In the 2017 national budget, a number of capital projects were approved to be sited in different parts of the country. The five South eastern states got several projects.
In Abia State some of the projects were spread across three senatorial zones – Abia North, Abia Central and Abia South. But, EMMANUEL NWAZUE, who toured the projects, reports that the contractor deviated from the projects’ specification.
In June 2018, a Non-Governmental Organisation, Women Aid Collective (WACOL), presented its independent budget monitoring report, which focused on three states of Enugu, Imo and Abia. In its report, WACOL indicated that some of those projects were either abandoned or poorly executed.
Three of such projects stood out in Abia State. One of them is located at the Umutowe Primary School, Olokoro, in Umuahia South Local Government Area, which is in Abia Central Senatorial Zone. The other two are sited at the Federal Science and Technical College (FSTC), Ohanso, Ndoki in Ukwa East Local Government Area, which is in Abia South Senatorial Zone.
The Umutowe Project
The Umutowe-Primary School project is a constituency project attracted by a member of the House of Representatives, Sam Onuigbo, who represents Ikwuano, Umuahia North and Umuahia South Federal Constituency.
It was awarded to Impex Agro Allied Nigeria Limited for the construction and furnishing of a block of three classrooms at the cost of N20 million – through the Universal Basic Education, under the Federal Ministry of Education’s UBEC) constituency projects.
But a visit to the school shows a deviation from the project specification. Rather than a furnished block of three classrooms as specified in the contract, a block of two classrooms was poorly constructed, painted, and in already fading paint.
In one of the classrooms that has seemingly been converted to a church, (at least, judging from the presence of what looked like an altar at the rear of the classrooms), toddlers were seen with their caregiver on small plastic seats.
Apart from the total absence of furniture in this classroom, signs of leaking roofs were all over the ceilings and facer boards – the paints had also started to peel. The other classroom had already been converted to a dump site for broken furniture and other out-of-use materials.
A search conducted by our reporter with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) showed that Impex Agro Allied Nigeria Limited was registered to operate in the agricultural sector; not to build schools.
The company’s directors are Ibrahim N. Mohammed, Mohammed A. Bukar and Aishatu Abdullahi and its registered offices are located at Plot 1393, Abidjaw (apparently Abidjan) Street, Wuse Zone 3, Abuja.
It was registered on July 22, 1997 but was inactive as of the time of this report. Attempts to find the company’s website did not yield fruit as several trials showed it never had a website.
An official of the CAC, in a WhatsApp chat with our reporter, said the company was inactive because it had not been paying its mandatory yearly returns and would after a while be struck off the Register of Companies.
But it is unclear if the company was inactive as of the time it was awarded the contract in 2017. However, further inquiries made to ascertain when the company became inactive were not responded to.
Our reporter visited the address provided in the CAC search but could not find any company named Impex Agro-Allied Nigeria Limited.
The address only led to a Mama T Restaurant. Most buildings on the street are identified by house numbers and not plot numbers as provided by Impex Agro-Allied Nigeria Limited.
With no physical presence at the address it provided in the CAC, and its inactive state in the commission’s record books, and no website to its name, it may not be out of place to conclude that Impex Agro-Allied Nigeria Limited is a ghost company that does not exist, and may have been illegally awarded the contract.
According to the school authorities, the roofing started leaking less than two weeks after its construction in 2018. This happened as the rains also washed off the paints of the supposedly new structure in no time.
“I was posted to this school on November 17, 2017. In 2018, I saw some contractors, who visited us. They said they were asked to build two new classrooms. So, I took them to the Eze (traditional ruler) and within two months they finished building,” said the school’s head teacher, Mrs. Blessing Ohiagbara.
She added: “I wasn’t so much satisfied with their work and when I complained, the contractors who came from the North paid deaf ears. The roofs started leaking barely two weeks after completion, the paints and other materials they used were inferior. I fixed the window protectors myself because they were built without any.”
Asked if she knew that the contract amount for the project was N20 million, Ohiagbara answered: “I don’t know what to say about that but what I know is that the quality of the materials they used was too poor, inferior.”
Community leaders react
The traditional ruler of the community, Eze G.C Onwuka, frowned at both the project and its cost. He said though his community was not acquainted with the project details, that N20 million was too high a cost to execute such a shabbily done project.
“They have to come back and complete the job and do a better one because you cannot tell me that N20 million can get this. If you give me N20 million, I’ll give you something bigger and better. So, I’m calling on the government to bring them back to the site. Look at it, within a week or two we started having a leaking roof. It’s the community that’s suffering because the government will think they’ve given us a solid 3-classroom block without knowing that only a 2-classroom block of the worst standard was given to us.”
