The Babachir Lawal’s ‘expensive grass’

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BY EMMANUEL ONWUBIKO

FROM the onset, let me affirm that the theme of this piece derives from an ongoing investigative hearing into the alleged maladministration and mismanagement of huge funds released by the Nigerian government to cater for the hundreds-of-thousands of internally displaced person camped in the North East of Nigeria.

For the avoidance of factual inaccuracies, let me say straight away that the huge geographical area known as North East which is larger than the landmass of say Belgium in Western Europe for instance, has almost been destroyed by the coordinated bombing attacks by armed Islamists over the past few years.

The counter terror war launched by the Nigerian government meant to restore normalcy and reclaim Nigeria’s territorial integrity in the last couple of years has resulted in the collateral damages to such a catastrophic dimensions that millions of homes of innocent Nigerians have collapsed under intense bombardments from the combatants.

The bulk of the infrastructural destructions occurred mostly from deliberate criminal and atrocious acts of bomb explosions, organised arson by arsonists embedded with the armed Islamists and acts of wilful sabotage by armed Islamists who have waged war of attrition against innocent Nigerians in their search for the establishment of a so-called Islamic Caliphate. On the last count, over 26,000 persons have been killed.

The eyes of the global community has increasingly being focused towards these devastated regional communities not necessarily because of the criminal and willful destruction of homes of innocent Nigerians and governmental institutions.

The rest of the civilised World are focused on the North East of Nigeria simply because of the emerging scary scenarios that the humanitarian disasters created by the terror attacks have unleashed on the millions of rural poor which have so far left over three million persons homeless to an extent that they have since become internally displaced and refugees in nearby nations.

In a bid to bring succor to the suffering millions in the North East, the immediate past government in the twilight of that administration inaugurated a massive fund raise campaign headed by prominent Nigerians such as the richest black African on earth Alhaji. Aliko Dangote and another wealthy erstwhile military General Theophilus Danjuma.

These victims of terrorism support fund understandably netted in billions of cash by way of donations and gifts from individuals and corporate bodies.

Upon assumption of office on May 29th 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari made the effective resettlement of these internally displaced citizens in the North East his top priority.

He started action towards ameliorating the untold human disasters by reconstituting the powerful Presidential Committee to bring succor to the displaced Nigerians.

Essentially, the same prominent individuals were retained by President Muhammadu Buhari just as the office of the Secretary to the government of the Federation as is the practice in public service was made the Secretariat of this multi billion Naira intervention fund.

But when most people had thought that some of the manifestations of hunger and starvations of the displaced persons were about to subside going by the enormity of cash reportedly netted in by the victims support scheme, these existential problems escalated essentially because of apparent mismanagement of the fund meant for bringing reliefs to the suffering millions.

In Nigeria it is jokingly stated that public officials become rich with the misfortunes of poor Nigerians. This proverb has now developed a life of its own.

Whreas the tummies of government officials running this scheme become bigger and bigger, ironically thousands of children have been afflicted by malnutrition even as hundreds of young girls who are in the internally displaced person’s camp have been coerced into sexual slavery to survive the harsh situations in those camps.

Foodstuffs such as rice meant for these citizens are diverted to the open markets even with the official bags used for the packaging. Critics have often wondered tge rationale for bypassing the officially created institutions such as the National Emergency Management Agency and the Nigerian Refugees Commission to domicile this huge terrorism victims’ support fund in the office of a political appointee such as the office of the Secretary to the government of the Federation. This evil practice must be disbanded. Let the relevant government institutions clothed with statutory mandates be allowed to carry out their functions stipulated by law.

Anyway, at this juncture we are, all the United Nations relevant agencies on internally displaced persons and even the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) have in recent times issued global warnings of imminent death from starvation and malnutrition of thousands of children in the IDP Camps in the North East of Nigeria.

President Buhari alarmed by this red flag is also quoted to have reaffirmed the determination of his government to get to the roots of all the accusations of theft and diversion of relief materials. It has now emerged that he may not have to go too far to discover those who have become richer through the suffering of the good people of the North East of Nigeria mostly affected by these terrorism attacks.

The relevant committees of the two chambers of the National Assembly have also set up separate probe panels to uncover the scandals trailing the alleged disappearances of billions of cash meant for the provision of relief materials to these internally displaced citizens running to over N12 billion.

In the Senate, a no-nonsense Senator, Comrade Shehu Sani is heading the investigative panel.

When the House of Representative’s committee began its own investigations, little did the members expect so soon to uncover heartrending claims, counter-claims and allegations of bureaucratic corruption in the administration of the fund meant to provide relief to millions of our fellow citizens displaced by the unfortunate war brought on them by armed terrorists.
One of such callous proofs of alleged bureaucratic corruption is being systematically traced to the secretariat of the victim’s support fund which is domiciled in the office of the Secretary to the government of the Federation headed by a pastor and an acclaimed Engineer. He the Secretary to the government of the Federation arrogantly ignored the invitation sent to him to appear and give clarifications to the alleged monumental heist.

The extent of the involvement or otherwise of the powerful scribe of this current government in this damaging crime is yet to unravel but one lasting allegations that must be thoroughly investigated is that of the N270 million to clear grass/weeds at internally displaced persons’ camps in Borno State.

