Incredible! After 4 years, National Museum pays N10m, out of N198m debt, to embattled artefact vendors

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Maurice Archibong
3-time winner, travel & tourism reporter of the year [email protected]
+2347030786447

…They’re playing on our intelligence – Creditors

…Words cannot describe the disruption NCMM has wrought on our lives, says Baba Ali Mohammed whose undergraduate son missed final-year exams due to dad’s inability to pay fees

Early this month, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), an agency under Federal Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, paid out N10 million to be shared among 40 members of an association it has been owing N198 million since 2009; but, the creditors say they are not impressed.

Reacting to this latest remittance from the NCMM after a meeting held within MOTNA (Museum of Traditional Nigerian Architecture) premises in Jos, Plateau State, last Saturday; members of Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria (ARAN) described the N10 million pay-out as not only paltry but also insulting.

Established over 40 years ago, ARAN is a registered body of official vendors of heritage objects to the NCMM and some of its members are second-generation dealers. Aside ARAN President, Mr. George Agbo; the body’s Northern Cordinator, Mr. John Willy; two Board of Trustees (BoT) members, Alhaji Baba Ali Mohammed and Mr. Abraham Gagara; another ARAN member that spoke with Travels is Mallam Bashir Jibril.

Some of the creditors that benefitted from the disbursement revealed that one member ended up with only N26,000. “With 40 people sharing N10 million, none could have gone home with anything substantial”, was how a beneficiary explained their plight. Expectedly, therefore, the seeming peanut each beneficiary got evaporated within 24 hours in payment of debts accumulated over several years.

However, exhausting the supposed respite from the NCMM on settling part of their debts pales into insignificance, compared to the prices that other victims of NCMM indebtedness have had to pay. For example, the impact on the family of Alhaji Baba Ali Mohammed has been particularly disruptive.

A father of 11 children, Alhaji Baba Ali lamented that all of his offspring lost the 2012 academic year because he was unable to pay school fees. Most depressing of all, he intoned, was the fate of his eldest son, a final-year student of Geological Technology at University of Jos.

“My son (names withheld) could not take his final-year exams last year because I could not come up with about N100,000 to pay tuition fee and fund his project work”, the old man cried. “All of us owed by the NCMM have been really, really suffering. Even our (ARAN) President, Mr. George Agbo; one of his children missed a term last year over non-payment of school fees”, Baba Ali revealed.

According to this ARAN BoT member, his family was being sustained by friends and family. “Look at me, I am not a lazy man. I work very hard and never had to beg or borrow before my money got tied down for almost four years by the NCMM”, he mused.

As to what he believed should be done to extricate his money from the NCMM, Baba Ali said: “My brother, I don’t really know what to say. It has got to the point where I don’t believe anything the NCMM people say, any more. For almost four years, they have been telling all sorts of tales, but none has brought out our money. The latest I hear is that approval has been given for our money to be paid, but those handling the matter said they are waiting for Cash Backing. I won’t believe any of them until my money is paid”, he concluded.

During our chat with another ARAN member, who asked not to be named; the man charged: “These people (NCMM authorities) are trying to play on our intelligence. They are full of lies and deceit. They have refused to pay 40 of us only N198 million since 2009, but they have spent more than that amount globe-trotting, pretending to be retrieving artefacts. They prefer to gallivant under the guise of artefact recovery because foreign trips yield estacode. God will judge”.

As this angry respondent put it, the N10 million recently paid out by the NCMM is “too little, after almost four years’ wait”. Sadly, the apparent pittance from the NCMM is not only too little: it also came too late for some. One of those that has been owed since 2009 died early this year, several months before the N10 million was disbursed; according to Mr. John Willy.

Some of the objects Mr. Willy supplied to the NCMM in 2009 were collected from a man named Walo Tamar. Mr. Tamar gave Willy the artefacts purely on trust. Apparently, Tamar believed he would be paid as soon as the NCMM paid Mr. Willy. After waiting for more than a year and not getting any money from Willy, the artefact supplier; not surprisingly, lost his cool.

Almost daily, the old man would trudge over to Willy’s house to tongue-lash his debtor. But, Willy could do nothing about it. He had to endure all kinds of humiliation since the NCMM had not paid him. Sadly, Mr. Tamar, a father of four children died early this year without being paid by Mr. Willy. After his passage, the late man’s widow has been bringing the four children along whenever she was visiting Mr. Willy to demand part of her late husband’s entitlement; either to buy food for the survivors’ upkeep or to pay the kid’s school fees.

