Daily Trust (Abuja)

23 December 2012

Nigeria: Allegations Mount Against President Jonathan's Top Minister

A key figure in President Goodluck Jonathan's administration is embroiled in allegations that threaten his seat. But he says it is merely a campaign of calumny aimed at ending his political career.

Elder Peter Godsday Orubebe is President Goodluck Jonathan's right-hand man and one of the most influential ministers in his government.

His strengths lie not only in being the Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, who controls multibillion naira projects, or being an Ijaw man in a distinctly Ijaw-run federal administration, but also in being Chief Edwin Clark's political protégé. The president treats Chief Clark like a father; and the latter sees both as his children.

But things are not moving smoothly for Mr Orubebe in recent days. First, his opponents have been bombarding him with corruption allegations; then some of his friends began to criticise him; and both the parliament and an anti-graft agency are now investigating him.

Sunday Trust learnt that the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), Mr Ekpa Nta has ordered a "thorough" investigation into corruption allegations against the minister.

The order followed a petition sent to the commission last month by an anti-graft group, Anti-Corruption Network, led by a former federal lawmaker Dino Melaye.

Despite all these, though, Mr Orubebe appears unperturbed perhaps because he is so sure of his innocence or because he is convinced of the potency of the power he wields.

Orubebe's rise to prominence has been meteoric. Although he had served as a local council chairman in his native Delta State, he was unknown on the national stage. A few years ago he was travelling in night buses and "sleeping on the ground with us," says his friend, former Niger Delta militant Dokubo Asari. Today he lives in an expensive mansion in Abuja and controls one of the most lucrative ministries.

And there lie the sources of his current travails. Melaye's Anti-Corruption Network is basing its claims against him both on his lifestyle and on the activities in his ministry.

The claims range from alleged contract scams and gratification to possession of properties in choice areas of the Federal Capital Territory and non-declaration of assets. Many of the specific allegations are apparently unsubstantiated and would not be repeated here for legal reasons; but some are supported with documentary evidence.

The allegations related to contract awards in his ministry were many and had been reported widely -- as his defence too.

Anti-Corruption Network had accused the minister of wrong doing in the award of various contracts, worth about N29 billion, for different projects in the Niger Delta region.

But the minister told a news conference in Abuja that the allegations were baseless and unfounded, insisting that the Public Procurement Act forbids him from awarding contracts to the tune of billions.

He presented documents about the projects and the contractors handling them and explained stages of the works done. The ministry even organised tour of project sites in Niger Delta for journalists to see the works done. Sunday Trust was not involved in the tour and could not verify whether the works were commensurate with the spending on them.

The spokesman of the ministry Fidelis Usamo, though, maintained that the work done was good and the people of the area were satisfied with it.

The minister himself was keen to emphasise this during the press conference. It was also there that he told journalists that he had already instructed his lawyers to sue Melaye for alleged defamation.

Sunday Trust learnt that his lawyers had indeed written to Melaye and the group, threatening them with a law suit.

But the group's national coordinator, former House of Representatives member Independence Ogunewe, told Sunday Trust that they were not deterred by the minister's threat.

Apparently, that is why they even went ahead to make further allegations against the minister. The ones that receive the biggest attention relate to the ownership of a mansion the minister resides in.

The group alleged that the mansion was built for him by SETRACO Nigeria Limited, the construction firm that handles the biggest contracts in his ministry.

The group wrote a petition on the matter and sent it to anti-graft agencies and online portals, along with the alleged pictures of the property -- factors that propel their spread and bring them to public attention.

The same allegations were made on the floor of the House of Representatives, which has now ordered investigation.

Ironically, it is a member from the same political party with the minister (People's Democratic Party) who brought the issue to the House and insisted that allegation of a minister getting a house from a construction firm could not be swept under the carpet.

Representative Kehinde Olusegun (PDP, Ogun) sought the mandate of the House to direct the committee on Drugs, Narcotics and Financial Crimes to investigate "these very weighty allegations and make appropriate recommendations within 21 days".

His motion did not get a full approval of the members but the parliament at least agreed to investigate the matter.

Sunday Trust gathered that a committee has since commenced a preliminary investigation.

"We have started preliminary work on the investigation," the chairman of the House Committee on Anti-Corruption, National Ethics and Values James Abiodun Faleke (ACN, Lagos) told Sunday Trust. "We have written to some affected agencies and we are still waiting for their response to enable us start work in earnest."

