Yahaya Bello
Yahaya Bello

By ADEBAYO OBAJEMU

Kogi state government and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, have been in a tangle over the N19 billion budget support fund given to the 35 states to pay workers’ salaries. The anti corruption agency had accused the Kogi government and particularly Governor Yahaya Bello, of diverting the money.

“The drama involving Kogi State government and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, and also tying Sterling Bank into the knot of conundrum that the saga has become; is now a case of the more you look the less you understand”, says Professor Adeagbo Moritiwon, a political scientist.

In early October, the Kogi Commissioner for Finance, Budget and Economic Planning, Asiwaju Idris Asiru, was reported as saying that the state was paying on a monthly basis to defray the N20 billion bailout loan it took from the Sterling Bank.

Asiru stated this when he together with the state Accountant -General, Jibril Momoh and Auditor- General, Yakubu Okala, was summoned before the State Assembly at plenary in Lokoja.

According to the report, they were summoned by the House during plenary on Thursday, Oct. 28, to shed more light on the alleged N20 billion that was recently forfeited to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in agreement with the EFCC.

At the plenary, the Commissioner stated that Sterling Bank opened the controversial fixed deposit account in the name of the Kogi government without the knowledge or directive of the state.

“Can you imagine that, is it possible for a bank to open an account on behalf of an institution, agency or an individual without authorization; there is a triangular cover up going on involving the anti-graft agency, the Kogi State government and the Sterling Bank”, Abimbola Omipitan, a rights advocate with the Centre for Transparency in Political Action, told BusinessHallmark.

“The Commissioner hit the hilarious when he said that the state government was surprised when it received the news that the bailout money meant to offset arrears of workers’ salaries was domiciled in a Fixed Deposit Account with the bank, to yield interest”, Omipitan said.

He added that when the state government demanded explanation from the bank through a letter written to Sterling Bank to ascertain the veracity of the development, the bank responded that the government had no such account with it.

In his response to the Legislators’ questions, Asiru said that the so-called Mirror Account was returned to the CBN as Liability Account by the bank, adding that the government also wrote to the bank on the issue.

“No fixed account was ever opened or authorised by anyone, neither was there any N20 billion kept anywhere.

“The facility in that sum collected from the bank via the approval of CBN in 2019 has since been used for the purpose intended. Salary payment and other overheads.

“Kogi is paying N89 million on monthly basis to settle the bailout loan.

”As a state, we are known for transparency, accountability and efficiency in funds management as it has become a culture under Governor Yahaya Bello.

“That cannot be rubbed in the mud easily. As a government, Governor Bello remains upright and our books are there to be checked.

”Kogi state is in the good books of the World Bank and other international partners for openness, transparency and accountability, therefore, no amount of misinformation and mischievous assault can fault the records”, Asiru said.

In their various explanations before the plenary, both the Accountant General and the Auditor General of the state averred that the bailout fund was judiciously utilised for the purpose it was meant.

Mr Abdulrasheed Bawa
Mr Abdulrasheed Bawa

On whether Kogi State Government would sue Sterling Bank for damages and if the money returned to CBN belonged to the state, the Finance Commissioner said the questions would be answered after the on-going investigations into the matter.

BusinessHallmark’s investigations showed that the bank was never sued nor publicly reprimanded for illegally opening an account on behalf of the Kogi State government.

“Is it not curious that the Kogi State government has refused to sue the bank, instead, it was threatening legal action against the EFCC”, a prominent Kogi indigene who craved anonymity for fears on his life told BusinessHallmark .

Why did the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that had earlier instituted a legal action against the state government withdraw the suit?

Moritiwon believed it has much to do with backdoor settlement,a situation now exploited by the state government to rant against the anti graft agency.

Recall that it was earlier reported that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had withdrawn the suit seeking the forfeiture of N20 billion bailout funds granted to the Kogi state government.

It would be recalled that on Aug. 31, 2021, Justice Tijani Ringim, a Lagos High Court vacation Judge, had frozen the Kogi state account domiciled in Sterling Bank Plc, following an ex-parte application brought by the EFCC.

It was stated that the EFCC however withdrew the suit following an application to that effect on the ground that the N19.3 billion would be returned to the CBN.Justice Chukwujekwu Aneke thereafter granted the order.

Mr. Kemi Pinheiro, SAN, who is an EFCC counsel leading Mr. Rotimi Oyedepo, provided six grounds on which the judge granted the prayer, adding that “the EFCC is a responsible body.”

