By Lakinbofa Goodluck
If we were to organise an award ceremony for the most victimised and harassed private company in Nigeria today, Intels Nigeria Limited would win seamlessly without any contention. It all began with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), which started with a request for Intels to comply with the Treasury Single Account (TSA) in complete disregard of the existing agreement between the two parties. While negotiations and discussions were still on, the NPA independently terminated the pilotage agreement between the two parties, based on the counsel of the Attorney-General of Federation, who, by the way, assumed the role of the court of law and declared the pilotage agreement null and void ab initio.
The NPA-Intels dispute has now become a subject of national discourse, with condemnation and public outrage over what many now see as political witch-hunt. In the middle of that crisis, the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) visited the headquarters of Intels, accusing the company of tax default. Apparently, when the agency discovered that there was no default, they denied accusing the company of tax evasion and attributed their visit to a routine exercise. In a relay manner, the baton of harassment and victimisation has now been handed over to the Oil and Gas Free Zones Authority (OGFZA), led by its managing director and defeated Akwa Ibom governorship candidate, Mr. Umana Okon Umana. Expectedly, after media explosives of diverse allegations, the OGFZA would probably hand over the baton to another agency of government that would continue with this calculated harassment against Intels. No one knows how many agencies of government have been enlisted to prosecute this relay that must be won at all costs, regardless of who is injured or maligned in the process.
The OGFZA has accused Intels of flouting sections of the Oil and Gas Free Trade Zone Regulations, 2003, for which the authority wants to carry out a 10-year period compliance audit. As a result of these alleged shortcomings of Intels, the OGFZA has refused to renew the company’s operating licence for 2017 despite the fact that the company has fully paid for the renewal. In response, Intels has said that: “We have no doubt that as these are deliberate actions, you (Umana) are well aware of the consequences as these are clearly crude, irresponsible and off limits. At the appropriate time, we will initiate necessary legal measures to ventilate this grievance.”
Following the threat by the company to seek legal redress, OGFZA seems to be changing its tune, resorting to a soft combination of notes that it only issued a query to Intels. Whether this was just a query or another routine exercise by the agent of government, this unending image-battering is injurious to the going concern of the company. Not many corporate entities have experienced this level of victimisation in recent times in Nigeria and still came out focused. Some companies did not even face half of what Intels is currently combating before they fled this country. If the owners of Intels, who are seasoned businessmen, decide to sell off their investment and leave this country today, they will survive somewhere else and Nigeria would suffer for it. The Nigerian government seems to be sending a clear message that investing heavily in the country is tantamount to some act of criminality. Otherwise, why would government agencies take delight in harassing a responsible organisation that is contributing immensely to the socio-economic advancement of a developing country like ours? What is more worrisome is that every government agency that haunts Intels and accuses the company of refusing to pay a certain levy to government turns out to owe the company. Could it then be that they make these allegations as a smart way to avoid paying Intels what they owe the company?
In the month of October alone, the company has had to deal with distractions from government agencies that claim to be carrying out routine obligations on the company, yet those obligations are always in the media with a deliberate negative slant to soil the image of the company. It is puzzling that the government has chosen this path in relating with investors in the country. This display of oppressive governmental powers triggers the question of intent. Are these coordinated efforts aimed at destroying Intels? Are they meant to deliberately destroy the Niger Delta region of the country? Could this be a political offensive to cripple former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, ahead of the 2019 elections? Or how else does one explain the sudden coordinated projectiles on a company that has existed in this country for over 30 years with a track record of integrity and corporate social responsibility?
Whatever the motives behind this siege on Intels, it is high time someone told the government the truth. Intels may have Nigerians who have political inclinations and interest on its board, but the company is a Nigerian company. It belongs to Nigerians and adds significant value to the Nigerian economy. Therefore, government owes it to Nigerians to protect what belongs to them. Every government agency is entitled to carry out its statutory obligations within the confines of the law and in a manner that earns public support and the respect of the corporate world. Labelling companies and witch-hunting them only gives the government of the day a negative image, both within and outside the country. Our dominant image is bad enough, we need not amplify it.
President Muhammadu Buhari must either step in to stall the ongoing onslaught or retrace his steps, if he is already in the know. The ongoing strategy is gradually becoming a template for political office holders to taunt their opponents. Before now, the common witch-hunt pattern was to hang a corruption case on the individual and use the EFCC and other financial crimes agencies to embarrass him. This is a new script that is alien to the Nigerian business environment.
It is not a common practice in Nigeria for political office holders to go after a company that has contributed immensely to the development of the country and employs thousands of Nigerians. The plight of Intels is now cause for worry. Our nation is gradually criminalising investing in the country, especially when some stakeholders of the business have political interests. So far, it appears the only plausible sin Intels has committed to attract this treatment is the commitment of the company to invest huge funds in Nigeria. By this action, our country keeps reinforcing the negative rating on our ease of doing business. We are reinforcing the tag that we have an unpredictable political environment that is business-unfriendly. If things remain the same, the fallout of the ongoing onslaught against Intels is loss of jobs and a continuous decline in foreign direct investment for the country.
Nigerians must not relent in speaking against this strategic effort to embarrass and distract Intels from conducting business successfully. As at today, there is no oil and gas free trade zone in Nigeria that is more viable and successful than the Onne Oil and Gas Free Trade Zone, managed by Intels. It is the largest of its kind in the world and adds great value to the Nigerian oil and gas sector and the economy at large. It is a world-class, one-stop shop to make life easy for investors in the oil and gas sector, to enable operators within this environment benefit from economies of scale. In an interview with a leading Nigerian newspaper, the managing director of the OGFZA acknowledged that over $6 billion of investments have been sunk into the oil and gas free trade zones in the country, with a significant percentage of this going to the Onne Oil and Gas Free Trade Zone. Is it not then an oxymoron that the same company that has facilitated this level of investment is being persecuted?
We must retrace our steps as a nation and pay attention to the right things. The more we keep harassing this company, the more pronounced the perception of persecution increases, which has the capacity to negatively affect the public image of the government of the day. Intels is a responsible corporate organisation and should be treated accordingly.
• Goodluck is a Lagos-based business communication analyst.