Farming On Onitsha Seaport: Enugu In Governor Mbah’s Hands

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How can the credibility of a N100-billion palm plantation project that is meant to revolutionise agricultural business in Enugu State be based on a tangential association with the construction of the Onitsha Seaport? What relevant competence in marine constructions can be transported to agriculture? Fishery is not visible in the Enugu contract that Governor Peter Mbah signed weeks ago. Not even irrigation.


The project became slightly muted once it became public. The barrage of questions jolted the Governor whose media aides went into over-drive. A great project that would have benefitted the people, a project from which other states could have learnt things about huge agricultural projects has gone into a spin of explanations that pop more questions.

Which organisation will handle the project? It was this simple question that created doubts about the project and pulled Onitsha seaport that Alhaji Shehu Aliyu Usman Shagari started as President in 1981 into a conversation on a palm plantation in Enugu State, 43 years on. Those who should know raised the first red flags.

Labour Party, LP, Enugu State Chapter, was the chief interrogator of the project.

The company with which Enugu State signed the N100 billion was registered only four days to the signing of the deal. The palm plantation involved, a government statement claimed, was one of Enugu State’s dormant assets that the Mbah administration wanted “to revive to productive assets, as part of plans to grow the state’s economy exponentially from $4.4 billion to $30 billion per annum”.

“We are raising this alarm because the entire project smells of large-scale fraud and as a responsible and responsive political party, we owe it to the people of the state, the duty of drawing their attention to what we see as economic rape and corrupt tendencies. Checks at the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, have created a cloud of suspicion around the project, following our discovery that Pragmatic Palms Limited was registered only on May 6, 2024, four days before the partnership agreement was signed with the Enugu State Government on May 10, 2024,” the LP statement read.

They were quickly dismissed as bellyaching political opponents, bad losers who never had anything good to offer Enugu State.

Governor Mbah sets his standards, amends them as they come under heavy fire and may just decide to do nothing thereafter.

He likes big projects, big sums, and maintains a meek mien that inhabits controversies. There are many explanations for the uproars around his policies, projects, and programmes. Governor Mbah will continue to be distinct in charting his own course, for his own purposes. He has excelled in doing things how he wants them.

People are beginning to wonder why the government runs into strong storms with the magnificent projects it mentions at every turn. Why does the Governor not have simple answers to simple questions?

LP wants Governor Mbah to make details of the agreement with the company public.

Pragmatic Palms Limited got the deal through “months-long negotiation and due diligence that started way back in 2023,” the government explained. Did the Enugu State Government just admit that it negotiated a contract with a non-existent company? What competence did Pragmatic Farms acquire in four days of its existence to be handed a project of that magnitude?

The palm plantation in question was one of legacies that Dr. M. I. Okpara spread across the Eastern Region when he was Premier over 60 years ago.

Senior Special Adviser to Governor Mbah on External Relations, Uche Anichukwu, in a statement, said the deal would not cost the government any money. It was an apparent response to LP’s suggestion that the deal could funnel government’s resources to private pockets.

“Pragmatic Palm Limited will provide finance for 60 per cent of the transaction value, while the Enugu State Government will provide the plantations valued as 40 per cent equity,” Anichukwu said.

“Diamond Stripes Limited was presented to the government by the partnering firm as their guarantor,” said Anichukwu, who revealed that a “guarantor” was one of the conditions for sealing the deal.

More questions issued from the introduction of Diamond Stripes Limited, reportedly an investor in the power and port sectors (Onitsha seaport), as the “guarantor”. Diamond has reportedly been investing in the agricultural sector too since 2013. It turns out that Diamond’s competence is in building silos, none of which was for storage of palm fruits or palm oil.

Onitsha seaport that was thrown in as a competence does not include an irrigation project to lean on to push involvement in agriculture in terms of running a plantation of that size.

“In addition, the Enugu State Government is represented on the company’s Board, including the Chairmanship of the Board, as part of the steps taken to secure the State’s interest,” Anichukwu said in further attempts to provide comfort to those who query the project.

The explanations succeed mostly in providing more cloudiness. Why would Enugu State Government appoint the Chairman of the board of a private company with which it has a N100 billion partnership agreement? It also has another member on the board? Is Enugu State Government a shareholder in the company? Will the Enugu State board appointees really protect public interest or the company’s? This setting creates enough rooms to explain challenges if the company fails to execute the project. Government interference will be cited.

Too much awkwardness attends the project. The explanations tend to point at more unanswered questions. Evidently, the government cannot answer them with satisfaction.

Even if Pragmatic could offer the Enugu State Government N100 billion for the palm plantations, did other organisations get a chance to bid for the project? What is so special about Pragmatic that, with “months-long negotiation and due diligence that started way back in 2023,” the company could only be registered only four days to signing a major contract? With who did Enugu State Government hold this “months-long negotiation and due diligence that started way back in 2023” since Pragmatic only came into existence by 6 May 2024?

The buzz about growing Enugu State economy by $30 billion annually creates big headlines, great conversations, but all these would amount to little if transparency does not drive the ambition. Organisations that can revive Enugu State economy to a $30-billion height, annually, will demand transparency.

If this were his personal plantation, would Governor Mbah, an astute businessman, hand over its revival to a four-day old company? The Governor should ruminate on this oily partnership.

Finally…

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu is bent on making running Nigeria a serious joke. What is this one about Federal Government purchasing CNG vehicles for its officials? There are companies that currently convert vehicles to CNG compliance. The policy was not about patronising them, but to buy new vehicles, all imported, like the 200 vehicles that have been approved for Customs. The economy is running on borrowed resources. Must we waste them on frivolous spendings that do not promote domestic production? Which type of vehicles would be imported for Customs that are not being produced in Nigeria? Are Customs not already using Nigerian made vehicles? And should the leader of a country that rests its economy on crude oil sales be the promoter of CNG with such rambunctiousness?

“The Federal Executive Council also approved the award of contract for the building of bus terminals and other transport facilities in the Federal Capital, Abuja. Terminals will be built within 15 months at Kugbo, Abuja Central Business District and Mabushi. The whole project will cost N51 billion and will be executed by Planet Projects Nigeria Limited,” Bayo Onanuga tweeted. He is the Special Adviser on Information and Strategy to President Tinubu. This information should be confirmed. The last time Mr. Onanuga tweeted a $600 million contract with an international ports management company, the news was fake, and had to be axed.

Hunger in the land is unabated. High prices of goods and services persist. We now buy fuel, if available, at whatever price we are told at filling stations. Surely, the President’s magic is at work.

Condolences to the Nigeria Witches and Wizards Association whose Secretary-General, Doctor Okhue Iboi, died on Sunday, 12 May 2024 at his home town, Otuo, Owan East Local Government Area, Edo State. He was 65 years old. May he find rest.

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