This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: A Speaker's Tough Battle

Mindful of the deft political moves to unseat him, Speaker of Bayelsa State House of Assembly, Hon. Kombowei Benson has also begun counter-moves to save his job.

By character, the Bayelsa State House of Assembly is known to be at peace with itself and the executive. This was particularly pronounced in the days when Chief Timipre Sylva held sway as governor of the state. But it was a shocking surprise to many when in May last year, the Assembly slipped into crisis, a situation that led to the phantom impeachment of the speaker, Hon. Friday Kombowei Benson.

At the bottom of the crisis, as many observers saw it, was money. With the new Governor, Hon. Henry Seriake Dickson, money no longer comes in as it used to in the days of Sylva who was said to be very generous to the lawmaker.

The sin of the former speaker was that he was not hard enough on the new Governor and compel him to release fund for them, hence his removal. But the intervention of President Goodluck Jonathan who, wielding the political whip, flogged the recalcitrant lawmakers back in line.

Following this, the Assembly went back to slumber until the money issue reared its head again and this time, it might consume the speaker. Though, Benson survived the initial impeachment move, the possibility that he would survive the second move is faint as the moves have continued to gather momentum.

But unlike the first crisis, the problem is coming not from within but from a non-government-organisation which had accused the Speaker and members of the Assembly of collecting N78m from the state coffers to attend the Commonwealth Parliament Association meeting in South Africa but did not go and did not also return the money to the state coffers as required by law.

The NGO, Transparency and Good Governance Coalition (TGGC), had petitioned the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) on the activities of the Assembly and accused the Speaker of not rendering account of the money collected.

In the petition that also forwarded to the Inspector General of Police, Alhaji MD Abubakar, the NGO called on the EFCC and the Police to investigate the alleged misappropriation of N78 million approved by the Governor for the House of Assembly to attend the 43rd Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA).

Investigations by the Special Fraud Unit of the Police established that three Principal Officers of the House were culpable of the fraud. The Unit, therefore, forwarded a letter with the reference number CB3514/X/SFU/ Vol 1 and dated November 7, to the office of Director of Public Prosecution of the Federation (DPPF) requesting for legal advice.

The office of the DPPF, having studied the case file, forwarded a copy to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), Bayelsa State Ministry of Justice based on the fact that the matter is within the jurisdiction of the office to take action.

The other letter also with reference number DPPF/ADVIL/92/2012 dated December 21 and signed by one E.K. Ugwu, an assistant director on behalf of the AGF, stated that the "offences as inferred on facts are conspiracy and fraudulent misappropriation and stealing by conversion of public funds under sections 516 and 383(2)(F) respectively, of the Criminal Code Act, Cap C 38, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, applicable in Bayelsa State.

"This office has found that there is a prima facie case of conspiracy and fraudulent misappropriation and stealing by conversion of public funds against the leadership of the present Bayelsa State House of Assembly to wit, Hon Konbowei Benson Friday (Speaker of the House), Hon Victor Otonye Sam-Ateki (Deputy Speaker of the House) and Mr. Aaron Nicodemus Timiye (Clerk of the House, hereinafter referred to as 1st, 2nd and 11th suspects, respectively) under sections 516 and 383(2) (F) of the Criminal Code Act respectively, CAP 38 laws of the Federal of Nigeria 2004.

"That the said conference was meant for the House leadership and all other members were of observer status. In this regard, these other members, apart from the 1st, 2nd and 11th suspects, should be exonerated from the alleged offences as the House leadership was the brain behind the whole scenario. However, some other members of the House should be used as prosecution witnesses during the trial of the 1st, 2nd and 11th suspects in court."

The office of the AGF, while acknowledging that "a perusal of the case file reveals that N21,923,000 million has been refunded or paid back to the Bayelsa State Government's treasury by both the House of Assembly generally, and by some individual members of the House from their share of the money," added that "it is this office advice that the House leadership should make good the provision of the balance of N56.77 million as restitution to make up for the misappropriated and converted public funds and pay same back to the treasury of the Bayelsa State Government as use of the money could not be justified to be in public interest."

This, however, was the beginning of trouble for the Speaker. Yet, questions are being raised on the real brains behind the moves as many were suspect that the executive might have a hand in it.

Just as the storm occasion by allegation of fraud appears unsettling and heading a dangerous direction, Benson is yet having another crisis at the community front as he is now battle drawn with the leadership and people of his country home, Korokorosei where he is being accused of trying to divide the people.

At the riverside Korokorosei community in Southern Ijaw local government area, Youths are warming up for battle against the Speaker. In a letter sent to the state chapter of the Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), the youths asked the security agencies to prevail on Benson not to provoke crisis in the community.

