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A House of Fraud

Allegations of contract scams and questionable bank loans are the hallmark of the leadership of the House of Representatives under Dimeji Bankole as speaker

Farouk Lawan, a fourth  term member representing Bagwari/Shanono federal constituency of Kano State in the House of Representatives, has seen it all. He has been in the House of Representatives since 1999. He has seen the rise and fall of some leaders of the lower chamber of the National Assembly. Right from the Toronto certificate forgery scandal involving Salisu Buhari, first speaker of the House in current democratic experiment, he has seen other speakers serve out their terms. So he is vast in the intrigues and power play in the House.

His intricate knowledge helped him play a crucial role as a member of the Integrity Group which ousted Patricia Olubumi Etteh, Nigeria’s first female speaker, over a miserable non-deal of attempting to renovate her official residence with about N238 million in October, 2007. Only N53 million or 25 percent of the sum had been paid out then.

But today, Lawan is unhappy that Dimeji Bankole, the man he helped install on November 1, 2007, after Etteh’s fall, has turned out a bigger disaster. His regime has spent several billions of Naira in questionable deals which have dented the image of the Integrity Group and the entire House. “As we wind up now, the image of the House and generally, of the National Assembly, is not positive in the eyes of Nigerians. There were series of allegations laid on the floor of the House. The spate of crisis we had on the floor of the House that led to the exchange of fisticuffs and suspension of some members was a very ugly incident that shouldn’t have happened. That was my lowest moment in the House all this while.”

Now that the House would end the session on June 2, the diminutive Lawan is sad that the House has been dragged in the mud in the past three and a half years. From the scandalous allegation of misappropriating N9 billion out of N11 billion capital votes of the House in the 2008 – 2009 budget, to the corrupt practices in the purchase of cars worth N2.4 billion in 2008, buying of special vehicles worth N335.5 million for the leadership of the lower chamber of the National Assembly, and purchase of office equipment at over-inflated prices, Lawan believed that a lot was wrong with the House under Bankole. The speaker was also notorious for frequent trips abroad.

Lawan’s disenchantment stemmed from the May 11 revelation on the floor of the House that Bankole took a N10 billion bank loan to finance the activities of the House without the knowledge of his colleagues. The loan was reportedly taken in three installments of N6.1b, N2.5b and N1.5b in May 2010. Due to the alleged debt, the banks refused to pay the 2011 second quarter salaries, allowances and emoluments of the legislators when due.

Indications that all was not well with the House emerged when legislators, who came for the day’s sitting, discovered that doors to the chamber were locked. They also noticed the presence of a contingent of policemen, sergeants –at–arm and other security operatives. Dino Melaye, who had become a stormy petrel, confronted the situation headlong. “Wetin happen wey security plenty like this,” he reportedly asked, adding rhetorically “Has the Speaker been promoted to President?”

The reply he got from an unusual quarter jolted him. “Have you been paid,” a reporter fired at him. “My money has been stolen,” he responded. “I have been vindicated. No sinner shall go unpunished.”

When the House eventually convened, the Kogi State-born lawmaker quickly raised the issue of unpaid salaries of members of the House who were suspended last year and later re-admitted. “Up till today, we have not been paid a dime,” he said. He revealed that cheques were raised in their names but that they “somehow started disappearing” while the United Bank for Africa, UBA, where the salaries of members were domiciled refused to pay because of the House’s debt.

The insolvency of the House, according to Melaye, was  not because the statutory allocations to the House was not released by the Central Bank of Nigeria, but that commercial banks have seized it because of the billions the chamber owed them. He said the House did not authorise the borrowings and that no bank could grant loan or overdraft to an institution without obtaining a resolution passed by members of such an institution authorising the loan facility. 

Melaye said the leadership of the House had failed, having pushed legislative duties to the back burner with illegal adjustment of plenary sittings and illegal lockout of lawmakers without any reason. He charged that Bankole should account for the curious financial dealings. He called for the speaker’s probe and that in the interim, he should be suspended pending the conclusion of the investigations.

Abdul Ningi, chairman, House Committee on Police Affairs, decried the scandal. “Indeed it’s a trying time for the House. Melaye has raised weighty matters and it is fundamental for the House to discuss it. It’s beyond suspended members. It has extended to us. No principal officer has been able to provide answers and the speaker is not here to provide answers. We should, therefore, ask the deputy speaker to invite the speaker to appear tomorrow as a matter of urgency to answer the allegations. He will be able to give us the story and history behind the loans,” he said.

