Abia State governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, has inaugurated a six-man Judicial Panel Of Inquiry charged with examining problems that have bedevilled the moribund UCL Modern Ceramics Industries, Umuahia and coming up with recommendations that would assist in revitalizing it.
Inaugurating the Panel Friday at Government House, Umuahia, Ikpeazu stressed that reviving Ceramic Industries which once provided employment and enhanced the economy of the State and the South East zone was very dear to his administration.
He, therefore, charged the Committee to carefully review all the loans taken by UCL from Banks like Diamond Bank, Bank of Industries and others and ascertain what and how the loan was used for.
Represented by his Deputy, Sir Ude Oko Chukwu, Ikpeazu mandated the Panel to also ascertain the total investment of the UCL in the organisation and the role of its Board since 2006 when Modern Ceramics was said to have been concessioned to the Catholic Diocese of Umuahia till date, as well as any other matter that it may consider important that would help provide necessary solutions for immediate revitalizing the factory.
The governor charged the Panel to come up with a detailed report, including recommendations, for immediate actions to be taken to nurse the organization back to life.
Chairman of the Judicial Panel of Inquiry, Justice Agwu Uma Kalu, while responding on behalf of other members, thanked the Governor for finding them worthy to serve in the Panel.
Justice Kalu also assured the Governor that the Panel would strive hard to provide answers to the numerous questions regarding the moribund entity by coming up with recommendations that will enable government to revitalize the Ceramics Industries, promising that the Panel would be objective and fair in their investigations.
Other members of the Panel include Mr O.C Ihedioha who would serve as Secretary, a representative of the Ministry of Justice, Barr. P. U. Ogbunka, Commissioner For Industries, Chief( Mrs) Olewengwa Uwaoma, the Permanent Secretary, Special Services Bureau, Office of the Secretary to the State Government, Deacon Sam Odemenam and Mr ABC Ajuziogu.
Recall that Modern Ceramics Industry, Umuahia was established in 1961 by the then Dr. Michael Okpara-led administration of Eastern Region. The factory operated optimally until the outbreak of the civil war in 1967 which affected its operations.
It was reactivated in 1972 but collapsed completely in 1996 due to obsolete equipment, vandalism and asset stripping by successive managements over time.
The factory was said to have been handed over to the Catholic Diocese of Umuahia on May 9, 2003, which in turn brought in UCL Resources and Investments Ltd. that renamed it UCL-Modern Ceramics Ltd but it was in May 2004 that the then Dr Orji Uzor Kalu-led administration made public, its intention to privatize the outfit which it branded a drain pipe.
Speaking in a forum in Owerri organized by the Correspondent’s Chapel of Imo State Council of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), the then Commissioner for Special Duties, Chief Chuka Odom, said:
“Government took the decision to privatise our Modern Ceramics Industry, Umuahia, because it was found to be an unnecessary drain pipe to the state’s scarce resources.
“The Catholic Diocese of Umuahia, Abia State government and the technical partners have shares in the company,”
Odom explained that before government settled for the Catholic Church, a team of Chinese experts had visited the company and simply wrote the establishment off but offered to buy it off at a peanut price, an offer the government completely rejected.
As the then Vice President of Nigeria, former President Goodluck Jonathan commissioned in January 2009, the renovated Modern Ceramics with the Catholic Diocese of Umuahia, under Most Rev. Dr. Lucius Ugorji, now in charge.
Under the present arrangement, the church owns 80 per cent shares of Modern Ceramics Ltd, Abia State government, five per cent with the remaining 15 per cent reserved for undisclosed investors.
Bishop Ugorji, at the handing over ceremony, disclosed that an Italian technical partner called FUCELLI-BRUNO was engaged for the rehabilitation of the factory adding that the company was sourcing for the sum of N3.2 billion at no extra cost to the state government to reactivate the factory.
But the factory floundered afterwards and eventually went under again and has since remained moribund.
Explaining why Modern Ceramics could not flourish under the management of the Catholic Church, Ikpeazu told South East leaders of the Nigeria Union of Journalists who visited him at Government Lodge, Aba in early March, 2018 that the church was entangled in a loan that became very difficult for it to offset.
“The Catholic Church was to use its contact in Italy to bring in experts, but they went and took a loan of N250 million to rehabilitate and revitalise the place. That has been the source of the problem, because as I speak to you now, the interest on that money has accumulated to more than N1.5bn,” the Governor said.
“A banker with a new generation bank pressured the church into acquiring the facility. We have approached the court to pay and exit the church from the shylock facility and when that is realized, we will like the church to explore its Italian connection to make the company functional again. So, I am a helpless bystander. Some of these things are quite touchy,” Ikpeazu had said, adding “I am like an Israelite whose Ark is falling and I am forbidden from touching the Ark.”
Addition information put out by the Governor’s aide and now Director-General of Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency, Mr. Sam Hart, in March 2018, threw more light on the intricacies that caged the church from nursing Modern Ceramics back to life.
According to Hart, in the course of sourcing for funds to reactivate the factory, the church approached a bank for a loan.
“The bank granted the company an equipment financing loan of N2B. When the loan could not acquire all the equipment required for the reopening of the factory, the company again sought for additional funding.”
Hart narrated that the same bank offered to help syndicate another round of financing for the company, adding that the company signed all required documents for the new funds to be raised.
“Funds were raised from a consortium of lending institutions but a bizarre twist ensued. The bank withheld the new funds as repayment of the principal of the initial N2B loan granted and indicated that interest on the loan was still outstanding.
“All entreaties by the Bishop of Umuahia to the Bank MD to at least allow the company use the new funds to complete the acquisition of needed machinery and resume operations, proceeds from which the loan will be repaid fell on deaf ears,” Hart stated.
As at March 2018, according to Hart, UCL-MOCERAM was indebted to lending bank to the tune of about N4.5B, being outstanding interest accrued on the loan obtained, in addition to the new funds raised which was withheld by the bank.
“A caveat was also placed on the company by the bank that any investor seeking to reactivate the factory must first offset the outstanding indebtedness before any new work can commence,” Hart revealed.
He said that the state government decided to intervene because it was mindful of the importance of the factory to the economic architecture of Umuahia and Abia State, both in terms of employment of indigenes and the corporate image of the Umuahia Catholic Diocese which has faced some odious derision from the populace for its inability to resuscitate the factory.