Sunday, June 24, 2012

National Museum Management's irresponsibility throws vendors' lives into turmoil

From his hideout, 55-yr-old fugitive cries out
‘Creditors after my life…National Museum encouraging looting of antiquity’

A 55-year-old man, who had gone underground for fear of what his enraged creditors would do to him, has finally cried out. In a telephone conversation with mauricearchibongtravels, the fugitive, Mr. Ignatius Okonkwo, said he was on the run over debts incurred since 2009.

Mr. Okonkwo, who is a father of 10 children and an indigene of Nri in Anambra State, lamented that three years after he supplied artefacts to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the commission’s management has failed to pay him. As a result, he has also been unable to pay various people he borrowed money from to finance the business transaction with the NCMM, where Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman is Director General.
Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman, NCMM Director General. PHOTOS: MAURICE ARCHIBONG Copyrights reserved.

Okonkwo further revealed that, apart from people from whom he took cash, he had also collected hundreds of antique objects from villagers on the understanding that he would pay them as soon as the NCMM gave him money for his supply of artefacts to that federal government-owned institution.

Unfortunately, three years down the road, Okonkwo has paid neither category of his creditors. Now, after failed promises to pay for over two years, the villagers from whom Okonkwo took cultural objects that were supplied to the NCMM, have lost faith in him and have been threatening fire and brimstone.

During our telephone conversation, a distraught Okonkwo lamented: “Creditors are on my neck. The villagers (people he collected antique objects from) are also after me”. Consequently, Okonkwo has abandoned his home over fear of what irate natives could do to him.

“I’m squatting somewhere now with my family”, he cried. When asked why he did not explain to his creditors that his inability to settle his debts arose from the refusal of the NCMM to pay for objects he supplied to the government agency, Okonkwo reasoned: “The issue of NCMM’s refusal to pay me is none of these villagers’ business. How do you expect me to convince them that three years after I supplied works to the NCMM, that this federal government agency has not paid me. So, as far as the villagers are concerned, I have defrauded them”.

Speaking to mauricearchibongtravels from his hideout last Sunday, 24 June, 2012; Okonkwo rued; “Look at me, a Prince from Nri; I am now squatting somewhere with my wife and children”. Apart from his 10 children, Okonkwo said he has another five children, offspring of extended family members as wards living with him. “Unfortunately, all these children are now out of school because I could not pay their school fees”, he lamented.

Okonkwo’s decision to go underground could have been informed by the experience of one Mr. Uwem Kanon, another supplier of artefacts to the National Museum. Like Okonkwo, Mr. Kanon is also a member of the Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria (ARAN). Dozens of this body’s members claim they have been ruined by refusal of NCMM management to pay them for a transaction that took place since 2009.

Mr. Kanon, who is a pentecostal church pastor, said his reputation has been severely dented by Mallam Usman’s ineptitude, which has culminated in the NCMM’s irresponsibility toward its suppliers. He claimed the NCMM owes him and scores of other ARAN members N198 million for over 5,000 antique objects they supplied to the Commission since 2009.

To facilitate the supply of those artefacts, Kanon said he and fellow ARAN colleagues had borrowed money from friends as well as several business partners and even Church members to embark on a collection spree. Virtually every ARAN member had also collected objects from villagers through promises to pay for them within a year.

Unfortunately, after two years of not being able to pay because of NCMM non-chalance toward meeting its obligation to suppliers, Pastor Kanon was dragged to court allegedly for collecting money under false pretense. Hear Pastor Kanon: “I was arrested, detained and charged to court. I have been severally embarrassed by my creditors and I’m hurting seriously because my reputation as a Man of God has been destroyed. If people cannot trust you, how can they believe your sermons”?

Consequently, ARAN members have finally decided to cry out over alleged wickedness on the part of the NCMM DG, which they claim has ruined them financially and socially. Indeed, the lives of some ARAN members and their families are now in disarray. Some have been arrested, detained and arraigned in court for allegedly collecting money under false motive, while some have practically gone into hiding to avoid the wrath of creditors.

During a chat with ARAN National Secretary, Peter Ezeh in Abuja, he confirmed that the NCMM under Mr. Usman’s leadership had collected thousands of objects from scores of dealers since 2009, but three years after those objects changed hands, all that the suppliers have been paid amounts to less than 10 per cent of their total due.
Peter Ezeh, ARAN Secretary General.

From another telephone conversation with Jos, Plateau State-based Mr. George Agbo, who is ARAN President; it came to light that the NCMM had only paid its members less than N10 million out of a total indebtedness of N198 million. Even so, this N10 million was paid in two installments; as a result, many ARAN members are really suffering, Agbo intoned.