Bayero Nafada, the deputy speaker, who presided over the session turned down Melaye’s request but apologised for the lapses.  He asked Sani Omolori, clerk of the House, why the salaries of the reinstated members had not been paid. Omolori said the salaries were still being processed. The deputy speaker, thereafter, promised that the salaries of all members would be paid.

But the following day, Bankole opted to explain the issues at a two hour closed-door session by the House leadership, all in an attempt to prevent a row on the floor of the House. He gave reasons for taking the loan. He later read out the resolutions at the plenary and emphasised that the remuneration of the 11 readmitted lawmakers led by Melaye should be paid to them immediately. Each of them is entitled to about N120 million in salary and allowances during the 11 months they were suspended. Given the precarious state of the House’s finances, the lawmakers were worried how Bankole would raise the N1.32 billion needed to pay them. Worse still, the Central Bank of Nigeria warned all banks not to give the House any loan to pay the jumbo salary and allowances. Bankole might have gone to the presidency for succour.

But Melaye was not convinced of Bankole’s sincerity and believed he was treated with kid gloves by the House. As he stormed out of the chamber, he reportedly shouted: “No sinner will go unpunished, I repeat. I have been vindicated. I have always shouted that this House has lost focus.”

Independence Ogunewe, one of the 11 lawmakers Bankole suspended last year, said it is the tax-payers that would suffer the consequences of the resolutions of the House on the matter. Ita Enang, chairman of the House Committee on Rules and Business, said the financial crisis the House faced was temporary and that the hitches would be resolved soon with the bankers.

Bankole’s battle at the tail end of his tenure as speaker of the sixth assembly jolted those who helped install him, moreso, as about 250 of the angry lawmakers lost the elections last April. They are, therefore, thirsty for their last pay. By press time last week, it was not clear whether or not the lawmakers had got their jumbo pay. “I believe the issue could have been better managed. But, of course, that is the matter of style and the kind of experience that people in position of leadership have. Perhaps, someone else could have handled it differently. Certainly, if I were the one in that position, it would have been handled differently,” said Lawan.

Lawan revealed that members of the House went through “very trying times” under Bankole. The N10 billion loan mess was the climax of Bankole’s sins since 2007. Barely 42 days in the saddle, the speaker was entangled in a N2.4 billion car purchase scandal in which the nation lost N652, 425,150 to sharp practices. Whereas the actual cost of 380 Peugeot 407 cars direct from Peugeot Automobiles Nigeria, PAN, Kaduna, was N1,938,000,000, the House leadership paid the supplier N2,359,486,500.  A breakdown of the transaction showed that there was over payment of N417,486,500. Also, for the high number of cars bought from the manufacturers, the House was entitled to at least 10 percent discount of N235,948,650 but was not given. Total money lost to smart alecs in this transaction was N652.4 million.

A few months later, Bankole was again accused of corrupt practices in the purchase of special vehicles for the leadership of the lower chamber of the National Assembly. On May 28, 2008, the speaker and the Body of Principal Officers approved the purchase of four units of Range Rover (V8), three units of Mercedes Benz S-600 cars for himself and the Deputy Speaker at N335.5 million.  Newswatch was told then that the prices of the vehicles were over inflated.

Worried by the alleged scandals, some legislators on May 16, 2010, submitted a 69-page document to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC. In it they provided proof of corruption and fraudulent deals allegedly perpetrated by Bankole. The documents included those on the N11 billion capital votes of the House in 2008, and 2009 financial year, fraud in the purchase of cars for principal officers and hike in prices of television sets, torches, photocopiers and desktop computers purchased for members.

The petitioners noted that the N2.4 billion car scam involving the House leadership which Newswatch reported exclusively in its edition of September 22, 2008, was investigated by the EFCC and it indicted all the principal officers of the House for the colossal fraud. It never published the report but sent it to the presidency which sat on it since then.

They also wanted the EFCC to probe how Bankole’s leadership purchased LCD 40-inch Samsung LNS341 for members at N525,000 each as against the open market price of N180,000 per unit. “Even if you mark-up this sum of money by 25 percent as allowed by the Bureau for Public Procurement, BPP, and include 10 percent tax and Value Added Tax, the unit price for the said television set would be N243,000,” Melaye, leader of the petitioners, said. Bankole further authorised the purchase of 400 units of another type of television for N210m instead of N97.2million, thereby causing a loss of N112.8 million to the national treasury. Other items procured at over-inflated costs were one unit of  Sharp Copier 5316 at N270,000 as against open market price of  N160,000; 800 units of Desktop (HP Compaq dc 5700) at N330,000 instead of  N160,000. About N172.8million was fleeced from the national treasury on computer items alone.

