NIGERIA: The contract scandal in Imo State

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Rochas Okorocha,governor of Imo state, has come a long way from his time as a police leg and commercial school teacher in Jos. He is today, governor of Imo state; swept into office by two factors: a most lackluster Ohakim administration which had grossly underperformed.

That administration not only alienated the people of Imo state by what was perceived generally as a hollow and abrasive style of governance, but they had spent much of his equally fateful tenure building castles in the air.

A lot of those invisible castles cost the Imo tax payers quite a pile too. Among them were the Oak refinery, which now refines a lot of oil in the breach; the Oguta project, and as we see today, thanks to this, even angels now fear to tread in Oguta, and the grandmother of all hokey-pokey, the dredging of the River Nworie and its redesign as a recreational spot: rather than sail boats or Kayaks, or such like, I’m told that the river still bleeds mud, and that some disused equipment remain there, a testimony to the great sham into which was poured billions, down a drain pipe badly conceived and brilliantly mis-executed.

The Imo electorate in great pique swept Ohakim out of office, and brought in Rochas, riding on the wave of discontent. Even so, he rode on an equally bogus claim of public spiritedness and philanthropy. He sold the oldest snake oil in the market to the people: he was a man of the people. He had bought their trust with something called the “Rochas foundation” which allegedly awarded scholarship to indigent students. Well, trust the Imo people to be a bit too mushy in their affections on these occasions.

And so, much like that scene in Camara Laye’s Radiance of a King, Rochas rode straight in great and ardent sway to the gubernatorial seat in Owerri, on the platform of the APGA – always the party that wins election in Imo state, even though it was always too weak to defend its mandate or channel the level of public support for it into real political action. Well, give it to Rochas: he saw a great gap, and he took it.

The leadership of the APGA in Imo state was immediately in his hold. What Rochas lacks in savvy he made up profoundly in bluster. He blustered his way to a party ticket. He made deals with Martin Agbaso, who had in fact won the elections that brought Ohakim in to government.

That election was annulled; Agbaso went to court, and as we came to learn, was pressured, and then adequately bought-out of his mandate. As fait-acompli, Rochas took Martin Agbaso’s younger brother, Jude Agbaso as his deputy this time around. It was a surprising choice of course.

He quickly settled into his post as Imo’s Deputy Governor. Two incidents quickly marked that office: the kidnappings and deaths that have occurred in his office with the kidnapping and disappearance of a Permanent Secretary in the office of the Deputy Governor, Mr. Ihekwaba, who has since not been seen, and the kidnap and murder of another senior aide in the former Deputy governor’s office.

I do not think that journalists in Owerri have paid sufficient attention to the pattern of these incidents around the former Deputy governor, but what is certainly clear is that the move that led to his impeachment is deft political play by Governor Rochas Okorocha.

It is called repositioning. The situation itself is worth summarizing: one day, Jude Agbaso was slapped with allegations of taking a N500million bribe from a contractor, Joseph Dina, of JPbros. Joseph Dina is said to be a Lebanese contractor who does business with Rochas Okorocha.

It makes you wonder certainly about the shenanigans that have gone on in Imo State. First, local contractors are routinely side-stepped, while tax payers money are paid without regard to patrimony, to fronts who have no significant investment or claim in Imo state; who do not compete in clear, open and transparent bids for government contracts but are backdoored to the gravy train because they can pay bribes, and because they have business deals with elected public officials in Imo State who go far afield to recruit evil partners with whom to milk Imo state.

The outrage for me personally is that in this matter, the Imo State House of Assembly, which ought to have established clearer oversight, handled the matter like a witchunt. Here, let me say, that it is not my wish to defend Mr. Jude Agbaso; in fact, I think he may have got his just dessert.

Nevertheless, he has raised a rather pertinent and crucial issue: he has disavowed any connections to a bribe on the grounds that he could not authorize, as Deputy governor and Commissioner for Works, a payment to the said contractor. Only the governor, after due verification, can authorize payment for a contract.

Secondly, according to public service regulations established by the act of parliament, neither the governor nor the Deputy governor, can award a contract. It ought to be the duty of a properly constituted tenders board under the Public Service Commission. Elected or sworn officials who manipulate or influence the bidding process misuse their authority and are liable for prosecution; and this includes the governor.

On what grounds did JPbros therefore offer a bribe to the Deputy governor of Imo State? Was there a properly established, transparent and open public tenders for that contract for which this bribe was offered? Were local contractors given the first chance to compete fairly for the contract bid for which the said bribe was made? In the final analysis, what is the governor’s role in this whole business? This is the question that needs to be clarified, and should not be swept under the carpet.

While he has thrown Mr. Agbaso under the bus, and some say, as a way of safeguarding his back as he makes the move for the vice-presidential bid later, outside the APGA, Rochas Okorocha, it seems to me has questions to answer. Journalists in Imo State are slapping him too nicely on the wrist and have not asked the right questions. Governor Okorocha must come clean, and the Imo state House of Assembly must do its job by initiating wider scrutiny on this matter. It ain’t over yet.

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