My intention was to urge President Muhammadu Buhari when he was sworn in on May 29, 2015 to bring back two National Assets which were strategic to Nigeria as a nation but the president beat me to it when he announced the resuscitation of our national carrier: the Nigeria Airways.
I will not therefore delve much into that area. But it has to be noted that serious countries desiring to maintain internal and external security will not leave this area to all-comers.
My attention is therefore focused on National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria (NICON), a statutory Corporation set up in 1969 pursuant to the promulgation of the National Insurance decree No. 22 of 1969, later cited as National Insurance Corporation of Nigeria Act (cap.263) LFN 1990 with a loan of 2million pounds, which was repaid in 1971. The Corporation did not take any subvention or capital vote from Government. Rather, it relied solely on Premium Income and Investment from the public and private sectors of the economy.
Based on the UNCTAD report in 1969, it emphasized the need for a strong national company that would among other things, stop the outflow of foreign exchange and pool resources in a company that would be beneficial to the Federal Government. In a foreword by the late maximum military leader Gen. Sani Abacha to a book titled: NICON at 25, published in 1994, he stated among other things that “…NICON Insurance, founded in 1969, has grown into the biggest, most outstanding and most reliable Insurance Company in the country and possibly on the African continent, with a reputation based on service and performance.”
As a government company then, NICON assisted government to set up banks, hotels and real estate development. Worthy of mention are Niger Insurance Plc, Inland Containers Ltd., NICON Hotels Ltd. (owners of the then prestigious NICON NOGA Hilton Hotel), NICON Trustees Ltd., National Properties Ltd. and Daily Times of Nigeria (this was held in trust by NICON for government).
In fact, NICON Insurance was instrumental to the smooth movement of seat of government from Lagos to Abuja with the NICON NOGA Hilton Hotel serving as safe haven to Civil Servants and others in 1991.
SALE OF THE INSURANCE GIANT
Whatever may have informed the sale of government assets including the strategic ones, can today be seen as a selfish arrangement. Cronies of government were given these assets for peanuts with allegations that some like NICON, were never paid for.
Although there is a school of thought which believes that government has no business in business, the privatization of NICON, whose midwife was Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) was equally questioned by good spirited Nigerians including the then Yahaya Kwande – led Board of the Company. They based their arguments on the fact that the government company was doing well especially in the areas of assisting the growth of the economy and serving as a huge employer of labour. The proponents also believed that what should have been privatized were the companies that were not doing well. Why, for example, was the Nigeria Railways not privatized? There is no doubt that Insurance is also about reinsurance and it was risky leaving the big assets of government in the hands of small private insurance companies whose asset base put together could not stand that of NICON before its sale All said and done, this hitherto insurance giant which had offices and other property dotted all over Nigeria, big asset base, office in UK and huge investments scattered all over the country, was ‘dashed’ to a core investor whose role in the sale was questionable. The Corporation’s foreign account in UK alone was almost sufficient to pay for the sale by the new investor.
The NICON of the ‘60s, which ended up in the hands of a controversial individual in 2006 is no longer playing the role it was initially set up to perform. Some people now see the once-upon-a-time Insurance giant as a ghost of its old self. And predictably, in a short while, the NICON plaza which represents the company in Abuja and Nigeria will be converted to an hotel.
People who had argued in the past that NICON Insurance was a monopoly did not quite appreciate the meaning of the word. NICON was not a monopoly, rather, a captive market of its owners, the Federal Government, just as the old Great Nigeria, Royal Exchange, Prestige and UNIC.
REVSITING THE SALE OF NICON
While I will not advocate a probe of all government assets “dashed out” as privatized, the case of NICON Insurance has become imperative. The probe should look at how BPE sold NICON without first repealing the act that set it up, the shady sale and more importantly, the balkanization of the Corporation through a dubious unbundling of its assets and the trapped 2.3billion naira staff pension fund in the coffers of the new investor. These and many more are well-known to BPE and their conspirators.
Resuscitating NICON may not necessarily mean giving the same name to the new company. Once the sale is revisited, the Federal Government should set in motion the establishment of another state Insurance Company. This becomes necessary where the old NICON cannot be returned to its original owners. There is not a serious country that will allow its strategic assets to remain unsecured. France and many other countries still maintain state Insurance Companies.
The pathetic plight of former NICON staff, who toiled to make the Corporation what it was pre-privatization, is yet another cup of tea for the Federal Government. They were paid off in 2006 and their entitlements, regarded as shortfalls, are yet to be paid after 11 years of Privatization. Some have died while those still alive and pensionable are not on monthly pension.
It is gladdening to note that the present government is working assiduously to ensure that pension arrears are settled once and for all. It is in this light that we commend PTAD for trying to remove the heap of rubbish left by the dubious BPE and do the needful. Some of the former BPE Chief Executives need to be brought to book for their roles in the shady sales of some government assets, including NICON Insurance. Time shall tell as we wait eagerly for the resuscitation of the two sleeping giants.
Prince Omadivi Emman, a PR & Advert consultant wrote from Abuja.