How push for investigation of corruption allegations against DG of Copyright Commission led to sack of board chairman by Buhari
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THE recent sack of the Chairman of the Board of the Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), Dr Tonye Clinton Jaja, was as a result of the corruption allegations against the Director-General of the agency, Mr John Asein, the ICIR has gathered.
Jaja, a lawyer and lecturer at the National Institute for Legislative Studies, was inaugurated as Chairman of the Board of the NCC on May 28, 2019. After about a year in the office, Jaja was sacked by President Muhammadu Buhari on October 15, 2020.
Jaja’s removal from office was announced in a letter dated October 15, 2020, and signed by Dayo Akpata, SAN, the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Justice.
The letter read, “I have been directed to notify you of your removal as the Chairman, Governing Board of the Nigerian Copyright Commission by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, His Excellency, Mohammadu Buhari, GCFR, as conveyed vide letter Ref: 59312/V/230 of 28th September, 2020. Your removal is with immediate effect and you are, therefore, expected to handover all the properties of the Commission in your possession to the Director General. While wishing you success in your future endeavours, please accept the assurances of the warm regards and best wishes of the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice.”
The letter did not state the reason for Jaja’s sack.
Interestingly, the sack letter was forwarded to Jaja through the Director General of the NCC, Asein. As at the time of his unexpected sack as Chairman of the Commission’s board, Jaja was spiritedly pushing for the suspension of the DG to pave way for thorough investigation of allegations of corruption against him (DG).
The allegations against DG, Nigerian Copyright Commission
Asein was accused of continuing to hold the full-time position of Executive Director of the Reproductive Rights Society of Nigeria (REPRONIG), a collective management organisation (CMO) for Nigerian authors and publishers regulated by the Nigerian Copyright Commission, from January 10, 2017, to January 8, 2019, despite having been appointed the DG. He was also alleged to have continued to act as the sole signatory to REPRONIG’s bank accounts, long after assuming office as NCC DG, in the course of which he allegedly signed Society’s funds in dollars to himself.
Asein was also alleged to have, on December 19, 2019, received the sum of $22,000 from the UBA domiciliary account of REPRONIG.
Asein’s relationship with REPRONIG, an organisation regulated by NCC which he heads, was the basis of the ‘conflict of interest’ allegation against him, which is subject to investigations by the Code of Conduct Bureau.
Asein was also accused of brokering a deal between the copyright commission, Agency Francaise De Development (AFD), Punuka Attorneys and KPMG without carrying the NCC board and management along in the transaction.
Also, while serving as a public officer, Asein was alleged to be, at the same time, director of a private company, Books & Gavel Limited, contrary to Article 030424 of the Public Service Rules.
Asein, in the same vein, was alleged to be receiving pension as a retired public officer and at the same time receiving remuneration as a serving public officer, in contravention of section 4(1) of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers.
Code of Conduct Bureau investigation
Jaja, as chairman of the Board of the NCC, submitted a memorandum to the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB) as part of investigations into the allegations against the DG, Asein. The erstwhile board chairman’s memorandum, forwarded to S.P. Gwimi, Director, Intelligence, Investigation and Monitoring, Code of Conduct Bureau, was dated August 24, 2020.
In the memorandum, Jaja noted that the investigation into the allegations against the DG of the NCC was of ‘national interest’ considering the contribution of the copyright aspect of the creative industry to the economy. He also raised concerns that Nigeria risks losing out from serving as the host African country for the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), as, according to him, stakeholders in the organisation were uncomfortable with the conflict of interest allegation against the NCC DG. Jaja, who enclosed an affidavit he swore in a Federal Capital Territory High Court to confirm the veracity of the contents of the memorandum, explained that he was acting due to his pledge to uphold the law, and put the interest of the country first, during his inauguration as Chairman of the Governing Board of the NCC.
