New Telegraph

How Reps unveiled another ‘grass-cutting’ contract scandal

PHILIP NYAM reports on how the House of Representatives’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) uncovered another grass-cutting scandal involving the National Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF)

Nigeria is fast becoming a wonderland as bizarre and shocking events occur almost on a daily basis. From snakes swallowing money realised from the sale of Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) examination forms to millions used in the clearing of grasses, Nigerians recently woke up to the shocking story of vouchers being eaten by termites at the National Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).

These brought to the fore the inglorious sack of the then Secretary to the Federal Government, Mr. Babachir Lawal in 2017, following allegations of corruption against him as unravelled by a panel of the Senate. President Muhammadu Buhari sacked Lawal and the Director-General of National Intelligence Agency (NIA), Amb. Ayo Oke in October 2027. The sack of the two government officials was based on the report of a three-man panel led by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo that investigated them. The President had on April 19, 2017, suspended the two government officials and constituted a three-man committee led by Vice President Osinbajo to investigate them.

The panel investigated allegations of violations of law and due process made against Lawal in the award of contracts under the Presidential Initiative on the North-East, while it probed Oke over the discovery of large amounts of foreign and local currencies by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in a residential apartment at Osborne Towers, Ikoyi, Lagos, which NIA claimed belonged to it. The committee had the Attorney- General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN) and the National Security Adviser (NSA), Major General Babagana Monguno (rtd) as members.

Before Lawal’s, the Senate ad hoc Committee on Mounting Humanitarian Crisis in the North-East had indicted the then SGF in its report after finding him culpable of indulging in corrupt practices in the execution of contracts. The report, which was submitted by the committee’s chairman, Senator Shehu Sani said the banks’ transactions of Rholavision Engineering Limited and the confirmation of the Central Bank of Nigeria indicated that Lawal was still the signatory to Rholavision Engineering Limited accounts.

It added that 13 other accounts with different names were discovered. The committee also linked suspicious payments to the tune of N500 million and recommended further investigation by relevant agencies of government on why contract benefitting companies paid over N500 million into Rholavision Engineering Limited. The recommendations read in part: “That since it was observed that there was no bill of quantities on the contracts awarded by PINE under an emergency situation, the Bureau of Public Procurement, BPP, should undertake a revaluation of all such contracts to recover any proceeds from over-inflated contracts.

“That the relevant agencies should ensure that contracts partially executed but fully paid for must be completed by the concerned contractors, or asked to refund the equivalent money of outstanding jobs to the government treasury. “That all resources that have been misapplied or stolen by public officials should be retrieved and anybody found culpable of contravening any of the provisions of the Public Procurement Act, 2007 and the Federal Government Financial Rules and Regulations pertaining to the award of these contracts, should be duly prosecuted by the relevant authorities.

“That the committee also recommends further investigation by relevant agencies of government on why contract benefitting companies paid over N500 million into Rholavision Engineering Limited, a company Engr. Babachir David Lawal has an interest.”

Fresh scandal

A fortnight ago, the House of Representatives Committee on Public Accounts, headed by Hon. Wole Oke (PDP, Osun) announced that it had begun investigations of the Ministry of Agriculture over the award of contracts said to be about N18.9 billion to firms during the COVID- 19 lockdown. At the investigative hearing penultimate Tuesday, Oke said the contracts were awarded to the companies for bush clearing, land preparation and rehabilitation of soil and plant laboratories.

His words: “During the lockdown of the country as a result of COVID-19, some companies took contracts worth about N18 billion for bush clearing from the Federal Ministry of Agriculture for land preparation, rehabilitation of soil plant laboaratory and others.

“We cannot shave their head in their absence, so we have invited them to come and give us their own side by responding to the issues and showing us the places they are supposed to have cleared. They have to take us to the land they cleared.

“We have invited the ministry of agriculture and they have made a submission. But some of our members whose constituencies these projects were supposed to be domiciled doubted the existence of these projects and for a fair hearing, we have invited the companies that got the contract for them to come and tell this committee where and when the jobs were executed. “We will wait till the end of the hearing today to see if they will appear. If they are not here, we will have to do the needful to get them to come.”

Ministry’s defence

However, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development rose to defend the allegations by clarifying that contrary to speculations that it spent N18.9 billion on bush clearing and land preparation during the COVID-19 lockdown, the actual amount spent was N2.5 billion. It said media reports which emanated from the House of Representatives Committee on Public Accounts’ sitting, alleging that the sum of N18.9 billion was used for bush clearing during the pandemic was misrepresented. The Ministry’s Director of Information, Dr. Joel Oruche, in a statement, added that the ministry at no time received any audit query to warrant summon by the committee.

“The ministry only carried out bush clearing and land preparation of 3,200 hectares in eight states of Osun, Ekiti, Edo, Cross River, Kaduna, Kwara, Plateau and Ogun States as allocated by respective state governments at a total cost of N2.5 billion. “In addition, other projects executed by the Ministry during the COVID-19 period that sums up to the total sum quoted included the following: Construction of rural roads in the six geo-political zones of the country, soil sampling and mapping, farmers’ registration as well as rehabilitation and the equipping of four national soil laboratories in Umudike, Ibadan, Kaduna and FCT Abuja,” the ministry explained.

The statement added that “all these projects were successfully executed and verified by relevant government agencies and were part of stimulus package under the Agriculture for Food and Jobs Programme of the Federal Government to generate employment and grow the economy to mitigate the effect of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.” While Nigerians are waiting with bated breath to see the outcome of the latest scandal, only time will tell whether it will lead to the sack of another top government appointee.

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