Friday, 11 December 2015

How Nigerian lawmakers ‘pocketed’ N8 Billion

INVESTIGATION: How Ekweremadu, other Nigerian lawmakers ‘pocketed’ N8 Billion in failed constitution amendment

Nigerian federal lawmakers, led by incumbent Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremadu, and former Deputy Speaker Emeka Ihedioha, withdrew a princely N7.75 billion of public funds in four years to purportedly review sections of the 1999 Constitution, PREMIUM TIMES can authoritatively report today.

In an investigation lasting months, this newspaper found that between 2011 and 2015, the 53-member House of Representatives Ad-hoc Constitution Review Committee and its 49-member counterpart in the Senate in the 7th National Assembly withdrew N3,250,000,000.00 and N4,500,000,000.00 respectively to purportedly execute the fourth alteration of the Constitution.

It is not immediately clear how the lawmakers spent the outrageous funds but insiders say a huge chunk of it was pocketed by members of the committees in what one source described as ‘unprecedented naira bazaar’ by a committee of the National Assembly’.

Officials of the committees continued to make withdrawal even long after the exercise was concluded. It remains unclear what those withdrawals were spent on.

The Committees, which operated independently, withdrew the monies in tranches from their accounts domiciled in an Abuja branch of the Guarantee Trust Bank.

Curiously, some of the withdrawals were made long after they submitted their final reports to both chambers for consideration and a few weeks before the general elections and the inauguration of the 8th National Assembly.

The Senate Committee was statutorily chaired by the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, while the House Committee was headed by the then Deputy Speaker, Emeka Ihedioha.

Mr. Ekweremadu was re-elected in the March 28 senatorial election but Mr. Ihedioha failed in his bid to be elected governor of his native Imo State in the April 11 election.

Documents obtained by PREMIUM TIMES showed that the House Committee withdrew N500m of public funds on December 16, 2011; N500m on May 17, 2012; N250m on October 29, 2012; N250m on May 8, 2013; N250m on August 6, 2013; and N250m on November 11, 2013.

On February 20, 2014, it withdrew N250m; another N250m on May 27, 2014; N250m on August 21, 2014; N166.5m on a date not specified; and N83.5m on December 5, 2014.

The Committee further withdrew N83.33m on March 2, 2015 and the same amount on March 23, five days before the Presidential and National Assembly elections and on April 13, barely two days after this year’s governorship election.

PREMIUM TIMES checks revealed that the National Assembly was not in session at the time of the elections, and the committee had long concluded its assignments suggesting the withdrawals were dubious.

The document showed that the Senate Committee, on its part, operated two accounts, tagged “Account A” and “Account B”.

From Account A, like its House counterpart, the Committee collected N500m on December 16, 2011, the first after its inauguration.

Subsequent withdrawals it made are N500m on April 20, 2012; N250m on May 17, 2012; N250m on February 27, 2013; N250m on May 8, 2013; N250m on July 23, 2013; N250m on November 5, 2013; N250m on February 5, 2014; N250m on August 18, 2014; N83.3m on March 17, 2015 and another N83.3m on a date not specified.

The Committee also withdrew from its Account B the sum of N250m on May 22, 2014; N166.6m on November 25, 2014; N83.4m on December 5, 2014 and N83.3m on February 27, 2015.

Before the inauguration of the 7th National Assembly on June 6, 2011, the document also revealed, the Senate Committee withdrew from its Account A the sums of N125m on April 21, 2010; N250m on June 10, 2010; N125m on a date not specified; N250m on October 13, 2010; N250m on an unspecified date; and N250m on February 9, 2011.

The total amount the Committee withdrew from Account A stood at N3,916,666,667 and from Account B it withdrew a total of N583,333,333.

No proper accounting for the spent funds have been made, insiders say.

The House Committee submitted its final report in July 2013.

Its membership comprised all principal officers, except the Speaker; a representative of each of the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory; four representatives of the female members of the House; the Chairman of the Rules and Business Committee; and the chairman and deputy chairman of the Committee on Media and Publicity.

The Committee’s major activities during the process included a retreat in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, between May 27 and 29, 2012; Peoples Public Sessions held simultaneously in all the 360 federal constituencies on November 10, 2012; and public presentation of collated results on April 18, 2013.

The committee held 25 meetings altogether while the assignment lasted. There was also a retreat for the Technical Experts on Constitution and Legal matters who produced the work-plan as well as some civil society organisations drawn from the six geo-political zones.

Members of the House subsequently voted on the various sections proposed for amendment on January 30, 2014.

