By Ekemini SIMON
THE audited financial statements of Akwa Ibom State in 2016 and 2018 have revealed questionable expenditures under the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, the annual reports of the state’s accountant-general have shown.
An analysis of the reports for the period revealed a project under the State House of Assembly has been used as conduit pipe to siphon funds by corrupt officials of the state.
The project, “Completion and furnishing of Assembly Mini Press” was awarded at the sum of N112 million and subsequently retired through the same subhead in 2016 and 2018.
Years later, there is no known project on ground that shows evidence and value for the millions of naira reported to have been spent.
The Assembly Mini Press Scandal
According to the 2016 audited report, the assembly mini press project had 100 percent performance as the N100 million budgeted was entirely expended.
Two years after, N12m out of N22m budgeted was retired for the purchase of equipment for the mini press. This reported purchase in 2018 amounted to 54.5 percent project performance.
However, five years after the initial disbursement of funds for the project and nearly three years since N12 million was supposedly spent on equipment, investigations reveal that there is no project executed or purchase at the state assembly.
Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the Clerk of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Mmandu Umoren, Accountant General, Uwem Andrew-Essien, and Commissioner, Ministry of Finance, Nsikan Nkan, which sought information and evidence of project execution were ignored.
The FOIA request to these offices specifically requested for comprehensive information and documents on the existence of this project, location of the project at the Assembly Complex, list of bidders for the project, name of the contractor, approval letters for the contract, date of completion and inauguration of the project as well as its current state.
Documents obtained by this newspaper show that these three offices have questions to answer. The project was captured in the state’s Appropriation Act under the State House of Assembly’s budget with the Clerk as the Chief Accounting Officer. The Accountant General of the state disburses funds under the supervision of the finance ministry headed by the Commissioner. The Accountant General is responsible for safe keeping books of account, and ensures internal control procedures are maintained in order to safeguard the assets, detect and prevent fraud and other irregularities.
A follow-up reminder sent to the three offices at the expiration of seven days provided for in the FOIA law, was only acknowledged without response to the queries made.
When The Mail Newspaper went further to contact Hon. Onofiok Luke, Member Representing Etinan, Nsit Ibom and Nsit Ubium Federal Constituency, who served as Speaker of the State Assembly during the period the expenditures were made, he said that the House of Assembly throughout his tenure never received funds for such a project.
“I think it is a matter of wrong classification. Throughout my tenure as Speaker, there was no time N100m or any amount was released for the said project.”
When asked if he followed up with the executive on the project, he said it was needless for him to follow up since he did not write to the executive for approval and subsequent funds to be released for the project.
“Before the coming of autonomy (for the State Assembly), there is a process before money is released to the House of Assembly. When you need some things done, you write to the Governor and say this project has been captured in the budget and then you quote the code and then the executive will approve it and then minute to you, the Speaker.
“So, it is not my place to follow up on such matters. I have not received such approval. So, I think probably, it is a wrong classification. No such amount was released to the House of Assembly for such a project.”
Tracing the Assembly Mini Press
In the 2016 budget, breakdown of the N100m allocated for the completion and furnishing of the assembly’s mini press was not provided. Yet, a tracking of the programme code of the Assembly Mini Press (00050001370100) in the 2016 budget led this reporter back to the appropriation for the preceding year – 2015. The composition of items budgeted under the project gives clearer picture into the idea behind the Assembly Mini Press and the negative implication its non-implementation has cost the state.
The 2015 budget shows that N100 million was also budgeted for the same item (Assembly Mini Press) with the breakdown showing that N30 million was earmarked for the purchase and installation of guillotine machine, running machine, book sewing machine and stitch expert (Heidelberg). Another N30m was budgeted for the purchase and installation of a 40 KVA generator, N15 million each for training, and purchase of consumables and N10 million for the construction of printing office. Nonetheless, the audited financial statement of 2015 revealed that, only N2 million was eventually spent on “consumables”.
The existence of the project has been in doubt in different quarters.
The aforementioned items budgeted are machines used in an old printing press situated within the state assembly complex. The printing press, which is also referred to as the state government printing press, was inaugurated together with other buildings within the Assembly Complex during Obong Victor Attah’s administration on May 28, 2003. Sources confirmed to The Mail Newspaper that the printing press came into existence when printing machines were relocated from the former printing press to the facility in 2005.