He declines to give any hint on the possible outcome of the investigation, stressing that the main work would commence next month.

"When there is allegation against anybody you don't work with only the allegation, you have to get the inputs of all those concerned to do a good work. We will start the (full) investigation in January when we resume from the recess," he added.

Both the minister and the construction firm have vehemently denied the allegations.

But unlike his earlier rebuttal of the contract awards' allegations, which he did openly, the minister chose to respond to the mansion bribe allegation through a few channels.

He said the company did not build the house for him and that he was living in it as a tenant not as its owner.

He said: "Of particular interest is the disturbing falsehood being spread about the ownership of my current official residence as the Niger Delta development minister.

"Among the falsehood being spread about the property is that I have received it as donation from a certain construction company or a group of contractors.

By the time you look through these documents, you will realise the impropriety of the wicked rumour which has been spread to destabilise me in my current appointment by the characters who are sure bent on negatively impacting my political future.

"The place I was living before I moved here was not spacious enough for me, I consulted with my lawyer and he found this property and he made arrangements for me to rent and move in here.

"It was my lawyer who also arranged how that place was rented out to a tenant and here we are now with words going round that I got some donation from some contractors," he added.

The construction company too said they neither built nor donated the house to the minister.

In an interview with Sunday Trust, SETRACO's spokesman John Ogbamgba said the company had nothing to do with the house.

He said: "SETRACO did not build that house. SETRACO did not build any house for the minister. SETRACO did not offer him any house.

"We are not into building houses; we are into road projects. SETRACO is a road construction company. We don't have anything to do with that house," he added.

The appearance of SETRACO into the issue is apparently linked to the huge contracts it is executing under the Niger Delta affairs ministry and the huge upward reviews it got.

The company is executing a major part of the East-West Road that many see as being very significant for the infrastructural development of Niger Delta region.

The contracts for two sections of the road were awarded in 2006 at the cost of N138.7 billion but have been reviewed upwards to N245.7 billion.

The Senate has recently raised issue over it but the Technical Director of the company, Dr R. Chaudhuri, said that the amount was to cover the construction of both sections of the road of about 87 kilometres.

He said Section 1 of the road was initially awarded for N64 billion, but had to be reviewed to N112 billion, following redesigns and insufficient materials from the bill of quantities while Section 2 of the road had an original amount of N74.7 billion but had to be reviewed upwards to N133.7 billion.

The company's spokesman also told Sunday Trust that the amounts are high because the work also involves building "the two longest bridges, Kaiama and Patani bridges", in the area.

"There are also other structures. There is VAT, there is compensation being paid to the people whose property were taken over for the construction of the roads. All these were built in together," he said.

Despite the massive attention the mansion bribe allegation receives, proving it may be trickier than it appears.

Both the alleged giver and the alleged receiver have vigorously denied the allegation, and the accusers have not supplied details beyond the building's pictures and the petitions they sent to the anti-corruption agencies. Authorities at the Federal Capital Territory's land department have also blocked access to documents on many landed properties in the city.

The Anti-Corruption Network itself is apparently aware of the difficulties of proving the allegations.

The national coordinator told Sunday Trust that they lacked the power to access many documents and investigate allegations.

"We are a whistle blowing body. We don't have enough resources to get everything," Mr Ogunewe said. "Ours is to draw the attention of the relevant agencies that have the power to investigate".

That is what they hope the parliament as well as ICPC and Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) would do.

The EFCC's spokesman Wilson Uwujaren could not confirm to Sunday Trust whether the agency has received such a petition and planned to investigate it; but both the parliament and the ICPC, as noted earlier, seem willing to carry out the investigation.

Folu Olamiti, ICPC spokesman, told Sunday Trust on Friday that the commission had not only received the petition, it is already conducting an investigation.

"We received the petition; and the chairman has ordered a thorough investigation," he said.

If their findings proved negative, the Melaye group may be in for hefty legal bills. The Orubebe team is particularly angry with them, and has consistently spoken of legal action. Any mention of Melaye's name generates instant negative reaction. When Sunday Trust spoke to one of the ministry's officials over another set of allegations by Melaye group, the official promptly dismissed Melaye as a "liar".

Mr Melaye himself has now travelled to Dubai to, according to him, continue with his search for the monies stolen from Nigeria.

His current activities may make many of those in power uncomfortable, but his record too is controversial. Many can easily remember his battle with former House Speaker Dimeji Bankole when they fell out -- something that led to his (Melaye's) removal from the chairmanship of the House Committee on Information and National Orientation, which in turn precipitated further confrontation with the House leadership. His friend Ogunewe too lost his chairmanship of the House Aviation Committee and their group suspended from the House. The crisis was covered in the national television.

