By Dayo Aiyetan
Youths from Eket in Akwa Ibom State have threatened to disrupt construction work at Section IV of the East West Road if the federal government continues with plans to withdraw the case against Gitto Constuzioni Generali, the contractor handling the motorway project.
The youths spoke on Thursday in Abuja after the Attorney General of the Federation, AGF, approached a Federal Capital Territory, FCT, High Court, seeking to withdraw a case instituted by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, against Gitto and others.
The ICPC in august 2016 arraigned Gitto along with former Minister of Niger Delta, Godsday Orubebe, and two officials of the ministry, Lawrence Alaba and Ephraim Zari, on corruption and related charges.
The accused persons allegedly conspired to misappropriate the sum of N1.9 billion out of the N2.3 billion earmarked for payment of compensation to owners of properties marked for demolition in respect of the Eket – Oron Road dualisation project.
Specifically, according to the charge sheet obtained from the court, Gitto received N3,320,686,826 for the compensation but only paid part of it to some valuation consultants and misappropriated the remaining N1,965,676,153.46.
On his part, Orubebe first allegedly lied to ICPC investigators that the decision to review Gitto’s original contract was not done during his time as minister. He also allegedly conspired with the contractor to divert the balance of the compensation money into the road construction project, contrary to Federal Executive Council, FEC, approval.
At the resumed hearing of the case on Wednesday, when the prosecution counsel, Osuobeni Akponimisigha, a lawyer with the ICPC, told the court that he was ready to commence the case and call witnesses, a lawyer from the Ministry of the Niger Delta informed the court that the Attorney General had written to the ICPC directing it to discontinue the case.
But the prosecution counsel said he was not aware of any such letter and would have to confirm its existence from his boss.
On Thursday Akponimisigha did confirm to the court that, indeed, the Director of Public prosecutions, DPP, had on December 16, 2016 written to the ICPC chairman, on behalf of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, asking him to hands off the case.
However, Akponimisigha argued that prosecutorial powers were now vested in the Attorney general, under whose office both the DPP and ICPC Chairman operate.
He wondered why the Attorney General did not directly instruct the ICPC chairman but had to go through the DPP to order the discontinuation of the case and sought an adjournment to confirm that the DPP had the authority of the Attorney General to instruct that the case be withdrawn.
He said that the withdrawal of the case before the court would not fly in the face of the present anti-corruption campaign of the federal government, noting that the ICPC had established a prima facie case against the defendants.
Akponimisigha observed further that the office of the DPP had written the ICPC in recent times asking the agency to hands off several cases it was prosecuting in the courts and asked for a short adjournment to verify if the Attorney General, indeed, instruct that the case be withdrawn.
Justice Olukayode Adeniyi granted the prosecution counsel’s application and adjourned the matter to February 15.
However, speaking to the icirnigeria.org outside the court on Thursday, Samuel Etukudor, leader of the youths in five affected villages in Eket and Nnung Akpensien, a family head in one of the villages said that they would not accept the withdrawal of the case from court.
“I wonder why the attorney General want to withdraw the case now after the ICPC has investigated the matter for so long and finally charged it to court,” Etukudor stated.
He said that the ICPC and the court should be allow to pursue the case to the end to determine if any wrongdoing was committed.
Etukudor questioned the position of the Ministry of Niger Delta, which he said wrote a letter to ICPC indicating that no money was missing.
“It is really strange that the minister would say that no money is missing because when we met Gitto in 2014, the company told us that the compensation money cannot be paid to us because it had been “reabsorbed” into the construction of the road. That means they had used the money for purposes other than which it was meant,” the youth leader said.
In his own reaction, Akpensien was more forceful and said that the directive to withdraw the case is “fraudulent and corrupt itself.”
“I do not believe that the Attorney general would be part of this fraud in this day when the Buhari administration is fighting corruption. Why are they more interested in defending the contractor who accepted that he took money rather than getting the funds back into government coffers,” he queried.
He said that the youths in the area had remained quiet about the matter because they believed that the courts would do justice in the matter, adding that there would be no guaranteeing what would happen if the court case is truncated.”
“If they withdraw the case in court we would not allow Gitto to continue the rehabilitation work it is doing on Eket Urban Road because that is not what the Federal Executive Council approved and paid for.”
The attempt by the Attorney General to withdraw the case against Gitto and others is a curious twist in a saga that has had many controversial turns.
