Nigeria: Paris Club Refund Unsettles Abia Govt

1 August 2021

If one of the dividends of democracy is that leaders should always give account to their true employers, the people, many have wondered why the Abia State government is silent on the alleged irregularities in the recovery of the state's share of the Paris Club Refund, Shola Oyeyipo writes

If there is anything the people of Abia State are currently demanding from the Abdulrasheed Bawa-led Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC), it is to thoroughly investigate how a whopping sum of N11billion was allegedly deducted from the Paris Refund to the state through consultancy services, and bring those responsible for the diversion of the funds to justice.

The bubble busted recently, when the anti-graft agency invited the state's immediate past Commissioner for Finance, Mr. Obinna Oriaku, following a petition allegedly filed by a company called Ziplon Nigeria Limited, over a contract it entered with the state government in 2014, which the government had allegedly breached. Also invited was his predecessor, Mr. Phillip Nto.

Oriaku alleged that the former governor, Senator Theodore Orji, had signed a consultancy contract with two companies, Ziplon Nigeria Limited and Mauritz Walton Nigeria Limited, to be paid 20 per cent and 30 per cent fees, respectively, on Paris Club refunds received from the federal government.

The implication was that for any money received under this heading, 50 per cent would be paid as fees to these consultants.

He further revealed that before he was appointed a commissioner in 2015, some N8.2billion was received as Paris Club refund by the previous government. Strangely, there was no record of what happened to the money. Under his watch, he went on, the government received N22billion, out of which the consultants were asking for N11billion as fees. According to his account, when he refused to pay the said sum, he was dragged before the EFCC.

While stakeholders in the state were waiting for the state government to clear the air on the issue, it kept mute until a former Managing Director of the defunct Diamond Bank Plc, Dr. Alex Otti, challenged it to disclose all it knows about the allegations.

Otti, who had contested the governorship position of the state, in a statement, alleged that the Commissioners of Finance during the tenures of Orji and incumbent governor, Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu had confirmed that the two "consultants" had an agreement to collect about 50 per cent of the refund due the state, which agreements, he said were "questionable," "dubious" and "unreasonable."

The banker-turned politician noted that "even in a difficult task of recovery of bad debts through a consultant, the maximum compensation applicable all over the world is between two and five per cent.

"So, what brought about the rate of 50 per cent?" Otti queried.

He stressed that Ikpeazu should explain why, on assumption of office, he did not terminate the agreements allegedly designed to defraud or shortchange the state.

Otti, who also noted that the "consultants" have dragged the state to a Federal High Court in Abuja and the EFCC, with respect to the agreement, in a statement titled: 'Abia Paris Club Refunds: Stealing on An Industrial Scale,' insisted that silence on the part of the Ikpeazu's government on a matter he referred to as "stealing on an industrial scale," cannot be golden.

The former bank MD raised some pertinent questions and made demands he expected the government to respond to, thus: What was the role of a consultant, and in this case, consultants, in the process of the federal government making refunds to state governments?

He also wanted to know if there was any other place in the country where consultancy fees were more than five per cent of refunds and wondered why anybody would ordinarily sign away 50 per cent of his money as fees to consultants.

Otti acknowledged that the agreement was signed by the previous government, but argued if the agreement had been cancelled by Ikpeazu, the contractor wouldn't have had the legal basis to institute an action in court nor petition the EFCC.

He also asked the Ikpeazu's government to disclose the steps it took to confirm what the previous government did with the N8.2billion refund, since the former Finance Commissioner claimed he did not see any record of how it was used.

Otti also charged the state government to take more than passing interest in the matters before the EFCC and the High Court to ensure that the matter was not only muddled up but expanded to include recovery of looted funds from the treasury of the state.

He noted that from Oriaku's revelations, it was clear that Ikpeazu was aware of the existence of the so-called consultants and the alleged questionable agreements they had with his predecessor on behalf of the government with a view to crippling his government and shortchanging the people.

