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Promoting Good Governance.

How minister sponsored ‘illegal’ takeover of agency, breaching appropriation act and supporting abuse of office

THE Surveyors Council of Nigeria (SURCON) has been embroiled in running battles characterised by accusations of fraud, abuse of office, insubordination and lack of transparency since the registrar of the council, Surv. Muhammed Kabir illegally assumed administrative and accounting duties as head of the governing council.

This has been the case since former Minister of (State) for Works, Power and Housing II Suleiman Hassan who is currently the Minister of Environment breached the constitutional act establishing SURCON by directing the registrar to usurp the duties of the governing council and sideline the council from performing its functions.

The Background

Surveyor Joseph Agbenle was appointed President of the Surveyors Council of Nigeria (SURCON) by President Muhammadu Buhari on August 29 2017. Since his assumption in office, there has been tension between members of the governing council and the registrar over who is legitimately authorised to steer the affairs of the surveyor’s body.

The governing council headed by a president is charged with the responsibility of taking executive decisions on behalf of SURCON while the registrar of the council is answerable to the council.

Trouble started in September 2017, when the the council president demanded a financial audit of SURCON’s expenditure by the governing council, but the registrar declined, insisting he had an external auditor who was already auditing SURCON’s books without interference from the council.

With that response, the council president wrote a petition to the Minister of (State) Power, Works and Housing II on behalf of the council faulting the registrar Muhammed Kabir for insubordination and refusal to obey a lawful directive from the governing council.

He also accused the registrar Muhammed Kabir of running a parallel management body bearing the name “Management of SURCON”, and taking illegitimate decisions without the approval and ratifications of the1 governing council.

In a letter dated October 24, 2017,  the minister whom the SURCON President was answerable to, replied through the permanent secretary directing the registrar to operate as accounting officer and administrative head of SURCON and reducing the president of the council to a nominal head.

 

 

The directive from the Minister

The minister referred to Sections 4 & 5 of the SURCON 1989 Act, which does not  support the directives he issued.

The directive, in fact, breaches Section 6 of the SURCON Act established by CAPS.18 Laws of the federal republic of Nigeria which states that the “minister may give to the council directives of a general character or relating generally to particular matters (but not to any individual person or case) with regard to the exercise by the council of its functions and it shall be the duty of the Council to comply with the directives.”

The directive from the Minister

 

This action prompted the registrar to issue a memo directing the staff of SURCON to disregard all the directives of the council president describing him as a person without authority or legitimacy.

Section 2 (3), of the first schedule of the SURCON act, stipulates that ” the council shall meet whenever it is summoned by the president of the council and in any case not less than four times in any year.”

The council’s proceedings have been held only three times since 2017, contrary to the provisions of the SURCON act .

Agbenla, who spoke to The ICIR, described the minister’s action as providing legal backing for an illegal operation.

“There is no provision in the enabling act establishing SURCON that supports the decision of the minister. The law does not say the position of the president is a temporary one so I don’t know why the minister will justify the illegality perpetrated by the registrar,” he said.

Kabir has also been accused of misappropriation of the SURCON budget  in the award of contracts in connivance with the retired Chief accountant Ezekiel Okunola without the knowledge of the council.

In December 2017, the council president said he received a cash transfer of ₦2.5 million into his Guaranty Trust bank account from the private account of the then, chief accountant of SURCON, Ezekiel Okunola who told him the money was for a sensitisation tour of south-east states.

However, he told The ICIR he wasn’t aware of any tour approved by the governing council which he heads and wondered where the decision to tour southeastern states came from because since he assumed office in 2017 the council had met three times.

Immediately, he issued the chief accountant, now retired, Ezekiel Okunola, a query for illegally disbursing funds without the approval of the governing council, and for using account other than  SURCON’s official bank account to carry out such official transactions.

Okunola responded to the query stating that he received the directive from the registrar but declined to explain why the money was transferred from  his personal account.

In a phone conversation with The ICIR, Ezekiel explained that the money was for evaluation and supervision purposes and other section heads of SURCON got money transferred to their accounts after the governing council ratified the decision with a “no objection”.

“This is the first time I am hearing about this as an illegal activity, when I responded to the query from the President I wrote in my letter that I received instructions from the registrar to transfer exactly ₦2.5 million to the President and I wasn’t the only one who got money in my account, other section heads also got money,” he said.

“The money was a capital vote for capital projects and it was ratified by the governing council so there is nothing wrong with what I did,” he said.

