NEWS

Nnamdi Ozobia And NigerDock: Dilemma Of A Court Verdict.

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‘Nnamdi Ozobia Waiting To Exhale’

stakeholders must have been surprised  as news filtered in last weekend when a Federal High Court in Lagos quashed the sack by government of the former Managing Director, Nigerdock Nigeria Plc, Dr. Nnamdi Ozobia. The court practically reinstated him as it pronounced that all lost benefits and entitlements be accorded him.

He bestrode the Niger Dock Nigeria Plc, then the country’s only ship repair and ship building yard, like a colossus. Always beaming with confidence as a fabrication engineer who knew his onion, he had this aura of an Emperor in his empire always around him. No wander he earned the sobriquet ‘the god of Snake Island’. Snake Island is the location housing NigerDock, now privatized and inconsequential as far as maritime that it was noted for, is concerned. The name is taken after nature of the curly terrain where the company is located. He started as Engr. Nnamdi Victor Ozobia before he had a doctorate degree that changed the prefix to his name (Dr). He was in charge of affairs in the company between 1992 and 2000.

Court verdict

News filtered in last weekend after twelve years of a legal battle,  that the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos, presided over by Justice Okon Abang had quashed the Federal Government’s dismissal of the former Managing Director of NigerDock Nigeria Plc, Dr. Ozobia. Justice Abang had ruled that Ozobia’s sack as the boss of the ship repair and ship building firm was at variance with public service rules through which he was hired. As a result, the Honourable Justice ruled that all salaries, entitlements and promotions due to Ozobia should be given to him, while the court also awarded a N100,000 cost in his favour.

His headship of Nigerdock

Ozobia started his career in 1981 with the Federal Civil Service Commission, which later transferred him to the Federal Ministry of Transport, and was seconded to Niger dock as Project Director in 1986. In 1992 he rose to Grade Level 17 and was appointed Managing Director of the company in the same year.

As Niger dock’s Managing Director between 1992 and 2000, Dr. Ozobia wielded enormous powers and in the process made the mistake of usurping the functions of key departmental heads which brought him in a collision course with some interests.

Be that as it may, before Ozobia, easily identified with his trademark greyish goatie was sacked, Niger dock was worth more than N5.0 billion despite the fact that it never received any grant or subvention from government from inception.

The company had graduated from merely repairing ships to actual shipbuilding, especially small craft, boasting of a total of 28 vessels it had constructed over the years. As at 2001, it had also repaired over 600 vessels of various specifications, with more than 1,500 staff on its payroll out of which 600 were permanent workers. As a man full of ideas, he turned the tiny Snake island into a wonderland akin to a foreign country within a country. Visitors to the complex would not believe they were in Nigeria until they were ferried out of the zone. His Kosi Wahala Restaurant was a  master-piece for all workers. It is being alleged that the restaurant has been turned the exclusive preserve of the whites working in the new NigerDock.

Travails of Ozobia

The Anambra State born technocrat was accused of alleged financial malpractices for which the former Minister of Transport, Chief Ojo Maduekwe,  asked the police to investigate him. The police came up with a damning report dated May 14, 2000, which was signed by then Inspector General of Police, Mr. Musiliu Smith, and addressed to then President Olusegun Obasanjo. Consequently, Chief Ojo Madueke, in September 2000 constituted an Administrative Panel of Inquiry to examine the allegations and it came up with some findings bordering on financial malpractices.

Some of the alleged malpractices of Ozobia were the creation of a parallel account unit by the suspect in his office leading to: a) the withdrawal of the sum of N40,529,039.00 from the petty cashier by the operators of the Parallel Account Unit without valid documentation to support such withdrawal;  b) the unfettered freedom given to the Petty Cashier to operate “Petty Cash Float” without following acceptable accounting procedure; and c) the withdrawal of another sum of N42,504,247.47 from the company’s funds by another set of parallel account operators contrary to accounting procedure. Others were d) the withdrawal of yet another N44,431,741.30 from the company’s fund without proper records; ii) the disbursement of N41,462,672.15 for the repair of vessels without proper records; iii) the award of contracts without the approval of either the management Tender’s Board, the Board of Directors or the Supervising Ministry (Federal Ministry of Transport); iv) the reflection of conflicting figures of USD 4,200,000,000.00 and USD1,354,250.00 as the value of contract awarded to Chevron Oil Company and v) the alleged payment of a deposit of USD13.5 million by Navimor International Ltd, as cost of 30 per cent shares in Nigerdock when in fact, Nigerdock has not been privatized.

Based on the above findings, the police commenced investigation with the arrest and detention of Dr. Ozobia on December 5, 2000. In the final analysis, the former Nigerdock boss was dismissed through a news broadcast on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and was dragged before a Lagos Magistrate Court and later to a Federal High Court on criminal charges.

Privatisation of Nigeridock

Later in 2002, government announced its intention to privatise the company for which its foreign technical partners, Navimor from Poland, indicated interest as the core investor as it claimed to have a 30 per cent stake in NigerDock.

As Navimor already had issues with the Federal Government due to its alleged unsubstantiated claim of 30 per cent ownership of the firm prior to privatization, it did not make sense to the authorities to hand over the company to it as a core investor. Thus, Global Energy Company headed by Mr. Joseph N. Obiago, emerged as a default purchaser, that is, as the core investor. Default in the sense that it was later discovered that the Global Energy was a highly inexperienced firm that lacked the  capabilities required to manage an engineering and production facility as large as NigerDock.

NigerDock was consequently handed over to the current managers, Jagal Nigeria Limited, a subsidiary of the Jagal Group, which is more focused on the fabrication of oil and gas equipment rather than ship repair for which the company was noted for.

Surprisingly, maritime stakeholders and the general public can hardly hear much about NigerDock today as the new owners have concentrated in the fabrication of oil and gas equipment thereby relegating shiprepair and construction to the background.

Ozobia’s sack and death of NigerDock

There was no doubt that Dr. Ozobia at some point in his administration of the shiprepair and shipbuilding firm became highhanded. For instance, Ozobia almost turned the complex into a family affair by naming all the service boats used for the operations of the company after his family members. However, that was not enough to have thrown away the baby with the bath water. His successor, Engineer Nkpubre Okon Nkpubre, clearly understood the focus of the company and was desirous of seeing the dream through. Ozobia had already commenced combining shipping engineering operations with oil and gas equipment fabrication, a develolpment his successor was already building on. The idea of ‘kill’ Ozobia and ‘kill’ the company led to the comatose state of things in the privatised firm at least in the area of shipbuilding.

Dilemna of court verdict

With Justice Abang’s ruling, there is no doubt that the Federal Government will be in a serious dilenma. The ruling says that he be re-instated to his former position with all salaries, entitlements and promotions due to him since 2001 be made available to him. The issue now is how does he get re-instated into Nigerdock that has been privatised? Who pays the accumulated arrears of salaries and entiltlements due to him? Is it the Federal Government or the privatised Nigerdock? What it means is that by this ruling the former NigerDock is holding the government by the jogular. It is only by good reasoning that the matter can be resolved.

RAY UGOCHUKWU for News Watch Time , July 18, 2013.

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