2023: Fear grips Ebonyi LG Chairmen as EFCC probes N2bn road contracts

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Things are not looking good for the local government system in Ebonyi State as chairmen of the 13 local government areas (LGAs) have reportedly gone into hiding after receiving invitation to appear, in turns, before officials of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC).

The invitation is for them to answer questions concerning what a source called “allegations of monumental corruption, official sleaze, wanton misappropriation and deliberate diversion of funds.”

The allegations have been levelled against those who have been in charge of grassroots administration in the state and are said to have been perpetrated by local government chairmen, family members and loyalists of governor of the State, Engr. David Umahi.

None of the invitees honoured the EFCC invitation; thinking that their tenure would expire in a questions of days.

But, to make matters worse, Justice F. O. Riman of the Federal High Court sitting in Abakaliki, on August 25, nullified the local government election held in the state on July 30.

Before the judgment, many people had complained about how the third tier of government was run in the state.

A letter of invitation dated July 6, 2022, and signed by EFCC’s Director of Operations, ACE I Abdulkarim Chukkol, was extended to all the Executive Chairmen, through the State’s Local Government Service Commission (LGSC), to appear at the anti-graft body’s national headquarters in Abuja on separate dates from July 15, 2022, to August 11, 2022.

The letters of invitation were officially communicated to the chairmen through a forwarding letter from the State’s Director, Admin and General Services (for the Chairman), Local Government Service Commission, Nwofia, M. N.

While urging the Council Chairmen to ensure strict compliance with the directive, the forwarding letter, dated 22 July, 2022 and titled RE: INVESTIGATION ACTIVITIES, read, “I am directed to refer to the letter with Ref. No. CR: 3000/ABJ/HQ/CMU-1/ST/DU/VOL.4/343 of 6th July, 2022 by EFCC on above subject as attached and to respectfully inform you that your presence is needed at the EFCC Headquarters, 5th Floor, Plot 301/302 Institution and Research District, Jabi, Abuja at 1000 hours. (See attached schedule).

“Please, take note of the urgent nature of the invitation letter and act accordingly for the invitation came to us today being 22nd day of July, 2022 and received by the Local Government Service Commission. Suffice to say that you make frantic efforts to honour the invitation and find attached for your guidance while noting paragraph three for its emphasis,” the forwarding letter from the LGSC concluded.

The anti-graft body’s ‘Letter of Invitation,’ addressed to the Chairman, Ebonyi State Local Government Service Commission, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, a copy of which was made available to our Correspondent reads: “This commission is investigating a complaint in which the need to seek certain clarification from your Local Government Chairmen becomes imperative.

“In view of the above, you are kindly requested to inform and release the under listed Local Government Chairmen to report for an interview with the undersigned through the Head, CMU 1 as scheduled below at EFCC Headquarters 5th Floor Plot 301/302 Institutions and Research District, Jabi, Abuja by 1000 hours.”

The letter specified the dates on which each of the Council Chairmen is expected to be quizzed and they are said to have gone to Abuja to say what they know about the issues at stake.

The invitation also stated that the concerned Chairmen “are to come along with Certified True Copies of all documents, approvals and payments made for One Kilometer Road construction in their Local Government Areas in 2019. This request is made pursuant to Section 38 (1) & (2) of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (Establishment) Act, 2004.”

Sources close to the Council Chairmen claim they are still in panic mode, holding nocturnal meetings with Governor Umahi and his close allies in the hope that there could be a court order or any form of intervention from the governor to either give them a soft landing or outrightly stop the Commission from probing further into the allegations that are said to be major.

They expected to be summoned for follow up interrogations and are well aware that if they fail to comply with the anti-graft body’s invitations, they may be arrested and dragged to Abuja.

A source within the Ebonyi Government House, who pleaded anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter revealed that, “The Chairmen were invited for a closed-door meeting with the Governor recently at about 7:00 p.m.

“Details of the meeting were not known as we were all asked to leave the new Governor’s Lodge venue of the meeting. But, it is certain that the issue of the EFCC invitation was on the front-burner, because the chairmen have been worried since the letter came to them through the LGSC.”

Another insider, who works in the Local Government system in the state, who simply identified himself as Mr. Mathias, alleged that all the 13 council chairmen had always compromised the financial autonomy of their various councils so as to be in the good books of the state government.

He alleged that these officials, to please the powers that be, were in the habit of signing off the allocations of their councils under the guise of prosecution of ‘joint projects.’

He alleged that such projects include: The International Market, the University of Medical Sciences, Uburu, the Airport project, concrete roads and flyovers, the new Olympic Stadium, among others.