Chief Israel Nwosu, one of the leaders of the community had this to say: “First, when they started, our community was excited that such a project came and we reported same to our traditional ruler that such a project has come to our community; but we’re not happy that it’s failing so soon.”
For Chukwuemeka Onyeziri, the chairman of Umuonuzo, one of the villages in the community, the development is unacceptable.
“You can’t tell us that the government released N20 million for a project and they gave us this; it’s not fair, it’s the community that’s suffering from it. So, we’re urging government to tell the contractors to come and complete it with a better standard.”
EU project flaunts quality
Interestingly, standing a few metres away from the shabby project is a standard 3-classroom block built within the same period by the European Union Delegation to Nigeria. Opposite this stands an older -3 classroom project of the same standard and executed by the same body.
Though the costs of both projects were not readily handy as of the time of this report, the projects’ billboards indicated that they were done through counterpart funding with the European Union contributing 50 per cent of the funds while the local government and the community contributed 25 per cent respectively. The good quality of the work-done on the older building makes the shoddiness of the newly constructed 2 classroom building jarring.
However, outside the school premises lies a long forgotten project. On inquiry, it was said that the project was abandoned by the Abia State Oil Producing Areas Development Commission (ASOPADEC).
Wondering if inadequate funding was responsible for the poor execution of the new project, our reporter contacted Onuigbo, the lawmaker who attracted the project to the community. In a text message, he said he believed that the contractors were fully paid. Speaking further in a telephone interview with our reporter, he expressed displeasure over the very poor quality and quantity of job done in some of the projects he attracted in his constituency; he said the Umutowe Primary School project was the second bad experience he was having with contractors he did not know whom they were.
“You know, as a lawmaker, I only facilitated that project, I wasn’t aware of whom the project was awarded to by the agency (UBEC), and they’re the ones who choose these contractors by themselves. It’s really unfortunate that these contractors would continue to behave the way they do and yet the agencies continue to use them; that Umutowe project was not the only bad experience I’m having with these contractors, I had to use my personal funds to complete another project I attracted at the Community Primary School, Ekebedi, Oboro, in Ikwuano L.G.A; in this case, I applied for a block of six classrooms and two executive toilets at the cost of 22 million naira but I found out that it was reduced to just 4 classrooms, and yet the contractors did a terrible job without completing it and I had to commit my personal funds to complete it when the community drew my attention to the development, complaining bitterly; in fact, when I managed to get the contractor’s contact I had to save it on my phone as “Unknown UBEC Contractor” because I never knew him. It’s appalling.” Onuigbo said annoyingly.
Uncooperative Abia UBEC
Seeking further information on whether or not the contractors were fully funded to carry out the project, our reporter visited the Abia State office of the UBEC in Umuahia.
An employee of the commission, who refused to give her name, said her boss was not available for comments but hinted that the state office was responsible for the disbursement of funds for any contract awarded in its name in the state. She requested this reporter to return on a later date for an engagement with her boss.
On the next visit, the head of the commission in Abia State was obviously evasive as she directed one of her staff members to inform our reporter that she was indisposed for comments and requested yet another visit.
This was obliged as yet another visit was paid to her office. By this time, it had become clear that she never wanted to speak to our reporter. She simply requested that he dropped his contact number for a call but refused to release her official contact.
After waiting endlessly for her call, our reporter decided to visit the state’s UBEC official website, and the finding was intriguing.
The contact phone number on the website belongs to a private individual, who said he neither knew the commission nor was its employee. On a second trial, a female voice that answered from the other end simply said it was a wrong number.
Our reporter had no other option than to contact the national office of the UBEC in Abuja, through a telephone number found on its website and the female voice on the other end said if a project was found on ground that it simply means the contractors were fully funded.
She, however, directed the reporter to go to the Abia State Universal Basic Education Board (ASUBEB) for further inquiries on the project.
After two visits to ASUBEB, a senior official of the board, who also did not want to be named, said there was no record of such project in their records. He accused UBEC of only handing them over projects it had already executed.
He said: “Our relationship with them (UBEC) is like that of a boss and subordinate. Its always a ‘yes sir thing’. Most times they only call us to take over a finished project. We don’t have the one you’re talking about in our records.”
The Ohanso Projects
Travelling to Ohanso in Ukwa East Local Government Area of Abia State was nightmarish. The journey from Aba to Obehe Junction in Ukwa West Local Government Area of Abia State, on the same highway that stretches from Enugu into Port Harcourt, the Rivers State Capital, is a horrendous journey.
