There Is No Missing N107 Billion In Benue (Part One)- Investigations
To unravel some facts behind the alleged missing 107 billion Naira in Benue state as said by the Justice Kpojime Commission of Inquiry which was set up by Governor Samuel Ortom, a team of Nigerian Concord’s investigators led by DEPUTY EDITOR, ADEYINKA ADEBOYE, went to the state and spoke with some serving officials of the indicted agencies. We are starting from the Bureau for Local Government and Affairs. Excerpts:
On assumption of duties as the executive governor of Benue State in 2015, Chief Samuel Ortom set up two Committees of Inquiry to probe the administration of his predecessor, Dr. Gabriel Torwua Suswam, as a result of his readiness to join the team of governors who want to fight corruption in their respective states.
The committees included a Commission of inquiry headed by Justice Elizabeth Kpojime to investigate funds accrued to the state from 2007 to 2015, and also the commission of inquiry into sale and lease of government property which was chaired by Barrister Moses Atagher.
While swearing-in members of the committees, Governor Ortom noted that they were men and women of unquestionable characters. He added that they were selected on merit, and that they would be fair and just in their investigations and recommendations.
Investigation however showed that all the members of both Committees are allies of the governor who later gave them juicy appointments and financial gratification to compensate them for assisting him in preparing a report he needs to nail his predecessor and some of the people that worked with him between 2007 and 2015.
The only person that wasn’t given any appointment was Barrister Moses Atagher, chairman of the commission of inquiry into sale and lease of government property, who managed to submit a true report which didn’t in anyway indict Suswam or any of his men.
It was gathered that Atagher while submitting the report, made it known to the governor that there was no way he could manipulate his findings and implicate innocent people, stressing that he was ready to quit the committee and forfeit the appointment he was promised by the governor rather than doing illegal thing.
It was also learnt that Atagher who was asked to resigned as the committee chairman as a result of his insistence not to do any hatchet job for the governor had since returned to his law practice.
A very dependable Government House source in Makurdi told a team of Nigerian Concord’s investigators on Sunday night that Governor Ortom, on assuming duties in 2015, made it known to his inner caucus men that he would set up some commissions of inquiry to indict Suswam and his men in order to destroy the political dynasty of the former governor.
The source added that this was exactly what Governor Ortom told members of the two commissions to do when he inaugurated them in Makurdi.
Nigerian Concord gathered that the governor mandated it for the two committees to release indicting reports on Gabriel Suswam and his men at all cost even if they were found innocent in the investigations.
It would be recalled that the the Kpojime Commission of Inquiry had been able to indict some 52 people including Dr. Suswam himself as requested by Governor Ortom but investigation showed that some people who worked with the former governor between 2007 and 2015 but later decamped to the All Progressive Party, APC, were not mentioned in the report.
For instance, a former Special Adviser to Suswam on Local Government and Chieftains Affairs, Honourable Sam Ode, and then ALGON chairman, Mr. Augustine Avaan who had since decamped to the APC, were not mentioned in the Kpojime reports but investigations by Nigerian Concord indicated that a large portion of local government/ALGON funds were utilized during their tenure.
Further investigations showed that Sam Ode didn’t give an end of the year account of funds accrued to the Bureau throughout his tenure as the former governor’s special adviser there.
On the issue of local government funds illegally paid to ALGON, Nigerian Concord gathered that ALGON transactions were originated by the ALGON meeting comprising all local government chairmen in the state and considered and approved by the JAAC.
Our findings also showed that: These transactions were basically of common interest to all the local governments in the state. All appropriations to ALGON were approved by JAAC as provided by the Local Government law 2007. ALGON transactions are not illegal.
It was gathered that within the period under review, approvals were given by JAAC to ALGON for HIV/AIDS support, construction of lecture theatre in higher institutions including the BSU, purchase of Ambulances, purchase of security vehicles and gadgets, provision of instructional materials to schools, construction of ALGON guest house and security expenses during the TIV/Herdsmen crisis to mention a few.
This newspaper also learnt that the total funds remitted to ALGON during this period when properly checked does not amount to 4.23 Billion Naira that was mentioned in the Kpojime Report.
According to findings, members of the Kpojime Commission inflated the amount to impress the governor who had directed them to arrive at any figure to indict Suswam and his men.
Top officials at the Bureau told Nigerian Concord on Monday that the funds were treated in accordance with the financial regulations in the local government.
One of the officials said: “I have to tell you that ALGON is a National Association with branches all over Nigeria and not an illegal association. Of all the state chapters in Northern Nigeria, Benue ALGON has the least allocation.