The Eket – Oron Road is a portion of Section IV (Onna – Oron Road) of the East West Road the contract of which was awarded by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration in 2006.
The 338km East West Road traverses five states in the Niger Delta, namely Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta and Rivers and is in four sections.
Section I, from Warri in Delta State to Kaiama in Bayelsa State is being handled by Setraco; Section II, Kiama to Eleme Junction in Rivers State was awarded to Julius Berger; Section III, Eleme Junction to Onna in Akwa Ibom State is being handled by RCC and Section IV Onna to Oron, also in Akwa Ibom awarded to Gitto. Most of the sections have reached over 90 % completion.
The cost of the entire project, which was put at N197 billion in 2006 had ballooned to N568 billion by last year, according to the Niger Delta Minister, Usanu Uguru.
However, by far the most contentious one of the sections is the Onna – Oron Road in Akwa Ibom where work has stopped for over two years over issues that were brought to the court by the ICPC.
Details of the controversy, political intrigues and corruption that have trailed Section IV of the East West Road are contained in an investigation titled Corruption Super Highway published by the icirnigeria.org in March 2016.
There are two major reasons why the ICPC arraigned Gitto, Orubebe and others. The original contract given to Gitto was for the dualisation of the Onna – Oron Road, including the Eket Urban portion, which passes through Eket town.
With the original plan, properties within 30 metres of the road were slated for demolition and compensation provided for victims. The houses were marked and owners ordered to move out since 2007.
However, contrary to what the government approved, Orubebe entered an agreement with the construction company to rehabilitate the existing dual carriageway in the Eket Urban portion instead of dualising it.
Not only that, Orubebe convinced the government to approve another N14 billion for the construction of a bye – pass to take traffic away from Eket town. It meant that there would be no more need for compensation as the houses earlier slated for demolition would no longer be brought down.
However, the minister did not ask the contractor to refund to government the N2.3 billion earmarked for compensation for the planned demolition exercise.
Documents obtained by this website indicate that of the N2,320,686,826 approved for compensation, the Niger Delta Ministry has so far instructed Gitto to pay a total of N355,110,672.56 to project evaluation consultants., leaving a balance of N1.965,576,153.40.
The breakdown of monies paid out to consultants are N203,083,273.84; N76,724,255 and N75,303,143.72, all paid out between June 2014 and October 2014.
Orubebe also did not ask the contractor to make refunds to government in view of the fact that the rehabilitation he now approved would cost far less than would have been spent on dualising the road.
That is why the ICPC charged Gitto, Orubebe and two officials of the Niger Delta ministry to court.
However, curiously, the Minister of State in the ministry, Claudius Omoleye, wrote a letter to the ICPC and the office of the Attorney General in September 2016 in defense of the construction company, saying that no money was misappropriated.
Although Gitto has held on to nearly N2 billion for over six years and failed to pay compensation to affected property owners in Eket, Omoleye said that “the balance of N1,965,576,153.46 being unused balance of the total approved compensation has not been expended but awaiting further contract decisions and directives from the client (Niger Delta Ministry).”
But the minister’s justification contradicts investigations and observations by Etukudor and Akpensien, who told our reporter that when they met the contractor they were told that the unspent compensation money had been “reabsorbed” into the funds for the Eket Urbak road construction.
Acting on Omoleye’s letter, the DPP wrote to the ICPC In December 2016 observing that the case in court could no longer be pursued in view of the clarification by the Niger Delta Minister.
“In view of the above, the basis for the prosecution of the accused persons for misappropriation does not exist and further prosecution cannot be justified,” the letter signed by the DPP, Umar Etsu Mohammed, stated.
“I am directed to convey the directive of the Honourable Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, invoking his powers under section 1174 (1) (c) Constitution of the Federal Republic Of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), Sections 105 and 108 of the administration of criminal Justice Act 2015, that you drop the charges against the suspects,” the letter directed.
But the affected youths in Eket would have none of that and have vowed to resist any attempt by the federal government to discontinue the case.
Etukudor insisted that Gitto has a case to answer, having failed to dualise the Eket – Oron road for which it received payment and for also failing to pay compensation to people whose houses were marked for demolition.
The youth leader said that the government can not just walk away from the matter like that because people’s properties have been rendered useless for about 10 years and they must be compensated for it.
“ Since they marked our houses for demolition, we were forced to move out. If you find anybody in the houses, they are not paying any rent because they say the houses now belong to the government. So they must pay us compensation,” he said.