By Samuel Malik
Curled from the International Centre for Investigative Reporting
There is a quiet storm brewing at the National Centre for Women Development, NCWD, Abuja as workers appear set for a showdown with popular songstress and Director General of the agency, Onyeka Onwenu,
Among other things, Onyeka is accused of high handedness, mismanagement and protecting her former personal assistant who is being prosecuted by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, for bribery and gratification.
In July, in a story titled “N17 Million Lands Onyeka Onwenu’s Aide In Jail”, this website reported how Chika Abazu, a deputy director in the Centre and then personal assistant to Onwenu, collected a total of N17 million from Solidmark Associates Limited, a company employed to carry out some renovation works at the Dora Akunyili Guest House in the Centre.
Joseph Nwakama, the contractor, had petitioned the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, and accused Abazu of collecting the money on behalf of Onwenu, who allegedly said the money was for onward delivery to former First Lady, Patience Jonathan.
Unable to directly link Onwenu, the ICPC charged Abazu to court on a six-count charge bordering on demanding and collecting gratification, contrary to Sections 10 and 13 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000.
However, as alleged by staff of the NWDC, Onyeka appears to have taken every step to protect Abazu and shield him from official sanction.
Documents in the possession of the icirnigeria.org, including correspondences between the ICPC, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development and the NCWD indicate that requests to the Centre to take action against Abazu in line with official civil service regulations had been largely ignored.
In fact, members of the Centre’s senior staff committee, in meetings held to deliberate on what to do with the letters from both the ICPC and the women affairs ministry, observed that the anti-graft agency was interfering in its internal affairs and appeared desperate to indict the management.
How the Centre has shielded one of its own from sanction
In our earlier report, this website exposed how whenever the Centre paid money into Solidmark’s account, Abazu would call and demand that Nwakama pay some money into the bank account of Transtell Ventures Nigeria, which he wholly controlled.
“He told me that the DG wanted me to give them N23 million out of the money for the 55 rooms (his award letter stated 25 rooms but the Centre illegally added more rooms). I told him that it was too much (but) he told me that if I was not going to give them, the DG would ask me to pay back the money (N22, 619, 047.62) and the other contractor would be would do the job,” Nwakama told investigators.
Following Abazu’s arraignment, the ICPC on August 17, 2015 wrote a letter to Onwenu drawing her attention to the case and requesting her to apply the relevant sections of the Public Service Rules, especially section 4, against the staff pending the determination of the case.
Two days later, Onwenu called a meeting of the senior staff committee at the end of which a decision was reached to query the staff in line with the regulations.
“I am directed to draw your attention to the attached self-explanatory letter from the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and to request you to explain the circumstances that led to the contents of the letter,” stated the director of human resources, F. A. Anifowose, in what is expected to pass for a query.
However, this decision was only reached after members of the committee had taken turns to lambast the anti-graft agency, saying it had no right telling it how to handle its affairs.
Jummai Idonije, a senior staff, who called the ICPC’s action undue interference in the Centre’s internal affairs, wondered why the commission took it upon itself to direct the Centre to comply with the provisions of the PSR. This was in spite of another staff, Manny Emecheta, observing that Abazu’s misconduct ought to have been spotted by the Centre before the ICPC got involved.
Surprisingly, the legal adviser of the Centre, Jummai Yahaya, who should know the law, added that the ICPC had no right to write to the Centre.
Obviously buoyed by her staff’s attitude, Onwenu too wondered why the Centre should respond to a letter it felt was wrong and said management should draw the attention of the commission to the fact it was not in a position to dictate to it what to do, especially as the allegations against Abazu were written by an outsider.
She added that the Commission should not condemn Abazu because he was yet to be found guilty by a court.
What the law says regarding Abazu’s alleged offence
Sections 10 and 13 of the Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Act, 2000, are very clear concerning the demand and receipt of benefits by public officers in the course of their work.
According to Section 10, “Any person who –
- asks for, receives or obtains property or benefits of any kind for himself or any other person; or agrees or attempts to receive or obtain any property or benefit of any kind for himself or any other person;
on account of-
- anything already done or omitted to be done, or any favour or disfavour already shown to any person, by a public officer in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any matter connected with the functions, affairs or business of a Government department, public body or other organisation or institution in which the public officer is serving as such; or
- anything to be afterwards done or omitted, or any favour or disfavour to be afterwards shown to any person, by a public officer in the discharge of his official duties or in relation to any such matter as aforesaid, is guilty of an offence of official corruption and shall on conviction be liable to imprisonment for seven (7) years.