“In my capacity as Chairman of the Governing Board of the Nigerian Copyright Commission, I received several petitions containing allegations of conflict of interest and abuse of office committed by Mr John Asein, the DG of the Nigerian Copyright Commission,” Jaja noted in the memorandum, adding, “Upon receipt of the first petition, I held a meeting with Mr John Asein and the petitioner, Mr Tony Okoroji, Chairman of the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON), on 30th January 2020, at my office at the National Institute for Legislative Studies. During the meeting, Mr John Asein admitted that it was an ‘indiscretion’ for him to continue to perform duties for REPRONIG after his appointment as DG of the NCC. This is because REPRONIG is one of the private collective management organisations regulated by the NCC.”
Jaja added that during the January 30 meeting, Asein did not provide any letter of resignation as evidence that he has resigned from REPRONIG. “To the contrary he (Asein) stated that it was because nobody was available to take over from him that is why he continued to perform duties for REPRONIG (in his capacity as Executive Director of REPRONIG) after his appointment as the DG of the NCC. One of his staff of the NCC, who was also engaged and used by Mr John Asein to perform duties for the REPRONIG, came to my office and confessed that after his appointment as DG of the NCC, he (Asein) continued to perform duties for REPRONIG.”
Jaja also informed the Code of Conduct Bureau investigators that at the January 30, 2020 meeting, Asein admitted that he received salaries after retirement for the months of January, February, March and April 2016 due to the policy of the President Goodluck Jonathan administration that prescribed retirement for any person who has served as director for more than eight years and so he was retired prematurely, and therefore, entitled to the salaries after retirement.
Also, Jaja disclosed that he sighted a certified true copy of the incorporation of a private company, Books & Gavel Limited, where Asein’s name was listed as a Director with majority shares.
Jaja, in his capacity as chairman of the governing board, issued a query dated February 4, 2020 to Asein, demanding a written response to Okoroji’s petition. According to Jaja, when Asein refused to respond to the query, he (Jaja) notified the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation of the development in a letter dated February 7, 2020.
Jaja, in the memorandum, urged the Code of Conduct Bureau to investigate and make specific findings on the allegations against the NCC DG, Asein.
Jaja writes Buhari, seeks suspension of NCC DG
Jaja, in the memorandum to the CCB, suggested that it would be proper to place Asein on suspension to allow for unfettered investigation of the allegations. “The suspension of Mr John Asein will allow members of staff of the NCC to submit written and oral testimony without fear of intimidation,” he said, noting that some members of staff who previously submitted petition to him against the DG later reneged due to a combination of threats and financial inducement.
Also, Jaja forwarded a letter to President Buhari, dated September 22, 2020. In the letter, he urged the President to suspend Asein.
The letter, seen by The ICIR, was titled ‘Re: Circular Ref. No. SGF/OP/1.S.3/T/163 – Approved Disciplinary Procedure Against Chief Executive Officers of Federal Government Parastatals, Agencies and Departments: Written Decision of Members of the Governing Board of the Nigerian Copyright Commission Recommending the Suspension/Interdiction of Mr John Asein, Director General of the NCC Pending Completion of the Investigation by the Code of Conduct Bureau’.
The letter read, “By a letter dated 14th August 2020, the Code of Conduct Bureau invited the Chairman of the Governing Board of the NCC to submit a memorandum and oral submission about the ongoing investigation of Mr John Asein, the Director General of the NCC. A copy of the memorandum is enclosed. Members of the Governing Board of the NCC were invited by a letter dated 18 September 2020 to submit their written decisions. Out of four (4) members, three (3) members (including myself) wrote in support of the decision to recommend the suspension of Mr John Asein, the DG of the NCC. Copies of the said letters are enclosed. While thanking Your Excellency in advance for your anticipated prompt and positive response, please accept assurances of our esteemed respect and regards.”
The ICIR also saw a letter from one of the board members, Dr Alewai J. Mamza, which endorsed the recommendation for Asein’s suspension.
NCC Governing Board members disown Jaja
However, the matter took a different turn after the representative of the Ministry of Justice on the NCC Governing Board, Mrs Maria Towo Austin-Odigie, and four other members, issued a memo to disown the letter written by Jaja to President Buhari to request the DG’s suspension. In the memo, they accused Jaja of orchestrating phantom allegations and petitions against Asein. They alleged that Jaja’s action was borne out of undue interference in the running of the NCC, as well as vendetta in respect of allegations of plagiarism levelled against him (Jaja) by Asein. “By stating that three out of four members of the Board have recommended the DG’s suspension, the Chairman (Jaja) is being economical with the truth, giving his Excellency the impression that a majority of the Governing Board of the Commission had taken the decision to suspend the DG of the Commission. This is barefaced falsehood,” the memo said.
