On March 19 this year, eight officials of the Federal Ministry of Transportation and the Nigerian Railway Corporation huddled together in Abuja with representatives of three contracting firms handling various sections of the Port Harcourt-Maiduguri Eastern Railway.
The meeting had a singular agenda: the narrow-gauge rehabilitation project - broken into three contracts - had failed and the government had now decided to wrest the contracts from the companies to enable it to breathe life into the project.
Mohammad Babakobi, the director of railway service at the transportation ministry, who chaired the meeting, lamented that the project, awarded in March 2011, "could not be completed till date despite the huge funds and commitment of the Federal Government."
During the meeting, there were back and forth arguments over why the contractors failed in delivering on the project. But in the end, the contractors were given a one-week ultimatum to submit exit plans so the government could explore alternative plans to execute the project.
Insiders at the transportation ministry told PREMIUM TIMES the three firms - Eser W.A. Limited, CGGC Global Projects Nigeria Limited and Lingo Nigeria Limited - have since complied with the directive. For weeks, PREMIUM TIMES tried to obtain details of the exit plans submitted by the contractors but officials were reluctant to make the documents available.
The Eastern rail line was first constructed by the British several years before the country's Independence in 1960. Before it fell into comatose, the line facilitated movement and trading between the south and the north, accelerated urbanisation in Kafanchan and Jos, and buoyed the mining sector.
In May 2010, months after he came to power, President Goodluck Jonathan launched an ambitious project of resuscitating and expanding the country's rail lines. One of the lines identified for immediate rehabilitation was the Port-Harcourt -- Maiduguri corridor. The rehabilitation work was partitioned into three contracts.
The 463km Port Harcourt-Makurdi segment was awarded to Eser W.A. Ltd for N19.2billion while CGGC Global Projects Nigeria Limited was charged with rehabilitating the segment that runs from Makurdi to Kuru for N24.5 billion. Lingo Nigeria Limited was hired for N23.7 billion to rehabilitate the Kuru-Maiduguri segment. Going by the contract documents reviewed by this paper, Messrs Eser and Lingo were to deliver on their contracts in 10 months while Messr CGGC Global had a completion period of eight months.
But nine years after, the contractors are yet to deliver. If anything, the N67.3 billion project has failed. How much exactly has been paid out cumulatively to the three contractors remained unclear, although insiders say several billions have been wasted. Officials are now scrambling to design a way forward for the failed project.
A month-long investigation by this paper has, however, shown that the most problematic of the contracts was that awarded to Lingo Nigeria. Our investigation involved an extensive review of documents, interviews with officials and tracking of the rail track across three states, namely Plateau, Bauchi, and Gombe.
Lingo is owned by a politician and businessman, Linus Ukachukwu, who authorities say is now owing the Nigerian taxpayers after receiving payment and failing to deliver on the job awarded to him.
Mr Ukachukwu's company, which had no track record of railway construction, was awarded the N23.7 billion contract for the rehabilitation of a section of the Eastern line, the 640 KM distance from Kuru in Plateau State, northcentral Nigeria, to Maiduguri in the northeast.
The businessman received at least N9.4 billion for work barely and even "terribly" done. He is even seeking additional N9.2 billion based on claims, which authorities have now found to be false and misleading. A fresh official valuation by the government confirmed our findings and concluded his firm was actually overpaid considering the level of work done. His request for more money "is not justifiable", the transportation ministry ruled.
At the March 19 meeting at the transportation ministry, Mr Ukachukwu claimed his company delivered 60-70 per cent of the contract. Mr Ukachukwu even claimed that he had so well delivered on the job that trains were now using the part his company rehabilitated to ferry people from Kuru to Gombe.
But weeks of on-the-ground reporting and review of documents by this medium showed that Mr Ukachukwu's claims are inaccurate.
Mission to Kuru
In August 2011, Lingo received the first payment of N3.5 billion from the Nigerian Railway Corporation and another N2.5 billion (paid in two tranches) in 2012. The latter payments were sourced from SURE-P to settle interim progress certificates, IPCs 1 and 2, that is, milestones purportedly covered. SURE-P was a Jonathan era scheme set up to reinvest savings made from increase in petrol price in infrastructure.
