25 November 2012

Nigeria: Wale Babalakin's Travails

Photo: This Day
Chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited, Dr. Wale Babalakin


Vincent Obia considers some issues in the current travails of the chairman of Bi-Courtney, Wale Babalakin

In the last few days, much weather has been made of multi-billionaire lawyer and businessman, Dr. Wale Babalakin's alleged connection with former Delta State governor Chief James Ibori's loot.

Babalakin was accused of laundering more than N2 billion of Delta State Government's funds on behalf of the state's former governor. For this alleged offence, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has pressed a 27-count charge against Babalakin, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

The travails of the chairman/chief executive of Bi-Courtney Highway Services started barely 48 hours after the contract awarded to his company in 2009 to rehabilitate and manage the Lagos-Ibadan expressway was revoked by the federal government and re-awarded to Julius Berger and RCC Nigeria Limited. Under the agreement, Bi-Courtney was to spend N89.53 billion to reconstruct the road and collect tolls on it for 25 years under a Design, Build, Operate and Transfer concession agreement.

Minister of Works Mike Onolememen, who announced the cancellation of the contract in a statement Monday, said it was due to "serial breaches" of the concession agreement by Bi-Courtney, a situation he blamed for avoidable auto accidents that have claimed several lives on the busy highway. Not many people were surprised by the revocation of the contract. President Goodluck Jonathan had hinted that the Bi-Courtney contract might not continue, during a media chat the day before. And Onolememen had since September expressed reservations about the company's ability to raise the required funds for the job.

But several curious events have unfolded in the Bi-Courtney issue with the kind of timing and rapidity that seem to suggest that the country has yet to turn the corner in its untoward politics of vendetta. Bi-Courtney claimed that it was not formally informed of the revocation of the contract and the processes that led to it before the announcement by the minister. This raises the question as to whether due process was really followed in the revocation of the contract.

Besides, the matter for which Babalakin is being prosecuted by EFCC had been in the news since 2009. Then, he was said to have been granted administrative bail after being arrested by EFCC. And the issue was said to have been resolved, though, there were no reports of any formal prosecution in court. Of course, such settlement was not impossible in a matter involving Babalakin, a wily operator with uncommon capacity to familiarise with regimes since the Fourth Republic, his ingratiation instincts honed during the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. And EFCC, the agency at the centre of the whole saga, is not famous for dedicated prosecution of friends of the president.

While it may not be disputed that Bi-Courtney had not performed in terms of diligent discharge of the concession contract, events surrounding the contract revocation since the last one week certainly raise questions. The Minister of Works was quoted as telling journalists in Abuja on Wednesday, the same day EFCC filed its suit against Babalakin, "It is one of the rights given to government as a guarantor in the concession to terminate when certain things go wrong in the section prescribed in the agreement. And that is precisely what government did. So they are free to go to court and government will meet them in the law court."

There is definitely a curious logic of timing in the commission's move against Babalakin. Many suspect that the EFCC action might have been purposed to hinder attempts by the lawyer to seek redress in court over the revocation of his company's contract with the federal government. There is also another theory which says that Bi-Courtney's obvious predisposition to a court action might have angered the government, causing it to unleash EFCC, an agency that has been alleged to act sometimes like an attack dog of the federal government following its penchant for going after perceived enemies of the president.

The federal government has caused all the curiosity around the Babalakin issue with its approach, which many adjudge as flawed. This sends out the wrong message to the world at a time the federal and state governments are spending millions of naira in tax payers' money on foreign expeditions said to be meant to attract investors.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the questions surrounding the Babalakin saga are another bold statement of where EFCC's allegiances really lie.

The Babalakin issue may, therefore, be another test case for Jonathan. The onus is on the president to disprove the growing allegation that his administration is pursuing an anticorruption strategy not dissimilar from that of Obasanjo, whose administration was notorious for a war on corruption that was targeted against perceived enemies of the president.

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