It subjects the traveller to the mercy of a badly damaged road with cars and commuter buses dragging tyre spaces with heavily loaded lorries threatening to fall over amidst endless noises of whining engines. The journey also brings one face to face with health dangers that could arise from the stench emanating from the heaps of rubbish in the dingy dumpsite lining the highway.
Getting off the highway into Ukwa East from Obehe Junction, the reporter begins another journey of pain.
Apart from the Akwa Ibom State Transport Company (AKTC) whose buses brave the odds on that road, our reporter did not observe any other commuter bus plying that road. It was the reason he had to ride on a motorcycle for close to an hour on a very rough ride to Ohanso.
It is worthy of note that this very deplorable road is the only road leading to the Akwete country home of Rep. Uzoma Nkem Abonta, the lawmaker who represents the people of Ukwa East and Ukwa West Federal Constituency at the House of Representatives, Abuja.
Interestingly, this part of the state is the oil producing area that makes Abia State a part of the oil producing states in the country.
It also houses the Rubber Research Institute of Nigeria in Akwete and the office of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), yet it remains in such a deplorable condition.
One of the two projects at the FSTC was awarded for the construction of a 2,000-Sitting Capacity Assembly Hall at the cost of N30million. The other was for the construction of a 2,000-Sitting capacity dining hall at the cost of N25 million.
An encounter with a hostile principal
On arrival at the school, it was discovered that the school was not in session but was to resume in three days’ time. Plying those roads twice in three days was never an option, so the reporter stayed put.
The school resumed on a Sunday, and by Monday morning, our reporter’s mission kicked off again. The mission, beyond finding out whether or not the projects were executed was to also ascertain the reason behind the differences in cost between these two projects of same specification and capacity.
However, the school’s principal, Mr. Peter Ngwuta was not buying into that – whatever our mission to his school was was of no interest to him hence he was not going to cooperate.
Our reporter was the first to arrive at the principal’s waiting room and filled the visitor’s ‘mission form’ but would probably be the last or never in the list to see him save for luck. The principal had apparently read the reporter’s form, hid it and was attending to those that came after him until the receptionist intervened and ushered our reporter into the principal’s office.
Not knowing the face to attach to what he had hidden, he engaged our reporter thus: “are you Godfrey?” “No, I am Emmanuel Nwazue, a journalist who has come to take a look at some projects sited in your school from the 2017 national budget; I’d like to know if the contractors did the job and the progress of work so far,” he responded.
That was all it took for the principal, to flare up. “Why do you want to know, are you an auditor of the Federal Ministry of Education or the Accountant-General? So, why do you want to know?” he asked, furious.
“No, I’m none of them but it’s in the public interest. We have such other projects we’re monitoring from the 2017 budget,” replied our reporter.
“Which public interest is there a query to it? You’re telling me you have….you have, are you the government that awarded the contract or what?”
“No, I’m a journalist, and it’s my job to…”
“Journalist! coming to investigate jobs done here? Please explain why you’re here or … I don’t know why you’re here, who sent you and for what purpose? Do you want to know whether the contractors ran away with the money or that I ate the money, what is your mission?”
“It is not you, it is not the school, the benefit is for the school, and if it’s not done it’s to the detriment of the school,” the reporter assured him but he was not taking any of it.
“Whether you’ve come to probe me or not, I’m not interested in why you’ve come, see, if you’ll not straighten why you’re here, I’ll order you out of my office.”
With his level of hostility, our reporter left his office and approached some students of the school, who pointed him to one of the projects, a hall facing the principal’s office, as the Assembly Hall.
They also told him that a new dining hall was somewhere else. However, no project signpost was seen anywhere near the only project within reach, thus, the contractors remained unascertained. This was made worse by the conspicuous absence of the contractors in the approved budget.
Second visit to Ohanso
Since the first visit to the school did not yield positive result, our reporter returned to Ohanso on a later day for a second visit to the school – this time, without the knowledge of the school’s principal.
It was a Saturday and the school environment was full of activities as it incidentally was conducting an entrance examination for its prospective students.
This made it easier for our reporter who disguised as one of the parents who brought their children for the examination to have access to the assembly hall, a long and spacious structure standing directly opposite the principal’s office.
From the outside, the building, which was still undergoing finishing touches as of the time of this report, was half-painted in white from the top while its lower side remained unpainted. Inside, it was fully painted white up and blue – a young fellow was seen painting the rear side of the hall in same pattern.