But except the importation of some materials, no work done up to 2012, officials on the ground told PREMIUM TIMES. Lingo could not start any rehabilitation work, having no technical capacity.
As documents and testimonies by officials showed, Lingo later hired a Chinese firm, Chinese Railway No. 5 Engineering Group Co. Ltd, or CREC5 for short, for the rehabilitation work. The Chinese firm, which would later introduce itself as Lingo's "subcontractor" then mobilised to site in 2014.
By 2015, including the early part of the Buhari administration, Lingo had been paid at least N9.4 billion, according to an official schedule of payments we saw and Lingo's May 4, 2020, letter personally signed by Mr Ukachukwu to the NRC, now led by Freeborn Okhiria. Most of the payments were made from SURE-P for work barely done, giving a fresh perspective to the reasons traceable impacts scarcely followed that Jonathan era programme.
"Terrible job" and no pay
Hired by Lingo, the Chinese firm then worked on a few kilometres, in total about 100 KM across various areas. But even so, the job done by the Chinese subcontractor of Lingo was so bad that no train can use the purportedly rehabilitated tracks now, a physical inspection of the line from Kuru to Gombe by this reporter, who was accompanied by experts, showed.
Advised by railway engineering experts, we set a methodical approach to determining sections rehabilitated by the Chinese firm hired by Lingo and those untouched. The railway tracks have sleepers - beams laid transversely under the tracks for support and on which trains move.
The sleepers, as well as their rail tracks, have dates, model numbers and names of manufacturers engraved on them. The model of those recently rehabilitated by the Chinese firm is UIC-50 and dates as recent as 2013 and 2014. But others are BS-60 model and have old dates such as 1908, 1922, 1958, or 1936 as the line was first laid by the British before Independence in 1960.
This method was complemented by testimonies of on-the-ground officials and members of the communities along the track.
The rehabilitation work by the Chinese firm hired by Lingo started in the Kuru Junction, Jos South LGA of Plateau State and continued through Haipang station to Ringi village, just before Bakin Kogi station. The distance between Kuru Junction and Bakin Kogi station is 32 KM. But the rehabilitation with the new UIC-50 tracks and sleepers did not even reach Bakin Kogi. Work stopped at Ringi.
"They did not reach Bakin Kogi," a track official said of Lingo work from Kuru. "They stopped at a village before the station and the old one continued from there."
Then, from Ringi, no rehabilitation was done until a point inside Gombe station. Between Bakin Kogi and Gombe, there is Bauchi and the distance is 302 KM, which is the minimum stretch not touched by Lingo's Chinese sub-contractor but which Lingo falsely claims to have done.
From inside the Gombe station, the Chinese firm hired by Lingo laid new tracks up to around Dukul, outside Gombe metropolis, covering a distance said to be about 40 KM.
Back to Kuru, rehabilitation work started on the 40 KM branch line from the junction going to Jos Terminus through Bukuru and Vom. However, the rehabilitation work on the branch line was only on a few points as no work was done at Vom, outside the Bukuru station and up to the Jos station, all observed to be having the old BS-60 and submerged by grasses, sands and trash. All these were seen in various places along the branch line, including Vom, Bukuru, Tetenji, Jos station and Dagbak.
Inside Jos station; no rehabilitation of tracks
So, in sum, the rehabilitation work may never have covered up to 100 KM on a 640 KM line. But Lingo actually claimed it rehabilitated the line from Kuru to Gombe, a distance of 337 KM and that trains could run between the two points. That claim is a far cry from the reality on the ground.
But a senior official, who did not want to be identified by name, said the performance could not even be measured by the number of kilometres. "You have to consider the quality of work, the clips, the sleepers and construction of bridges, embankment where necessary."
"They (the Chinese firm hired by Lingo) did a terrible job," one track man said in Kuru. Officials variously said the clips used to fasten the sleepers and fish plates with tracks are hooks and knots that could be easily unfastened "with spanner and stone" by vandals. "So thieves are removing clips and fish plates and it's impossible for trains to pass even with the rehabilitation," the official said.
