A planned foreign trip for eight members of the National Assembly sponsored by the Nigeria Bulk Electricity Trading Plc (NBET) has continued to generate controversy, months after it was announced as cancelled.
Activists have also condemned the practice where Nigerian lawmakers are sponsored on local and foreign trips by government agencies they are supposed to have oversight on, saying it creates a conflict of interest.
NBET in November 2017 budgeted $96,350 for the eight lawmakers to attend the 43rd international training programme on utility regulation and strategy; but cancelled the trip for undisclosed reasons.
Despite the cancellation, however, a source within NBET told PREMIUM TIMES that the fund was approved and money released to the lawmakers.
PREMIUM TIMES confirmed the approval but could not independently confirm that the lawmakers received any money.
An internal memo of NBET obtained by PREMIUM TIMES indicated that eight lawmakers, four each from the Senate and House of Representatives committees on power; clerks of the two committees; the Deputy General Manager of NBET, Eugene Edeoga; and the Managing Director, Marilyn Amobi were drafted to attend the training.
The senators are Enyinnaya Abaribe, Adamu Aliero, Olanrewaju Tejuosho and Mao Ohabunwa while the members of the House of Representatives are Daniel Asuquo, Mohammed Garba Gololo, Abdulmalik Zubairu and Iboro Ekanem.
The clerks of the two committees are Gideon Zemo for the Senate and Sidi Ibrahim for the House of Reps.
BREACH OF RMAFC PROVISION
According to the memo, Mr Edeoga on November 28, 2017 approved $96,350 for himself and 11 others to attend the training programme, which was slated to hold from January 15 to 16, 2018.
Of the approved sum, $950 was earmarked as estacode for each senator per day. At the end of the training, each senator would be entitled to $9,500 for 10 days. This was indicated as per diem on the memo.
For members of the House of Representatives $900 was approved as estacode. Each of them would have received $9,000, also indicated as per diem, for 10 days.
A total of $4250 at $425 per day was approved as per diem for the two clerks and the DGM respectively while the MD was drafted to receive $9, 600 as per diem.
The memo noted that the course fee, which includes payment for accommodation, had been paid for the eight lawmakers, their clerks and the Deputy General Manager (DGM) who would serve as accompanying staff of NBET on the trip.
The memo also indicated that the MD was not registered for the course, but she was drafted and was to receive $9, 600 as accumulated estacode.
PREMIUM TIMES check into the 2007 revised allowances for lawmakers prepared by RMAFC revealed that the senators and Reps would have received more than they are constitutionally allowed if truly they embarked on the journey.
The document allows a senator an entitlement of $600 as estacode per day and $550 for Reps. From this, each of the lawmakers had $350 extra budgeted per day. In sum, each of them had $3,500 illegally approved for the training.
When contacted, Mrs. Amobi stated that the training was cancelled after approval. She denied paying herself, any NBET staff or the lawmakers as alleged.
She said the sources who claimed she paid herself and the lawmakers are disgruntled and bent on bringing her down.
“What I brought to this sector is my integrity. Since I became the MD, I’ve never travelled. NBET has never paid me one dollar to travel. I’m the only CEO in Nigeria that since I was made CEO, I’ve not gone anywhere. We were supposed to have an approval, so, we didn’t get approval and we didn’t do it.
“We have a lot of disgruntled people around writing all sorts of things. There is no lawmaker that was sponsored to anywhere. Call them and ask them if they went anywhere. Yes, there was an internal memo which was snapped with mobile phone by the person. The person who snapped it did so November last year. Somebody snapped the memo, kept it and is using it now. I’ve been on this job for long, there was no need to go on that training.
“Some people are bent on running you down and they just draft some people to write all sorts about you. I’m not afraid.”
Mrs. Amobi, however, declined PREMIUM TIMES request for documents to show reasons for the cancellation.
“There was a document that supported that approval. We have auditors that will come and audit what we do and everything we do must be supported by facts and figures. Anybody will come, when they come, they will then see that an approval was sought, the approval was not granted so, nobody was paid any money.”
On estacode rate, she said NBET worked with a different but consistent standard from RMAFC stipulation.
“Yes, Revenue mobilisation (RMAFC) can say something. We have some of those standards and we still have different agencies that still have other approval.”
IS NBET SUPPOSED TO FUND SUCH TRAINING?
The National Assembly is supposed to have oversight responsibilities on various ministries and agencies of government. Critics have, however, argued that many of the lawmakers get compromised by the same agencies, sometimes through sponsorships of such programmes. Four heads of agencies recently told PREMIUM TIMES they delayed appearing before National Assembly committees over their 2018 budgets because of monetary inducements asked for by the lawmakers.
