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Benue to recover money over Okupe’s contract, others

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Lawyer admits deal, says no crime by Okupe

ACN, PDP continue war of words

CORRUPTION, real and alleged, remains the most topical issue in Nigeria.

The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) brought this to the fore again yesterday as they traded verbal darts over the former’s call for the resignation of the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Public Affairs, Dr. Doyin Okupe, over alleged corruption.

The altercation between the parties may have indeed forced the Benue State government to start looking into its present and past transactions with various contractors with a view to recovering monies from those who collected mobilisation fees but allegedly failed to deliver.

Although the Gabriel Suswam administration claims it is not ready to probe its predecessor, it is however prepared to recover monies allegedly collected by various contractors, who did not perform, to augment its financial fortunes.

On the heels of the controversy over Okupe, Benue Government House sources told The Guardian that one of such companies, Messrs Value Trust Investments Ltd, reportedly owned by Okupe, was awarded a contract on April 24, 2004 to construct 230 kilometres of rural roads in the state at the cost of N2.3 billion, using loamy soil stabilisation.

The sources claimed that 30 per cent mobilisation fee was paid to the company to execute the contract in 18 months but it failed to do so.

The Benue officials added that after collecting the sum N886.8 million on July 17, 2006, the firm abandoned the projects.

According to them, the state government pressured the firm to complete the projects but it failed until the contract duration elapsed, adding that the company is still indebted to the state government to the tune of N635.7 million after about N55.2 million was recovered from it.

The Guardian also discovered that among the 230 kilometres of rural road contract were the University of Agriculture-Gbajimba, Sankera-Ayati-Sai and Aliede-Obariketo roads.

Yesterday, lawyers to Okupe confirmed that the Benue State government actually “awarded a rural road contract to Messrs Value Trust Investments Ltd, one of the companies in which Okupe served as chairman.”

In a statement signed by Yemi Gbonegun, the Lagos-based firm, Yemi Gbonegun and Co., described the contract award as “purely a commercial transaction.”

The firm explained that trouble however started when the administration of the state changed hands and incumbent governor (Suswam) took over from former Governor George Akume. “Disputes arose as to the payment of outstanding payment certificate submitted by Value Trust Investments Ltd” as a result of which the matter was referred to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which conducted a thorough investigation into it.

“There was no evidence of any criminality,” the statement said, adding that “the parties then agreed to settlement by arbitration and the issue is in the process of being resolved amicably by both parties.

“Our chambers represents Value Trust Investments Ltd in the negotiations,” the statement added.

A source at the EFCC confirmed that Okupe and his company’s file had been with the commission and would be treated at the appropriate time.

According to the source, the file is connected with the road contracts in Benue State to the tune of N2.3 billion.

Residents of the of the areas where these rural roads were to be constructed, Atoo Sokpo, Benjamin Verashe and James Torwa, told The Guardian that they were waiting for the government to compel the contractor to complete the projects’ execution.

Indeed in 2004, Okupe after signing the contract for the construction of the rural roads in Makurdi, addressed the press, where he promised the people of the state of timely completion of the project.

To the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which has asked President Goddluck Jonathan to fire Okupe over the allegations, comments by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Presidency on the fraud charges against Okupe, are far from the issues at stake.

Instead of using aides to speak for Okupe, the opposition party wants the PDP and the Presidency to respond directly to allegations that Okupe and one of his companies obtained contracts from Imo and Benue states and failed to execute the jobs after collecting the mobilisation fees put at several hundreds millions of naira.

In a statement issued in Lagos yesterday by its National Publicity Secretary, Lai Mohammed, ACN said rather than respond directly to the weighty allegations against Okupe, the ruling party and “its hired guns masquerading as public affairs commentators and analysts had chosen to play the ostrich.”

But the PDP, which faulted ACN’s allegations, also accused the party of shielding the Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Mr. Adeyemi Ikuforiji, who is standing trial for allegedly stealing and laundering N500 million.

The PDP also decried the campaign of calumny against the person of Okupe, especially by the ACN. It condemned calls on the President to relieve Okupe of his appointment, describing it as sheer blackmail that Jonathan would not fall for.

In a statement yesterday, PDP’s Deputy National Secretary, Binta Masi Garba, said Jonathan by the appointment, “has taken the right decision to engage members of the public on salient issues of national importance.”

He described Okupe as “capable of efficiently handling the assignment given to him” and the President as constitutionally empowered to give appointments to “deserving Nigerians under the presidential system that we currently operate in the country”.

It said; “We have noted the copious references by the ACN through its spokesman, Mr. Lai Mohammed, to the purported unwholesome acts in the execution of some projects in Benue and Imo states several years ago. It is our considered opinion that issues of contracts are basically civil issues between contracting parties and certainly most contract documents contain clauses for dispute resolutions”.

It added that since the anti-corruption agency, the EFCC, had come out to say that Okupe was not currently under any criminal investigation by the commission as claimed by the ACN nor had he been indicted by any court of competent jurisdiction or any panel of investigative committee, “it stands to reason under our laws that he should be deemed innocent until otherwise proven.”

But the ACN lamented that the only feeble defence so far was that the Speaker of Lagos State House of Assembly should quit and that the opposition party should be silent because with “cheats and liars” in its fold, it lacks the moral authority to raise the issue of corruption against Okupe.

Mohammed said the response was “nothing but a deliberate attempt to obfuscate issues and a case of comparing apples with oranges.”

ACN said it was not covering up anything for Ikuforiji because he had been charged before a court of law and pleaded not guilty. “The law presumes him innocent until proven guilty. The case is still on ongoing, therefore, any call for his resignation is an attempt to stampede justice.”

The party argued that Okupe’s case was different because he had been confronted with allegations of swindling both Imo and Benue states and cannot continue to be the President’s spokesman without clearing himself of these charges.

On the claims that ACN is a party of crooks and cheats and therefore cannot call for Okupe’s head, Mohammed said they were unsubstantiated and laughable, adding that, “we make bold to say that if the PDP can summon courage to look at itself in the mirror, what will stare back at it is nothing but corruption in its most unadulterated form.”

ACN accused the PDP of infecting Nigeria with the most dangerous virus of corruption in the last 13 years to the extent that Nigeria is now ranked one of the most corrupt nations in the world.

It urged Nigerians to note that in the National Assembly alone between 1999 and today, three Senate President and three Speakers of the House of Representatives have been consumed by corruption, all of them PDP members.

The party added that “two former chairmen of the PDP were forced out of office on account of allegations of corruption, a third was the chairman of the Pipeline Product Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) whose role in the fuel subsidy scam is a subject of investigation and yet two sons of PDP chairmen are facing corruption charges as a result of their involvement in the same fuel subsidy scam.”

It continued: “Twelve former governors of the PDP are today before various courts on corruption charges. At least six former PDP ministers are still facing corruption charges. It is on record that a PDP President openly accused his Vice President of corruption and attempted to strip him of his office while a PDP federal legislator died in jail while awaiting trial…”

Already, Suswam has said despite the pressure on him to seek the prosecution of Okupe over the alleged road contract scam, it would not be a priority as he was not involved in the deal.

Suswam made the clarification in Otukpo during an interaction with journalists. The governor said his predecessor was in a better position to address the problem because he did not give him any handover note.

“I wasn’t involved in that deal. The media aide to Senator Akume asserted that there were such contracts and there were issues. So, I’m waiting for them and I think it will get to us somewhere.”

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