26th March, 2013
While the Rochas Okorocha administration in Imo State is bent on impeaching Deputy Governor Jude Agbaso, based on a corruption allegation, he waves it off as politically motivated persecution as the 2015 elections approach
The Imo State political terrain is at present charged, with impeachment moves against Deputy Governor Jude Agbaso over an alleged N458 million bribe given to him by a contractor. The latest chapter in the drama was on Monday 18 March, when an Owerri High Court struck out Agbaso’s motion to stop the state House of Assembly’s impeachment process against him. According to the presiding judge, Justice F.I. Duruohaigwe, “It would be unnecessary to grant the motion, since the applicant was not challenging the impeachment.”
Agbaso had earlier asked the court to restrain the state legislature from proceeding with the impeachment process it started two weeks ago, and that the Nigeria Police should be prevented from harassing him or acting upon the recommendations of the House against him. The court, however, granted the applicant’s second prayer. The News Agency of Nigeria, NAN, quoted counsel to the applicant, Patrick Ikweto, as arguing in the court that the legislature infringed on the fundamental human rights of the deputy governor by investigating and indicting him in its report. Ikweto added that the House “ought not to have dabbled into the investigation because that was a role of the security agencies”.
However, counsel to the state legislature, Adeniyi Akintola, argued that the court had no jurisdiction to make any order in the matter and that the matter was primarily a case of impeachment, “which the House of Assembly is constitutionally empowered to handle”. Hearing on the substantive suit of whether or not the House should investigate him comes up on 27 March.
Trouble started on 8 March, when the Imo State House of Assembly passed a vote of no confidence on Agbaso, after which it commenced an impeachment move against him. That was consequent upon the allegation that he received N458 million as gratification from J-Pros International Nigeria Ltd, a civil engineering firm handling road construction projects in the state. The legislators argued that it was the bribe that gave the company the effrontery to vote with its feet after collecting money from government without doing the work.
While the drama has reverberated beyond Imo State, Agbaso has sworn that his trials stem from political machinations by Governor Rochas Okorocha to sweep him into oblivion as 2015 inches closer. Essentially, Imo, like other states in the federation, has its own geo-political problem which can be solved by power rotation. There are three geo-political zones in the state: Orlu, which had produced former governors Achike Udenwa – who spent two terms of eight years – and now, Okorocha; Okigwe, which threw up former governor Ikedi Ohakim – who spent one term – and Owerri, where Agbaso comes from. Here is how geo-political consideration has bearing on this matter.
The appointment of Agbaso was a tactic by the All Progressives Grand Alliance, APGA, in the state to pacify a section and maintain political stability. This was more so because Chief Martins Agbaso, Jude’s elder brother, contested for the governorship position under APGA in 2007 but ran into hitches when the party’s primary election was nullified by the Professor Maurice Iwu-led Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, for alleged irregularities. The elder Agbaso fought many political battles but was not successful.
Okorocha came on board as Governor on the platform of APGA from Orlu zone which is reputed to have dominated the political terrain of the state. After the exit of Ohakim, who was from Okigwe zone but could not serve for two terms because he ran into a political storm, it became apparent that Okorocha needed to calm the frayed nerves of the people of Owerri zone, who felt they had been cheated, in a manner of speaking. Thus, his picking Agbaso who hails from Owerri geo-political zone as Deputy Governor and Commissioner for Works was politically expedient. Agbaso supervised and awarded contracts for road projects. But during a cabinet reshuffle, the portfolio was taken off him by Okorocha.
When the Agbasos, Okorocha and others worked hard to kick out Ohakim who hails from Okigwe zone, there was an allegation that Okorocha entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” with Martins Agbaso that he (Okorocha) would only have one term of four years. However, midway into the Okorocha/Jude Agbaso tenure, a bribery scam surfaced like a genie out of a bottle, which is now threatening Agbaso’s job. Thus, according to the elder Agbaso, Okorocha is after the deputy governor so that he could renege on the agreement to serve only one term. Martins Agbaso made this known when he was addressing members of Owerri Zonal Political Leaders Forum, OZOPOLF, who paid him a solidarity visit in his home in Emekuku, Owerri West Local Government Area of the state. The APGA leader claimed that there was an agreement among him, Okorocha and then national chairman of APGA, Chief Victor Umeh, for Okorocha to have only one term as governor, after which he would hand over to someone from Owerri zone in 2015.
