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[ANALYSIS] N10bn Abia Airport Controversy and Matters Arising
Politics

[ANALYSIS] N10bn Abia Airport Controversy and Matters Arising

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As the controversy over how the administration of the immediate-past Governor of Abia State, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu, spent N10 billion for non-existent airport project continues to rage, some stakeholders in the state are divided on the saga.

While some picked holes in the forensic audit report recently released by Governor Alex Otti, saying it was not thoroughly conducted, others queried Ikpeazu’s claims that he channelled the funds into road projects on the request of traditional rulers.

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According to them, it is only the House of Assembly, not traditional rulers that has the constitutional powers to approve virement for the executive arm of government.

Yet, some others have advised both camps to refrain from media war and move to the appropriate anti-graft agencies for formal complaint and defence.

Background

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Governor Otti had during a lecture at John Hopkins University, Baltimore, United States of America, disclosed that a forensic audit by his administration uncovered that his predecessor approved the payment of N10 billion for an airport project.

He further said that the money being 80 per cent payment for the project was paid into the account of a contractor in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Upon his return to Nigeria, Otti during a media parley in Umuahia, claimed that his predecessor paid the largesse into the account of a construction company that never bid for the project, and later instructed the firm to wire the fund into 32 different accounts in tranches.

Otti, who added that all those who played any role in the movement of the fund would certainly have a date with the security agencies, promised to make public the entire forensic audit report conducted by a renowned global audit firm, the Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler, KPMG.

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Meanwhile, Ikpeazu and his camp had, in a swift response to Otti’s revelation at Hopkins university, challenged him to make public the said forensic audit report.

Otti said he was not surprised by Ikeazu’s denial, saying: “The immediate past Governor’s denial is not unexpected. First of all, when it was announced they went to the media abusing the Government and saying the Government lied, that there is nothing like that.

“Then when a media house that got hold of the report published it, of course the next thing was to attempt to explain it away. But that was a report by a very reputable audit firm – KPMG. So, what they said was that they diverted the money into roads. Therefore, it’s up to them to come and show us the roads.

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“But what is true is that bank statement on the 25th of September 2020 when COVID-19 was dealing with people, a debit went into the state account for N10 billion, and the description was: payment for 80% contract of the Abia airport.

“On the 13th of October, almost three weeks after, a letter was written by the then Governor (Ikpeazu), to the State House of Assembly requesting for approval of N10 billion for the construction of Abia Airport.

On the 14th of October, one day after, a letter was written to the then Governor by the House of Assembly, giving him approval for the N10 billion that he requested for the airport. So, clearly, something went wrong. An ISPO was raised in between these dates.

“So, our engagements with the contractor that received the money gave an impression that the company was deceived. The Managing Director of the company said that he told them that he had never built an airport before; that it’s not his area of competence, nor did he apply to them to construct an airport.

“According to him, the then government asked him to move the money elsewhere. He showed us letters from the then Government to move the money in different tranches to 32 companies, and that he did that on the instruction of the former Government.

“So, like I said, the rest of the work will be done by security agencies. But what is important to our Government is: either that somebody is showing us the airport or somebody is returning our money.

That’s what is important to us. We are not interested in the fireworks and all the abuse. We are not even interested in anybody going to jail except if they are telling us that somebody whose money is missing should not look for it. So, we are looking for our money or in the alternative our airport!”

Ikpeazu’s counter

However, Ikpeazu’s camp through the former Commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi Kalu, denied any wrong-doing in the airport project.

The camp claimed that the N10 billion payment for the project was rather deployed to road infrastructure on the request of traditional rulers.

Okiyi said: “I was a member of the Abia State Executive Council (Exco) and functioned as Honorable Commissioner for Information when the idea of constructing Abia Airport was first discussed during the Exco meeting of 24th September 2020. Based on the presentation made to Exco, we approved the project and also approved the borrowing of N10bn from UBA Plc as initial investment by the state with repayment charged to our FAAC account with the bank. You may wish to recall that during the period the country was still struggling to emerge from COVID-19 pandemic with very low FAAC and IGR inflows across the states.

“Some of the contractors and projects known to me that were paid from the N10bn include: China Zonghghao for Osisioma flyover Aba & ABSUTH Road Aba – N800,000,000; Trackcare Construction Company for Aba-owerri road Aba (Brass to Osisioma junction segment, Ururuka road Aba, Afor Ibeji/ Ubakala Umuahia, Stella Maris Catholic Church, etc -N1,035,000,000; and Ferrotex for Aba-owerri road (Railway junction-Brass junction segment) Aba, Opobo Junction-Ukpakiri Ogbor Hill Aba,Uratta Ugwuati, Itungwa -N1,500,000,000.

Others include: Sannan Jandon for Okigwe road Aba, Milverton road Aba, Cemetery-Eziukwu road Aba-N450,000,000; Ecklean for Osusu road Aba-N 200 000,000; Cosmos Construction for Immaculate Avenue Umungasi Aba-N150,000,000; Setraco/Hartland forPort Harcourt Road Aba, N1,000,000,000; Rockwaters for Ohanku Road Aba, Okpu Umuobo Aba -N650,000,000; MOW for Ebenma Street Aba, Ovom street Aba- N1, 130,000,000; ⁠ and ubbalco for MBUBO Umuakwu,-N200,000,000, among others.”