According to a letter by a Yenagoa-based law firm, K.S Sogo and Co, Mr. Joseph Mathias-Gbeinbo; Chairman, Youth Frontiers of Korokorosei community, Mr. Rufus Gbeinbo, Mr.Victor Ikenka, Mr. Show Thomas and Mr. Ebiyeretei Lazarus, noted with concern that the peace of the community may be breached if the Speaker was not called to order.

The aggrieved community decried what it described as deliberate attempt by the Speaker to negate its rotational arrangement for yearly election of chairman of Community Development Committee (CDC) by compounds. The petitioners alleged Benson and his group of trying to impose Iniokpoemei Benson, his younger brother from Igaliwari compound, whose tenure as CDC chairman, expired on 31 December, 2012 on them.

They noted with regret that though it was the turn of Ayakoroama compound to produce the next CDC chairman, the Speaker illegally convened a townhall meeting, where women were invited against the tradition of the people which forbids the latter from attending.

"The Rt. Hon. Konbowei Benson, even though he is neither the paramount ruler nor CDC chairman, presided over the kangaroo town hall meeting where he doled out cow, N100, 000 (One hundred thousand Naira) only and six bags of rice to each compound's representative within his gang, and directed that his younger brother, Mr. Iniokpoemi will continue in office as CDC chairman in 2013 and beyond as long as he remained the Speaker of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly," the petitioners alleged.

Ayakoroma compound, the community alleged, had constituted an electoral committee with guidelines to conduct the election when Benson and his loyalists imposed Iniokpoemi on the community.

However, following his survival of the first impeachment, Benson had moved closer to Dickson in order to forestall a possible move against him in future. But from all indication, the strategy seems to have failed as the Governor has refused to lift a finger even as the Speaker's enemies go for the jugular.

Meanwhile, another NGO, the Ijaw Peoples Development Initiative (IPDI) has accused Dickson of playing shoddy games with the Assembly. The group said the speaker was imposed on the Assembly through executive lobby and had been the Governor's even boy before his emergence.

The group lamented that the governor is having too much influence on the Assembly for selfish reasons, disregarding the laws of separation of power between the executive and the legislature. It also alleged that the speaker only acts the script of the Governor during Assembly meetings, adding that almost all decisions and policies of the Assembly are being influenced by the executive through the speaker.

Such allegations, observers say, may have been the reason Dickson has distanced himself from the Speaker's dilemma since he might be rubbished by the crisis.

Benson, a profession politician, started his politics as a Councilor in Southern Ijaw Council Legislative Assembly many years ago. He later became Chairman of the Council. Like the cat with nine lives, he moved from there to the House of Assembly to represent the Southern Ijaw constituency IV in 2007.

From all indications, the Speaker might be arrested soon except there is an intervention from high places. Also, pre-empting such, the Speaker's office had circulated a press statement where it claimed Benson had been cleared by the office of the state Director of Public Prosecution.

"In a four page letter, addressed to the Commissioner of Police, Special Fraud Unit, (FCID) Lagos, dated, January 9, 2013, endorsed by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), A. N Apokuma Esq, on behalf of the Attorney-General of Bayelsa State, the DPP stated that, 'From the circumstances of the case, it is my opinion that a prima facie case has not been made out against the Speaker, Members and Clerk of the Bayelsa State House of Assembly.

"They did not intend to defraud the Bayelsa State Government. The action of the leadership in returning the registration fees and other unspent funds to the treasury of the Bayelsa State Government confirms that. Accordingly, it is my advice that the case against the Speaker, Members of the House of Assembly and the Clerk of the House be dropped," the statement concluded. Before this, Benson at an emergency session on the Appropriation Bill had caused the Assembly to declare a vote of confidence on him following the allegation. He explained his role in the saga and had maintained his innocence over the alleged diversions of fund.

"Usually, there is no smoke without fire. I am aware that some House members are being incited; I am also aware that presently, signatures are being collected to remove me. The Speakership seat is no doubt an enviable position," he said.

He also explained that the Governor had approved the money for the lawmakers because of the importance of the parliamentary session to the lawmakers and therefore pointed accusing fingers at some five ex-local government chairmen in the state who were investigated and removed by the leadership of the Assembly after they were found guilty of financial misconduct.

He said the five ex-chairmen had written him sometime last year, demanding him to give explanation of what happened to the N78m approved for the House members for the trip to South Africa, which they never attended. He said they were bitter with him over their removal, and had told him in their letter that they were empowered by the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act to demand explanation from him over the N78m approval.

Another statement signed by Benson's Media Adviser, Preye Kiyeramo stated that: "Let me also put this on record that, the Speaker and the members of this Assembly to ordinarily embezzle funds that were approved for us is indeed very ridiculous in the ears."

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