By Amby Uneze
Amby Uneze reviews the reactions on the outcome following the submission of the Judicial Commission of Enquiry on Contracts awards from 2011 to 2019 in Imo State.
In August, 2019, the then Imo State governor, Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha constituted a Judicial Commission of Inquiry on the awards of Contracts in the state from May 29, 2011 to May 28, 2019 as the case may be. The chairman of the Commission was headed by Justice Benjamin Iheka. Other members included Engr. Chris Ibeh, Ifeyinwa Maureen Okafor, Dr. Samuel Ifeanyi Onwuasoanya, Barr. Stanley Imo, Mr. Paschal Uzokwu, Barr. Aloy Ejimako as members, while Dame Comfort Obi was to serve as the Secretary.
When the administration of Ihedioha was sacked by the Supreme Court and Senator Hope Uzodimma was sworn in as governor on January 15, 2020 he did not hesitate to extend the tenure of the Investigative Panels and Judicial Commissions of Inquiry, set up by the Emeka Ihedioha administration, on contracts, land acquisition and others. This was confirmed by Justice Iheka, during an interview with newsmen in Owerri.
Governor Uzodimma, who announced the renewal of the mandate of all the investigative panels and judicial commissions of inquiry set up by his predecessor after meeting with the panelists, also explained that the decision was in keeping with his Three Rs mantra of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Recovery, Justice Iheka said. He had affirmed that “by the law, under which the Commissions and Panels were established, only a renewed mandate, which the Governor has now done, after our first three months, validates the lives of the Panels and Commissions.”
By then Justice Iheka who confirmed that his commission had finished taking evidences from all petitioners/claimants stated: “ we have started inviting all government functionaries that played any part in the contracts awarded within the period under review. They are expected to start appearing before the Commission from Tuesday, February 11, 2020.”
It is pertinent to recall that in renewing the mandates of the Panels and Commissions, Governor Uzodinma said: “I acknowledge that government is a continuum. This administration will not go into witch-hunting, rather, will continue from where the previous administration stopped particularly in areas that will impact positively on the living standard of Imo people.”
Notable among the Committees, whose mandates were renewed included: the Judicial Panel on Lands and Related Matters headed by Justice Ijeoma Ogugua, the Judicial Commission of Inquiry on Contracts Awarded from 2011 to 2019, headed by Justice Benjamin Iheka. The others were: the Visitation Panels for Imo State University, Teaching Hospital Orlu, Imo State Polytechnic Umuagwo, and the Committee for the Investigation of Local Government Administration from 2011-2019, headed by Chief Eze Duruiheoma, SAN, among others. Governor Uzodinma charged the Committees to “continue with the good job you are doing for Imo State”, stressing that “In our little way, we shall encourage you to turn in an objective report that will meet the yearnings of the good people of Imo State.”
While the Judicial Commission on Contracts awardsg seated and invited many people to testify, several invitations were sent to the former governor, Senator Rochas Okorocha to defend numerous petitions against him and his eight-year administration but he never bothered to answer the commission’s invitation for once. The generality of Imo people believed that Okorocha’s administration was careless with frivolous awards of contracts. Even while he was on seat, there were many petitions against his government and those of his cronies in government. Maybe, they did realise that a day of reckoning would come and he would cry wolfs. That period is now and he has no hiding place except to go to court to seek for redress, at least to clear his name from the mess.
The outcome of the commission’s report is not surprising, however, because it was highly expected, considering the level of lackadaisical manner Okorocha’s administration awarded contracts in the state during his tenure.
The submission of its report to Governor Hope Uzodimma and its subsequent recommendation that those who played key roles in the contract awards that turned out to be a scam and which the enquiry had uncovered be made to return a whopping N106 billion to the government is a welcome development.
Submitting the report at the Executive Chambers, Government House Owerri during the week, the Chairman, Justice Iheaka explained that “there were monumental fraud that were orchestrated by the contractors in the period under review with strong collusion with some civil servants who helped in the fraud which was evidenced in over-pricing of the value of the contracts executed in the State.”
The report said that there were fragrant disregard for due process and the rules of Bureau for Public Procurement Act in the State which was exhibited in “outrageous contract pricing and shady contract executions as well as payment for non performing contracts.” Justice Iheaka also said there were evidences of non-existing and phoney companies that were used to siphon State Government funds to the tone of N106 billion.
