Baba Yusuf is the former Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Aviation Handling Company (NAHCO) Free Trade Zone at the Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos. In this interview, Yusuf explains why he resigned, wrote a petition on issues bordering on threats to the economy and national security at the zone.
Why did you resign from NAHCO FTZ?
I resigned because some months after I became the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of NAHCO FTZ, I noticed some very disturbing things about the company. One of which was the evidence of smuggling activities taking place which I brought to the notice of the Board of Directors. I noted, reported and also took quick action to stop what was going on there – using that place for contraband activities. I saw the evidences and have the videos.
Secondly, some breaches of extant laws and regulations governing the operations of free trade zones in Nigeria. The Nigerian Export Processing Zone Authority is the regulating authority supervising the activity of NAHCO Free Trade Zone and we have the Nigeria Custom Service, the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), all having regulations that needed to be complied with by NAHCO because it is a very peculiar position for NAHCO.
NAHCO is a free trade zone but then it is located in the airport, an international airport. And another important point is that it is located right by the cargo terminal where cargo aircraft park.
Is having a free trade zone in the airport right in the first place?
Yes, it is okay. You actually even have an airport that is entirely a free zone. This is not an anomaly. You can even have free zones sited in the airports and that is not an anomaly. But what is a bit strange is locating a free trade zone right by the apron, which is by the parking lot for aircraft, which is also not an anomaly. There must be a process to re-fence that location due to its high-level security status to ensure that risks and vulnerabilities, vis-a-vis national security and economy do not become an issue and at the end of the day become weak links within the security architecture of the airport.
I remember that a former Chief Economic Adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, who approved the zone, Professor Okidegbe, whom I had the privilege to see his memo to the President, highlighted these issues. It said that a detailed environmental impact needed to be done to ensure these risks are not there, otherwise the zone shouldn’t be approved and I know that is a critical issue.
Was this why you resigned?
Back to why I resigned, that is what came to reality – the location is right by the aircraft where they park and you can offload and upload and all that. But importantly, is not flagging the issue that was an issue, it is the resistance I got from the new board. When I came, there was a board which later left. Then a new board came on board. The resistance and hostility I got from that board trying to frustrate my efforts to bring sanity in that environment, and of course since I was an employee working under the board, there is a limit to which I can push for things to happen. Knowing that there are consequences of continuously allowing this to happen, either to me or to the country, the best thing for me was to leave or play along, in which case I took the earlier decision to leave. I resigned voluntarily and to allow them to do their things.
You wrote a petition about these issues so they can be addressed, what is the update so far?
I had to write the petition after making so many frantic efforts because I reached out to agencies and people I know that are in the position of authority to do the needful but they couldn’t. So, months later, I recalled the arrest of Zainab Aliyu, a young girl that was arrested in Saudi Arabia with drugs in tonnes and some of the people that planted the drugs in her bag were NAHCO staff operating in Kano. Realising that this was serious, I wrote the petition to the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and copied almost 25 agencies of government. So far, the National Assembly was the first to take action because the Speaker and some Committees of the House and Senate were copied.
The House Committee on Public Petition took it up and with the approval of the House commenced an investigative hearing on the matter with a view to determining the veracity of the issues and trying to see how they can act in line with section 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution. So, they commenced investigation and hearing on the matter which was fair to everybody. NAHCO was invited, as well as over 30 other agencies.
You mentioned that NAHCO went to court to restrain the hearing, is there a court injunction stopping the hearing?
At that time, the hearing began and NAHCO went to court after attending the hearing and sued the National Assembly; the Speaker, myself, the Attorney General of the Federation and the Ministry of Trade and Investment, seeking to restrain the National Assembly from continuing investigation on the matter. It also sought to restrain the Presidential Committee on Trade Malpractices from continuing investigation on the matter and other prayers, restraining myself from further actions in escalating the issues of national security and economic sabotage.
However, the petition hearing has been ongoing because when we went to court, a Federal High Court in Lagos, presided by Justice Rilwan Aikawa, did not grant the order and he could not commence hearing in the view that it was on the time of vacation.
So, he did not consider that suit at the time it should be heard. There was no order stopping the proceedings, neither has the hearing commenced.
The date was adjourned due to the #EndSARS protest and other issues that came up, so there was adjournment. The bottom line is that hearing is billed to take place on December 10, 2020.
There are insinuations that your petition is an act of blackmail of NAHCO FTZ since they haven’t paid your severance package, is this true?
It is a very laughable thing but what I would say so that I will be consistent is that I have written to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and all stakeholders on this matter, and I will tell you a bit of what I said.
The letter of ‘blackmail’ is where they said I told them that if they do not pay me within ten days, I am going to invite investigative agencies to investigate their activities and my tenure. Within that letter, we said the damage to their corporate reputation and operational activities shouldn’t be contemplated by them and they took it as a threat of blackmail. It is because they refused to concede to that that I went on to write a petition.
First of all, for those that have access to my petition, appendix four is a memo to my board of directors, which I submitted barely in my 100 days in office. There, I highlighted issues of evidence of contraband to the board and then I was just a new MD who had no premonition that I would resign. How could that now translate into a petition for blackmail?
The letter from my counsel to NAHCO is guided by laws and regulations of Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority (NEPZA) and under Section 4E part 8 of regulation guiding the operation of the Authority, there are provisions for managing what they called employee-employer dispute which stipulates steps to be taken when the employee should report the matter to the regulator and it included setting up what they called a Governance Committee to investigate the claims by the employee of the aggrieved party with a view to sorting out the issue.
My lawyer was leaning on that provision to tell them that we would pursue section 4E part 8, inviting them in that context to act as an investigator to tell why my severance needed to be paid and determine the veracity of my claims in terms of entitlement.
That is the effort of that paragraph and not that we are implying to blackmail. Like I said in my letter to the SGF, I initiated a process that NEPZA as a regulator to investigate my tenure with the objective of determining the veracity of my claims and performance to warrant the claim of entitlement to the tune of N125m in which case NEPZA would intervene otherwise NAHCO free trade zone and myself would go to court if not satisfied with the intervention. It also added that there could be damage to the reputation and operational activities of the subsidiary of a publicly quoted company as NAHCO that refuses to pay entitlement to its staff.
An example is the various publications in national newspapers in August this year where former NAHCO employees went public with revelations that NAHCO leadership has short-changed them to the tune of about N1.13bn which should have been gratuities, and wrote a petition on that. So, there was nothing like blackmail and in any case, it is law that the motive of reporting crime does not exonerate perpetrators from culpability.
I would be very keen and interested to hear NAHCO addressing the issues I raised one after the other, in breach of national security and economic sabotage.
Have you received your severance package?
The answer is no but I have a proviso for that. In view of the fact that my entitlement issue is purely contractual, which is a point for NAHCO FTZ to note, where I feel aggrieved as regards my entitlement, I have two options – either through the Section 4E part 8 of NEPZA Regulations or to go to the National Industrial Court.