Rough wide patches littered the floor, an obvious sign that the flooring had failed sooner than it was completed –and a fellow was seen chiseling the concrete floor on the elevated platform of the hall.
“I don’t know who the contractor is, I was told that the person who handled it before did a very bad job and was called by the school to come and correct it. If you look at those places (pointing at the floor) you will see the patches; I did it and by tomorrow I’ll bring in machine to wash it,” said the man who chose not to be identified while responding to questions about his job and the contractor.
The dining hall
Unlike the assembly hall project, the dining hall project which is said to have been completed and in use was impregnable. A staff of the school told our reporter that no one, especially males, were allowed to approach that area without the company of a staff of the school because “it’s located near the girls’ hostel.”
“Look at it over there but you can’t go there; visitors are not allowed to go near the girls’ hostels where the dining hall is located; and as you can see, every one of us is busy with the exams and you being a male compounds the issue and you can’t go there on your own. But one thing you should know is that the dining hall has been in use for months now,” he said.
Asked if he could briefly describe the inside of the building, the staff who spoke fast and appeared to be in a hurry, said he could not as he briskly walked away.
A female worker simply referred our reporter to the principal who was clearly out of the picture, as she said she was not authorised to speak about projects in the school.
However, our camera lens did catch a glimpse of the building from afar, and like the inside of the assembly hall, it had the white and blue paint.
Having seen the projects, the ICIR interviewed two civil engineers on what could be responsible for the cost variations between the two projects of equal capacity.
Eks Stephen, who holds CEng (UK), BEng (Hons) Msc, MBA and APMP and practiced in Nigeria before relocating to Scotland where he still practices, said the cost variation could be based on “structural differences”.
“There must be reasons why one costs more than the other; they could be of different sizes,” he reasoned.
Engr. Ndukwe Okorie, another structural engineer, pointed out two factors that could be responsible for the cost difference. He said if the assembly hall, which has the higher budgetary amount was designed to have “raker beams” (the types of sitting arrangements seen in stadia and auditoria), then it was likely to be costlier than the dining hall which has the lower budgetary amount.
“Well, another thing that can inform the cost of such building can also be the source and quality of the materials each contractor is using,” he said.
However, from our findings, none of the structures was designed like a stadium or an auditorium and if quality was anything to reckon with, one may be tempted to ask why some portions of the floor of the assembly hall failed as soon as it was finished and had to be reworked as witnessed during the last visit to the school by our reporter.
But determined to find the contractors behind these two projects, ICIR using the Open Treasury Portal, GOVSPEND.NG, arranged by BudgIT, was able to establish the names of their companies.
JERRYNEL CONSTRUCTION COMPANY LIMITED was awarded the construction of the 2,000 capacity Assembly Hall at the cost of N30 million and had by December 19, 2019, received the final tranche of the contract sum from the Federal Ministry of Education.
The Dining Hall of the same 2,000 capacity was awarded to KEZMA LINK LIMITED at the cost of N25 millionand by August 31, 2020, the company had received the final payment of the contract sum.
Interestingly, a further search with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) showed that just like Impex Agro Allied Limited that wasted N20million on a shabbily built block of two classrooms, Jerrynel Construction Company Limited, registered on February 13, 2008 with Reg No: 730908 and located at Plot 43A Road 5 Federal Housing Authority Estate, Aba, Abia State; was inactive.
The story was the same with KEZMA LINK LIMITED which got registered on November 20, 1997 with Reg No 323999 and is located at 2ND Avenue 22 Road, A Close, Suite 7, FESTAC Town, Lagos, Lagos State; our search also indicated that the company was inactive.
Breaking the law
Like the CAC official told our reporter on the inactive Impex Agro Allied Nigeria Limited, being inactive simply means that these three companies have infringed on the law by defaulting in filing their mandatory annual returns and, thus, have become nonexistent in the eyes of the law. Yet, they continue to benefit from contract awards from the federal government.
Section 425 of the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) 2020, establishing the Corporate Affairs Commission and its activities makes it mandatory that every registered business name, private limited company, organisation or incorporated trustees in Nigeria, to file their annual returns with the CAC on or before the 30th of June each year. It also requires Limited Liability Companies to file their annual returns 42 days after their annual general meetings for the year.
According to the provision, failure to file annual returns makes a company, its director or officers liable to a penalty that may be determined by the commission. The provision also states that failure to file annual returns for periods between 8-10 years is a ground for striking a company’s name off the register of companies.
This investigation was supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.