But, Mr. Ebere Uzoukwa, Special Assistant, Media, to the Governor, dismissed the claims. He said Okorocha has no hand in what is happening to his deputy, insisting that the governor had a cordial relationship with his deputy and could not hatch plans to remove him. On the alleged agreement on one term for the governor, Uzuokwa said such a thing never existed. “Who gave [Martins] Agbaso the mandate to negotiate on behalf of Owerri zone politically?” he asked.
Mr. Chinedu Offor, the Commissioner for Information, also said there was no agreement whatsoever but ascribed what was happening as a reflection of Okorocha’s zero tolerance for corruption. He said what is currently happening is a case of corruption in high places and should be treated as such without the governor being dragged into it. According to Samuelson Iwuoha, Senior Special Assistant to the Speaker, the trials of the deputy governor all started with a report of an Imo State House of Assembly Special Ad-Hoc Committee which investigated the remote causes of stoppage/abandonment of work on some roads in Owerri, Orlu and Okigwe municipalities. Stan Dara, representing Orlu Constituency, headed the committee, which toured all the road project sites.
In the course of the inspection, the committee members discovered that some road projects had been abandoned. Some of the construction companies that fell short of expectations of the committee include Timik Construction Company Nigeria Ltd and J-Pros International Company Ltd. In February 2013, the committee submitted its findings on the floor of the House. Based on the report, another Special Adhoc Committee, led by Simeon Iwunze, representing Isala-Mbano constituency, was set up to investigate why most of the road projects were abandoned even when payments had been made. The indicted companies were invited for questioning. In the course of investigation, the Managing Director of JPROS, Mr. Joseph Dina, allegedly confessed that his company could not continue with the project because it gave money to a highly placed government official. When he was pressed further, he mentioned Agbaso’s name.
According to Iwuoha, on the strength of Dina’s allegation, the deputy governor was invited to appear before the committee. During cross-examination, Agbaso denied knowing Dina or ever having any transaction with him. Even when a question was put to him whether the MD of J-Pros had ever visited his house, Agbaso replied in the negative. But when Dina mentioned the date of his visit and the brand of wine the deputy governor gave him, Agbaso reportedly admitted knowing him.
An extract of the report made available to this magazine, detailing the question and answer session between Agbaso and Dina, read: “The payment of N458 million by J-Pros International Ltd out of N1.035 billion only received by the contractor was the sole cause of abandonment of the project in question.” The committee added that the deputy governor was totally inconsistent with facts and documentary evidence brought before him, thereby putting his credibility in doubt. As part of the committee’s recommendation, a vote of no confidence was passed on the deputy governor for acts unbecoming of his person and office. On J-Pros, the Iwunze committee recommended that the state government should blacklist it from doing business with them after the completion of the existing contracts. Based on the recommendations of the committee, the Assembly served an impeachment notice on the deputy governor, with the Speaker notifying the Chief Judge of the state, Justice Benjamin Njamanze, who immediately constituted a seven-man panel chaired by Justice G.E Ihekire.
Agbaso said at no time did he demand N458 million or any sum of money from any contractor whatsoever and at no time did Dina of J-Pros pay him that amount. He claimed that he never knew the company and its owners. But he said that the company, which was introduced to the state by Governor Okorocha, got a contract to work on the Sam Mbakwe Road for N1.5 billion. Agbaso argued that contracts worth N1.5 billion could only be issued through the approval of the Governor. Agbaso said that in February 2012, while he was away on state duties to India, Okorocha approved the contract. Agbaso said the approval was sent to the state Ministry of Finance which, instead of routing the document to the Ministry of Works, sent it to the Accountant-General’s Office, which paid the money directly to J-Pros Ltd. Agbaso said he never asked Dina through SMS to pay money into any account on his behalf, adding that the allegation was aimed at politically ruining him. Asserting that N458 million is not N458,000 that would just disappear, he called on the investigating agencies to swing into action to probe the scam. But first, Agbaso dashed to Owerri High Court to stop the impeachment process initiated by the House of Assembly. However, the Owerri High Court, on 19 March, struck out his motion.
Meanwhile, as the drama still unfolds, many politicians are already positioning themselves for Agbaso’s seat.