Eniola Akinkuotu and Leke Baiyewu, Abuja
The Senate, on Thursday, said it had not been able to trace the addresses of about 20 contractors engaged for the execution of various projects in the rehabilitation of the North-East.
An investigative hearing by the Senate on the alleged management of funds meant for the rehabilitation of the North-East, billed to hold on Thursday, had been botched by the non-appearance of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal.
The Chairman, Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Mounting Humanitarian Crisis in the North-East, Senator Shehu Sani, said the probe was not a witch-hunt against the SGF, whose office oversees the Presidential Initiative on the North-East.
He said this while addressing journalists after the plenary on Thursday, following a meeting with the Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (Senate), Senator Ita Enang.
Sani said, “Now, we are set to invite all those persons. It was supposed to be today but, unfortunately, it could not happen.
“Meanwhile, you should understand that we are not investigating the SGF alone; we are investigating contracts that were awarded under the PINE. And over 20 companies were involved, but something very strange is the fact that some of these companies involved in these contracts, we cannot actually trace their addresses.
“We went there but they were not there. The option before us is to either report that they are ghost companies or we keep on searching until we find them. But it is most likely that it will be easier for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for us to find some of these names here.”
Enang, who also spoke to journalists, said there was no rift between the legislature and the executive.
He stated, “Let me also state that the executive has great respect for the institution of the Senate and the distinguished senators themselves.
“That is why the secretary to the government personally wrote and signed, and he is requesting rescheduling of the meeting and not saying he will not come. He is requesting rescheduling and the letter has been delivered to the committee.”
When asked about the recent frosty relationship between the two arms of government, Enang said the relationship had remained cordial.
Sani had earlier at the plenary, on Thursday, stated that the panel would pursue its mandate to a conclusion, insisting that Lawal and others summoned must appear before it.
He added that the panel received a letter from Lawal in which the SGF said he had an official engagement with clashed with the date and time of his appearance on Thursday.
Sani said the letter was different from the one in which Lawal said he would not appear before the lawmakers as he had instituted a legal action against the legislature.
He said, “We were scheduled to hold a public hearing today to give a second opportunity to those persons who were either deliberately or conspicuously absent in the first sitting (hearing) we had last year.
“Today, the newspapers were awash with reports that the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal, has taken us to court to restrain our committee from doing its work.
“We have yet to receive any court order (originating summons) in that respect, perhaps later. But what we did receive is a letter from the Secretary to the Government of the Federation.”
The letter was dated March 22, 2017, and was addressed to Sani.
It read, “Your letter of invitation to appear before the above committee refers.
“I wish to kindly request that you draw the attention of the other members of the committee that l will not be able to appear before the committee primarily because of a pressing engagement of government which clash with the date and time of the hearing.
“I kindly request (a) rescheduling of the hearing, please.”
After reading the letter, Sani added, “There are people who believe in the quote of Shakespeare which says, ‘The hell is empty, all the devils are here’, but I will say it in another word. The same Shakespeare says, ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men’. I believe we should take this as a challenge.
“The Senate committee will give a new date for hearing and we assure this Senate and the people of the North-East that the committee will deworm, disinfect and fumigate the north eastern part of Nigeria with the job which we are going to do.”
Lawal had, in the first letter to the committee, said he would not appear before it on Thursday as he had filed processes in a court.
The letter, which was sighted on Wednesday, read, “Your letter of invitation to appear before the above committee refers.
“I wish to kindly request that you draw the attention of the other members of the committee (to the fact) that I will not be able to appear before the committee primarily because I have gone to court to challenge the invitation, among others.
“Please, find attached the court documents.”
The committee had re-invited Lawal to appear before it on Thursday in a letter signed by Sani, dated March 15, 2017, and addressed to Lawal’s Kaduna address.
Sani had told our correspondent that the panel intended to give the SGF a second chance.
Based on the interim report of the committee, the Senate had, on December 14, 2016, called for the resignation, probe and prosecution of the SGF for alleged mismanagement of funds meant for the North-East rehabilitation under his watch.
The lawmakers specifically called on security and anti-graft agencies to arrest and prosecute Lawal for allegedly owning one of the companies awarded contracts in the rehabilitation of the North-East.
Lawal was alleged to have resigned his directorship of the company after becoming the SGF and after the company had executed the contract.
One of the companies linked to the SGF was said to have been awarded the contract for the removal of invasive plants along river channels and 115 hectares of simplified village irrigation operation in Yobe State for the sum of N272,524,356.
But Lawal claimed that the panel did not invite him to hear from him, saying the lawmakers were out to malign him.
The companies include Rholavision Engineering Limited, Josmond Technology Limited, Medina International Global Limited, Muby Ventures Nigeria Limited and JMT.
Trend, end of democracy in Nigeria –Senate
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Senator Sabi Abdullahi, told our correspondent he was not aware of the letter.
He, however, posited that the trend of public officials refusing to answer legislative summons was becoming a threat to Nigeria’s democracy.
Abdullahi said, “I am not aware of that. But we are waiting to see what happens. That is exactly what we are saying; that if this continues to happen, then, bye-bye to democracy. It means I can even go to court to stop you (our correspondent) from doing your work.”
Senate empowered to order SGF’s arrest if he fails to appear –Falana
Meanwhile, sources within the Office of the SGF told one of our correspondents on Thursday that the Senate’s actions were prejudicial.
A senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “The Senate is on a witch-hunt because the SGF had questioned the practice of lawmakers receiving constituency allowances. It seems they are just bent on tarnishing his image despite the fact that the President has cleared him of any wrongdoing.
“These senators have failed to go to the North-East to do a proper investigation of the work that was done. Why can’t they visit the place? Let them go there and see for themselves if the money spent on the place was exaggerated instead of casting aspersions on the SGF.
“The SGF’s former company did not execute any contract but merely supervised the work done by contractors. The company never received any N200m.”
However, human rights lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), advised Lawal to appear before the Senate without delay.
Falana said no court in Nigeria could stop the Senate from doing its job as the case was different from that of the Comptroller-General of Customs, Col. Hameed Ali (retd.).
He said, “The investigation being conducted by the Shehu Sani committee into the grass-cutting contract is backed by Section 88(2) of the constitution. So the SGF is constitutionally required to appear and cooperate fully with the committee.
“If he fails to appear, the committee is competent to order his arrest pursuant to Section 89 of the constitution. This case is materially distinguishable from that of the CGC of Customs, who was invited to justify a policy on import duty.” (Punchng.com)