OPINION: Deconstructing Intels By Kayode Ariyo

Since the onset of the recent face-off between the federal government and the Integrated Services Limited (Intels) which culminated in the contract termination/cancellation episode, I knew those who follow me on my social media and know the position I have often taken in defence of Atiku Abubakar, former vice-president and part-owner of Intels, will long to hear what I have to say on the developing story.  

Because of this, and also for posterity’s sake, I will unfold the few truths I know about INTELS – the company, the owners and some of the politics surrounding it, in order to help commentators and followers of the never-ending Nigerian drama to make an informed opinion about the situation. I must also add quickly that the opinions that I will express are from my personal findings through archival investigations and interviews with people who have worked with the company for a couple of years.

INTELS, known then as NICOTES (Nigeria Container Services) was founded in the early 1980s by an Italian (from Genoa, Italy), who is now a nationalised Nigerian, Gabrielle Volpi, and Atiku Abubakar. When they started, Atiku was still in the Nigerian Customs Service, so he could not be involved in the day-to-day activities of the company. Both Volpi and Atiku started off INTELS’ operations from a container office at Apapa Port, Lagos. The company was simply and strictly into providing oil services on a small-scale logistics.

As fate would have it, the company grew in bounds and finances, especially because it was structured around oil – the gold of the 80s. It is instructive to add that neither Atiku nor Volpi had an oil block then, now or ever. What they did is to use the technical capacity of Intels to offer their services to those who have oil wells but who do not have the expertise, finances and manpower to drill, transport or even manage it. This is exactly what INTELS is about.

In the late 80s (between 1988 and 1989), INTELS, still known as NICOTES had grown so big that Atiku was already tired of being tied down in the Nigerian Customs Service, rather than having the freedom to live like a wealthy man that he was and spend his money the way he wanted. This was why, when in 1989, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida refused to promote Atiku Abubakar to the post of Controller General of Customs (citing the fact that Alhaji Bamanga Tukur could not head the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Murtala Nyako head the navy and Atiku Abubakar head the Customs, as all were from the same Gongola State – now Adamawa and Taraba States. Atiku thus decided to resign rather than waste his time missing out in Customs and also missing out in expanding his network in Nigeria as a private citizen.

 Before Atiku left the Customs Service, NICOTES had already become a cash spinning enterprise. It was so big and lucrative that Atiku and Volpi, with an out-of-this-world confidence, were able to take the risk of obtaining a bank loan in the sum of N400 million to expand the company. This was what prompted Volpi, who had studied the African business environment to suggest that they should invite some big people (in Nigerian parlance) into the business. He said they would need influential Nigerians on the board so that a government ignorant of the business would not just come and seize it, as is usual practice in Africa. Atiku, as his Nigerian partner, was the one who had to look for the big Nigerians to be brought in.

The new INTELS (still NICOTES) began after Atiku’s retirement from the Customs Service. This new one had Volpi, Atiku, the late Gen. Shehu Yar’Adua, the Emir of Kano at the time, the late Alhaji Ado Bayero and some other notable Nigerians as directors. A first class army general, a first class traditional ruler, etc, were brought in to secure and solidify the company. Volpi believed it would be very difficult for any government to seize any business that belonged to these types of Nigerians. I must also say it here that the first dividend paid to Shehu Yar’Adua (Atiku’s political leader and mentor) was so huge that he had to invite Atiku and asked him if they were dealing in drugs. Atiku laughed this off and explained the business to him. With this, it was clear that Atiku is not the only owner of NICOTES. In fact, he is not even the majority shareholder since most of his original shares were distributed to the new directors. How anyone would call Atiku a greedy man still beats me.

The unprecedented financial strength that Atiku was able to give Yar’Adua was the reason Atiku rose so fast in the former’s political movement – Patriotic Front (PF) and later Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM); such that in four years he had already overtaken people he met in politics. If you recall in 1993, when IBB banned Yar’Adua and some first class politicians from contesting the elections, it was Atiku that Yar’Adua presented for the SDP primaries, before Kingibe chose to ignore the party leaders’ directives and thus divided the votes, which made MKO Abiola, who was also in SDP, but not from PDM to win the primaries.

During the Abacha years, Atiku was part of the few rich Nigerians who refused to support Abacha till the very end. He also fought Abacha with his resources. But with all of Volpi’s permutations and plans, Abacha ended up arresting Yar’Adua, chasing Atiku, the young billionaire out of Nigeria, and did the unthinkable by seizing NICOTES. He did not only arrest Yar’Adua, he even arrested former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a bigger army general. NICOTES stopped making profits and almost died. Abacha was never really about the business. He had more money from the Nigerian government anyway. He only seized it to cripple the politicians and the pro-democracy folks behind the company.

In 1998, when Abdulsalami Abubakar became military Head of State, after the death of Abacha, he returned NICOTES back to the original owners and NICOTES was renamed INTELS. It should be noted that INTELS was returned before Atiku became the vice-president. In fact, even before he became the governor-elect for Adamawa State.

On the Pilotage Agency Contract, the contract was signed in 2007 during the late President Umaru Yar’Adua’s tenure. There was no way Obasanjo would have signed such contract for Atiku during their turbulent and eventful second term. It is also instructive to know that by 2007, Shehu Yar’Adua’s shares had been transferred to the Yar’Adua family, and the family now had Umaru (Shehu’s younger brother) as the scion of the family and president of Nigeria. Signing the 2007 contract may well not be through the efforts of Atiku but that of any of Bayero, Umaru Yar’Adua or even Volpi.

Ironically, this contract was there all through the President Goodluck Jonathan years when Atiku faced him in the Peoples Democratic Party’s (PDP) presidential primary and when Atiku and some others left PDP for the All Progressives Congress (APC). Yet, Jonathan never cancelled it. You may call it stupidity, weakness, statesmanship or whatever, but the truth remains that Jonathan was good enough to separate politics from business.

Even though the NPA contract have been cancelled, but I can tell you that the best periods for INTELS were not the NPA contract years. I believe INTELS should find their old rhythm and remember how they used to survive. The President Muhammadu Buhari government may have cancelled their contract, and he probably did it for political reasons, but he did not seize the company and he did not seize their licence from operating as a logistics company. If indeed Buhari is targeting Atiku’s financial base because of 2019, then we need to ask Buhari himself how much he had in 2015 before he was able to win against an incumbent president.

Atiku has always contested from the position of strength and money and has failed four times to secure the presidency. Maybe it is now that he would be the underdog that Almighty God will manifest in his life. The long and short of this narrative is that the Buhari camp, just like Lord Voldermort did in The Harry Potter series, has effectively marked Atiku, the Waziri Adamawa as a formidable opponent and a potential next President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

• Ariyo can be reached via his Facebook page

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