Former chief executives, union and group of retirees from the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) yesterday rose stoutly against an attempt by former FCT Minister, Mallam Nasir El-Rufa’i to reject the blame for the destruction of the telecommunications monopoly, urging the Federal Government to hold the former Director-General of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) solely responsible for this monumental national loss.
One of the former managing directors of MTEL, the GSM arm of NITEL, Mr. Kunle Bello, who voluntarily resigned so he could avoid the touted new managers, Pentascope, said he foresaw the collapse of NITEL/MTEL due to insincere and inconsistent implementation of policies by the El-Rufa’i-led BPE. He described the Pentascope management brought in by El-Rufa’i as an “irredeemable misfortune” upon the telecommunications industry and an unmitigated disaster on NITEL/MTEL staff, “who have been dying one after another” due to non-payment of their pensions.
Bello, an ITU telecommunications engineer, said Pentascope allegedly squandered more than N100 billion of NITEL’s hard-earned income, besides the loss of revenue without adding a single telephone line. He challenged the judicial and executive arms of government to rise to the occasion to absolve themselves of blame by going after the perpetrators of the fraud. In a statement signed and issued by the group of retirees in Abuja yesterday, they disagreed with the claim in a widely-circulated statement by El-Rufa’i that former Vice President Atiku Abubakar approved the appointment of Pentascope, the failed management consultant hired to manage NITEL in 2003.
The former workers who said they held El-Rufa’i responsible not only for the collapse of NITEL, but also the destruction of their careers, said the issue at stake is beyond the debate of who signed and who did not sign. “The issue is who issued or originated the memorandum to the National Council on Privatization (NCP)? How did El-Rufa’i, as DG, BPE, pick Pentascope to manage NITEL?” The retirees accused El-Rufa’i of misleading, not only the NCP, but the entire Federal Government by presenting Pentascope as a capable management company that could turn around NITEL.
One of such former employees, Michael Awos, who put in 30 years as a technical staff beginning with the defunct P & T, said that Pentascope was brought purposely to “siphon money and kill this organisation (NITEL) they had spent all their lives to build. “He allegedly broke and twisted all the rules to make Pentascope win. Penstascope was one and the same with El-Rufa’i. The face of Pentascope was represented by El-Rufai’s two closest friends Mr. Hassan Musa Usman and Tijjani Abdullahi. Pentascope in Holland was a one-man office. It had a single room as office. Its rolling mast was on top of a church building. The retirees also said that the true story of the destruction of their national carrier was revealed in two reports by the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Quoting from the report, the retirees said that “rather than using Atiku as scape goat for the collapse of NITEL to serve his hidden agenda, the concerned group of former NITEL workers advised El-Rufa’i to be honourable enough to accept the responsibility for railroading and blackmailing the former NITEL board and the privatization council into approving a contract that had short-changed Nigerians and children yet unborn. According to these former NITEL workers who described themselves as the “human debris of the destruction wrought on NITEL by El-Rufai’s selfish and callous agenda to short-change Nigerians,” the former BPE DG should apologize to Nigerians for his misdeeds.
They recalled that in May 2003, the House of Representatives exposed the underbelly of El-Rufai’s alleged hypocrisy to mislead government and Nigerians about the Pentascope management contract. The committee they said, found that the evaluation of the bids was “suspect” and that Pentascope lied on its true legal status and origin, which the group said El-Rufa’i allegedly covered up. The former NITEL workers said the House found that Pentascope was supposedly registered on January 1, 2002, which was a public holiday in European countries. Despite the alleged inaccuracies and lies by Pentascope, the group accused El-Rufa’i of imposing the Dutch company on a hostile NITEL board, its workers and Nigerians.
According to the group, the Pentascope’s alleged misadventure led to NITEL’s profits nose-diving from N15 billion in 2002 and turned it into a loss of N19 billion in 2003. The group, quoting the House Communications Committee report, also said that NITEL’s turnover dropped from N53 billion to N41 billion. Despite the dramatic drop in turnover under Pentascope management, the group alleged that direct and overhead costs increased from N21.3 billion to N26.3 billion and from N19.4 billion to N30 billion. The NITEL former staff advised El-Rufa’i to focus on these issues rather than using others as a scapegoat, saying that it is not uncommon for leaders to be misled by clever liars into signing something that turned out to be fraudulently arranged to produce a desired outcome.
The retired NITEL workers wondered why El-Rufa’i thinks the House, the former NITEL board and others that exposed the fraudulent process of handing over NITEL to Pentascope were wrong but he was right. Comrade Elias Kazzah, National Adviser of the Senoir Staff Association of Communications, Transport and Corporations (SSACTC) and President of NITEL unit of the association, also called on El-Rufa’I to shut up on account of his alleged mismanagement of the Pentascope transaction that led to the demise of the company. He said that NITEL was so commercially viable that it contributed to NIPOST and provided support to the ECOMOG troops in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
He recalled that the BPE under El-Rufa’i rebuffed other options put on the table for revamping NITEL even though they had failed at six previous attempts at addressing the NITEL’s imbroglio. Comrade Kazzah regretted El-Rufa’i’s handling of the controversial management contract, insisting that the “coming of Pentascope was through the backdoor.”
According to him, to demonstrate its reservation against the deal, NITEL workers blocked the gates of Transcorp Hilton venue of the signing of the management contract between BPE and Pentascope, but claimed that El-Rufa’i surreptitiously smuggled the parties to the deal through the back. He noted that Pentascope came on board with the preconceived agenda to have a run on NITEL’s the huge cash, both local and foreign currencies at that time and to disorganise and frustrate the network. Meanwhile, a former Managing Director of NITEL, Prof. Buba Bajoga, who agreed to speak on record, decried the destruction of NITEL as “very painful.”
He said by the time he left the organization as its head in 2000, NITEL was a very viable commercial organization. “We approved the payment of dividends to government and I remember that I left N15 billion and U.S. Dollar 200 million in the coffers of the organization,” he said. Bajoga said NITEL made more profit than most banks. “We paid all our bills and were financing all our projects,” he added.