This printing press is where gazetted laws of the state, receipts, classified documents among others are printed. Although the printing press is located at the State Assembly Complex, its management is under the Ministry of Information.
Millions Still Budgeted After Diverted funds
Surprisingly, after N100 million was retired in 2016 without evidence of implementation of the project, the state government continued to appropriate millions to it. Checks into subsequent Appropriation Acts of the state revealed that N20 million naira was budgeted for the printing press project in 2017. In 2018 and 2019, N102 million was approved for each of the year. In the breakdown, N50 million was earmarked for “Completion of Assembly Mini Press”, N30 million for “furnishing of Mini Press” and N22 million for “equipment”.
As stated earlier, the 2018 audited statement shows that N12 million was retired on “equipment”. In 2019, no amount was spent. In the 2020 and 2021 budgets, N100 million was appropriated for the project. The Mail Newspaper could not access capital expenses in the audited financial statements of these two fiscal years to determine how much was spent.
The Rot at the Assembly Press
When this reporter visited the “government press”, the rot inside the facility was obvious from the entrance of the building, where one is greeted with two big obsolete and moribund printing machines. According to the operators of the printing press, the machines have remained non-functional since they were transferred to the location in 2005, leaving the staff redundant.
Meanwhile, the rot is beyond the machines. Some offices at the printing press are flooded because of its leaky roof. Members of staff also disclosed that anytime it rains, they relocate to where the moribund machines are kept, the only spacious hall free from the hazards of the damaged and leaking roof. Other offices within the printing press are in equally bad shape. They have only a roof without ceilings and most have dilapidated furniture. Yet, according to 2016 and 2019 audited financial statements, N20 million and N90 million were expended on renovation and maintenance of the House of Assembly Complex which also houses the printing press.
Sources who cannot be named in this report owing to security concerns, revealed that since the press was opened in 2005 there has been no purchase of equipment, neither has there been any maintenance work carried out at the facility.
When approached by The Mail Newspaper to comment on the matter, Nsikak Nkanga, the Head of the Press, declined comment, stressing that he is not authorized to speak to the press.
When contacted, Aniekan Umanah, currently member for Abak, Ika, Etim Ekpo at the House of Representatives, who served as the Commissioner for Information in 2016, said the information ministry under his watch did not carry out any project at the printing press.
“At no time during my time as commissioner did the ministry have anything to do with Assembly Press. Also, there was nothing like construction and furnishing of government printing press or associated name at the House of Assembly during my time”, he noted.
State government considers fresh investment amidst division of millions of naira
On September 9, 2020, just days after resuming work as Akwa Ibom State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Ini Ememobong, who visited the facility noted that there were a few issues at the printing press, adding that government was weighing investment options to revitalize it.
He said his predecessor, Charles Udoh, had recommended a Public Private Partnership, PPP, model for the resuscitation of the facility. The commissioner also noted that among the options before the state government is to run the facility itself because of the importance of the facility.
He added, “There are options on the table, I hope that sooner than later decision will be taken. The considerations of the offers made are at the level of His Excellency, the Governor. When things like that are proposed, we send it to the Attorney General to look at the terms of the proposition and he forwards to His Excellency for direction. That’s where we are.”
However, Ememobong insisted that he is unaware of the N100m retirement for the completion of the press and N12 million spent on purchase of equipment since he did not serve as Commissioner for Information in 2016 and 2018.
He suggested the funds may have been used for the maintenance of the project.
“But you are aware that even to maintain it at the standard it is; money has been spent. Right from when I resumed till date, I am aware of a lot of maintenance to even keep it at that point.
“Those years you have mentioned, I was not there, so I don’t know about any retirement of fund.”
The claim of maintenance work being carried out by the commissioner has been found to be misleading. The level of rot in the building does not suggest any renovation has taken place recently. Sources conversant with the issue confirmed that no renovation or maintenance has been carried out on the facility in recent years. Moreover, the money retired under the subhead of completion of the mini press and purchase of equipment which is the kernel of this investigation does not speak to renovation or maintenance.
Diverted N112 million – The Additional Price the state pays
The people suffered double financial jeopardy as money released to equip the press was misappropriated even as the state government spent hundreds of millions on commercial printing. In three years alone, 2016, 2018 and 2019, analysis of the audited financial report revealed that the state spent a total of N189.5 million for commercial printing for the House of Assembly alone.