“Similarly, ALGON during former governor George Akume, under the leadership of Late Baver Dzeremo had higher allocation than what was obtainable during Gabriel Suswam. Their constitution gives them power to make interventions for the benefit of the people. E.g. the National ALGON also carried out projects including purchase of Prado Jeeps for the Police and construction of Health Clinics.
“The total amount involved, in excess of N5 billion was deducted at source by the Accountant General of the Federation. Furthermore, a large chunk of the funds under reference were utilized by the leadership of ALGON under Mr. Sam Ode as the Special Adviser and Mr. Augustine Avaan as the Chairman. Unfortunaterly, neither of them is mentioned in the recommendations because they have decamped to the APC from the PDP.
“Who will now pay back the large proportion of funds utilized during their tenure? This confirms assertions from the public that the committee’s report is political, and a tool for witch hunting and vendetta. I am a top official of the Bureau and I am sure that the transactions were not illegal, the funds were also properly accounted for and documented in line with due process”
Apart from Sam Ode and some others who were exempted in the report, Suswam’s deputy, Chief Steven Lawani who controlled the local government and chieftaincy affairs between 2007 and 2015, wasn’t mentioned in the Kpojime Report all because he had joined the APC after the 2015 general elections.
Our investigation indicated that there are some contracts that were successfully executed up to 80 percent during Suswam’s administration and same 80 percent payments were made for them by the same administration, and when Governor Ortom came in as governor, he asked his people to investigate and eventually paid the 20 percent payments balance for the contracts to be completely executed, having found out their authenticity but the Kpojime Report is asking that the 80 percent payments made on such contracts by the previous government should be refunded by Suswam and his men.
Another top official in the Auditing Department of the Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs said with time, Benue people and the general public will have to disregard the Commission of inquiry and its report when they eventually discover that it was not properly constituted and their report cannot be anything to depend on.
How can a committee which lacks debt or public accounting knowledge be set up to prosecute such a function, the official said, stressing that members of the committee were not conversant with extant circulars and Financial Memoranda of the public service. He also noted that none of the members was a professional Accountant or Auditor.
Nigerian Concord investigations revealed that the committee members were politicians who were seeking for political appointments in the Ortom-led government.
Also, findings showed that some of them were of very questionable characters and had in the past been indicted of criminal charges.
However, media interactions with some lawyers made it known that in the case of local governments, the Nigerian Constitution provides the process and procedure of checking/auditing the accounts and that no Nigerian governor has the right to change or set aside the provisions of the Nigerian constitution by creating a Commission of Enquiry made up of his loyalists to Probe or audit Local government accounts.
“Although, Governor Ortom and I belong to the same APC, I still want to state that it is unfortunate that without subjecting the report of these caliber of people to a professional test, the governor hastily issued a white paper and has continued to use the falsified figures in the report to deceive Benue people and raise their hopes” a lawyer at the national secretariat of the APC in Abuja said in a telephone chat.
The lawyer who preferred to remain unmentioned continued: “The governor should rather concern himself with explaining to the Benue people what he has done with the N54billion he borrowed and the N112.5billion received through Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) in the last 15months so as to be part of the anti-corruption crusade of our amiable president”
Another official of the Benue State Bureau for Local Government and Chieftaincy Affairs who spoke with this newspaper on the alleged N51,559,859,968.40 local government fund illegally deducted said It is disheartening how the commission arrived at this figure.
She said: “Their approach is not based on any accounting or financial procedure. The commission simply netted the total allocation figures received from the Federation Account against the eventual credit to the Local Governments accounts for the period under review. They did not consider other statutory appropriations and approvals by JAAC, and classified the figure as illegally deducted.
“The Local Government law provides that funds received from the Federation Account be applied to cover SUBEB, Local Government Pensions, BLG&CA, LGCS, and other areas. It also provides that any other appropriations are to be deliberated on and approved by the Joint Account Allocation Committee (JAAC). These other appropriations are statutory and not illegal as contained in the report of the commission.
The commission clearly neglected these statutory provisions, and made recommendations on their own assumptions not supported by any known Authority, Law or Logical conclusion.
“The breakdown and items that amount to this sum are not mentioned anywhere in the report. There is no prove of the figures and items that sum up to this N51.56billion. Even the commission does not know the composition of this figure and how it was arrived at”
She pressed further that it is important to note that within this period under review, the JAAC deliberated and approved payment of Judgment debts including the N1.5billon Supreme Court Judgment in favor of 2004-2006 councilors, whose tenure was prematurely terminated by the Akume Administration, payment of various Garnishee orders from courts, table payment during staff audit exercises, payments to the Benue Traditional Council, security expenses during the Tiv/Herdsmen crises etc.