“It is shocking and incredible, but provable that for 24 months from 2015 to 2017, only a paltry five inflows actually touched the accounts of the councils as allocations,” the source said.

Others, the LG staff, who is knowledgeable about happenings in the council’s finances further alleged, “were hijacked through countless resolutions on joint projects and programmes, some of which were said to have already been fully funded by either the Federal or State government.”

The council chairmen are in more dilemma as it may be very difficult for some of them, if not all, to produce evidence of the payments for these joint projects or properly account for the resources that have been accruing to the Councils, especially with the granting of financial autonomy for local governments by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration.

Majority of the council chairmen in Ebonyi were first appointed in 2015, upon the ascension to the Governorship position in 2015 of Engr. Umahi, for a period of about two years as compensation for the roles they played in the emergence of the Governor, who was stoutly opposed by his predecessor.

They were, therefore, expected to play along with Umahi as ‘undiluted loyalists’ of the government in power.

Those who understand the dynamics of Umahi’s operation confirm that he detests opposition of any kind or form, especially from those serving in his government.

The total control of the 13 council chairmen, particularly the finances of their councils, therefore, began immediately after they were appointed.

The Joint Allocation and Accounts Committee (JAAC), where the allocations are centrally funneled into, has been under the firm grip of the Governor formerly, allegedly through one of his loyalists, Samuel Okoronkwo, who was the State’s Commissioner for Local Government and Chieftaincy Matters.

The sharing formula for LGAs and Development Centres is 38% of the money accruing to each LGA for the parent LGA and the remaining 62% to be shared among the component Development Centres.

Sources alleged that the JAAC was manipulated in such a way as to ensure that the dividing line between the state’s and local governments’ allocations was very thin.

According to a source, the state government would usually take a lump sum for its ‘joint projects’ with the councils and leave the chairmen with little or nothing.

The situation became so bad that, whereas the chairmen were allegedly made to sign several post-dated cheques for some projects they knew little or nothing about, they did not even receive credit alerts on their phones to know how much exactly they received from the federation account.

A recorded video showing one Ifeanyi, said to be a Personal Assistant to the former Commissioner for Local Government, loading wads of naira notes into some ‘Ghana-Must-Go’ bags during the buildup to the 2019 general elections in the State, which got to the EFCC, is said to be the major reason for the current travails of the 13 local government chairmen in the state.

A very reliable source in the Commission told our correspondent that the said video, which had sparked outrage among the Commission’s top hierarchy when it appeared was later curiously ‘covered up’ after the elections.

“But the Commission’s Operations department has re-opened investigations into the matter and some, including the man in the video loading the cash (identified as Ifeanyi) has been arrested and interrogated.

“He spent about one month with officers of the Commission, who thoroughly grilled him,” it was revealed.

The revelations he made were said to have been very useful, hence the extension of invitation letters to the local government chairmen in Ebonyi, said the usually reliable source in the Commission.

He alleged that the suspect, while in detention, gave relevant information under interrogation, confessing to his interrogators that he was asked to load the cash for payment of party supporters, who were mobilised for a Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) campaign rally in the Abakaliki Township stadium during the buildup to the 2019 general elections.

“Upon interrogation by our men, the suspect (Ifeanyi) opened up. He said he was running the errand at the instance of his boss. Upon further probe, it was learnt that the ‘directive’ actually came from one of the blood brothers of the Governor, who he simply identified as Ochiagha,” he said.

The source of the money was later traced to withdrawals made from the Local Government’s JAAC, the Commission source further alleged, promising that soon, more of those indicted, including complicit commercial banks, would be invited for questioning.

Findings showed that it is only the immediate younger brother of the Governor, Austin Umahi, that goes by the title Ochiagha and he, obviously, does not have the power to direct withdrawal of funds from the JAAC.

Investigations are said to have uncovered that about ₦2 billion was actually withdrawn from the various councils’ accounts at a frontline bank (names withheld) under the pretence that it was going to be used for the construction of one kilometer road in each of the 13 LGAs in the state at the allegedly inflated cost of N200 million each.

A source in the Local Government system in Ebonyi State, however, disclosed that apart from the Ohaukwu council boss and a few others who insisted that the contract be awarded to another company that eventually executed the jobs, the other contracts were awarded to the same source, who used various companies as fronts, including companies allegedly owned by Austin Umahi named as Project Team Ltd, Arc Projects Limited and CHRZL Ltd.

An online search by our correspondent showed that one of the Companies, Cute. Arc Projects Limited was incorporated in Abuja, Nigeria with Registration Number 401002 and was registered in January 2001.

Its official address is Plot 217, Cadastral Zone A8, Wuse II, Abuja, FCT but the current status of the company is said to be Unknown.

