivalent of not less than N17 billion, all within a matter of days in December, 2014.
Usually, in claims and counterclaims, different sets of facts are marshalled. Now, according to the published petition, which was addressed to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Rivers State Government sold its electric power plants, and the monies, or at least a chunk of the proceeds, were then allegedly paid to the three companies located at the same address on Trans Amadi Road. How much each company got and on what date (between December 1, 2014 and December 8, 2014) are part of the details of the petition.
However, in the rejoinder which was also widely published with appendices, the former Secretary to the State Government (SSG) and former Commissioner for Finance, both of whom served under the administration of Rotimi Amaechi as governor, refuted the allegation that the monies were simply paid to the three companies for doing nothing. Instead, they argue, part of the proceeds of the sale of power plants was in US dollars, which the companies bought and paid the state government the naira equivalent.
My first observation is as follows: whereas, in the petition, the three companies are named and their address given as the same location on Trans Amadi Road, the rejoinder lists the companies but without their addresses. I must admit straightaway that my interest in the matter was stirred by the curious coincidence of the three companies having the same address and dealing in such huge sums within a short space of time, hence my coinage of the title for this article. Yet, I note that the rejoinder did not refute the co-location of the three companies at the same address.
Even to the untrained eye, the fact that such monies as aforementioned went to the same address, and within a week or so, should trigger an alarm. Forget for now that, in law, companies are regarded as separate and distinct entities, from their human owners. Companies have a life of their own. Thus, a hundred or more companies can operate from the same address; they can share the same office. But the law also recognises that companies are potent vehicles for perpetrating fraud, which is why the history of company law is replete with pieces of legislation aimed at blunting the capacity of companies being used as avenues of fraud.
The rebuttal to the petition provides a background to the sale of the state’s power projects; it also indicates that proceeds came in various tranches between 2012 and 2014, and that there were US Dollar components of the proceeds of sale. Subsequently, according to the former SSG and former Commissioner for Finance, the US Dollar “proceeds were sold to willing buyers”. But why does it appear to be the case that those three companies located at the same address were the “only willing buyers” of the forex proceeds? Was the sale advertised, or was it insider dealing? The rejoinder is silent on that.
The rate at which the three companies bought the forex was stated at N175 to US$1. Yet, by December 2014, with falling crude oil prices, and the Central Bank of Nigeria battling to shore up the country’s external reserves, the Naira was already taking a beating in the exchange market. The Rivers State Government had Dollars, so why the rush to sell off? Did the three companies, in contravention of extant regulations, buy the forex for speculative purposes? That question may be unnecessary after all, because the rejoinder asserts that, “Once the funds (that is, Naira equivalent of the forex sales) were received into Rivers State Government revenue account…they were used alongside others from other revenue sources to finance various government projects and activities.”
Certainly, those “government projects and activities” did not include the remittance of funds for the payment of scholarships for Rivers students studying abroad, who had regularly besieged Nigerian embassies in anxious expectation of funds. The “government projects and activities” did not also include the payment of garbage collection companies which downed tools and turned Port Harcourt into a sprawling garbage dumpsite, stinking and repulsive for several months before the exit of the Amaechi administration. Workers and pensioners were owed, and Rivers State did not pay, until after May 29, examination fees for its students who were to write the NECO for 2015. And, of course, the “government projects and activities” did not include the Port Harcourt mono-rail, which is the abandoned poster project of an administration that lost its way.
But, let me return to the richest address in Port Harcourt. It is interesting that, as disclosed in the rejoinder, the proceeds from the sale of power assets were identified as one of the revenue sources under the state’s 2014 Appropriation Law. Such proceeds were projected at N33 billion. But why did the state government under Amaechi have to wait until December 1st to begin off-loading the US Dollars it received for the sale of the power plants? And the off-loading continued right up to December 22nd . Does Rivers State accounting system forbid carrying over credit balances to the following year? Would the state not have had more Naira in its kitty, if the Dollars were sold early this year?
Still, if within three weeks, according to the facts supplied by the erstwhile SSG and former Commissioner for Finance, in contradistinction to one week as alleged in the original petition, three companies shelled out at least N17.1 billion to buy forex, it buttresses my assertion that where the three companies are located is the richest address in Port Harcourt. Just by their names, the companies are not any of the oil majors, nor do their names ring familiar as among the well-known service provider companies for multinational oil firms. It may help then to, as lawyers say, lift the veil of the three companies, so the real identities of the wealthy folks behind the companies are known.
There is perhaps no better forum to lift the veil of the companies than at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry set up by the Rivers State Government, and which has been given the all-clear by a High Court, to proceed with its assignment. In lifting the veil, some useful questions to ask include: when were the companies incorporated? What has been their respective turnover in the last three years, or less, if they were set up only recently? What were their annual returns to the Corporate Affairs Commission? How much have they paid in company tax to the authorities over the last three years or so? Answers to these questions may help lay to rest any further suspicion of graft or abuse of office.
Nimi George writes from Port Harcourt.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.