Opinion: The $418 Million Question – By Olusegun Adeniyi

When you come to power with a campaign to fight corruption, you cannot afford to be silent when your government is being accused of aiding and abetting impropriety; and certainly not when the accusers are members of your own political party or their agents. It is for that reason that President Muhammadu Buhari may have to take a second look at his authorization for the payment of a controversial $418 million in Paris Club refund-related judgment debts to six claimants, which both the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) and Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) strongly dispute.

For the record, 20 of the 36 Governors today belong to the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). The NGF chairman, Dr Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State is also a member of the party. Yet, he has been vociferous in the last two years about what he alleges to be a desperate attempt to hand over such humongous sum of money to some consultants. In their 30th August letter, the NGF practically indicted the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed. After making the point that she was “illegally authorising” questionable deductions from the allocations due to the states that would take over a period of ten (10) years from statutory allocations to defray, the NGF lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, concluded: “We hold the strong view that this in itself is the height of corruption and lawlessness.”

I understand that when it comes to money matters involving our big men and women, one would never know the backstory nor even the real story, beyond whatever they want you to hear. But contending issues in this payment are quite troubling. I have seen various correspondences (some contradictory of one another) emanating from the Attorney General of the Federation, Chief of Staff to the President, the NGF chairman and Director General (past and current, including factional ones), Minister of Finance (past and present), numerous lawyers/consultants and the Debt Management Office (DMO). And they raise several questions bordering on transparency and accountability in Nigeria.

In a November 2018 letter to the office of the AGF, a breakdown of the claims by the consultants and lawyers was provided by the NGF, even when many of the cases remain pending in court. Ned Nwoko Solicitors was seeking a fee of $369,932,117.26 for financial consultancy work he claimed to have done for 14 states. The states are Niger, Adamawa, Taraba, Abia, Anambra, Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo, Oyo, Ondo, Zamfara, Edo and Kogi. Although Kayode Ajulo & Co sought N900 million for the legal services it claimed to have provided the Jonah Jang faction of NGF, the case has been settled out of court. Riverdale Financial Services Ltd was seeking N12,912,574,537.06 on grounds that their financial consultancy services were engaged by eight states. Interestingly, the states included Zamfara that had signed on to Nwoko for the same services. Others are Bauchi, Osun, Ekiti, Sokoto, Kogi, Kwara and Katsina. Riok Nigeria Limited was seeking $318,807,950.596 for the boreholes it claimed to have constructed for 774 local governments. It is indeed very telling that these contracts were awarded not by the local governments but by ALGON secretariat in Abuja! Allied Plus Consulting & Logistics Limited/Azinge & Azinge were demanding N4,232,400,000, for consultancy services they claimed to have rendered to Bayelsa State. Balsa A.B.S. Nigeria Limited/Azinge & Azinge were seeking N2,024,567,441.15 for financial consultancy they claimed to have provided Kebbi State. Udembgba Maduka & Associates/Azinge & Azinge were seeking N1,389,768,631.07 for financial consultancy they also claimed to have provided Zamfara State. George Uboh’s Panic Alert System was seeking $47,821,920.00 for consultancy services it claimed to have rendered the Jonah Jang faction of NGF while Nipal Consulting Network/Njemanze & Njemanze were seeking $6,966,000.00 for services they claimed to have provided ALGON.

I have read many of the correspondences and the only conclusion to draw is that it is so easy to become a billionaire in Nigeria through government. Some of the work these consultants and lawyers claimed to have done to table such crazy bills include granting interviews to newspapers and television stations! But the main concern is about the quantum of public funds being transferred to private entities. Against the background that on 14th September, the then Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, wrote the CBN Governor, Mr Godwin Emefiele, requesting him to “credit Escrow Account domiciled with the CBN with the sum of USD350 million” to settle “legal/consultancy fees” (for the first tranche already paid to these contractors, consultants, lawyers and the NGF secretariat), we are already talking of fees exceeding $750.

