IMO: The agony of a privatized state – By: Ethelbert Okere

When a few months ago agents of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) arrested some functionaries of the Imo state government over alleged financial irregularities, hell was let loose.

The governor, Chief Okorocha, went berserk. He accused his so-called enemies of master minding the arrests and in a baffling betrayal of a desperate attempt to cover-up the matter, he leveled several mindboggling allegations against his immediate predecessor, Dr. Ikedi Ohakim.

Interestingly, it is the same officials that are also involved in the payment of over one billion naira to a contractor who was yet to execute his job and which has led to the ongoing impeachment processes against the Deputy Governor of the state, Mr. Jude Agbaso. As things stand, the state may have lost all that huge amount of money. More noteworthy is that this time around, it is not the EFCC but the peoples’ own representatives, that is, members of the State House of Assembly, that uncovered the sordid goings-on in the government of Imo state under His Excellency, Chief Rochas Okorocha. This is what can be deduced from the current saga revolving around Okorocha’s deputy, Mr. Jude Agbaso.

The probe of the deputy governor has exposed the unwholesome diversion of public funds through phantom award of contracts without any documentation. The Agbaso case may well be a confirmation of the series of allegations that the state government under Okorocha uses fake contractors to loot Imo funds. The particular contract award for the rehabilitation of a mere three-kilometer road at a mindboggling rate of N400 million per kilometer, as has been seen from the House of Assembly probe, was never advertised, had no project design, no bidding, no bill of quantity, no tenders, no evidence of prequalification and was not provided for in the budget.

Besides, the contractor is said not to have done any road contract anywhere in Nigeria before. Without doubt, the sheer contemplation that such a scenario must have been playing out in all the projects the administration has engaged in would sends jitters down the spines of every well meaning citizens of Imo state. Yet, Governor Okorocha keeps on mesmersing the people of the state with more proposals on phantom projects. In his 2013 budget speech, he outlined a number of projects for which he claimed he had already paid 40 per cent of the contract sum.

These include the Imo Towers of 1,000 housing units, the ecumenical centre, the magnificent towers, three five star hotels in each of the senatorial zones, an ultra modern judiciary headquarters etc. Yet, there is nothing on ground to justify the payment of 40 per cent advance as stated by the governor in his budget speech. And as with others, the contracts never went through the normal processes.

No advertisement, no tenders, no bidding, nothing. It is not a hidden matter that Governor Okorocha has, himself, made a song and dance of his disdain for due process; in fact making the people of the state to see non-compliance with due process as a virtue. Indeed, he has said repeatedly that due process is the avenue through which previous administrations siphoned state funds. The people now know better; which is that the ‘undue’ process style of the Okorocha administration was deliberately fashioned out to ease corruptive manipulations of the state bureaucracy for self serving ends.

The point being made here is that no matter how the Agbaso impeachment saga ends, it would be tragic for Imo people, indeed Nigerians, to go home with the impression that Governor Okorocha is a champion of the fight against corruption. The Governor is the chief architect of the rot in the state. The only thing that goes for him is that he has the flair for transferring his own guilt on others. Up till now, the governor has failed to explain what happened to a total of N26.27 billion left behind by the Ohakim administration.

This amount included the N13.3 billion bond proceeds out of the N18.5 that was initially drawn down, N3billion in SUBEB project account, N2.5 billion local government joint project account, N3.6 billion JAAC Account, N488 million in VAT account, N670 million Imo children fund, etc. Unknown to many, none of these amounts have reflected in any of the two budgets (2012 and 2013) so far proposed by the Okorocha administration. In a recent press conference in Owerri, the Association of Local Governments of Nigeria (ALGON) in Imo state brought this particular issue up again. According to ALGON, “the entire N26.27 billion has been criminally squandered without the knowledge of the Imo people”.

Yet, Governor Okorocha is famous for leveling frivolous allegations against other people. Each time he is challenged to prove it, he abandons that particular one and makes another allegation against the same fellow. Interestingly, his deputy, whom he was using to visit hatred on others, is now at the receiving end. The deputy governor, Mr. Jude Agbaso, insists that he is innocent of the charge (of taking N458million bribe money) against him and, in my candid opinion, he remains so until all avenues of proving him guilty are exhausted.

This is more so as a judicial panel, which is perhaps the most critical stage in the process of impeachment, is yet to sit over the matter. Added to this, of course, is that the deputy governor has gone to court to challenge the denial of his right to fair hearing. Is it not good to know that Mr. Agbaso is now talking about fair hearing? Only a few months ago, precisely on January 14th, 2013, he, Jude Agbaso, it was who stood for three hours in front of television cameras to level mindboggling allegations against Governor Ikedi Ohakim, based on a phantom audit report.

Before that live television broadcast, neither Ohakim nor any member of his administration was given the opportunity to be heard by Mr. Jude Agbaso and his audit panel. This is one big lesson that can be learned from the current saga. In their appraisal of the on-going imbroglio, most commentators would resort to the general refrain of “it serves Agbaso right”. Others would recoil in sheer condemnation of the deputy governor. It is a well known fact that by the time Chief Okorocha got the APGA ticket, he was not a member of APGA.

But that really did not matter. What baffled Imo people was that Martin Agboso, the undisputed leader of APGA then, found it convenient to give Okorocha the ticket of his party in spite of a subsisting arrangement wherein the governorship seat was expected to move from Okigwe zone to Owerri zone, Agbaso’s homestead, in 2015; in keeping with the Imo charter of equity. This expectation was especially so given that Orlu zone, were Okorocha comes from, had held the governorship position for eight unbroken years. Today, the Agbasos are making a song and dance of “2015 for Owerri zone”. I they had played to the rules, the governorship seat would have naturally gone to Owerri zone without any debate.

The major reason most Imolites are not sympathetic to the Agbasos over this matter includes the ease with which they extracted from Okorocha juicy portfolios based on the giving of the APGA governorship ticket to him. Interestingly, the deputy governor ran into trouble as a result of things that happened while he was combining the big position he was ‘elected’ into with that of Commissioner for Works, believed to be one of the juiciest positions in any state government. There are even those who charge the Agbasos of further immodesty for also cornering to their larger family the position of Commissioner for Health.

The current state Commissioner for Health is said to be their maternal uncle. Quite a good number of people believe that Okorocha must have reluctantly made the concessions to the Agbasos because he was desperate and helpless at the time he was giving them. It is further argued that Okorocha, reputed as very deft when it comes to ‘business’ matters, was merely bidding his time to tell the Agbasos that “before Abraham”, he was. It is in this sense that many argue that they saw the current quarrel coming.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. The deputy governor has said that his present ordeal is traceable to the collapse of an “agreement” over a number of issues between his elder brother and Okorocha before the 2011 governorship election. Among them are said to be an agreement that Okorocha should serve for only one term and hand over to Martin Agbaso. There are other agreements that have to do with pecuniary interest but it is saddening that a section of the Imo society is already being sold on the idea that Okorocha has committed an abomination for not respecting the spirit and letter of the agreement reached with the senior Agbaso.

Pray, what was the agreement all about? To share Imo State just between Martin Agbaso and Rochas Okorocha? To cede to another Orlu fellow additional four years in exchange for political positions and material things? So, things became that bad for Imo State that two people could sit at their convenience and decide the collective destiny of a people hitherto reputed as one of the most cerebral and sophisticated in the entire Nigeria.

The ease with which the Agbaso/Okorocha agreement is being talked about, with shameless audacity, is an affront to the collective integrity of the entire state. So, if Okorocha had not breached the so-called agreement, Imo state would have been reduced to a mere convenience of two families collaborating in a perfidious appropriation of the collective patrimony of a people believed to be one of Nigeria’s best.

Written by: Ethelbert Okere

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