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The Ambode probe

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Akinwunmi Ambode

In what many observers see as perhaps a move whose end is clearly very difficult to be determined, the first shots have already been fired in the long-speculated ‘trial’ of the immediate past Lagos State Governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode.

Taking place simultaneously at the State House of Assembly and the national media space, Mr. Ambode is being accused of using his stint as Number One citizen in the state to engage in unwholesome financial practices and other acts that do not conduce to good government.

Indeed, underscoring the fact that some of Mr. Ambode’s traducers are playing to the tune of a very well rehearsed script, they assembled themselves under the aegis of a group of crusading citizens, the Eko Heritage Group, and on that platform, released a document in some Nigerian newspapers, entitled ‘Ambode’s Many Sins Against Lagosians.’ And they were unequivocal about what they wanted.

Listing out their case against the former Governor, they requested answers for the outcome of their own investigations which had turned out revelations relating to the fact that the state’s commonwealth was being allegedly diverted to private accounts in Seychelles and Mauritius. They also charged that some prime skyscrapers in Eko Atlantic City were linked with Ambode.’

Within the same period, the Lagos State House of Assembly inaugurated a committee to probe at least one of the high-profile transactions of the administration.

The House of Assembly then went on to mandate a committee to probe what it termed was the purchase, without budgetary approval, of 820 mass transit buses by the Ambode administration.

If the alleged due process breaches in the bus purchase saga are taken out of the equation, there remain however several other damming allegations.

One of these is what the Eko Heritage Group has isolated to be the award of questionable contracts.

One name that features prominently in the saga, Craneburg Construction, a civil engineering company that was ostensibly established just months after the governor ascended the saddle. According to Ambode’s traducers, the neophyte firm with very little or no construction experience, was to be awarded a plethora of jobs, including a jumbo $300million deal for road projects in Ambode’s Epe constituency. The company is being viewed by the Group as an Ambode front.

Also named in the advertorial as one other person whose relationship with the former Governor require investigating is Herbert Wigwe, the Group MD/CEO of Access Bank Plc, of which the group says: ‘thorough investigations must be conducted to ascertain the volume and variety of businesses Ambode did with the bank; why it was both a banker and a contractor to the state; whether the businesses went through due process and why Access Bank was the sole bank of the state for four years.’

Other allegations raised by the Eko Heritage Group in their advertorial include the Visionscape environmental saga where the former governor is said to have instructed the state Accountant General’s office, via a standing order to make monthly remittance of N713.7million to Visionscape; and the One Lagos Fiesta through which Ambode staged concerts that ‘cost the state government hundreds of millions of naira of unbudgeted funds some of which reportedly found their way back into the pockets of the governor and his cronies.”

Of all the allegations raised however, the one that has generated a lot of hoopla is the fact that the Ambode Bus Reform Initiative which was to bring in new buses and terminals ‘did not have the backing of the House of Assembly.’

Speaking on the floor of the House Assembly, a member of the Ninth Lagos State House of Assembly, Gholahan Yishawu (Eti-Osa II), stated that though the former governor had briefed the Eighth Assembly on the broad details of the scheme, facts have since come to the public domain that rather than the former governor’s account that the state would only contribute 30 per cent of the cost of the buses to be supplied, with the operator amortising ‘the remaining cost on instalment payment basis until the 30 per cent paid by the government was liquidated,’ the former governor had gone on to request approval for a N17billion supplementary budget provision for the buses that lay outside the scope of Ambode’s earlier presentation to the house.

Given this discrepancy, the House declined granting approval even as it reportedly invited the house to clarify the discrepancy.

Continuing, Yishawu observed that though the requested clarification did not come, the executive yet went on to introduce budgetary estimates of N24bn and N7bn in 2018 and 2019 to enable it purchase the said buses but which were also not honoured by the legislature.

Notwithstanding this rejection, the executive reportedly also went ahead to procure the 820 buses at the cost of N45bn. Of these, 520 units were still said to be at the bonded warehouse of the importer while 50 were with the Customs, with both reportedly accumulating costly demurrage.

A committee was then set up by the House to formally probe the bus saga and in his ruling, the Speaker, Rt. Hon. Mudashiru Obasa directed the committee to invite the Accountant General of the state, Commissioner of Finance, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Transport, Managing Director of LAMATA and others involved in the purchase to explain their roles in the saga. The committee is headed by Fatal Mojeed (Ibeju Lekki 1).

More politics than public interest

Underscoring the fact that there may indeed be more politics than justice and public interest considerations in the entire saga, some other facts and rebuttals are already coming into the public domain on the allegations leveled against the former governor.

In one such public rebuttal, the developers of Eko Atlantic City, South Energyx Nigeria, have said that the former governor of Lagos State, Akinwunmi Ambode, does not own a skyscraper in the Eko Atlantic City.

South Energyx Nigeria wrote:

“We would like to clarify that this report is completely false as Ambode has no ownership or links to any skyscrapers in Eko Atlantic City.

“We can also confirm that we were never contacted to confirm the claims before the article was published.”

For Access Bank whose MD was named in the advertorial, the response from its spokesman, Abdul Imoyo, when Business Hallmark contacted him by telephone is that the matter is already a subject of legal disputation and as such all of the issues would be resolved in that manner.

A continuing fight

This is however not the first time that Ambode, who failed to get a return ticket on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC in Lagos State, would be accused of being involved in acts that may be prejudicial to the financial good health of the state.