Six companies were used in these deals. They were Chiwarna Nigeria Ltd which supplied 125 units; Joint Venture, 125 units and Forte Nigeria Ltd., 50 units. Others were Point View Resources which supplied, 50 units and Perfect Concept, 50 units.

After submitting their petition to the EFCC, the aggrieved legislators gave Bankole a seven day ultimatum to resign. If he failed to do so, the group said he would be impeached as two third of members of the House supported them. But it turned out that only 11 out of 360 legislators in the House were in support of the move. Those sympathetic to the course could not raise their head to be counted at the most critical time. Thus, Bankole who loves polo game and plays in the defence did not allow his opponents to crush him. Instead, he hacked them down in a free for all that opened the fourth session of the National Assembly.

The pro-Bankole legislators beat the self-styled progressives mercilessly, especially Melaye, Solomon Awhinawi, Bitrus Kaze, Austin Nwachukwu and Doris Uboh, a lady. Mohammed Bawa took on Awhinawi ferociously. The duo exchanged blows until the latter fell. Bawa continued to pound the lawmaker from Delta State. Done with him, he switched over to Melaye and tore to shred his white lace buba and sokoto.

Nwachukwu fought doggedly but was overpowered even as he allegedly used a tear gas canister on one of his attackers. Uboh was dragged on the floor until she was bundled out of the chamber. But Ogunewe was luckier. He slipped out unhurt.

Innocent children from an Abuja school who had come to the House to watch proceedings instead watched the boxing show. They were embarrassed. And Bankole whose ignoble act ignited the fracas watched the show of shame smiling. After his foot soldiers subdued the enemies and the House went back to business, he apologised to Nigerians “for the rowdiness” of the day’s session. And then, he “decapitated” his traducers by suspending them for the remainder of the session. Those suspended were Melaye, Ogunewe, Awhinawi, Nwachukwu, Abbas Anas, Gbenga Oduwaiye, Kayode Amusan, Gbenga Onigbogi and Kaze. West Idahosa who was absent from the day’s session was included while Uboh’s name was hurriedly handwritten, suggesting that she was not on the initial list of those to be suspended.

EFCC men moved to the National Assembly to begin investigations into the fraud allegations against Bankole and other principal officers of the House. They quizzed Salisu Maikasuwa, acting clerk of the National Assembly, CNA, and retrieved original documents on the House capital votes. But the anti graft agency has not published its findings to date.

Three months after, Bankole was again involved in another show of shame at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. In one of his frequent foreign travels, on August 6, 2010, he and Adegoke Emmanuel, his personal assistant, were offloaded from a London bound British Airways flight BA074 for refusing to surrender their four pieces of hand luggage to the airline’s security men for hand search. The airline claimed that despite the explanations of its duty manager that the check was mandatory, Bankole refused to comply, thereby suggesting that he might have carried huge foreign currency or other prohibited items. Bankole immediately aborted the trip. But he flew out of the country the next day.

Following public opprobrium against the lawmaker, the airline explained in detail the show of shame: “The airline’s duty manager explained to the speaker that this was a mandatory security check, he still refused and tried to force his way into the aircraft. He was immediately offloaded. Airline and other airport duty officials including the Captain and London security duty manager were informed. Other passengers witnessed the show of shame ignited by the speaker. Some customers witnessed the incident.”

The airline insisted that it could not compromise the safety and security of its passengers. The speaker’s behaviour contravened Annex 17 of International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, security manual (Doc 8973), which outlines luggage searching procedures before boarding a flight. It was also against the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulation, NCAR, 2009, which prescribes total search for all intending passengers and their luggage before boarding a flight. And any passenger who refused to surrender himself and or luggage for search would be off loaded from the flight and may be handed over to security officials for further investigations.

As the sixth National Assembly winds up, the House, analysts say, has given the impression that corruption was being swept under the carpet. Even the EFCC has not released any report on the cases.

