BY Levinus Nwabughiogu
The House of Representatives members and the Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Ameachi, yesterday engaged in verbal exchanges over the $500 million Chinese loan Nigeria was seeking for rail projects.
The Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, was not left out of the heated argument that trailed the propriety of the loan, especially against the backdrop of the clause embedded in the loan agreement between Nigeria and China which lawmakers saw as mortgaging the country’s sovereignty.
While the lawmakers said the clause was inimical to the security and development of the country, the ministers said it was universal standard practice.
The lawmakers were also at war with the transport minister for agreeing to have a Chinese colony, Hong Kong, as the arbitration centre on the loan agreements.
These developments played out at the resumed public hearing of the Committee on Loans, Treaties and Protocols of the House, chaired by Ossai Nicholas Ossai.
The committee is currently reviewing Nigeria’s loan agreements with countries, especially China.
At present, there are about 17 loans obtained from China to fund critical infrastructure in the areas of rail transportation, Information and Communication Technology, ICT, airport terminal expansion, energy, agriculture and water.
The hearing had started on a friendly note, featuring the interrogation of the Director-General, Debt Management Office, Mrs. Patience Oniha, on details of the loans and later progressed to the Minister of Finance, Zaniab Ahmed, who was represented by Permanent Secretary, Special Duties, Aliyu Ahmed.
The proceedings later progressed to the Minister of Transportation, Mr. Chubuike Amaechi, being questioned on the loans by the lawmakers.
Questions put to him by the chair of the committee on the local content components of the loan agreements were returned in monosyllabic answers without details.
However, Amaechi said the activities of the lawmakers would hinder the acquisition of the loans to finance the South South rail projects, adding that the only loan secured by the present government so far was the NI.6 billion for the Lagos -Ibadan rail project.
“We may not get that loan. We will lose that contract from Lagos to Calabar, because of the committee you have set up,” he said.
But when the committee chairman said he was not talking about the South South rail project but Nigeria at large, Ameachi retorted: “You have approached me on South South rail project. Have you not? You have. Until you get the loan, there will be no contract. And there will be no loan.”
The tone of the conversation prompted a member of the committee, Wole Oke, to call the attention of the chair for “guidance,” but the call was not heeded. He was later to be given an opportunity to speak.
With the House getting more heated up, the speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, stormed the venue of the hearing, demanding for 10 to 15 minutes break.
“Can we, please have 10 to 15-minute break?,” Gbajabiamila pleaded.
Chairman of the committee then formally announced a 30-minute break.