Section 13 states that, “Any person who receives anything which has been obtained by means of act constituting a felony or misdemeanour, or by means of any act done at a place outside Nigeria, which if it had been done in Nigeria would have constituted a felony or misdemeanour and which is an offence under the laws in force in the place where it was done, knowing the same to have been so obtained, is guilty of a felony.”
Under the Public Service Rules, Abazu’s alleged offence falls under the serious misconduct section.
Serious misconduct is defined as, “a specific act of very serious wrongdoing and improper behaviour which is inimical to the image of the service and which can be investigated and if proven, may lead to dismissal.”
There are 23 such offences classified as serious misconducts and they include falsification of records, suppression of records, bribery, corruption, embezzlement, sexual harassment, and any other act unbecoming of a public officer.
According to rule 030404, “When a serious case that may lead to dismissal has been instituted against an officer, the Permanent Secretary/Head of Extra-Ministerial Office may interdict him/her on not more than half pay pending the determination of the case.”
Before writing to the Centre, the ICPC had on August 13, 2015 written to the women affairs ministry through the Head of Civil Service of the Federation requesting it to exercise its supervisory powers over the Centre, particularly in line with the above rule.
The ministry in turn, through its director of legal services, A. A. Adegoke, wrote to the Centre requesting for action to be taken against the staff but the Centre refused to comply, replying without Abazu’s response.
The ICPC again wrote to the ministry on November 2, 2015 about the lack of action taken.
The ministry two days later wrote to the Centre, this time through the director of human resources, Anita Shitu, asking Onwenu to take into cognisance her position as director general and the implication of the allegation on the Centre.
“I am as a matter of urgency, further directed to request you to submit all the representations of Dr Chika Benson Abazu, Reports and Recommendations of the Centre in respect of this case to the Ministry for further disciplinary action in line with Extant Rules,” the letter read.
Bizarrely, the Centre replied to the ministry on November 9, 2015 explaining that Abazu’ was queried but that his response had disappeared after the key to the DG’s office was mysteriously lost.
“Shortly after the submission of Dr Abazu’s representation, the DG informed the management that the key to her main office was removed from the bunch of keys leading to her office by unknown persons and that the key had not been found till date,” the Centre’s response stated.
In a clear dereliction of its duties, the ministry stopped there without insisting that an agency under it to comply with its directive and instead wrote to the ICPC saying it could not get the Centre to comply.
Onwenu desperate to supress Abazu from revealing much
Abazu had earlier told interrogators that management of the Centre was aware of his activities, which included using his personal account for safekeeping of money meant for the renovation contract.
Besides, Nwakama had alleged in his petition that Abazu demanded and collected the bribe on behalf of Onyeka, an accusation that her actions now appear to have proved right.
A staff of the Centre who spoke to our reporter on the condition of anonymity said that Onyeka’s refusal to sanction her aide was for her own self-preservation.
According to the staff, Abazu had “spilled the beans” and indicted Onyeka in his response to the query issued to him and that this was why it could not be sent to the ministry but “was made to disappear mysteriously.”
It should be noted that the Centre only told the ministry of the missing key on November 9, 2015, a week after the ministry had received another letter from the ICPC.
However, we can reveal that Abazu replied to his query two months before then, in September. According to the minutes of a meeting held by its senior staff committee, the Centre confirmed that the report was submitted in September to the DG’s office and disappeared from her desk the same day.
It is also curious that a member of staff queried by the human resources department would directly submit his reply to the director general’s office instead of the querying office, thereby bypassing administrative protocol.
The Centre then said it was unable to get Abazu to submit another response but it appears that Onwenu is more worried about the content of the response than his refusal to submit same.
At a management meeting, Onwenu acknowledged that Abazu indicted the management of the Centre in his missing letter, alleging that he was directed to take over some aspects of the renovation work from the contractor.
She described Abazu’s letter as blackmail and said the Centre would not fall for it.