A clear example of such phony companies was one Messrs Zigreat of Ugbelle Street, Ideato South, a supposedly local government of former governor Rochas Okorocha. This particular company of no fixed address and without proven directors handled several contracts for the state government to the tune of several billions of Naira. Uptill, now no one has been identified with that company, yet it handled contracts running into billions of Imo money.
He therefore appealed to the Governor not to sweep their report and recommendations under the carpet, but to do whatever possible in his power to ensure that those indicted are made to return the monies.
The Commission, however, identified some civil servants who were honest, dedicated and resisted every pressure by the contract scammers to use their offices to defraud the State Government during the period under review.
Receiving the report, Governor Uzodimma assured that all those indicted and identified in the report as having played a role in frittering away public funds through criminal ways will be made to return them. He said the opportunity will be given to them to return the monies as the state is in dire need of funds to deal with pressing developmental issues in the face of dwindling resources.
The Governor had assured that in few days government will set-up a Review Committee that will look at the documents submitted by the Commission and produce a Whitepaper that will give Government the actual direction to follow in implementing the report in full.
Stressing that the mood in the state indicates that the people are anxious to know what government will do with the report and others before it, he therefore assured the Chairman and his members that much as Government will not witch-hunt anyone unnecessarily, it will definitely not shy away from implementing to the letter, the recommendations on those who willfully fleeced the state of her scarce resources to serve as a deterrent to future criminals.
He commended the members for taking time to do a thorough job considering the intricacies of their assignment which warranted their visiting project sites and asking difficult questions and said Government will surely show appreciation for their sacrifices.
Responding on the commission’s report, Okorocha challenged the government, to publish the Iheaka report verbatim, so that Imo people in particular and Nigerians in general, could read the report and see how the Panel arrived at N106 billion, which they said that Senator Okorocha should refund.
Okorocha, whose reaction was made through his Media Aide, Sam Onwuemeodo noted that no serious panel would have made such recommendation. “It could only take a “Ben Johnson” Panel to do that. And let the government publish the list of Contractors who handled contracts under Okorocha, State the Contracts they did, how much they were paid respectively, how they were paid and what they should have been paid, in the estimation of the Panel members”.
He queried Governor Uzodinma “to explain what he has done with the N119 billion he has Collected from the federation account and N6.4 billion ISOPADEC fund, vis-a-viz the IGR. The governor said he came through “Ben Johnson” way and since January 14, 2020 when he came on board, all his actions and utterances have been “Ben Johnson” way”
Expanding the augment for the government, Media Assistant on Prints to the Governor, Modestus Nwankpa noted that instead of Okorocha apologizing to Imo people for allegedly fleecing the treasury of the state, he presents mockery defence.
According to Nwanka, the Justice Benjamin Iheka’s Judicial Panel was not constituted by Governor Uzodimma. It was done by Rt. Hon. Emeka Ihedioha as the Panel was made up of highly reputable personalities and their actions, inactions and report were devoid of political colouring.
“The Panel extended invitations to Governor Okorocha for more than 5 times in the spirit of fair hearing but the former Governor refused to attend. He rather ran to Court to stop the panel which did not materialize, noting that the panel did a thorough and commendable job and their report have been described as among the best and well investigated report in Nigeria.
“Governor Uzodinma did not have any hand nor did he influence the outcome of the report of the panel, at least everybody knows the strong characters or personalities in the Committee. We know that Justice Iheka, Comfort Obi etc are not people one can bribe or influence.
“The Panel relied heavily on facts not fictions in reaching their conclusion. So many people including Civil Servants, Contractors and Stakeholders approached the panel with evidence concerning contract awarded. Journalists who covered the proceedings were marveled at the startling revelations at the panel proceedings.
“Even some of Okorocha’s former Appointees also indicted the him during their cross examination. The panel also submitted their evidence and documented facts alongside the report for better understanding of how they reached their conclusion”, he stated.
It is pertinent at this juncture to comment on the submission or rather hollow defence of Okorocha, which to many lacked merit. What Imo people are saying is that the former governor needs to account to them a whopping sum of N106 billion which the commission allegedly found missing during his eight-year tenure as governor according to the documents and presentations they obtained from the people and government records. Telling Imo people cock and bull story is quite unfortunate. Why did he fail to submit himself to the commission to answer for himself all that the commission would have asked him?
Honestly, if Okorocha were in the shoes of Ihedioha or Uzodimma, he would rather have done much more than what the Commission did by instigating them to go outside the box. However, what Imo people want at this period is to ensure that the right thing is done so that whoever fleeced their money should be made to face the music.