He argued that the consultants would not have had any locus or grounds to approach the EFCC against the state if the governor had on assumption of office ensured the termination of the contract entered into by his predecessor.

He concluded thus: "The state government should take interest in the matter before EFCC which borders on recovery of funds for one of the consultants and expand the matter to recovery of looted funds in the name of consultancy fees for the benefit of the state. Finally, let me state that this intervention, as usual, is selfless and aimed at reminding those in leadership positions in Abia that silence in this kind of matter is not golden. The government at every point must be accountable to the people. The government should therefore come clean and explain what it knows about this matter to Abia people."

Otti had hardly concluded his statement when the governor's Chief Press Secretary went agog, abusing him and calling him names.

A few hours later, the state Commissioner of Information took over, lampooning and insulting him for daring to ask his boss questions about his stewardship and social contract with the people.

Interestingly, they said practically everything except that they failed to answer the simple questions Otti posed. And since those questions remain unanswered till date, they will continue to be asked and the public will continue to wait for their answers.

Last month, the Enugu Zonal office of the EFCC arrested Oriaku and some officials of the Abia State government on matter. It was gathered that the officials were detained and later granted administrative bail.

However, the invite by the EFCC has forced the state House of Assembly to wade into the issue. But it is being frustrated as Oriaku has shunned the invitation extended to him by the ad-hoc committee set up by it to probe the issue.

It was later gathered that he had, through his legal counsel, responded in a written statement and given reasons why he could not honour the invitation.

Angered by the development, the state assembly has threatened to issue warrant of arrest on the invitees should they fail to appear before it.

At committee's sitting last Monday, a member representing Isuikwuato State Constituency and Chairman of the ad hoc committee, Hon. Emeka Okoroafor, said: "We are doing our constitutional mandate as it concerns public fund and anyone one who fails to come, then we will apply to the Speaker for warrant of arrest to bring them here to do what is needful."

The chairman added, "His argument was that after he left office, he did know whether the amount was paid and that matter is in different courts. It was based on the controversy and the report that we received from the law firm, Ifeanyi Ndukwe and Co, and many petitioners that we decided investigate Obinna Oriaku's claim."

He added that the invited people who should help in the fact-finding mission, adding that many of them refused to honour the invitation.

"We will be left with no other option than to do what the constitution demands that we should do," he said.

Analysts have argued that Abia State is one of the states in the South that has been badly governed since the return of democracy in 1999. Most said is that the state is also receives so much in federal allocations as an oil producing state. In spite of its relatively huge earnings from oil proceeds every month, the state's debt profile, according to the Debt Management Office (DMO), has more than doubled from N33.53billion in 2015 to N70.57billion by March 31, 2021. Yet, they believe that there is nothing in terms of development to justify this huge debt.

Despite the bailout funds and Paris Club refunds from the federal government all totalling over N36billion, the state has taken its record of indebtedness to its workers to an unconscionable high.

For instance, as at June 2021, teachers in primary and tertiary institutions and health workers are being owed outstanding salaries ranging from 19, 27 to 31 months.

With teachers' salaries, both at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels outstanding for several months, many wonder what the government is expecting from the educational sector and kind of products are it is expecting from schools whose teachers are not being paid.

Another serious concern is the non-payment of salaries to health workers in the state even during this period of medical emergency, where health workers elsewhere are paid extra allowances to keep them focused on saving lives.

The Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) had threatened to terminate the training of medical students at the Abia State University Teaching Hospital, Aba, over protracted industrial action. The first Vice President of NARD, Dr. Aromo Adejo, in an interview disclosed that NARD would instruct all relevant agencies to stop training medical doctors at Abia Teaching Hospital and withdraw their accreditation forthwith.

It is believe that not only would the N11billion that was allegedly siphoned through the consultancy, comfortably cleared all the salary arrears being owed to these workers but also address the infrastructural deficiency in the state.

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