The Chairman Senate committee on power, Enyinnaya Abaribe, however, defends sponsorship of lawmakers’ trips by an agency they have oversight over.
Mr. Abaribe, who was among those scheduled to attend the trip, was furious when PREMIUM TIMES sought his clarification on controversies surrounding the training.
He insisted that the agencies of government can fund trips for lawmakers.
“As an oversight committee, agencies can also provide trainings,” he said. “That can happen, they can invite us. Even the Ministry.”
When reminded that the trip in question was a foreign training, he became more furious, called this reporter unprintable names and hung the call.
He did not answer further questions on estacode rate and allegation of whether they received the fund or not.
“Something didn’t happen, you are asking me to talk about it. How do you want me to know?” he questioned and hung the call a second time.
Attempts at getting clarifications from the chairman of House of Representatives committee on power, Daniel Asuquo, were unsuccessful as his line wasn’t going through.
The Public Utility Research Centre (PURC) of Warrington College of Business, University of Florida, which organises the training annually, confirmed that all the lawmakers were registered for the training.
Kimberly Harder, the centre’s Coordinator of Research Programs and Events, who coordinated the admissions for the training, in an e-mail response to PREMIUM TIMES inquiry, noted that NBET registered all the lawmakers but none attended.
“The persons on the list, with the exception of Marilyn Amobi were registered for the program by NBET. Subsequently, NBET informed me that they did not get approval for the persons on the list (who are National Assembly Members) to attend the program. As a result of this, only Eugene Edeoga attended the program from the list. He attended with other personnel from NBET,” the response read.
She also explained that the money paid by NBET to her organization had not been returned, but was intact.
“We had an understanding with NBET in 2017 to train personnel to be nominated by NBET for the PURC/World Bank International Training on Utility Regulation and Strategy. The nominees were to come in batches commencing with the January 2018 training. Seven NBET staff and the National Assembly Members were nominated for the January training.
“The National Assembly members did not attend the training. The training fees for them (which is inclusive of accommodation) is still with us and as agreed with NBET, will be utilized as payment for the next batch of nominees to be sent by NBET.”
CIVIC GROUPS REACT
Civil Society Organisations said the mere initiation of such funding by NBET and its acceptance by the lawmakers is a breach on the rule of law.
Hamzat Lawal, Chief Executive of Connected Development (CODE), said the fact that the lawmakers agreed to be sponsored by an agency they have oversight on is worrisome and should be investigated.
The development, he said, would not allow the lawmakers to scrutinise NBET whenever the need arises.
“This is quite worrisome and unacceptable,” he said. “A situation whereby our lawmakers get money from agencies they are supposed to provide oversight for. The Nigeria we have today is quite saddening, that even when investigative journalism showcase high level of corruption, nepotism, disrespect for rule of law and nothing is being done.
“Obviously, this is a bribe because they say the man who pays the piper defines the tune. If these lawmakers found any discrepancy, they cannot hold them (NBET) to account because they have collected bribe. This is a gross misconduct of the rule of law. I’m calling the federal government to investigate this matter and anyone found wanton at NBET and the National Assembly should be prosecuted.”
He also urged the leadership of the National Assembly to “investigate this matter and if these lawmakers are found wanton, they should be suspended and their salaries should be stopped.”
Armsfree Ajanaku, the Media and Communications Manager, Centre for Civic Education, wants anti-graft agencies such as EFCC and ICPC to be involved in the investigation of the issue. He said the lawmakers are already found culpable of conflict of interest in the discharge of their duties.
“This is a reflection of conflict of interest in terms of how the National Assembly serially abuses its position as number one law-making organ of the country. This is just an example of a long list of assault on the psyche of Nigerians and the commonwealth. Let’s not make mistake about it, the commonwealth of Nigeria is supposed to be for the vast majority of Nigerians but what we have now is that these people have cornered these wealth and they just dip their hands, they just take money from anywhere without regulation or control. It is a manifestation of a morally bankrupt leadership that we currently have, especially at the National Assembly.”
Attacking the lawmakers further, Mr Ajanaku stated that even if they (lawmakers) pressured NBET into funding the training, the agency should have stood its ground.
“If an institution is supposed to have a level playing field to make a case and the lawmakers pressure you and you don’t play ball maybe they might cut your budget and things like that so, you give in. But that is wrong, at the end of the day, where is the honour, patriotism, integrity that should drive the realisation of government policies? At the end of the day, if you take money to service already overfed lawmakers, you can never get your priorities right.”