But perhaps the worst job done by the Chinese hired by Lingo was in Gombe where a distance was left without sleepers at all and another without clips, thereby making it impossible for a train to pass. The Chinese left the site in 2015 after they were not paid by Lingo. "Since they left, no train has ever used the so-called rehabilitated track," one official said in Gombe.
When told of the claim that trains now use the track from Kuru to Gombe, a community leader, Mancha Chung, an elderly farmer at Dagbak, a community along the track in Jos South, laughed and said he "last saw a train pass several years ago." It was the same reaction when Sharon Elisha, also at Dgabak, Kings Patrick, at School of Science Junction, Kuru, Dund Augustine, at Wat, Khalid Muazu in Gombe, said when asked the same question.
A senior railway official in Plateau State said, "trains had stopped before 2010 before a Yoruba named Johnson hired trains to take people from Kuru to Jos on a PPP basis but after two years it stopped." PREMIUM TIMES was unsuccessful in tracing Mr Johnson in Bukuru.
An email request for comment from the Chinese firm was not granted.
The Chinese left the site in 2015 for being owed by Lingo. They then wrote the transportation ministry in April 2017 that "we are the sub-contractor to Lingo Nigeria Ltd... that Lingo is owing us N1,551,898,624," and demanded they should be paid "from source." But no such request was honoured as the ministry was no party to the contract they had with Lingo, documents seen by this paper showed.
Mr Ukachukwu did not deny owing the Chinese firm. "Can you do that kind of work, about 23 billion naira, without owing anybody?" he queried and blamed his indebtedness on the stalled payments from the government.
The corroborative documents
A fresh official valuation by the NRC corroborated our independent findings and concluded that Mr Ukachukwu's Lingo had actually been overpaid considering the company's performance so far. The fresh evaluation directly followed Mr Ukachukwu's demand of N9.2 billion to exit the contract and after the March 19 meeting between officials and the contracting firms in Abuja.
Determined to terminate the contract to enable re-procurement, the NRC had, via a March 20, 2020 letter, asked Mr Ukachukwu to submit an exit plan. The businessman had during the Abuja meeting told officials that "60-70 per cent of works have been completed and commissioned and trains are running from Kuru to Gombe", according to minutes of the meeting seen by PREMIUM TIMES.
At the meeting were the director of rail transport service at the ministry of transportation, Mr Babakobi; the MD of NRC, Mr Okhiria; and NRC's director of civil engineering, Anthony Onyokoko, among other officials and representatives of contractors.
In his reply to NRC's request for an exit plan, Mr Ukachukwu, on May 4, demanded N9.2 billion, including N2.2 billion in general damages "due to contract termination", N560 million for "maintaining machines, retention of staffs and rented apartments", N3.0 billion for "profit on the remaining contract". In response, officials of the ministry and the railway corporation told Lingo the fresh financial demand was non-contractual based on the fresh valuation.
Both Messrs Okhiri and Onyokolo were contacted for comments. They requested that questions be sent through the spokesperson for the corporation, Mahmud Yaqub. The questions were sent over three weeks ago, but responses to them are still being awaited.
While Mr Ukachukwu continues to hope the N9.2 billion claim would be settled, the valuation document, which we saw, summarily termed his claim "not justifiable". Also, in what appears to be supporting PREMIUM TIMES' findings, out of the N9.4 already received, the valuation by the NRC has concluded that Mr Ukachukwu's Lingo is owing the government some N1.6 billion for work not done.
Contacted by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Ukachukwu rejected these conclusions. He said every payment he received followed valuation and certification of work done at different points. "If I did not work, the government could not have paid me," he said.
But his claim of 60-70 per cent work remains "not justifiable". Apart from PREMIUM TIMES' investigation, which showed most of the line was not rehabilitated by the Chinese firm, which Lingo hired, according to a December 2014 official valuation and payment certificate obtained, only 37.98 value of work had been executed up to that period.