Lawan said that the corruption allegations on the purchase of cars gave the House a very negative image publicly. “As we speak, nobody can conclusively say whether those allegations were true or false. Because EFCC went into the investigation and I believe they thoroughly investigated the matter. But because the report is not out, it is difficult for one to conclude that one is guilty or innocent. Even where someone is innocent, the matter goes into the public domain, if it is not managed properly, there will be allusions to negative aspersions that will be kept either on the institutions or on the individuals. And in this case, I believe the matter would have been handled differently, even though our own Committee on Ethics and Privileges investigated it and concluded that nothing was done wrong. But I believe that certainly, it was not good for the image of the House,” he told Newswatch last week.

Lawan believes the issues could have been managed better. “Certainly, if I were the one in that position, it would have been handled differently. But obviously, we went through very trying times. We went through issues that perhaps with consultation, dialogue and tolerance for one another could have been handled better. I don’t like the event that led to the suspension of members on both sides.  I don’t like the way those members that were suspended handled the issues. And also, I was not too pleased with the way the leadership handled the matter.  Maybe, more bridges could have been built.  Maybe, more consultations could have gone into it. Perhaps there should have been greater dialogue.  Some of us tried to play a mediatory role, but in the end the matter became so bad that it ended in the way it did,” he said.

Nonetheless, Lawan believed the House of Representatives during the period under review achieved a lot. The House, under Bankole, passed more bills than previous Houses before this one.  Many of the bills have significantly added value to the way things are done in this country. These include constitutional amendment that was attempted by previous assemblies but never ever saw the light of the day. This, according to Lawan, was responsible for the smooth conduct of the April 2011 general elections, adjudged as the freest since 1999. The House also passed the Freedom of Information Bill, FOI. “The bill had been before the House before 2000, but never saw the light of the day until this particular House of Representatives took over,” he argued.

Eseme Eyiboh, chairman House Committee on Information, said that the legislators had “a very successful House” under Bankole. On the latest N10 billion scandal, he claimed it was not possible that the speaker just walked to the bank and collected a loan on behalf of the House, maybe to buy a car or conduct his personal affairs. “The leadership of the House represents the sum total of all of us. They take decisions on behalf of all of us in some cases. And whatever was the financial transaction as in that particular case, I don’t think it was an individual affair.   The entire leadership as was expressed that day in the House gave their consent for the loan which was for a purpose that was clearly stated then, that it was for the overall welfare of the members,” he said.

On the N2.4 billion car purchase scandal of 2008, Eyiboh insisted as he had done in the past, that it was not Bankole that was involved in the controversy of the purchase of those cars but the leadership of the House. And he believed that the whole saga was not swept under the carpet but that the House set up a committee to look into the allegations. 

He said Bankole showed maturity, matured leadership qualities even at the young age of 38 when he became speaker. “He was focused and stable, bold,” he claimed.

However, as Nigerians grapple with the unpleasant image of the House, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, has petitioned the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related offences Commission, ICPC, asking for a thorough, transparent and efficient investigation into allegations of corruption and mismanagement of the N10 billion loan obtained by the leadership of the House of Representatives on behalf of the House, and to bring to justice suspected perpetrators and recover the stolen public funds.

Adetokunbo Mumuni, SERAP’s executive director, in the petition dated May 12, 2011, said the body was seriously concerned that the fresh allegations are coming against the background of previous allegations of corruption, including the purchase of vehicles at N2.4 billion by the House of Representatives in 2008. It noted that the allegations constituted grave breaches of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Act of 2000; the Public Procurement Act 2007, and the United Nations Convention against Corruption which Nigeria ratified. “Effective investigation and prosecution of the fresh allegations alongside the previous allegations of corruption in the House of Representatives would help to address impunity of perpetrators, which is the single most important factor for the prevalence of high level official corruption in the country. Such impunity can be interpreted as the existence of interference of politicians to protect suspected perpetrators from prosecution. Addressing high level official corruption effectively would also help to reduce or eliminate low level corruption among public servants in the country,” it said.

SERAP said that allegations of corruption against the lawmakers would undermine the credibility of the legislative process, and impede the ability of the current or future House of Representatives to effectively play its constitutional oversight role or to provide the necessary leadership in the anti-corruption fight.

SERAP charged ICPC to make public its investigation of the allegation of corruption in the N10 billion loan obtained by the leadership of the House of Representatives; publish the findings of its investigation into all the previous allegations of corruption; recover any money that is the proceed of corruption and prosecute those suspected to be responsible for the wrongdoings.

 

Reported by Tobs Agbaegbu and Anzah Phillips.

 

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