In a viral video, Ikpeazu said:”Right from the outset, we were thinking about a trade port. All we do in Nigeria is airport, airport, airport and they don’t seem viable.. So, we were saying we can bring small Ariaria into the airport so that somebody can come to the airport to shop and sleep, and wait and then connect the next flight to the next location as they do in Dubai – small conference centre, small hotel and whatever so people can be. We had 15 markets in Aba.

“At the point we were thinking about this trade port, we realised that the road to Ariaria was bad, the road to Eziukwu Market was bad, the road to Ngwa Road Market was bad.

“So we couldn’t connect all our markets and my vision obtained from my desire to drive trade and commerce was to interconnect all the markets. So, we decided to suspend the airport project.

”Today, when people talk about money for the airport and whatever, I think they are questioning my decision to change my mind and I had the right at that time as Governor to say I didn’t want this airport now because if you land at the airport, where are you going to?”

Stakeholders disagree

However, some stakeholders disagreed with Ikpeazu over his diversion of the airport fund to another project without approval by the House of Assembly.

Former Deputy Speaker, Abia State House of Assembly, and Ikpeazu’s immediate-past Commissioner for Works, Dr Cosmos Ndukwe, said such claims lacked legislative cream.

”I was Principal Officer of the House of Assembly, and I know the workings of the Assembly. There is what we call virement. It should have contained the challenges the Governor had and why he wanted to change his mind about the airport project. Virement is not done by traditional rulers. It’s only the legislature that has the powers to approve a request for virement by the executive.

“So, the former Governor had the right to change his mind but if this virement was not approved by the House of Assembly, then he is shooting himself in the leg because the approval to build the airport came from the Assembly and not Ndieze. If he changed his mind later, he should have put the House in the know and they would sit and consider his reasons.

“A Governor cannot just wake up and say he had changed his mind over an approval given to him by the House. If he had any approval for virement given by the House let him show proof.

“If he didn’t do that, then the present Governor has the right to query whatever he used that money to do outside the official approval by the House of Assembly”.

The former PDP presidential aspirant, however, cautioned Otti against media trial, and challenged him to approach the anti-graft agencies for recovery of the state funds if he had evidence that there was any looting by anybody.

He also queried the accuracy of the forensic audit report, claiming that it has some loopholes.

“I feel that the forensic audit report was hastily done. I saw where they said they lacked documents and data to substantiate the report. I would advise the Government to do an in depth report. It left a lot of loopholes for the past administration to escape the hammer. They could have done it well.

“I don’t believe in media trial. If you want to send your opinion to anti-graft agencies like EFCC, you do that properly. All I will advise him (Otti) is to know that one day, he will be an ex-Governor.”

Senator Nkechi Nwaogu who represented Abia Central in the 7th Senate, also cautioned against media trial, urging Governor Otti to approach the appropriate authorities for investigation and prosecution if he had strong suspicion of any foul play.

Senator Nwaogu who said she would not like to be dragged into the controversy, however, faulted any diversion of funds without approval for virement by the legislature .

“I don’t want to be dragged into their controversy because I don’t know much about the past administration. But all I can say is that everybody should know that there is nothing hidden under the sun.

“If you collected a whopping N10 billion for the airport, if there were to be virements, you write the legislature for approval. It was wrong to say that Ndieze (monarchs) requested a change of mind for the original project. When did Ndieze become part of the Legislature? Authorisation for virement ought to come from the legislature.

“However, instead of us having a media trial, I think the best thing to do is for the current governor to petition the law enforcement agencies or go to court.”

Corroborating this position also, former governorship aspirant on the plank of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, Gen. Ijioma Ijioma, retd, advised against media trial and challenged Otti to “follow due process.”

The retired General doubted if anything tangible would come out of the saga, saying: “The Governor after making his discovery, should have invited the former Governor and tell him of his findings. He will ask him to either show him the airport or where the money is . If he fails to give any convincing answer, then he will tell him that if he doesn’t comply the state will write to EFCC just like Kano State wrote about Ganduje.

“If you did an audit report and money was missing, is it on the pages of newspapers that you address it? He should petition to the appropriate anti-graft agencies. That’s the right thing to do.”

Also speaking, APGA Chairman, Ambassador Sunday Onukwubiri, said Governor Otti could not be crying foul without evidence, and told the former Governor to stop singing many tunes but get ready to clear his name.

“The former Governor should stop dancing around and get ready to clear his name. When the chips are down, Abians will know the truth.”

When contacted, Ikpeazu’s immediate-past Commissioner for Information, Eze Chikamnayo, declined to comment.

Chikamnayo who recently defected to the APC simply said:”No comment. I’m a private person now”.

However, the President General, Coalition of South East Youths, COSEYL, Comrade Goodluck Ibem, told Ikpeazu to get ready to show Abians where he built their airport or simply return their money, arguing that he had no right to change his mind about the original purpose for which the fund was released.

”Where is the tradeport?He has to return the N10 billion or show us where the airport is because the money is not his personal money. He should account for it.”

The National Chairman of Abia Elders Consultative Forum, His Grace Archbishop Professor Princewill Ariwodor, said he would soon convene a meeting of the forum for the elders to take a position on the matter.

Vanguard


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