“She stressed that the Centre would not be sacrificed on the altar of an individual, noting that Dr Abazu should take responsibility for the repercussion of his actions instead of shifting the blame to the Centre,” the minutes of the meeting held on November 6, 2015, stated.
As the NWDC is dragging its feet to sanction Abazu, he is also getting some respite from the court case against him as his lawyers are using bringing up all manner of legal obstacles to delay the trial.
Within five months of the trial, the defence has changed counsels three times and asked Justice C. Ndukwe of the FCT High Court of Justice in Kuje to disqualify himself from the case because he had shown bias.
At the last hearing on October 30, 2015, a new defendant, Abiodun Jeliu Awonikoko, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, informed the court that he was again requesting the judge to disqualify himself, as done by the previous counsel.
While condemning the defence counsels’ antics to stall the trial, Justice Ndukwe asked Awonikoko to redirect his request to the FCT Chief Judge for reassignment of to another judge and adjourned the case pending the decision of the chief judge.
At the ministry of women affairs, the reporter was not allowed to see the director of human resource management, Anita Shitu, as one of her aides said that “she is not in the mood to talk to journalists about anything government.”
The director’s aide, an elderly man, directed the reporter to the press unit but there, the reporter was told that the right place to get the information he requested was the human resource department.
Damning audit report indicts Centre’s management
When former president Goodluck Jonathan appointed music legend and Nollywood actress, Onyeka Onwenu, as Director General of the National Centre for Women Development in September 2013, with her pedigree, it was hoped that the Centre would live up to its billing as a rallying point for women development, particularly the downtrodden.
Established in 1992 as part of the Better Life for Rural Women programme, a project of Maryam, late wife of former military ruler, Ibrahim Babangida, the Centre had been anything but a place for the development of the womenfolk.
“The place has been run down for many years. When I saw the rot, it was very saddening and, not being one to shy away from challenges, I hit the ground running,” Onwenu said in an interview with Leadership newspaper in May 2014, eight months into her appointment.
However, in over two years in office, the Elegant Stallion, as the songstress is popularly known, has only perpetuated a culture of mismanagement, financial recklessness and absolute disregard of rules and due process at the Centre, according to the findings of an audit exercise.
An audit report prepared by the Auditor-General of the Federation, a copy of which was obtained by the icirnigeria.org, showed that between September 2012 and December 2014, a total of N325,085,547 was frittered away with brazen disregard for relevant government laws.
The report, dated August 19, 2015 and titled Report on the Audit Monitoring and Evaluation of Capital Projects and Programmes Executed by the National Centre for Women Development. Period: September 2012 – December 2014, was signed by Ajao A. O., director, Programmes and Performance Audit Department.
Fifteen of the 28 months covered in the report were under Onwenu’s watch.
A look at the Centre’s budget for the period under review shows that it got a total of N3,119,647,110 broken down as N1, 401,725,489 in 2012; N971, 011, 817 in 2013, and; N746, 909, 804 in 2014.
The capital budget from these sums amounted to N2,149,333,435 – N1,060,722,500 for 2012; N646,103,827 in 2013, and; N442,507,108 last year.
The audit report indicated that the Centre could not account for a total of N325,085,547 (nearly 7%) of the capital vote of N2,149,333,435 for the period under review.
Dubious contracts and procurement without contract
According to a contract award letter, Tora-Bora Nigeria Limited was hired to complete the Centre’s clinic/cancer screening centre on October 23, 2012 for the sum of N49, 852, 077, with a completion date of December 31, 2012.
A payment of N24, 926, 088.35 was made to the contractor between November 16 and December 17, 2012 as mobilisation fee and other payment but surprisingly, a physical audit carried out revealed that no work was done.
More baffling and confusing was a fictitious contract awarded under Onwenu for money that had already been paid to a contractor long before she was appointed.
On November 20, 2013, two months after Onwenu assumed office, Dengarc Associates was awarded a contract of N26, 365, 027.45 for rehabilitation and renovation works at Gambo Sawaba block of the Centre but a forensic examination of the Centre’s books revealed that the contractor was paid the complete money on December 13, 2012.
Another twist was added when it was discovered that the same contractor submitted a bond from Niger Insurance Plc. dated December 19, 2013 purportedly for payment of mobilisation fee of N3, 954, 754.05, which was approved and paid, bringing the total money paid to the contractor to N30, 319, 781.50.
