The Presidency may have moved against former Minister of Education, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, over her allegations that the Federal Government under the late Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan squandered the over $67 billion left by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration, with the arrest of a consultant to the Ministry, Tom Chiahemen, publisher of National Accord.
The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) had arrested Chiahemen on Wednesday over his role in the advertisements placed by the Ministry of Education while Ezekwesili held sway as Minister.
According to Chiahemen, the ICPC officials were of the view that Cattigan Communications, a company which he had interest in, could be one of the companies used as a conduit pipe for siphoning government funds and “they told me pointedly that it was possible the whole advert jamboree during the tenure of Dr. Ezekwesili as Education Minister could be a hoax”.
The latest development seems to be a way to get back at Ezekwesili, who had ‘ridiculed’ the Presidency by trying to open the Pandora’s Box.
Ezekwesili was not to go away with that bold statement unchallenged. From the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor to Ministers and Special Advisers to the Presidency, Ezekwesili got verbal lashes which she also replied.
In a statement made available to newsmen at the weekend in Abuja, Chiahemen stated: “Following several telephone calls I received from colleagues, friends and family members, including visits to my office and home, I wish to confirm that I was invited, arrested and detained for over seven hours by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) at its headquarters in Abuja on Wednesday. I was also asked to report back at 10 a.m. today (Thursday) and was kept for over three hours before a lawyer-friend arrived to sign my bail forms. From 10 a.m. when I arrived at the Commission’s headquarters on Wednesday to honour the written invitation, I was not allowed to leave the ICPC until 5:12 p.m.
“In summary, I would say that I was questioned over the advertisements placed in several Nigerian newspapers by the Federal Ministry of Education during the tenure of Dr. Obiageli Ezekwesili, between August 2006 and May 2007. The ICPC had, in a letter dated March 4, 2013 (with reference No. ICPC/CH/FIU.2/126 and addressed to me, said it was investigating ‘allegations that bordered on the violation of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act 2000.’ It added that pursuant to Section 28 of the said Act, I was required to appear before the undersigned (Adedayo A. Kayode, Head, Financial Investigation Unit) on Wednesday, March 6, 2013 at the ICPC headquarters, Abuja by 10.00 hours.
“I arrived the ICPC headquarters a few minutes to 10 a.m. and spent a few minutes at the reception carrying out all the procedures including surrendering of my telephone handsets, before I was shown the office of Mr. A. A. Kayode. I was handed over to one female official of the unit who took me into a tiny room with a big table surrounded by about four chairs.”
That was when the quiz commenced.
“Without any preamble, she asked me to say all I knew and/or did with the Federal Ministry of Education between 2006 and 2007 while I was a staff of Independent Newspapers Limited. I explained to her that a company in which I owned majority shares, Cattigan Communications Limited, was appointed in August 2006 by the Federal Ministry of Education to handle media buying and placements (of advertisements) for the Ministry. In that capacity, I explained to the ICPC official, Cattigan Communications Ltd was expected to handle the placement/payment of all public notices, announcements and other publicity/promotions materials from the Ministry for public/broadcast in the approved national dailies and electronic stations.
“I went further to recall that in the print media, which Cattigan Communications Ltd handled mostly, various advertisements running into almost N30 million were placed and paid for by the Federal Ministry of Education.
“I explained to the lady the circumstances that led to the appointment of Cattigan Communications Ltd to handle media buying/placements during the Education Sector Reform Programme of the Ezekwesili/Obasanjo administration. I told her that the company was nominated and presented to the Ministry by correspondents of the various national media organisations covering the education sector, under the umbrella organisation, Education Correspondents Association of Nigeria (ECAN).
“After listening to my explanations, she said she believed my story because it tallied with the findings by the ICPC investigators. She told me they had been to the Independent Newspapers, my former place of work, and all that. She however asked if I had any documentary evidence to prove that my company was appointed by the Ministry to handle the job and whether there were any receipts to back up payments that were made to Cattigan Communications Ltd. I told her if I searched my house, I could still locate the letter appointing Cattigan Communications Ltd and other receipts/acknowledgements of the payments. I was then given 10 minutes to produce the above documents from my house, which is not far away from ICPC headquarters.
“To my utter surprise, when I presented the original copy of the said letter dated August 24, 2006 and other documents, the ICPC officials changed their posture. First, they excused me from the interrogation room for about 10 minutes, during which the lady and three others went over my documents and discussed inaudibly among themselves.
“When I was invited back into the interrogation room, I was handed an entirely different form which indicated that I was under arrest. I sought to know if I could call in my lawyer to guide and bail me, but they chorused: ‘no,’ that they don’t allow lawyers to bail people. Then I asked them to explain why I was under arrest.
“To my bemusement, the lady said I lied because the letter dated August 24, 2006 appointing Cattigan Communications Limited to handle advert placements for the Ministry was looking newer and neater than the letter sent to me only three days ago (March 4, 2013) by the ICPC. They all argued and insisted that there was no way a letter issued in 2006 could look so new. I only swore and stood by my word that the letter was indeed given to me by the Ministry in 2006 and that I was touching or bringing it out from the file for the first time, as there had been no need to touch it before now.
“Their second complaint was that I wrote two different letters to the Minister of Education on the same day (January 23, 2007) claiming two different sums of money (N33,395,734.20 and N19,501,327.95). My explanation was that the second letter was only a follow-up on the first letter to adjust the number of pages that were to be placed in newspapers with the available funds, in cheque form. I told the ICPC officials that the first letter had proposed a total of 125 pages of adverts to be placed in 12 different national dailies (The Punch, Daily Independent, Daily Champion, THISDAY, Daily Sun, The Guardian, The Nation, Leadership, Daily Trust, New Age and New Nigerian) at the cost of N32,348,195.13 plus VAT of N1,047,539.07), totalling N33,395,734.20. The second letter also dated 23/1/2007 was written in response to the need to reduce the number of pages of adverts and the number of newspapers to publish the adverts within the sum of N20 million that was readily available to the Task Team to use for the payment of adverts at the time. This second letter was asking the Minister for the release of the sum of N19,501,327.95 (as against the earlier letter that was requesting for N33,395,734.20).”
Also, according to the publisher, the issue of receipts and invoices used in the transaction also came up. “The ICPC wanted me to show evidence that the N28.2 million that the Federal Ministry of Education paid to Cattigan Communications was paid to the various newspapers listed.
“They again wanted me to prove that the newspapers said to have been paid the various sums of money actually published the adverts for the Ministry. I told the ICPC officials that I had collected both the tear sheets (pages of newspapers showing the adverts) and receipts from the various newspapers and handed them over to the Ministry’s Task Team led, then, by Dr. Okey Ikechukwu.
“One of the ICPC officials did ask me how much of the money went to Dr. Ikechukwu and I said as far as the adverts placed in the print media were concerned, each of the correspondents was required to forfeit one per cent of their commission to Cattigan Communications to settle the bank’s COT, while each correspondent, who was a member of ECAN, contributed five per cent of their commission to the treasurer of the association.
“The ICPC officials were of the view that Cattigan Communications could be one of the companies used as a conduit pipe for siphoning government funds and they told me pointedly that it was possible the whole advert jamboree during the tenure of Dr. Ezekwesili as Education Minister could be a hoax.”