That certificate was signed by officials of Roughton International, the consultant for the contract, and NRC's officials. But we confirmed that the Chinese firm hired by Lingo worked until 2015. "So, with what they did in 2015, I can say they did between 38 and 40 per cent," a senior railway engineer said, asking not to be identified by name. The value included materials imported and not only actual rehabilitation that was done on the track in kilometres.
When PDP controlled Nigeria, Mr Ukachukwu was a top party man and financier from Anambra State. His company, Lingo, was registered in 1992 in Maiduguri, incidentally the endpoint of the Eastern line which he was contracted to rehabilitate 20 years later, according to official filings. But it had no record of railway engineering.
But how was the company able to win a N23.7 billion railway contract even though a record of previous experience in railway construction was required?
Hustling Nigeria, European company into contract fraud
In the advert for the Eastern line rehabilitation contract placed in a November-December 2010 edition of Federal Tenders Journal, the Nigerian Railway Corporation, NRC, then managed by Adeseyi Sijuade, an Ile-Ife prince, required, among the pre-qualification criteria, "evidence of successful completion of major railway construction projects."
In the initial prequalification advert, the rehabilitation work on the 1,654 KM long Eastern line was divided into two contracts: Port Harcourt to Kaduna via Kafanchan (916 KM) and Kafanchan to Maiduguri, including the branch line from Kuru to Jos (738 KM). However, in the invitation to bid, the work was partitioned into three contracts, namely: Port Harcourt - Makurdi; Makurdi - Kuru; and Kuru - Maiduguri.
In an internal document seen by PREMIUM TIMES, the transportation ministry, which supervises the NRC, flagged the arbitrary and illegal change of rule in the middle of the game. "The three sections of the project should have been advertised," the ministry said. "Increasing the project from 2 to 3 sections after the advertisement is a violation of the provision stipulating adherence to specification, description, and criteria as advertised."
Mr Sijuade's NRC was then indicted for contract manipulations by the State Security Service, the agency said in March 2016.
Back to how Mr Ukachukwu got the Kuru-Maiduguri rail contract in 2011. Mr Ukachukwu's company, Lingo, lacked experience in railway project handling, a key requirement in the NRC's advert. But he was able to design a plan that on the surface made him eligible for the contract.
As documents showed, he purported to be partnering with a European company, Strasky Husty and Partners Limited, SHP, originally a Czech company but also registered in the United Kingdom. SHP UK was incorporated in 2002 and dissolved according to official records obtained by PREMIUM TIMES in November 2018, after having gone dormant since 2010, about same the time it was brought to Nigeria for a multi-billion naira contract.
Throughout its period of existence in the UK, it never had up to 50 thousand pounds in assets, including cash at bank and in hand, according to management and accounting filings PREMIUM TIMES reviewed. In the Czech Republic, SHP was incorporated in 1991 and remains active in that country, according to its website, with a list of construction projects handled over the years. But the European firm had not executed any major railway construction by the time Lingo involved it in the Nigerian rail work.
All that Lingo needed SHP for was subterfuge - and this would become apparent just soon after the contract was awarded. Having no technical expertise, Lingo, in the bid process and papers, claimed it was bidding "in association with Strasky Husty and Partners Limited of the Czech Republic."
But even so, SHP lacked technical competence for the project. And perhaps its only value for Lingo was its being foreign even if dormant in the UK as well as the fact, nevertheless, that it could show proof of being an engineering firm with professionals and record of handling of projects, though comparatively far inconsequential an experience for the 640 KM Nigerian rail project.
Despite the inadequacies, the NRC awarded Lingo the contract in a curious process that left concerns about the integrity and competence of officials at the NRC and the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP).
In a joint review of the procurement process by the BPP and the transportation ministry, both authorities affirmed that Lingo was involved in multiple bid submissions and should have been rejected.
"Reference to (another bidder) Promptine Movement Services Limited was made in the documents of Messrs Lingo Nigeria Limited and letters of submission of bids for the two companies have every similarity in common contrary to the provision of PPA (Public Procurement Act," the ministry observed in the review.
"This is correct and the firms should have been disqualified and the next least evaluated responsive bidder should have been recommended," the BPP said.