A physical audit showed that no work was carried out at the Gambo Sawaba block.
In another violation of the Procurement Act, the Centre on October 8, 2014 and November 7, 2014 paid a total of N35, 457, 904 to two contractors for different construction and supply contacts without the necessary documents, such as award letters, invoice, evidence of project completion and store receipt vouchers attached to the payment vouchers.
Also, a Jeep was directly purchased for N13 million from AC Okocha Motors on August 8, 2014 without due process or required documentation.
Payments to individuals
Despite the Federal Treasury Circular issued by the office of the Accountant General in 2009 mandating that all local procurements exceeding N200, 000 be made through the award of contracts, the Centre embarked on payments of millions to staff for purchases of items and repairs/renovation works.
Between November 6, 2013 and August 6, 2014, the Centre paid out a total of N62, 315, 762 to members of staff for purchases and works that ought to have been done through contracts. This include over N2 million paid to Onwenu for general maintenance repairs, replacement of facilities and refund for purchase of materials for the rehabilitation of guest house.
Around that same period, the Centre dipped its hand into its capital vote and doled out more than N17 million as travel allowances to staff for unbudgeted programmes.
In another utter disregard for financial regulations and the Procurement Act, a staff of the Centre, Manny Emecheta, was paid N20 million on April 16, 2014 as advance for allegedly servicing gender/ICT training programme. No documents or breakdown of the expenditure were provided nor was any evidence given that the work was done.
Expenditure beyond appropriation
According to the Centre’s 2014 budget, N30 million was appropriated for the renovation of the Dora Akunyili Guest House but the Centre spent a total of N53, 322, 200. This included illegally taking out N4 million out of N15 million budgeted for a women empowerment programme in Zamfara West Senatorial District, Zamfara State.
Under Onwenu, the Centre exhibited so much contempt for the Procurement Act that despite Solidmark Associates Limited being awarded the guest house job, members of staff were paid money several times, including the procurement committee, for what ordinarily should have been taken care of by the contractor.
Illegal transfer of funds
According to the Financial Regulations 702, “All Capital Accounts shall be maintained at the Central Bank of Nigeria or any other bank as may be designated by the government and authorised by the Accountant General.”
The Federal Treasury Circular No. TR A8 & B8/2000/OAGF/PRS/005/111/144 of November 21, 2000 specifically states that, “All cheques drawn on the capital account must be in favour of contractors or suppliers of capital items of expenditure; on no account must any money be transferred or withdrawn from capital account into commercial bank.”
In spite of the above regulations, the Centre in 2014 alone made regular transfer of money from its capital account with the CBN to its Fidelity Bank account, including a single transfer of N50 million on August 14, 2014.
In total, N102, 416, 300 was drawn from the capital account at the CBN between March and September 2014 by the Centre.
The Centre refused to comment when our reporter went there on the allegations against Onwenu and the audit report.
Onwenu; the director of Planning, Research and Statistics, Sadeeq Omar, whose name features in Abazu’s court case; the director of Finance, Jauro Jibrin, and; the Legal Adviser, Jummai Yahaya, all declined to comment.
While Yahaya said she only resumed work at the Centre in August and would need the permission of the Attorney General of the Federation to make any comment, Omar directed the reporter to Jibrin.
At the mention of the word “journalist,” Jibrin dismissed the reporter with a wave of hand.
At the Director General’s office, after going through a difficult process to see her, when our reporter was ushered into her office, Onwenu shooed him off when she found out he was a journalist.
“Who are you? Who sent you? Are you from…?” she queried. Immediately he introduced himself as a journalist and started telling her his mission, she dismissively waved the reporter out of her officer with a vigorous swing of the hand and a forceful, angry tone
Abazu also refused to talk to our reporter, saying he would need the permission of the director general to do so.
“You know I am a civil servant and civil servants are not allowed to talk to the media without permission. So, please write to the DG that you want to speak with me and if she agrees, I will answer all your questions and tell you anything you want to know,” he said.
During the interview with Leadership, Onwenu had expressed her resolve to restore accountability at the Centre.
“We say government is not giving us enough but the much it is giving, we must put to good use. We have to be accountable and have a sense of integrity because it is not about us; it’s about the Nigerian woman,” she said.
Workers of the Centre say that she has not stood by her word.