The image of bruised Melaye engaged in a physical brawl on the floor of the House, with his torn clothes hanging on his shoulders, lingers in many people's minds -- and it isn't pretty.

But his campaigns since the partial removal of fuel subsidy in January have done much to project him as an anti-corruption crusader.

And although some of his allegations against the Niger Delta minister are hard to prove, the new set of allegations he came up with last week could harm the minister.

Unlike the previous accusations, these ones are accompanied with hard documents.

Addressing a news conference in Abuja on Wednesday, the group said it had uncovered five landed properties acquired in Abuja by the minister in the last four years.

Brandishing documents that indicate Mr Orubebe's alleged ownership of the properties, Melaye claimed that the minister "has been acquiring choice properties in highbrow locations in Abuja. One of the properties, with certificate of occupancy for Plot 2722, (is in) Kyami District in Abuja. The plot contains 1883.63 square metres.

"Another is Plot 2460 in Maitama, Plot 1736, in the Guzape area of Abuja in which certificate of occupancy was issued in 2008 and another Plot 2057 in Asokoro," he said.

Although this set of new allegations did not receive much media attention, they are the ones that the Anti-Corruption Network had apparently worked hard to prove.

The documents they provided were obtained from the Department of Land Administration in FCT. They were all signed by B. G. Mainasara as "Director of Land Administration" for the "Minister Federal Capital Territory".

Three of the documents are dated 18/12/2012 while the fourth one is dated 17/11/2012.

Sources at the FCT said the documents are genuine; but further effort by Sunday Trust to have access to them and verify was blocked by FCT officials.

Some of the officials told Sunday Trust in confidence that as soon as the documents were made public, a caveat emptor (buyers beware) has been placed on all the properties, and all search and investigation about them stopped.

None of the land administration officials in the FCT was willing to speak on record to Sunday Trust staff on the matter.

The appearance of these documents seems to have rattled Orubebe's camp, but the minister himself is said to have maintained his calm.

Although he refused to admit ownership of any landed property in Abuja, he did not categorically deny owning any.

But unlike his robust denial of the contract awards and mansion bribe allegations, this time he offers a more general defence.

Speaking to Sunday Trust through his Special Assistant on Media Juliet Achibong on Friday, the minister said he had not acquired any property illegally.

"The minister refuted all allegations that he acquired any landed property illegally," she said.

Asked if the minister could respond specifically to each of the allegations concerning the ownership of the four properties, she said if at all he owned any landed property in Abuja, he did not acquire it illegally.

"As a bona fide Nigerian, he has the right to own property in any part of the country. If at all there is any property with his name, he acquired it through legal process.

"There is no law that bars any Nigerian from acquiring landed property in any part of the country," she added.

The spokesman of the Niger Delta ministry Fidelis Usamo had earlier told Sunday Trust that the minister would no longer be responding to frivolities.

"We have left the issue to the law courts and the agencies to which the matter has been reported, such as ICPC and EFCC, to do their work," he said.

Juliet Achibong too had earlier said she did not get an authority to speak on the matter, but when she got it she called back and offered their response.

The growing pressure on the minister is not coming from the Melaye group alone. Sources said an even stronger pressure is being mounted by his own estranged friends. The open criticism of the minister by Dokubo Asari, leader of the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, earlier this month is indicative of that.

Some of them felt that it was a scandal that the man they regard as a Niger Delta activist and who is now in charge of the ministry overseeing the development of the region has not done much to help the region.

Dokubo himself had told a news conference that the people of Niger Delta would hold both President Jonathan and Mr Orubebe responsible for the unnecessary loss of lives and property on the East-West Road.

"We feel very ashamed and embarrassed. Orubebe was one of us, he was attending meetings with us, sleeping on the ground with us, entering night bus with us, and we nominated him to be appointed a minister.

"We have gone to him and complained to him that we don't like the way things are going in his ministry, and told him that if the President leaves in 2015 without the completion of the East-West Road, we are finished. And the man keeps telling us there is no money," Dokubo said.

It is an irony that while many people from other regions are accusing the current administration of putting too much resources in Niger Delta to the detriment of other regions, some of the Niger Deltans feel that even their own people have not been helpful enough.

Ads by Google

Copyright © 2012 Daily Trust. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.