Recent findings, however, show that, as pressure mounted through discreet investigations by the EFCC, work has re-commenced on some of the LGAs’ roads like that of Ishielu, after the contracts were later re-awarded, but still at allegedly exorbitant costs.

“Some of the Chairmen have been running helter-skelter in search of Certified True Copies of the requested documents, like approvals and payments for the 2019 one-kilometer road contracts. As we speak, they are all in serious trouble,” claimed one of the Treasurers in the local government system in the State.

This is more so, as it is already public knowledge that a former Council Chairman for Afikpo North, Ogbonnia Oko Enyim, who fell out with the first family, had earlier submitted himself to the anti-graft agency in connection with a petition he submitted against them.

In the said petition, Enyim had allegedly, heavily indicted Austin Umahi’s Companies as being in charge of the said One Kilometer Road contract, which was reportedly never executed till he was denied his attempt to be re-elected into office as Chairman by the Governor and his foot-soldiers, who preferred and enthroned his stepsister, Obiageri Oko Enyim, to take over as chairman.

Whereas majority of the chairmen were favoured with the All Progressives Congress (APC) tickets for either House of Representatives or Senatorial positions, it is said that these are not the best of times for most of them in their political careers, especially with the upcoming elections.

A supporter of one of the chairmen, who is vying for a Senatorial seat, said he fears that his boss merely having the ruling party’s ticket was not enough.

“It remains to be seen how they may pull through especially considering how unpopular our party is becoming by the day and the heavy money politics involved in elections in our clime,” he reacted.

“The Chairmen are not having a wonderful time and that is all I can say. Their allocations are trapped, salaries are paid just to muffle the pressure of civil servants, while these Chairmen are starved of funds until they are so much under pressure to accept any condition for the release of what is left of their allocations.

“Only then are the allocations released, and with it, a long expenditure guide containing every conceivable deduction is handed down to each of them guiding them on how to repost the money credited to their accounts into various government ‘projects’ while some are returned as large amounts of cash to the same source that released the money,” alleged a source in the JAAC office, who pleaded not to be quoted.

“The situation is like giving out with the right hand and taking back with the left hand!” he said.

The video showing Ifeanyi with the stash of cash is said to have been what blew the lid off the alleged scandalous dealings between the State and local governments in the state.

The fear for some of the Council Chairmen especially those with their party’s 2023 election tickets is that their consultations and campaign plans and schedules ahead of the elections could easily be disorganized by these EFCC invitations, which are believed to be ongoing.

There are even deeper fears that their opponents in other parties could weigh in on the brewing crisis to reinforce their strategies while the concerned chairmen remain distracted by the petitions. This is also not helped by the fact that some of them are new as Chairmen and were not in the saddle when the said contract was awarded.

The others, who were not favoured with the APC’s tickets for the 2023 general elections, are even more traumatized as there are said to be occasional attacks on their property and relatives. It is believed that they could now be generally exposed to more attacks from political opponents especially going into the election year.

“To worsen their complications, further allocations may be suspended until their exit. Even the little that used to be released to them may have ceased,” an Accounts Officer for one of the Local Governments alleged.

With the conduct of Local Government elections by the Ebonyi State Independent Electoral Commission (EBSIEC) on Saturday July 30, 2022, which was boycotted by opposition political parties and majority of the Ebonyi electorate, the 13 Local Government Areas’ Chairmen and the Councilors for the 171 Councillorship wards in the State that emerged, who would be sworn-in on September 1, may continue with the system put in place by the Umahi administration unless the EFCC intervention gets to the root of the matter and halts, what a concerned Ebonyi elder described as, further “lack of transparency in the use of local government funds and general maladministration at the grassroots.”

Government reacts

When contacted on Monday, the Special Assistant to the Ebonyi State Governor on Media and Strategy, Mr Chooks Oko, said he had seen evidence of the documents against the state government and will get back to our reporter as he was in a meeting.

However, he was yet to get back to our reporter before this publication.

Also, the Chairman of Afikpo North LGA, Barrister Obiageri Oko Enyim, could not be reached for her reaction as she was said to be in a meeting with stakeholders of the LGA.

However, her Personal Assistant, Mr Collins Okpara Amadi, said the Afikpo North LGA Chairman should be counted out as the road project in question was by her predecessor.

“But my madam isn’t involved. The road project was during her brother’s tenure,” he said in a brief WhatsApp message.

Furthermore, the Public Relations Officer of Afikpo North LGA, Mr Sunday Nkama, said he needed the approval of the State’s Commissioner for Information, Barrister Uchenna Orji, before reacting on behalf of the council.

Repeated calls and messages to the Commissioner for reaction were neither taken nor replied as at the time of filing this report.

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