But many sources told this medium that there may have been an amicable settlement between the EFCC and the state government.

One of the grounds was that questions resulting in the start of the suit had been clarified, and an intention had been shown to return the sum of N19,333,333,333.36 back to the Central Bank of Nigeria.

All this development was sequel to an exparte application granted by Justice Tijjani Ringim on August 31, brought by the EFCC for an interim forfeiture of the N19 billion, said to be warehoused in state’s bank account number 0073572696.

Meanwhile, counsel to the Kogi State Government, Professor Sam Erogbo (SAN), had on the grounds of a motion on notice, dated September 14, 2021, urged the court to vacate the interim forfeiture order earlier granted the EFCC.

He said that the respondent’s application leading to the grant of the order of the court dated August 31, was speculative.

Prof. Erugo said there was misrepresentation of facts before the court leading to the granting of the order.He added that, “There was no material before the court linking Kogi State Government Salary Bail-out Account with the application and subsequent order of court.

“That the account opening package attached to the respondent’s application with account No 0072969301, is at variant with account No 0073572696.

“That account No 0073572696 was neither opened nor operated by the Kogi State Government, but an internal (Mirror) account opened for its purposes, as there is no such account with credit balance of N19,238,493,150.71 or N20,000,000,000, as alleged.

“That the court lacked the jurisdiction to entertain application as the applicant lacked the locus standi to initiate the case,” he said.

Many sources who spoke to this medium agreed that there may have been a settlement of some sort, and part of it forbids Sterling Bank from commenting on the matter.

Efforts to speak to the government on the matter proved abortive.

The reaction of the state government has been that of denial from day one when the story broke out.

Recall that Kogi State government has at different times described as “mischievous, false and politically motivated,” a statement by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) that it had returned N19.3 billion bail-out funds allegedly “hidden” by the state to the Central Bank of Nigeria.

The government thereafter gave the EFCC a 48 hours ultimatum to retract the statement posted on its Facebook Account on November 19, or be prepared for court action.

However, the government never carried out its threat, a situation many knowledgeable about Kogi affairs say may have been as a result of “triangular backdoor manoeuvre by the tripartite to the saga.

In a media briefing recently, Kingsley Fanwo, the state Commissioner for Information and Communications, “assured members of the public, especially Kogi indigenes, Nigerians, investors and development partners that the funds claimed by the EFCC to have been returned to the CBN does not belong to Kogi State.

He stated that the development was, “a hatchet job conceived by politicians and implemented by an irresponsible EFCC headed by Abdulrasheed Bawa,” to destroy the rising political fortunes of his principal, Governor Yahaya Bello and subject him to ridicule and disrepute.

Fanwo averred that, “The EFCC cares not for how this fake news will affect the fortunes of the state, shake investor confidence and the possibility of setting the people of Kogi State against the government of Kogi State once it is able to satisfy the desires of its paymasters and political allies.

“Let it be known that the Kogi State government refutes every bit of these false allegations being peddled by the EFCC. The Kogi State government had disbursed its bailout loans for the purpose of which it was granted as of October 2019.

“There is therefore no ‘hidden bailout funds/loan’ belonging to Kogi State that is capable of being returned to the CBN or frozen by an order of Court. The EFCC knows this, the fear of exposure of its lies in Court and the attendant sanctions informed its decision to hurriedly withdraw the sham suit it filed in Court.

“Consequently, the Kogi State Government demands a retraction of this most malicious press release and of all allegations of crimes levied against the Kogi State Government and its governor.

“We further demand an apology published within 48 hours from today in one national daily and on all EFCC official and social media platforms addressed to His Excellency, Alhaji Yahaya Bello, the Executive Governor of Kogi State and the entire government and people of Kogi State.”

Fanwo stated, “Rather than the EFCC to admit that the account did not belong to the Kogi State government or opened on its behalf and move on to face Sterling Bank squarely, we were reliably informed by officials of Sterling Bank Plc that their officials who wrote the letter of September 1 2021 were invited and detained by the EFCC and under duress made to write and sign extra-judicial statements which fit the narrative which the EFCC and their paymasters wanted to peddle.

“Despite this treatment, the bank still proceeded to deny via their letter of October 5 2021 that the Kogi State government opened or operated a ‘Kogi State salary bailout fixed deposit account No. 0073572696’ wherein an alleged N19.3 billion was hidden by the Kogi State government according to the EFCC.

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