Investigate, prosecute ministry officials involved in contract splitting, lawyers urge
Investigate, prosecute ministry officials involved in contract splitting, lawyers urge

Investigate, prosecute ministry officials involved in contract splitting, lawyers urge
Muhammadu Buhar
As stakeholders demand action on Senate probes

• NNPC spends N116m on biro, paper, ink

• Over N4.1b, $21b in one month

• NASS under attack for oversights failure

• Buhari’s oil ministry reels under corruption allegations

Lawyers have urged the Federal Government to investigate and prosecute Ministry of Petroleum Resources officials involved in contract splitting as disclosed by the Senate. This, they said, would serve as deterrent to others.

The Senate recently uncovered how the ministry, which is headed by President Muhammadu Buhari, spent N14 million for biros and N46 million for letterhead papers and raised the alarm.

Stakeholders in the oil and gas sector as well as transparency and accountability advocates are disturbed over how the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, directly overseen by President Muhammadu Buhari spent a whopping N116 million on biros, papers and inks in one year.

They said they were worried about the seeming complacency at the National Assembly and the Ministry of Finance, insisting that the bodies had allowed unabated looting despite their oversight roles on budget and public fund.

The petroleum ministry had allegedly spent N14.5 million for the supply of Schneider Biros, N46 million for the Ministry’s letterhead, and N56 million for supply of toner. The money was never spent in 2015 but never raised until the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation (OAuGF) reported the matter.

These developments, according to some stakeholders, indicate a disconnect between the Executive and Legislative arms of government, adding that many government ministries are getting away with crime.

Recall that the NASS is currently at daggers-drawn with the National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) to explain unauthorised withdrawal of $21 billion from the dividends of the Nigeria LNG Limited.

In less than a month, the NASS committee had raised a number of alleged corruption cases across ministries and agencies. Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Culture, Nebolisa Anako, was accused of payment of N460 million to contractors without completing the projects. The Federal High Court Personnel Cashbook is also being demanded for explanation on a N456 million staff salaries.

Similarly, two queries have been raised against the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) over failure to remit N1.4 billion. Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN) has also been reported to have failed in accounting for N298 million advance payments made to some of its officials in 2013. Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading company (NBET) was also accused of failing to remit N1.5 billion.

The concern for most stakeholders is that, while senators have raised fraud alarm on funds hovering around N4.1 billion and $21 billion in less than one month, repeated outcry from the chambers usually do not produce any meaningful sanction or reconciliation.

They also maintained that, if the lawmakers were up to the task, the discrepancies would have been avoided since they vet budget and are empowered to play oversight roles.

In the case of the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Buhari appointed himself as the head of the ministry in October 2015, naming Ibe Kachikwu as minister of state. Dr. Jamila Shu’ara, a one-time embattled civil servant, who Buhari had extended her tenure despite retirement, was the permanent secretary at the time of the incident.

In attempt to tackle corruption, Nigeria had introduced the Procurement Act. The power of the permanent secretary in awarding contracts under the Act is limited. Permanent Secretary without competitive open tendering can approve procurements not exceeding $8,000 approximately. The person must obtain at least three written proposals from suitably qualified contractors/suppliers. Expenditures incurred under the policy are to be documented and reported to the Minister quarterly.

The contract for the biros, inks and papers were all broken into smaller packages of less than N5 million each and awarded to four different companies to pave way for the permanent secretary’s approval threshold of N5 million. This is being seen as direct violation of the Act.

“The Permanent Secretary has been requested to explain this contravention of the public procurement Act, 2007,” Chairman of the Committee, Senator Urhoghide had said.

Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Auwal Musa Rafsanjani noted that the prevailing situation remained an indication that looting of public fund had continued under the current administration in the most unimaginable manner.

He also noted that President Buhari may be unconnected with the ministry under him or has deliberately looked away.

Rafsanjani also decried role of the National Assembly in mismanaging public fund, stressing that there has been failure in the area of oversight function as the development contributed to the continue revelations.

“The looting of public fund has been going on unchecked. Although the Buhari claims to be the minister of petroleum, in actual sense he is not the minister. Some other people are in charge.

“There is also no oversight function from the National Assembly, that is why these things are happening. They could have noticed when the budget was approved. Also why would they have to wait this long to raise the issue,” Rafsanjani stated.

Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) equally condemned the development, stressing that the National Assembly was only barking and may not bite.

CDD Director, Idayat Hassan told The Guardian that most of the allegations by the lawmakers in the past remained in limbo without any meaningful result.

“I am worried. That is a lot of money but have you ever seen any final report from the people we call our lawmakers? We hear about this oversight function every time but at the end of the day, we never get a final report,” Hassan said.

“It is worrisome”, Executive Director of Order Paper, Okey Epia said, adding that such frivolous budgeting remained shameful and embarrassing, especially how it past the attention of the National Assembly.

He sees the situation more as failure on the part of the lawmakers, who should have prevented such development.

Reacting to the development, former president, Campaign for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Malachy Ugwummadu, stressed that survival of Nigeria is predicated on justice, equity, transparency and accountability in the affairs of government and her interface with citizens.

According to him, at the heart of transparency and accountability is the process of budgeting, implementation and procurement as stated under the Fiscal Responsibility Act and the Procurement Act, which are both 2007 Acts of the Parliament.

His words: “From the account of this report and by virtue of S.58 (4)(a)(c) and more particularly subsection 4(d), dealing with contract splitting, it is evident that both the contractors and the relevant awarding  authorities contravened the law to be able to beat the supervisory role of the permanent  secretary who has a threshold  of N5 million.

“This is scandalous and they should all be qualified for thorough investigations and possible prosecutions with emphasis on forfeiture of the proceeds of that crime in accordance with S. 68(6)(b) of the procurement Act. This must be followed through, considering that Mr. President is the substantive Minister of Petroleum Resources, which is the ministry in question.”

Commercial law expert, Dr Jerome Okoro, said the discovery has the semblance of contact splitting, which is unlawful.

“The law is settled on what constitutes contract splitting, and its consequence. It is a punishable offence,” he said, adding that Section 58(4)(d) of the Public Procurement Act, 2007 criminalises the act, and describes it as “splitting of tenders to enable evasion of monetary thresholds set.”

According to him, the crucial question calling for deeper enquiry in the case is whether indeed the contracts were split.

“And this is a question of fact. The surest instruments for unraveling this, would be the contract documents detailing when each of the allegedly split contracts was awarded and the ministry’s need for the procured items then.

“There should be a query at the time gaps of the contracts for each of the procured items, in order to determine whether the contracts were awarded as the need arose, or rather with the motive of contract splitting. It is those contract documents that would disclose these,” Okoro explained.

He further explained that if the documents indicate contract splitting, then the consequence goes beyond merely refunding the money spent, as the senate committee directed. A crime, he said, has been committed and needs to be published.

A law lecturer, who preferred to be anonymous, dismissed the alarm raised by the Senate, describing it as the activities of friends. He said: “I really cannot see the difference between the hunter and the hunted. I have never seen a more toothless bulldog as the present National Assembly. Be assured that those involved would not answer their query and nothing will happen at the end of the day.”

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