Femi Olunlade, a member of SURCON governing council confirmed to The ICIR reporter that in the three meetings held since 2017 there was no mention of the budget in their discussions.

The rents of Agbenla’s official residence in Abuja were yet to be covered at the time as well as the other entitlements of his office which were withheld by orders of the registrar. So, he used the money paid to him to defray the cost of the rent and other expenses, he told The ICIR.

A petition written in August 2018 by Joseph Agbenla to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Independent and Corrupt Practices Commission to investigate the financial dealings of SURCON under the control of Kabir and conduct a forensic audit on its account books has not yielded results as the anti-graft bodies were yet to respond to his petitions.

In a Whatsapp message the registrar sent to the president , he accused the latter of maligning him and ended the message with with what Agbenla described as a threat “you will get what you sow.”

The Registrar’s defence

Speaking to The ICIR, Kabir said he is unaware of the insinuations of the SURCON president but insisted he hasn’t done anything wrong.

“I don’t know where all these accusations are coming from but the EFCC and the ICPC are not far away. Whoever is accusing me should go to them and let them perform their duties. I can’t respond to these baseless accusations because I am focused on performing my duties at SURCON,” he said.

When he was asked about the threatening Whatsapp message he sent to the SURCON’s president, he tried to evade the question.

“Well, if the President of the council was spreading evil rumours about me I had to warn him but that was something different,” he said.

Violation of the law – SURCON ACT

The Act governing SURCON is clear on the functions of the president of the governing council which is not stated as a temporary position with limited powers but a tenured position that makes him accountable to the president by reporting directly to the supervisory Minister of the Ministry of Works, Power and Housing under which SURCON is listed.

The word “temporary” does not appear anywhere in its laws in relation to the president of the surveying body.

The functions of the registrar listed in Part A, Section 7 of the Act, does not specifically empower the registrar to take up financial accounting duties or assume the President’s duties in the capacity of the registrar of the surveyor’s body.

The function that gives the Secretary independence is in Section 7 (7), paragraph D which stipulates that “it shall be the duty of the registrar to act as secretary to the council at all meetings.”

Hence, Part A Section 7 (a) of the Act states that the Registrar is “subject to the general direction of the Council.” Section 4 of the same part details what could lead to the cessation of membership of the governing council.

It reads: “A member of the Council shall cease to hold office if he becomes of unsound mind, or he becomes bankrupt or makes a compromise with his creditors, or he is convicted of a felony or any offence involving dishonesty or he is guilty of serious misconduct in relation to his duties.”

Findings by The ICIR reveals that the registrar was operating without the backing of the council after three meeting had been held by the council since 2017 but the budget of the council was not discussed by the council but projects were been implemented by the Registrar Kabir without the ratifications and approval of the governing council.

SURCON’S budget says little, hides much.

In the light of the allegations of fraudulent activities against the council registrar, The ICIR made checks into the breakdown of the budget of SURCON from 2017 to date to verify the claims against the registrar and it raised suspicions on several projects that were inserted in the budget that could not be explained.

The 2017 federal government budget, approved for SURCON shows that ₦53,179,248 was allocated for a capital project titled governance and institutional reforms. In the 2018 approved budget, the project was stated as an ongoing project expected to gulp ₦103,590,047 but enquiries made by The ICIR to officials of the surveyor’s body to determine what the project was expected to achieve and the intended beneficiaries of the project was unsuccessful.

Officials of SURCON who spoke to The ICIR refused to divulge details of the project claiming they were not authorised to speak.

Records obtained from the budget office, reveals that from 2017 to date SURCON had received more than 50 per cent capital releases from the federal government for its budgetary provisions.

The federal government allocated ₦32,750,250 in the 2017 approved budget for the Surveyor’s council to establish state offices across the country which is considerably meagre, but the project of such magnitude was not mentioned in the 2018 budget which raises suspicion.

The ICIR contacted some members of staff of SURCON and a few members of the governing council to verify if the State offices were established or setup but they claimed not to be aware of any State office.

The official website of the surveyor’s council which was last updated on September 2017 when the president of the council was inaugurated, listed only seven zonal offices and the headquarters in Abuja.

The ICIR sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to SURCON on December 20 to provide a financial breakdown of its capital projects executed from 2017 to date and also explain some provisions in its fiscal budget like the governance and institutional reforms and the results of its research and development.

However, the seven days specified by the FOI Act for government agencies to respond to FOI request had elapsed without a response from SURCON.

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