Newspapers are reporting that the House of Representative’s committee investigating alleged diversion of funds and materials meant for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPS), especially the alleged use of N270m just to clear grass by the office of the Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF) said it was being frustrated by the refusal of the SGF, Mr. Babachir Lawal to appear before it.

The committee particularly decried the failure of Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Babachir Lawal, to honour summon to him to appear and clarify some issues on the allegation.

The Committee on IDPs and the North-East Initiatives, mandated by the house to investigate the allegation had invited Lawal to explain how his office spent about N12 billion allocated for the IDPs’ challenges.

The committee is also investigating the expenditure of N270 million by the Presidential Initiative on the North-East (PINE) “on just clearing of grass”.

Also being probed by house committee is the purported allocation of N188.69 million for Nigerian refugees living in Minawao, Republic of Cameroon‎.

Expressing disappointment with the attitude of the SGF towards the committee, Chairman of the committee, Rep. Sani Zorro, said “The SGF who was slated to have appeared hasn’t showed up.”

“He did not write to intimate us on why his office would not come to explain why issues of internally displaced persons‎ have remained un-encouraging, in spite of the billions of naira claimed to have been spent.

“We also expected him to explain the implementation framework being used to spend money. “We have been inundated by reports of diversion of materials and funds meant for the rehabilitation of the IDPs, and the North-East and the scandal had led to international embarrassment for the country.

“Given the issues of credibility and integrity raised against the agency in charge of the North-East Initiative (PINE) which falls under the SGF office, we had expected him to respect the invitation.”

However, testifying before the committee members, Executive Secretary in charge of the Presidential Initiative, Mr. Umar Gulani, said that N270 million was awarded as contract.

He said the contract was for the removal of 250 kilometres of “invasive plant species along river channels and simplified village irrigation scheme (phase II) in Komadugu Basin in Yobe”.

In reaction, Zorro expressed dissatisfaction with the explanation, saying, “we are of the opinion that the expenditure of the magnitude you have made‎ is not justified.

Zorro a journalist stated further: “It’s not acceptable that you would spend such a huge amount of money on the clearing of weeds while 2.5 million internally displaced victims of terror go hungry. “They have no shelter and medical care.”

The committee, therefore, demanded further details from PINE, to be submitted to it without delay.

Readers will agree with me that millions of Nigerians reading the admission by a government official of such a callous expenditure to clear ordinary weeds for the setting up of temporary camps would be imagining if this quantum of money was used to build palatial mansion for the displaced persons.

This writer thinks that President Buhari must be worried that his officials are busy staining the image his administration is building for itself as an anti-corruption crusading team if in these financially troubling times his officials would deploy N270 million to pull off weeds that I am sure prison inmates can competently uproot with less than N100, 000 (hundred thousand Naira).

Let the government do everything transparently to recover this huge money from whosoever collected it.

Nigerians needs to know the identity of the contractor who procured this apparently fraud- ridden job from the office of the Scribe to Buhari. President Muhammadu Buhari must compel his SGF to render prompt and unambiguous accounts and ensure the recovery of this huge chunk of public money.

There is no doubt that bureaucratic corruption is responsible for the depletion of financial resources budgeted for the provision of essential social services and building sustainable infrastructures that would have been beneficial to millions of Nigerians.

Bureaucratic corruption is one of the reasons for Nigeria’s current economic recession.
Dr. Benjamin Obasi Igwenyi in his scholarly book titled: “The Crime of Corruption in Nigeria: laws, issues and solution”, made copious reference to the above stated facts.

His words: “Bureaucratic corruption manifests in a variety of situation in public service particularly when officials use their positions to obtain undeserved favours either from members of the public or from public funds under their control.”

He cited the examle of when the former President of Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and his Vice-President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar were indicted for unlawful withdrawals and or embezzlement of funds belonging to the Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF)to assert that it was a good case of this type of corruption.

In similar vein, when the members of the House of Representative’s Ad-hoc Committee on Telecommunications indicted the Director General of Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) for deliberately withholding issuance of operating licence to Nigeria Communication Satellite Limited (NIG-COMSAT) even when former President Olusegun Obasanjo had given the necessary approvals, it was seen as an act of bureaucratic corruption, he said.

He wrote further: “Just as when the former governor of Abia State (Dr. Orji Uzor Kalu); Jigawa State (Alhaji Saminu Turaki); Enugu State (Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani); Plateau State (Chief Joshua Dariye) and Bayelsa State (D.S.P Alamieyeseigha) were arraigned in various Federal High Courts for embezzlement of their State funds constitute manifestation of this type of corruption.”

These acts of corruption in this domain the writer submitted, often arise from award of contracts mostly for unviable projects; kickbacks for all manner of services; collusion; procurement fraud; nepotism and favoritism which lower standards; personal use of official and government secrets; any improper use of position; deceit of superior officials to obtain favour, preparation of fake proposals and outright stealing of all manner of government property either alone or in agreement with others in the same establishment.

All we are saying is that the SGF must render transparent account on how every penny meant for the IDPS was spent and this huge sum reportedly paid for cutting of grasses must be refunded to the public till now and the officials who paid out this humongous amount punished severely as public enemies.

* Emmanuel Onwubiko is Head of Human rights Writers association of Nigeria and blogs @ www.emmanuelonwubiko.com.

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