By way of background, this whole business started in 2006 under President Olusegun Obasanjo, in a Paris Club Debt Buy Back deal totaling about $18 billion. But with the money taken from the federation account, there was a lacuna. Since many states owed little or no foreign debts and were made to bear the responsibility with others, it was clear that there were legal issues to be explored. One of those smart enough to realise this was a certain Ned Nwoko. He moved from state to state to convince the governors that he could secure billions of Naira for them, and that they only needed to sign agreement with him on certain percentages of whatever he recovered. Apparently thinking they had nothing to lose, many governors were too eager to sign onto the deal that would give away 20 percent of their states’ money to the consultant. In the case of the 774 local governments, none had any foreign loan yet by statutory allocation, 15 percent of the money deducted for the Debt Buy Back deal belonged to them. Nwoko also approached ALGON with the same proposition and he got a deal. Having calculated the sum due the 774 local governments to be $3,188,079,505.96, Nwoko assembled a team of lawyers and in 2008, he went to court against the federal government. In December 2013, he finally got judgement at the federal high court in Abuja, affirming that the federal government utilization of the federation account “for London Club Debt Buy Back in 1992 and 2002; and London Club Debt Exit in 2006 without the authorization of the other tiers of government, including the local government councils and area councils of Nigeria, is contrary to section 162 (1), (3), (5) of the constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).” Other reliefs he got included that the federal government should pay the sum of $3,188,078,505.96 to the local governments as well as “deduct at source 20% of the judgement sum and pay same to the 1st plaintiff (Nwoko’s consultancy) through its solicitors, Joe Agi, SAN into (bank details withheld) being the agreed consultancy fees.”

It was that initial breakthrough by Nwoko that opened the floodgates of court cases, claims and counter claims by sundry cartels of lawyers, contractors and the usual Abuja middlemen who are adept at forging documents whenever they see what they consider a slush fund.

I do not want to go into all the legal and extra-legal cases that have arisen since, but it is important to situate how President Buhari was dragged into the mess. In July 2016, Abdulaziz Yari, then governor of Zamfara State, wrote Mrs Adeosun, reminding her that the NGF (which he then chaired) had at its May 2016 meeting appointed a consortium of financial consultants to reconcile and recover over-deductions from the Paris and London Clubs’ loans due to states and local governments. Yari stated further that the president had, in a meeting with governors, “graciously agreed to pay 50% of the monies due and the balance of 50% paid after due and diligent reconciliation of the accounts.” He added, “At the last meeting of the NGF held in July 2016, the Forum unanimously resolved to pay a fee of 2% to the consultants as their professional fees for the services rendered.” Based on this decision, Yari requested that “the payment of the consultant fees should be deducted at source from each state’s entitlement and paid directly to the account details of the consultants as attached with.”

These consultants, by the way, were engaged directly by the NGF and quite different from the ones (genuine or fake) appointed by many of the states. But the moment they were paid, several other people with claims of having worked for some states or the Jang faction of the NGF moved in. They also filed a multiplicity of cases in various courts that have resulted in several judgements. It was in a bid to discharge the federal government of all obligations in the claims made by these consultants and contractors that the out-of-court settlement of $418 million was arrived at by the office of the AGF and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami, SAN.

However, whatever may be the justification, there are serious issues here. The idea that huge chunks of public resources can be cynically signed off to some people in doubtful circumstances calls to question the basis of government. This is more so when ALGON has sent letters to the AGF that the borehole contracts (for which one of the claimants would earn $159 million in the $418 deal) were not executed. That requires a thorough investigation. To escape from the claws of the Paris and London Clubs of creditors only to land in the hands of some domestic racketeers reads like a script from any gangster chronicle. It speaks of the existence of a virtual industry of shadow commission agents that target government agencies for easy money. Unfortunately, there is nothing new in this deal and it is not peculiar to this administration. That is what government has been reduced to in Nigeria, which then explains why the Federal Executive Council (FEC) is no more than a contract awarding body where policies are hardly discussed.

To wean government, at all levels, of this transactional ethos, we need to have a genuine conversation about the minimal expectation of governance, and the values that should drive public office in Nigeria. But I must also point out that I believe in the sanctity of contracts. So, if the consultants were able to hoodwink governors to agree to sign off such scandalous amounts of public funds in their states, I do not begrudge them their luck. But I find it rather disturbing that the federal government will be defending the interest of private citizens against that of the 36 states. While both the AGF and the Finance Minister see the issue as upholding the law and meeting obligations, there is a problem with shutting out the NGF and ALGON in the manner they are doing.

Last Friday, (3rd September), through another SAN, P.H Ogbole, the NGF wrote to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, AGF, the finance minister, DG of DMO and MD/CEOS/compliance officers of all commercial banks in Nigeria. The letter particularly noted that “custodians and managers of public funds are public trustees and must at all times act in the public interest. In this case, the interest of all the states and local governments of the federation are involved and ought to be protected by the hon. minister of finance.” It continued: “The issuance of promissory notes of a humongous sum of over $418million to private persons for alleged consultancy work demands not only caution but strict due diligence; particularly when the judgements which gave rise to the payments sought to be enforced are the subject of pending litigation.”