For instance, the House of Assembly spent N101.5 million for printing jobs in 2016. These jobs include 28,000 copies of seasons greeting cards, printing of calendars and desk pocket diaries and 10,000 numbers of Almanac, and the printing of other legislative/administrative documents.
In 2017, N159 million was budgeted for the above items. In 2018 the expenditure reduced to N11.5 million. However, it rose again in 2019 to N76.5 million. In 2020 and 2021, N52 million each was approved for printings. The Mail Newspaper could not access the financial statements for 2017 and 2020. The quarterly financial report for 2021 does not include information on expenditures made on line items.
Sources at the assembly press noted that they have never been contacted for any of the printings even as they would have executed the work with less than 20 percent of the N189.5 million if the printing press was functional.
The cost on Akwa Ibom State laws/justice
What is more, the N112 million diverted from the project has contributed to depriving the state from having gazetted laws. Sources at the Ministry of Justice who insisted on speaking anonymously said that the absence of a functioning government printing press has contributed in no little measure to lack of gazetted laws in the state since 2000.
“Gazettes must be printed in government press because of the sensitivity of the document. If you visit this press which is located at the House of Assembly, you will see that it is comatose and that is one of the key reasons we do not have gazetted laws since year 2000,” one of the sources said.
Lawyers have complained over how unavailability of gazetted laws has affected their practice and criminal justice in Akwa Ibom State.
In an interview, Clifford Thomas, a Lawyer at Libertas Solicitors (General Law Practitioners) and Coordinator of Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community, said because laws passed by the State Assembly and assented to by the governor have not been gazetted, lawyers have not enjoyed the benefit of exploring new laws in court.
” The last set of gazetted laws in Akwa Ibom State was in year 2000, 21 years ago. Every other law that has come up as a major or subsidiary law, even reviewed laws, we don’t have them in gazetted form. What we have are bills that were signed into laws. We only have them in photocopies. And most times, it may be difficult to find them. We don’t have them in gazetted form”, he noted.
“Any law passed and assented to without being gazetted is not a state law. It still remains a bill that has just been signed. Until it is gazetted, it cannot be cited.”
Thomas said it was wrong for the state government to use laws not gazetted as basis for actions and policies.
“By convention, we have established a precedence of comical error using none gazetted laws to send people to jail among other government actions. It is a breach of the fundamental right of people.
“If someone comes up and takes it up technically at the Federal High Court, because it would be you against the State Government. If the person gets to the Appeal Court and then Supreme Court, I am very sure that the Supreme Court will declare them a nullity. If a law is not gazetted, it is not a law, it takes non effect.”
The lawyer said that gazetted laws can only be printed at government printing press, insisting that “you can’t take very sensitive Government documents as far as gazetted laws to be printed in a private printing press. Once those laws are printed at government press, they have the seal of government authority”.
Inibehe Effiong a human rights lawyer corroborates Thomas’ assertions. He said he has not been able to access laws assented to after year 2000 during the course of his practice in the state.
Effiong said that there are instances assented laws were withdrawn without due process in the State because they were not gazetted.
“For instance, the Administration of Criminal Justice Bill passed by the Assembly was announced publicly by the Chief Judge of that time that the Governor had assented to it only for us to hear that the law was withdrawn by the Attorney General. I understand that they later issued a circular directing the Justices to rely on the first Administration of Criminal Justice Law.
“This is the effect of not having our laws gazetted. Once the governor gives assent, such should not have happened. So, it becomes controversial whether the law existed or not since no one can lay hands on the law.
“It is sad that those who are supposed to be bounded by the law do not have the opportunity of seeing the law. This affects administration of Justice. How do you go to court as a lawyer over a matter that you will need a particular law to rely on and you cannot lay hands on the clean copy of that law? It is an embarrassment. Even Judges are also having same challenge.”
Contacted, the Akwa Ibom State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Mr Uko Udom (SAN) claimed he is not aware of the challenge that may have stalled the production of gazetted laws.
“I don’t know what the challenges were at a time. I only started work February this year. I don’t want to speculate on what the issues were.
” There are no challenges presently. We are ready to have gazetted laws as a committee has been set up to do that now. Approval and funding have been put in place. Work has already commenced on it.”
This is the first in a two-part series on how corrupt government officials in Akwa Ibom diverted millions of naira of public funds through the State House of Assembly.
* This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting *