By Iteveh Ekpokpobe
A multi-billion-naira contract to construct a new Secretariat for the Delta State Government in Asaba was awarded to a company in a process that reeked of corruption, regulatory failure, collusion, and defiance of public procurement rules, this investigation has shown.
The anomaly is the handiwork of the current government led by Senator Ifeanyi Okowa in collaboration with former Secretary to the State Government, (SSG), Festus Ovie Agas, Commissioner for Special Duties, Government House, Asaba, Henry Sakpra, a former Zenith Bank manager, Osadebe Osakwe, another kinsman of the governor, and others.
The project is believed by many Deltans to be one of the most fraudulent projects since the Oghara Independent Power Plant Project.
However, state government officials have declined comments at all levels.
How it Started
A setup named North China Construction Company Nigeria Limited (NCCG) which has governor Okowa’s kinsman and former Zenith Bank manager, Osadebe Osakwe as a front was awarded the contract to construct the New State Secretariat for 16 billion naira contract.
Initially awarded for N13.645, 131, 243, 47 on December, 2016 and approved by the State’s House of Assembly on June, 28, 2017, the project’s completion was pegged at 24 months.
Governor Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa in a letter to the Delta State House of Assembly sought approval to build a secretariat in the state central district. The government had awarded the contract to Messrs North China Construction Group Limited on a contractor finance basis.
The request as read by the speaker, Mr. Sheriff Oborewori, disclosed that the project would be financed by way of borrowing the sum of N8 billion, money equivalent to $18.5million in line with the terms and conditions.
The terms of agreement further stated that the loan guarantee of N8 billion to be obtained by North China Construction Group Limited [NCCG] from the United Bank of Africa [UBA] was in form of Irrevocable Standing Payment Orders [ISPOs].
Why Project was reviewed
Barely a year after the approval of over 13 billion naira for the project, the governor sent another request to the House Assembly for the approval of an upward review of the project by 2,200,543,059 billion naira.
Governor Okowa in a request to the State Assembly with reference No.GP/HE/14/T1/182 did not state reason behind the review order, than the necessity to complete the project in record time.
Nevertheless, if the review was not barely two months after the 2019 general election, his reason may have been described as convincing.
An aide to governor, in the heart of supervision of the project, said a bulk of the projects fund was expended as donations to fund the re-election campaign of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa.
He said since the projects funds were depleted, there was need to review the project in order to set it afloat again.
It would be recalled that details of the campaign fundraising for the reelection of Governor Ifeanyi Okowa have been shrouded in secrecy till this day.
Another N1.5 Billion Approved for furnishing
Sequel to the review, on March 17th, 2020 the State Governor sent another request to the State House of Assembly seeking approval of 1.5 billion naira to finance the furnishing of the New Central Secretariat Complex.
The letter with Reference No:GP/HE14/T1/416 disclosed that the contract has been awarded to Lifemate Nigeria Limited, again, with the state government guaranteeing a loan offered by the United Bank of Africa (UBA), through the issuance of and Irrevocable Standing Payment Order (ISPO) drawn on the state’s FAAC account with Zenith Bank.
How NCCG Got The Contract
Although the NCCG has legal capacity for the work, as a search in the Corporate Affairs Commission confirmed, the company was inexperienced to manage the project this investigation revealed.
The contractor handling the project, Messrs North China Construction Group Limited can be said to have jumped out of the blue.
Nothing is known about the company until it was announced by state government as contractor for the project.
More so, an inquisition in China revealed that the company is neither listed among the China International Contractors Association nor is the North China Construction Group Company Limited listed as the mother company in existence.
An AAA certificate is supposed to be prove of membership of China International Contractors Association, the body responsible for registration of all Chinese International Companies.
The AAA Credit Enterprise Evaluation Certificate on display in the website of the NCCG has all the details of fraud. It is blur, and exact sample on display on the official website of China International Contractors Association.
The only criterion the NCCG met for bagging the contract was the governor’s interest.
This investigation can state authoritatively that there was no call for bids, as selective bidding was employed, an action described by experts as anomaly for a project of its magnitude.
When contacted for details of the procurement process, the Director General, Delta State Public Procurement Commission, Dr. Duke Okezi, stated that he had no information to give.
According to him, the project was awarded before his assumption of office.
Okezi, however, appealed for all inquiries to be directed to the Ministry in charge of the project.
Following this appeal, an inquiry was launched on the Ministry of Housing. Although, no details were availed, a source disclosed that the project was not under the supervision of the Ministry of Housing.
The source stated that the Governor, specifically moved supervision to Special Duties (Government House) manned by a Commissioner, Hon. Henry Siakpra.
Meanwhile, a lawmaker in the State Assembly who pleaded anonymity disclosed that the project was a cash cow for the governor and his cronies.
He said details and documents of the project are some of the most guarded secrets of the Okowa led government. “If not for the purpose of fraud, why would the governor remove a project of that magnitude from the professional supervision of the Ministry of Housing.”
The Fraud Red Flags in the Contract
As much as governor Okowa may have denied his involvement or ownership of the Company or contract, certain details are red flags to the irregularities flooding the project.
Although claiming to be a Chinese company, the NCCG is a Nigeria registered company without claim to any executed project in its history.
Furthermore, according to article two of the Strategic Thrust of the company as published on the company’s website, the “North China Construction Group Co. Limited is an “AAA” rated firm with Equity capital or Shareholders’ fund of about US$300 million.”
It further stressed that “We are therefore able to leverage our balance sheet and financial strength to attract the right level of funding from Chinese Banks and Government backed Financial Institutions for our strategic projects in Africa. The government of China is also willing and able to support our activities because we are a Policy company.”
Going by the strong financial position of NCCG as they have clearly stated, why then did they require the guarantee of the state government in securing the 8 billion naira loan from the United Bank of Africa [UBA] by issuing an Irrevocable Standing Payment Orders (ISPO)?
Could it be that the company lacks the capital base as it claims and thus lacks credibility to secure such credit facility?
The implication of the loan guarantee is that the state government was taking liability for the profit of the company, a financial expert, Mr. Oba Abraham stated when consulted.
According to him, the government loses at both ends.
On the contrary, Managing Director, NCCG, Dr. Osadebe Osakwe says the project was devoid of fraud, against allegations in several quarters.
Although all efforts to reach him proved abortive, Dr. Osakwe who responded via his verified LinkedIn account said, “have you visited the secretariat even from outside you will judge for yourself. What type of fraud are you talking about? Secretariat that is contractor financed which payments are being made instalmentally over many years? Governor Okowa is probably the most disciplined Governor in the Country and I can assure you that what they are negotiating to pay us is far below our actual cost, so where is the money to give to people?”
When asked to release documents of the contract, he replied, “The Secretariat belongs to Delta state Government, therefore, all documents relating to it are public documents so I am sure that you know how to obtain such documents.”
More Loop Holes
Allegations of fraud in relation to the project seem unending.
Beyond the loans guaranteed by the State Government for the contractor, huge sums of money running into billions are still appropriated from the state’s coffers for the New State Secretariat Project.
A Memo with file No. SDGH: 34/T5/6-8, from the Office of the Commissioner for Special Duties (Government House), to the Governor demanded payment of 61,323,395 million naira as consultancy fee for Contemporary Design Associates, a company headed by Arch. Kester Ifeadi, another kinsman and crony of the governor.
According to the memo the consultant’s application being additional service for the review process, was sent to Ministry of Housing for review and appropriate advice.
The Commissioner, Mr Henry Sakpra advised that the payment be charged to Budget Code 025319032 (Development of New Central Secretariat Complex) in the 2019 Delta State Approved Budget with a provision of N1,863,772,325 billion if approved.
The payment was eventually approved by the State Governor, Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa on 6/2/2020.
That the State Government is paying for consultancy separately confirms the allegation of a lawmaker in the State Assembly, that “in truth the project cost is actually beyond the money written on paper and shown to Deltans.”
Information Commissioner Blocked Access to Project Site
The vow to guard the secrets of the project seems quite alarming, this investigation learnt.
Beyond the sworn silence of government officials to outright hoarding of project details and public documents, is the manner with which the project is policed.
All attempts to access the project site to get photograph met vehement resistance by security details attached to the site.
On inquiry, the team leader, a sergeant, advised the reporter to get written permission from government house or the Commissioner for Information.
All efforts to reach the Commissioner for Information, Mr. Charles Aniagwu was impossible.
In his usual character, Aniagwu neither took the calls nor responded to the messages.
No Reply To FOI Letters
Freedom of Information requests made to offices of the Secretary to Delta State Government, Pricipal Secretary, Governor’s Office, and Commissioner for Special Duties, Government House were not responded to.
Calls and text messages placed on their cell phones were neither answered nor responded to.
When Will The Project Be Commissioned?
The Delta State New Secretariat Complex has remained a dream tree after its groundbreaking.
In all, the sum of 17,345,674,302 billion naira, have been expended so far on a project initially pegged at 13 billion naira.
Even with a difference of 3,700,543,059 billion expended the date for commissioning of the project is still not certain.
The contracting firm handling the Delta State multi-billion naira state secretariat complex disclosed recently that construction of the project would be completed before the end of September 2020.
This is as the State Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa also announced that the ultra-modern secretariat would be ready for inauguration in October.
Although the new time frame however falls short of an earlier disclosure by Governor Okowa that the complex would be ready in July, October, 2020, has again gone with the tide.
This Investigation is supported by Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. No part of it may be published or used whatsoever without written permission from the author.