The Senate Committee, on the other hand, held a retreat in Asaba, Delta State; organised zonal and national (Abuja) public hearings; conducted opinion polls; undertook study tour to the United States, Canada and India; held consultations with seasoned experts and constitutional lawyers; and organised town hall meetings in the senatorial zones.

It presented its final report to the Senate on June 5, 2013.

The Committee whose membership included the principal officers of the upper chamber who served as “members of the steering committee,” finally organised a retreat in Lagos to consider a draft bill. That was after the senators voted on the amended sections on three occasions – July 2013, April 2014 and June 2014.

But those who should know say all these engagements could not have cost the nation more than N1billion altogether. They said some of the public sessions held in states were funded by state governments.

Authorities wouldn’t comment on withdrawals

The then Senate President, David Mark, could not be reached for comment on this story. He did not answer or return multiple calls. Neither did he respond to a text message sent to him.

So also was Mr. Ekweremadu, who spearheaded most of the spending.

When contacted, Imam Imam, the media aide to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aminu Tambuwal, asked this newspaper to direct all inquiries on the last constitution amendment to the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Sani Omolori.

Mr. Ihedioha, who chaired the House Ad-hoc Committee, also requested us to do the same.

“My dear, feel free to reach out to the Clerk of the House of Reps to furnish you with all details you will need,” the former deputy speaker said in a text message to one of our reporters.

Mr. Omolori could however not be reached as did not answer or return calls. He did not also respond to a text message sent to him.

Several attempts by this newspapers to also speak with the Clerk to the National Assembly, Salisu Maikasuwa, failed.

The Director of Information of the National Assembly, Ishaku Dibal, told PREMIUM TIMES he was not in a position to speak on the matter.

Also, the former spokesperson of the House, Zakari Mohammed, who served in the ad-hoc committee, did not answer calls by this newspaper.

But a former senator who served in the Senate ad-hoc committee, Anthony Adeniyi, said he was not sure about how much committee members spent on the constitutional amendment.

“I can’t confirm the figure you are quoting. I don’t think we spent that much,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in a telephone interview Thursday.

But another senator close to the constitution review committee, who requested not to be named for fear he might be attacked by his colleagues, said, “I can confirm that they withdrew more than that. Committee members were just sharing money. It was a kind of naira bazaar for them.”

After the concurrence of the 36 State House of Assembly, the draft bill “Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Fourth Amendment) Bill, 2015,” was transmitted to former President Goodluck Jonathan for assent.

Wasted Billions

Despite the huge public funds purportedly expended on the amendment, Mr. Jonathan refused to sign the amendment into law. Instead he, on April 13, wrote to the National Assembly complaining of defects in the bill.

The National Assembly then threatened to override his veto within 30 days.

But in response, the then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, filed a suit against the legislature seeking to annul the amendments.

Both parties were to settle out of court. The legislature agreed to delete the controversial sections and clauses which Mr. Jonathan considered offensive while the president agreed to sign the amended constitution into law before handing over to the Muhammadu Buhari administration.

Despite the truce, Mr. Jonathan did not sign the bill into law before he left office on May 29.

The former president’s failure to assent to the bill rendered the amendment futile and therefore the N7.75 billion public funds purportedly spent on the exercise, was largely wasted.

But the Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Auwal Musa, lamented the huge amount of money the lawmakers withdrew for the exercise.

“There is no accountability on how the money was spent; it is outright corruption that has taken place and that was why they were fighting themselves,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.

Previous Exercises

The amendment to the 1999 Constitution, handed over by the Abdulsalami Abubakar military regime, began during the senate presidency of Chuba Okadigbo in 2000.

The then Deputy Senate President, Haruna Abubakar, and the Deputy Speaker of the House, Chibudom Nwuche, were named co-chair of the National Assembly Joint Committee on Constitution Review (JCCR).

When they became deputy senate president and deputy speaker, Ibrahim Mantu and Austin Opara headed the joint committee.

Mr. Ekweremadu and the then Deputy Speaker, Usman Nafada, co-chaired the committee from 2007.

At the time, each of the chambers appointed 44 members into the joint committee, bringing the total number to 88.

Before 2011, the budget of the Joint Committee Constitution Review was N1 billion, which was shared equally between the two chambers.

That however changed in 2011 when the budgets of the constitution review committees of both chambers was subsumed under the larger National Assembly budgets, totalling N150 billion.

The federal legislature has repeatedly rebuffed calls on it not to operate a closed budget, but should instead subject itself to public scrutiny and transparency.

It also resisted demands for the breakdown of its budgetary allocations to its arm as obtained before 2011.

See infographic below