Also, the review showed that another firm, not Lingo, turned in the least bid. "The least out of the three bids is from Messrs Stabilin/Trackground Partners in the sum of 20,314,050,319.00 as against the recommended bid of Messrs Lingo in the sum of N23,720,359,033.79," the ministry observed.
But all that was not enough to stop Mr Ukachukwu's Lingo. All concerns about contraventions of due process and procurement law were brushed aside.
European company used, dumped
On March 24, 2011, the BPP released the certificate of "no objection" for the award of the contract to Lingo in the sum of N23.7 billion, the exact bid amount, on the recommendation of the NRC.
But curiously, the certificate only bore Lingo with no reference at all to SHP, which had been used throughout the bidding exercise. The procurement process then moved at high speeds. Within 24 hours of the issuance of the BPP's "no objection" certificate, the ministry of transportation wrote to Mr Jonathan, the former president, seeking anticipatory approval to award the contract.
Meanwhile, in the letter to Mr Jonathan from the transportation ministry, signed by then-minister Yusuf Suleiman, Lingo was presented alongside SHP as associates, unlike the BPP's certificate which bore only Lingo.
Mr Suleiman wrote the letter on March 25, 2011; and by March 26, 2011, Mr Jonathan had swiftly given anticipatory approval allowing the contract award without the approval of the Federal Executive Council. The FEC later approved the contract in November 2012 (18 months later) - and the so-called association with SHP was recorded.
On March 30, 2011, the NRC issued Lingo the contract award letter and the company's purported association with SHP was not reflected. But that outcome was different from the claim made during the bidding exercise and what was conveyed to the presidency for anticipatory approval.
Mr Suleiman told PREMIUM TIMES that he "was only a vehicle for transmission of memos between the procuring agency (NRC), the ministerial tenders board chaired by the permanent secretary and the president." "I was not involved in the procurement process," he said. His successor, Idris Umar, made the same claim when this reporter met him.
The ministry later wrote, via a September 2011 letter we saw, to the BPP requesting a re-issuance of the "no-objection" certificate to reflect the association between Lingo and SHP. That was never honoured. BPP did not respond to a PREMIUM TIMES request for comment.
It was then, with the contract awarded without the association with SHP, that it became manifest that the European company was only used for subterfuge, that is, to hustle the authorities into awarding Lingo the contract.
Mr Ukachukwu denied ever knowing SHP. "I have never heard of that name... I am hearing it from you for the first time," he told PREMIUM TIMES. But official records, including bid evaluation report, minister's request for presidential anticipatory approval, and FEC proceedings, documented Lingo's association with SHP.
"Am I a member of the Federal Executive Council?" Mr Ukachukwu asked rhetorically when faced with official records proving his claim on association with SHP was inaccurate.
Then, he queried, "even if it is true (that Lingo was in association with SHP), does it matter as long as Lingo was given the contract and it executed it?"
Nothing resulted from efforts to get a comment from SHP after repeated emails. An official spoken to by phone said she could not comment.
Having used and dumped SHP and without technical competence, Lingo then hired the Chinese firm for the rehabilitation work and ended up taking billions of naira without commensurate performance.
The transportation minister, Rotimi Amaechi, has received the official advice that Lingo's work did not justify the payments it received; that it is owing the government N1.6 billion; and that its request for additional N9.2 billion in exit plan "is not justifiable."
But Mr Ukachukwu is still pressing for "unjustifiable" payment, banking on the help of officials, insiders said. They added that everyone - including concerned ministry and railway corporation officials - are now counting on Mr Amaechi to take the right decision on the matter. They said they expect the minister to insist on recovering taxpayer's money from Mr Ukachukwu while also rejecting his new N9.2 billion demand. They also want the minister to order a valuation of the jobs done by the two other contractors and possibly recover excess payment they may have received.
When contacted, Mr Amaechi's spokesperson, David Iyofor, said he had no authority to comment extensively for this report. But he insisted that "generally, absolutely," the minister "will not endorse any fraud."
Eric Ojiekwe, the spokesperson for the ministry, also did not comment.