Early in August, there was an allegation that a whooping sum of 9.9billion had been traced by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC to accounts that were linked to him. At that time he vigorously denied any involvement in the matter, saying that none of his accounts contained N9.9bn let alone being frozen by the EFCC.

In a response issued through his media aide, Habib Aruna, Ambode explained that though he did not intend to join issues with the anti-corruption agency, adding that there had not even been any communication between him and the commission on the issue.

On the accounts in question, which had already been frozen by the Federal High Court, he stated that they belong to the Lagos State Government and not him or any individual. The statement reiterated:

“Those accounts were opened in the course of normal operations by the Lagos State Government for its administrative purposes and not for the former governor’s personal transactions as was being wrongly insinuated and have been operated to ensure smooth operations of government activities by previous and present administrations. The former governor was not and will never be involved in any unauthorized use of government property and resources.

“We strongly believe that after four demanding years as Chief Executive of Lagos State, Mr. Ambode is entitled to some deserved rest with his family and loved ones without the unwarranted attacks on his well-earned reputation,” it concluded.

Fighting Back

Ambode’s statement was coming after reports that a Lagos Division of the Federal High Court had frozen three bank accounts allegedly linked to the Lagos State government and him.

Chuka Obiozor, the presiding judge, ordered the temporary freezing of the accounts, which were domiciled in Zenith Bank, Access Bank, and First City Monument Bank, on the strength of an exparte application brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission.

According to the commission, N9.9 billion had been paid from the state government’s accounts into the FCMB account which had been opened on September 17, 2018, and operated by Adewale Adesanya, the permanent secretary in the Office of the Chief of Staff to Mr. Ambode.

In a supporting affidavit by Kungmi Daniel of the EFCC, it was noted that the schedule of the FCMB account showed how Mr. Adesanya and the other signatories to the account made fund transfers into the account from the accounts of the Lagos State Government.

“The trend in the account is that the account always witnessed huge inflow from Lagos State Government in the above-scheduled accounts managed by the respondent (Adesanya),” the affidavit outlined.

Though the EFCC had its way in that instance, reported attempts by its operatives to raid the former governor’s house in connection with its investigations into a petition it had received against the former Lagos governor, met a brick wall when its operatives were prevented from entering Ambode’s Epe country home by his neighbours and kinsmen.

Clarifying the incident however, the EFCC explained:

‘We need to state for the records that the EFCC did not raid Ambode’s house. It is instructive that his administration, like other former governors, is under investigation since they no longer constitutionally enjoy immunity against prosecution.

The Commission hereby states with a high sense of responsibility that the operatives did not raid Ambode’s residence.

Whatever the Commission is presently doing with regards to the investigation is in line with its mandate and the rule of law. We wish to inform the social media to be circumspect in the reportage of any news with regards to investigation activities of the Commission.

As a tradition, the Commission does not carry out an investigation on the pages of the newspapers or through the media. Our operations are always covert until at a time when we file charges in court.

Therefore, the attempt to cast the Commission in a bad light is unacceptable as the EFCC will never engage in an illegal act. We remain committed to the war against corruption.’

Intrigues everywhere

For some observers, Ambode’s troubles are clearly political. According to them, after the political high command in Lagos State took the decision to lock him out of a possible second term run, all that he needed to do was to lie low and allow things be.

In attempting to fight the status quo then, he is being accused of having crossed the line and as such everything is now being thrown at him.

Indeed at a point, the former governor was being alleged to be plotting to defect from the All Progressive Congress, APC, to the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.

This is after he was equally worsted in his alleged bid to take up a place in President Muhammadu Buhari’s ministerial team, a situation which his well-heeled traducers would reportedly not also allow.

However, Habib Aruna, Ambode’s spokesman, was to rise up once again to clarify matters.

“We enjoin the general public, particularly Lagosians to disregard the planted news by some faceless and mischievous individuals in some unknown blogs, who are hell bent on creating acrimonious situation, spreading fake news that the immediate past governor of Lagos State, HE. Akinwunmi Ambode has dumped the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) for the PDP.

“The news is fake. The former governor is firmly a member of APC, working in his own capacity to see that the progressive ideas and the next level agenda of President Buhari succeed”.’

Ambode must be cut to size

Sources say that the whole intent of the exposures is to cut the former Governor to size in the Lagos political arena and ensure he does not constitute a threat to more vested interests.

But even this may have its drawbacks as one commentator notes that at the end of the day, it may spin out of control and scatter the entire house.

Notes Hakeem Oriade:

‘I am wondering what they want to achieve by this action. I hope they have thought over this very well. Would it not have been cheaper to let him simply go out quietly?’

For Tony Oka, the gamble is truly very expensive:

‘Let us not forget that was a former State Auditor General. The probe will not proceed as assembly members that they cannot contain the fallout of the disclosures. Elders of the party will find a way out of what appears a political quagmire

As for Albert Karunwi, the signs could only be pointing in one direction:

‘I think pressure is being put on him by the same National Leader of the APC who was at the centre of his being denied a second term in office in the first place. So, he’s being forced to acquiesce to Jagaban’s request or demands, whatever they are.’

Reflecting further, Karunwi remarks: ‘I remember how this same Ambode was forced down everyone’s throat in 2015. So what could possibly be his offence now?’

Well, in politics they say, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.

Efforts to get the chairman of the probe panel to comment on the progress of their work were abortive as he responded that he was in a meeting and that the reporter should call him later. Subsequent calls were not answered.

However, there are also feelers that behind the scene mediation may presently be going on. Whether these would be successful or not would be seen in the days that follow.