Mr. Willy further volunteered: “It is bad to pay us only N10 million out of N198 million after waiting for four years. The N10 million they gave to 40 of us to share is roughly 5% of the N198 million they owe us. I also want to let you know that, the first payment NCMM made to us was about 2.5% of what they owed us”.

Willy revealed his blood pressure goes up every time school was about to reopen because, apart from scrounging around to borrow money to pay school fees for his four children; he also has payment of school fees for the four kids the late Mr. Tamar left behind, to contend with.

Willy again: “A lot has happened over the last four years. We have suffered all kinds of humiliation. One of our members, who is a pastor, was arrested and detained. But, it was later discovered he is not into 419 as the members of his congregation he borrowed money from to purchase objects supplied to the NCMM were beginning to suspect.

“Another member, who is a prince actually went into hiding to avoid being manhandled by villagers that had given artefacts to him on the understanding that he will pay them within a year. After waiting three years without getting their money, the villagers became belligerent. They couldn’t believe that a federal government agency could owe any body for three years. Believing the prince had since collected payment but refused to settle them, the villagers began threatening fire and brimstone. That is how our royal friend turned fugitive”.

Concluding, Willy submitted: “Apart from various embarrassments our members have suffered, the naira has also lost value. Four years ago, $1 was less than N150. Today, it is over N160. Many of us borrowed money to collect the objects we supplied to the museum and interest on the loans we took has been rising over the years”.

Mallam Bashir Jibril echoed this issue of accumulated interest on loans that ARAN members took to execute jobs for the NCMM; thus: “Some of us got loans from banks to purchase the objects we supplied to the NCMM. Now, many of us are in serious financial trouble because interests on our loans have been mounting”.

Wary of being stigmatised as confrontational, affected ARAN members endured sundry indignities like submissive serfs for two years, even when some seemed condemned to beg and borrow in order to survive. But, reminiscent of the adage that when pushed to the limit, even a worm will turn; the vendors decided to take their predicament to the public arena in the third year.

A section of the press went to town with the issue and museum’s executives’ stress was further compounded, when some ARAN members dragged the NCMM to court. Mr. Abraham Gagara was the first among the victims to get judgement. The defendant (NCMM), consequent upon trial at State High Court, Barkin Ladi, Plateau State, was floored – adjudged guilty! The NCMM was ordered to pay Mr. Gagara his money as well as foot his legal fee.

But, months after, when it appeared the NCMM was prepared to do neither, Gagara went with bailiffs to seize a generator installed at National Museum Jos. This sparked palpable panic at NCMM headquarters. “Some NCMM big-men were almost going on their knees to beg us”, was how an ARAN member recalled the situation.

However, intervention by Tourism, Culture and National Orientation Minister, Chief Edem Duke, assuaged ARAN to the point that they didn’t just sheath their swords but went on to withdraw every case members had filed against the NCMM in court.

Sadly, with a paltry N10 million paid to 40 merchants out of N198 million owed them; and, the peanut coming more than 12 months since their encounter with the minister, some ARAN members said they regret dropping their plans of an all-out war with the NCMM.

But, this is not to say the NCMM leadership can ignore ARAN for much longer. “If they think they can dribble us endlessly, we will show them that Nigeria is not a lawless country”, charged an agrieved creditor; even as another interjected: “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day. The courts are still working”.

Speaking further, Mr. Gagara described the current NCMM Management as unserious. “If they were serious people, there is no way payment for a transaction that took place four years ago, should be pending, to date”, Gagara observed. Many of the victims and other NCMM watchers suspect that due process was side-tracked, otherwise a federal government agency could not have embarked on procurement without cash backup to pay suppliers.

Shedding some light on the background of the lingering saga, Jibril recalled: “Last year, we planned to drag the NCMM to court but, following welcome intercession by the minister we decided to drop litigation. When we met with the minister, he actually commended us for the work we do. He rightly described us as heritage ambassadors because our work helps to curtail antiquity flight.

“The NCMM incurred this debt in 2009 (during the Alhaji Musa Yar’Adua Presidency) but the museum authorities had not thought it fit to include this issue in their 2013 budget or previous ones. As a result, the minister had promised to seek Federal Government’s intervention fund to off-set the long-standing debt. We later discovered that Chief Duke actually wrote in our favour but we gathered that since the federal ministry of finance has not disbursed any money to service local debts; nothing has been forthcoming.