When contacted by The ICIR, Jaja refused to speak on the record concerning the issues surrounding his removal from office. He noted that most of the issues are subject to lawsuits that are pending in court.
However, The ICIR saw a letter, addressed to President Buhari, through the Attorney-General of the Federation, by the Bori, Rivers State, branch of the Nigerian Bar Association. The letter, dated October 19, 2020, said there was an urgent need for the President’s intervention over the violation of the Federal Character Principle at the Nigerian Copyright Commission. According to the letter, signed by the chairman of the Bori NBA branch, Ledum Finor-Puene, and other officials, four members of the Governing Board of the NCC – Mrs Towo Austin-Odigie, Mr John Asein (the DG), Comrade Salisu Othman and Rev Bayo Awala – were all from Edo State.
Asein denies allegations
When contacted by The ICIR, Asein insisted that he was not guilty of the allegations, particularly the accusation of conflict of interest.
“That is not true. I don’t have any conflict of interest situation,” Asein simply said in response to enquiries by our correspondent.
Asein said he would not be able to comment on some aspects of the allegations, which he said are subject of a pending lawsuit filed by the Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) against the commission.
Jaja axed over allegations against DG
A source in the copyright commission, who did not want to be named, told our correspondent that the board chairman, Jaja, was sacked because of the allegations against Asein. The source added that Jaja was also sanctioned for misrepresenting the Governing Board of the NCC, and, allegedly, taking sides with COSON against the commission.
Investigation discontinued on orders from above? Code of Conduct Bureau pleads for ‘patience’
The ICIR could not immediately confirm claims, by sources familiar with the matter, that the investigation into the allegations against Asein has been discontinued ‘based on orders from above’.
The ICIR contacted the Code of Conduct Bureau to ascertain the status of the investigation, and also to find out if the matter had actually been discontinued, as alleged.
In response to enquiries, an Investigating Officer of the Code of Conduct Bureau, Abdullahi Aliyu, urged our correspondent to be ‘patient’ with the organisation. But Aliyu also said he was not in a position to provide answers to The ICIR‘s questions. “I am only but one of the investigating officers on the case, I do not have the requisite approval to give out all the answers to your queries. I will have to defer to my superiors for necessary action. While I appreciate the work you do for the public, I implore that you be patient with us for now,” the CCB investigating officer said in a WhatsApp message in response to The ICIR‘s enquiries.
Lawyer goes to court to stop Minister of Justice from supervising Nigerian Copyright Commission
Meanwhile, a lawyer, Tosin Ojaomo, has asked the Abuja Federal High Court to declare that, going by the provisions of the Copyright Act, the Minister of Information and Culture is the rightful minister to supervise the Nigerian Copyright Commission, and not the Minister of Justice. The Copyright Act stipulated that the minister in charge of culture should supervise the commission.
The lawyer, in a suit numbered FHC/ABJ/CS/1649/2020, filed on December 10, 2020, also asked the court to declare that the statutory recommendation made by the Attorney-General of the Federation to the President for appointment of any person into the position of DG of the NCC was null and void and of no legal effect.
The lawyer equally asked the court to declare that all appointments made by the President to the position of DG of the NCC were illegal, and that all statutory functions performed by any person so appointed are null and void.
In the same vein, Ojaomo asked the court to order the Minister of Information and Culture to take over the supervision of the commission.
The Nigerian Copyright Commission was originally a parastatal under the then Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which is now part of the Ministry of Information and Culture.
However, in February 2006, the Federal Executive Council, during the administration of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, transferred the supervision of the Copyright Commission to the Ministry of Justice. The decision followed a recommendation in the White Paper on Harmonisation of Government Agencies and Parastatals, 2000.
But the Copyright Act was not amended to reflect the change in the status of the commission as a parastatal under the Ministry of Justice, a development which means that the supervision of the agency by the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of the Federation was contrary to constitutional provisions.