Mr. Agbo, who revealed the body had kept this matter from public glare for more than two years to avoid being seen as confrontational; explained that since every effort to get the NCMM to pay had fallen on deaf ears, ARAN members were now left with no option than to go public with this scandal.

Agbo and other ARAN members recalled that several attempts to reach high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation; which supervises the NCMM had also failed. The Minister of Tourism and Culture, High Chief Edem Duke, had been informed through a letter addressed to his office and the latest of such attempts is an Application for courtesy visit to the Permanent Secretary, dated 5 March, 2012 and jointly signed by Agbo and Ezeh; we gathered.

The association had also written to Senator Hassan Barrata, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Tourism and Culture as well as his counterpart in the House of Representatives, added Agbo; who assumed leadership of ARAN in June 2011. The ARAN president said his association, though registered in 2001, has been doing business with the NCMM for over 40 years.

“Some of our parents were vendors to the NCMM”, he expatiated; adding that ARAN members allegedly victimised by Mallam Usman’s inefficiency, include Reverend John Akindele, immediate-past president of the artefacts rescuers’ association.

As to the latest move with the NCMM Management over how to resolve the matter, Agbo said: “The DG (Usman), when he got information that we were planning a protest rally for 18 May (International Museum Day, IMD), had called me on  15 May to say we should come and see him to arrange how to pay us.

“But, our members were sceptical because apparently nothing came out of series of such meetings over three years with the NCMM. We never wanted to be antagonistic, but the NCMM has been unfair to us. How does one explain it? How do we convince people and institutions that we borrowed money from to finance our business, that three years since we made supplies to a federal government institution, we have not been paid?”, Agbo queried.

The acquisition aspect of a museum’s responsibility falls under accession and money is usually voted for collecting works. Through accession, a museum helps to prevent the external flight of priceless pieces of national heritage.

Where money is made available, vendors are encouraged to intervene in the rescue of artefacts and hand them over to constituted authority, the museum, which is mandated to protect national heritage and it could be recalled that sometime in late 2008, ARAN members were informed that huge sums of money had been budgeted for accession.

Based on assurances that they would be paid, ARAN members borrowed various sums from individuals and institutions to finance their expeditions to collect artefacts. In their enthusiasm to rescue artefacts faced with potential loss or destruction, ARAN members had ransacked nooks and crannies of the country. They travelled across Adamawa, Anambra, Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Plateau, Taraba and even Zamfara as well as other states of the federation and occasionally crossed international boundaries in their search.

Eventually, ARAN members’ efforts yielded roughly 5,000 antique objects that were later handed over to the NCMM. The rescued artefacts included rare thousands-years-old terra cotta, metallic and wooden sculptures, masks and shrine objects et cetera.

After meetings with NCMM Assessment Committee, numerous ARAN members handed in their collections for agreed fees. Interestingly, based on their beliefs that they had a fair deal, some members even threw in some objects as donations to the NCMM. 

Hear Okonkwo, the Nri Prince: “I even donated five terra cotta objects to the NCMM on the day, we (ARAN members) met with the NCMM Assessment Team in 2009”. On his part, Pastor Kanon gave NCMM “two free terra cotta objects”.

Believing that they would be paid within 12 months, “after all, according to Due Process Regulations, there is a six-months limit for payment. The Bureau of Public Procurement also warns government agency not to purchase, where there was no vote to pay”, ARAN President Agbo had reasoned. With that, the suppliers had gone home to await their bounty.

Sadly, three years down the road, getting their money out of the NCMM remains a dream. As a result, the NCMM is willy-nilly encouraging antiquity flight, since people that stumble on such cultural property would feel safer selling them to foreigners.

“Too many thieves are looting artefacts and taking them out of Nigeria, whereas ARAN members are involved in seeking these objects and handing them over to the NCMM with a view to preserving our heritage. But, since 2009, when we supplied the NCMM with over 5,000 objects, we have only been paid a negligible fraction of our due”, Agbo cried.

“Personally, since I started dealing with the NCMM in 1998, I have recovered over 5,000 objects. In 2009, I was one of the ARAN members that supplied artefacts to the NCMM”, said Okonkwo.

Interestingly, every effort to speak with the NCMM DG, Usman; on this and sundry other matters have proven futile, as he would not take our call. It is also instructive that Mallam Usman refused to call us to give his side to some of these issues, in spite of a directive from his superiors and advice from subordinates to do so; as some of the allegations border on fraud.

Pic 1. NCMM DG, Yusuf Abdallah Usman.
Pic 2. ARAN Scribe, Peter Ezeh.

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