“So which of these are illegal transactions after due approvals from JAAC. I wish to emphasize that at no time were figures approved by JAAC tempered with, changed or diverted.
After the JAAC approved payments, funds were transferred to all the local governments who in turn issue Treasury Receipts (TR) acknowledging the receipts of such funds. All the necessary documents on these transactions including TRs and spread sheets were availed the commission, regrettably they kept them aside and hastily proceeded to make unfounded and untenable recommendations based on predetermined conclusions” she queried.
The official who didn’t want to be mentioned because she isn’t authorized to comment on the issue added that no such money is missing and no one should in his right senses expect any recovery of this amount.
Also speaking on the alleged N3.876B Local Government SURE-P funds, she said no SURE-P funds were misappropriated.
Her words: “The SURE -P was introduced in 2012 to cater for critical infrastructures and a social net to cushion and alleviate sufferings that were occasion by marginal increase in the price of Petrol. In Benue the local governments were advised to form SURE P committees, which they did under the leadership of their various chairmen.
“The chairmen of the SURE-P committees and the JAAC decided that part of the Funds be applied to augment salaries of the local government staff who were facing obvious rationalization due to overstaffing and dwindling allocations from the Federation Account, while the other part be applied to critical infrastructures in the various local governments.
“Consequently, N3,876,029,376 was applied to augment salaries of more than 7,000 Local Govt. staff for 3 years, and N2,596,162,422.00 was applied to critical infrastructures for the period 2012-2015 in the 23 local governments.
It is important to note that Benue has the highest number of local government staff in northern Nigeria.
“As at January 2015 the total staff strength of Benue local governments was 29,640. The committee saw no need in rationalizing staff and again employing new people under the SURE-P employment scheme.
“Regrettably, the commission of enquiry in its wisdom adjudged all salary augmentations as diversion. The evidence of transfer from SURE-P Account to the Operational account and eventual allocations to local governments are available for reference in the Accounts Dept. of the Bureau”
The official continued that it is sad to note that the more than 7,000 local government staff whose salaries were augmented from SURE-P were all sacked by Ortom’s administration shortly after he used their names and collected bailout from the Federal Government through the CBN.
“Their portion of the bail out fund was diverted to personal use by the Adviser on Local Government, Mr. Titus Zam and Governor Ortom. How do you term confirmed payment of salaries misappropriation. How will you recover this from the aggrieved staff presently lamenting their sack” she asked.
While hinting our team of investigators who asked her about the alleged misappropriated N4.48B primary school teachers salaries, the official said the figure quoted in the report on this transaction is not only false but also misleading just like the total Report.
She pointed that there was no N10.48billion investment in the financial records of the Bureau for Local Governments at any time.
Her words: “When the Teachers went on strike pressing for payment of minimum wage, the JAAC continued to make provision for their salaries on the old rate which was approximately N800m monthly. The teachers were on strike for 8months. The savings amounted to about N6.4billion. The Bureau did not receive 10.48billion from any quarters as presented by the commission of enquiry.
“When the strike was eventually called off, the funds were applied to pay the teachers at the new agreed minimum wage rate which was about N1.5billion monthly. This could only pay salaries for 4months at a time. The balance of N200m was merged with the allocation for the following month to pay the Teachers the 5th month salary.
“These transactions were all handled in accordance with Local Government financial procedures and the records including the statement of account are there in the Accounts Department for reference. There is no N4.48b anywhere. The N4.48billion was arbitrarily added to create bad blood between the Suswam’s government and the teachers. How can you misappropriate what does not exist. No one should expect the refund of what does not exist”
Also briefing this newspaper on the alleged payment of N50M to Ashi Food for supply of rice, she noted that Ashi Foods Ltd are producers of Rice in Benue state.
“They had submitted a proposal to supply Rice to ALGON for the Christmas season. This was considered by ALGON and presented to JAAC for approval. This was dully approved and the rice supplied. I wonder why this has become a subject of inquiry.
“Other companies including Miva Rice were also considered by ALGON on the same terms and approved by JAAC, yet not mentioned here. The transaction was done in line with laid down procedures and due process. The rice was also allocated to local government Chairmen for onward delivery to staff of local governments and the general public.
The documents for the transaction are available for reference. This was a transaction done in line with due process” she concluded.
Detailed investigations in other affected Ministries and agencies to published soon