At the end, there are several lessons we must learn about the use of consultancy in the conduct of government business, including the need to put a cap on how much they can be paid for helping to collect either judgement debts or taxes. This is a problem that you find in many of the states and even in the federal government. But there is also something peculiar to the current administration. In the past few years, people and institutions that should ordinarily work together not only squabble openly, they call to question the transparency of those at the apex of power in our country and the integrity of the Nigerian system. That should worry President Buhari.

On the immediate issue of the contentious $418 million payment, the minimal expectation is for the president to direct the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate the allegations by both the NGF and ALGON before any payment can be made. I hope that is not already too late!

Kaduna Language Class

On 17th June 2014, I received a mail from respected senior journalist, Mr Taiwo Obe, inviting me to speak at a ‘Summit on Functional Social Networking for Nigerian Journalists’ in Abuja that his ‘EverythingJournalism Group’ was organizing in partnership with the United Bank for Africa (UBA). I found the invitation rather strange; so, I sent egbon Taiwo a response that it was directed at the wrong person because I was not on social media and had resolved not to join any of the platforms. He replied that I was invited for same reason, and that I should come and explain why, at the Journalism Clinic. I went and delivered my presentation titled, ‘Why social media is not for me,’ which explained my misgivings. Less than a year later, I joined Twitter.

While my fears about the toxicity of the Nigerian social media space remain valid, I have enjoyed my time on Twitter, and in the process, even gained some 57,000 followers. Beyond posting my column every Thursday, I avoid ‘Political Twitter’ so I am a marginal player on the platform. But I have cultivated my own space. I like to know what the neighbours of Baba Samu’s wife, aka Iyalaya (@lollylarry1) are doing behind the curtains within and outside their apartments, I have a ringside seat at the radio station of the Cinderella Man (@osi¬¬¬_Suave) to defend, with all aluta brutality, the interest of ‘Sharon from Marketing’, I take judicial notice of how Irene (@cremechic11) has transferred her ‘love for short men’ from Kenya to Nigeria and @biolakazeem never ceases to entertain with the way he goes after OGS who took over from his friend, ‘The Special One’ at Old Trafford. Since Aguntasolo (@DoubleEph) has stopped throwing his usual bazookas, I now watch ‘with one eye’ as ‘Daddy Wa’ (@mrmacaroni1) encounters all the ‘omo komo’ in Lagos and environ and, like Charles (@9jabloke) and all Arsenal fans, our longsuffering has been made bearable by the occasional banters we share on Twitter to drown our disappointment.

However, the space I enjoy most is the one created by Mrs Hadiza Isma El-Rufai in December 2019 to teach English language. What transpires there, even though I am one of the protagonists, is a reminder of ‘Mind Your Language’, a British sitcom of the seventies and eighties which depicted an adult education classroom where people from different countries and diverse social and ethno-religious backgrounds shared the same classroom to learn English as a foreign language. With the #Kaduna Language Class, Mrs El-Rufai generates fun while at the same time imparting knowledge. She recently compiled her Twitter teachings into a book, and I got an autographed copy addressed to “the naughtiest boy in #KLClass” with a pledge to “continue praying” for me.

An architect by profession, Mrs El-Rufai has already authored an interesting novel, ‘An Abundance of Scorpions’. But this book is different. Small and easy to read, it highlights some of the basic errors people make, either when speaking or writing in English language. While the foreword by Kola Tubosun sums up the significance of the book, Mrs El-Rufai explains why she wrote it: “I am not a graduate of English language; neither am I a linguist. I am just someone who believes that every language should be respected enough to be spoken and written properly.”

Whenever the federal government is ‘magnanimous’ enough to unban Twitter in Nigeria, I will resume to take my SIT in the class!

Tramadol Miracle!

On Monday, PUNCH Metro published a very revealing story of a 28-year-old man in Gombe State, Umar Abubakar, who reportedly spent over seven hours on a telecoms mast, threatening to kill himself. Abubakar had climbed to the top of the mast located at Checheniya within the Gombe metropolis around 7am and refused to come down despite entreaties from security agents and the local government chairman, Aliyu Haruna. He insisted that only Governor Darius Ishaku could make him come down until his friend, Aladeen Mohammed, eventually showed up. He persuaded Abubakar to come down by, in his own words, “offering him a cigarette and tramadol.” It is very telling that Abubakar’s friend knew what to prescribe to solve a problem of attempted suicide. More importantly, it worked!

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com

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