“Painfully, even the miserly N10 million that the NCMM Director General, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, promised to pay us as panacea during our meeting with the minister on July 26, 2012; came after one whole year! How much more insensitive can some people be! Nonetheless, we are still pleading with the powers-that-be at the NCMM and elsewhere to facilitate payment of our money to us because we are really suffering”.

When contacted, Mr. Tope Adebiyi, an artist trained by Suzanne Wenger aka Aduni Olorisa (now deceased); said he could not comment on the issue because he had in 2011 dragged the NCMM to court. During our conversations, the voice of member after member of ARAN echoed sadness.

They added that aside from personal indignities they have had to endure because NCMM has tied down their money for four years, there were serious grounds to grieve for the nation because NCMM’s lack of money to acquire artefacts means that unpatriotic scouts in custody of heritage objects had no option but to sell such to international traffickers.

To be candid, the case of ARAN members is pathetic, and their situation parlous. As revealed above, some live in fear of being attacked by creditors, whose patience has run out after waiting more than three years without getting their money. Therefore, ARAN members are not impressed by the buzz from time to time over the repatriation of heritage objects by the NCMM.

They opined that such recoveries do not warrant any chest-thumping because the situation is evocative of the maxim, one step forward, two steps backward. In deed, this association’s members believe that much more was being lost compared to what was being brought back, once in a while.

Rising from a recent meeting in Jos, Plateau State capital, some ARAN members during telephone conversations with Travels; lamented that antiquity flight was ongoing and Nigeria was losing priceless heritage objects because of NCMM’s impecuniosities. From that meeting’s communique, jointly signed by National President and National Assistant Secretary, Messrs George Agbo and Ogeleka Victor respectively; ARAN also wants National Assembly (NASS) members to be properly sensitised regarding the importance of artefacts, especially heritage objects.

This followed the shocking discovery that NASS approved only N10 million in the 2013 Budget to the NCMM for vendors. This sparked a joke that NASS members misconstrued the issue. “Some of them thought the money was to pay newspaper vendors”, one respondent submitted. In any case, ARAN members sounded particularly disturbed that, after having recovered over N500 million worth of objects since 2009, only N10 million was approved by NASS for the NCMM to pay for acquisition of artefacts.

During one of his conversations with Travels, ARAN President Agbo, observed that the alarming situation of the NCMM could be gleaned from the fact that a paltry N10 million was voted for the acquisition of objects in the 2013 Budget. Apparently wondering aloud, Mr. Agbo blurted: “How much can this inconsequential amount procure”?

At the recent Jos meeting, attended by 31 members, ARAN had inaugurated a five-man committee to visit Tourism and Culture Minister, NCMM DG, Bureau for Public Procurement (BPP) DG, Bureau for Public Complaints (BPC) DG, as well as the Director of Budget at the Federal Ministry of Finance with a view to fast-tracking remittance of the money owed them since 2009.

The NCMM’s failure to settle a N198 million debt owed some ARAN members since 2009 has spawned skepticism among people in possession of heritage objects. If such custodians handed over the heritage objects in their possession to the NCMM, would they ever get their money? That is the question.

Unfortunately, the answer, given the predicament of ARAN members that have waited almost four years to be paid, to no avail; is not encouraging, at all. “Many traffickers are having a field day collecting heritage objects from Nigerians and taking such objects abroad for sale”, some ARAN members observed.

Mr. Agbo also echoed this sentiment, when he declared: “Now, given our members’ suffering, how do we convince non-members not to sell objects to tourists”? Evidently, the NCMM’s inability or refusal to meet its obligation to ARAN members for over four years has driven fear into the heart of artefact vendors generally, fuelling the belief that it is better to sell heritage objects to international scouts than to the federal government agency. Simply put, the NCMM is willy-nilly aiding antiquity flight, thus inflicting serious harm on Nigeria’s heritage.

It is worth pointing out that countless attempts to get NCMM DG, Mallam Usman to comment on this issue met with rebuff. The man has refused to take any call from Travels for more than two years. Even when we called Mr. Usman last year in connection with the fate of a very ill lioness at National Zoo, Jos; the man chose to ignore us.

Anxious to save the lioness, we had called the culture minister to complain that Usman would not take our call, in spite of a critical development at one of the units under his watch. The minister had advised us to keep trying. We did, but Usman never responded.

And, the lioness died. The death of that feline brought to 12 the number of wildlife that had perished at National Zoo Jos within one year under circumstances that could be described as very curious.

 

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