A newly-obtained batch of documents has further exposed how information minister Lai Mohammed was instrumental to the release of N2.5 billion in questionable payments to a private digital broadcast signal provider.
The payments in May 2017 to Pinnacle Communications Limited by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) have now been deemed fraudulent by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC). The agency had also brought charges against four individuals, including the director-general of NBC, Modibbo Kawu.
Mr Kawu, as well as Lucky Omoluwa and Dipo Onifade, the two Pinnacle executives also standing trial for the payments, all denied allegations of fraud.
PREMIUM TIMES reported last week that Mr Mohammed, as the minister supervising NBC, approved the payment to Pinnacle, a private digital broadcast signal carrier. The minister was also involved in several negotiations and foreign trips that preceded the payment.
Although anti-graft detectives at the ICPC knew Mr Mohammed was involved, they declined to hold him criminally liable. Instead, they argued in court documents that the minister was misled into granting the approval.
When he was questioned by detectives, Mr Mohammed said he only signed documents as forwarded to him for approval by Mr Kawu. He also did not deny the possibility of fraud in the N2.5 billion payments he approved.
Mr Kawu admitted to PREMIUM TIMES that Mr Mohammed approved the payment request as he presented it to him, but did not accept responsibility for the minister’s consent.
In one approval document on May 16, 2017, Mr Mohammed wrote that he “approved as prayed” by Mr Kawu, who had made the request on a few days earlier on May 11.
The approval was one of several documents culled from the case file the ICPC prepared over the matter.
Mr Kawu expedited the payments following a letter from Pinnacle on March 9, 2017. The letter demanded a “seed grant” from the Nigerian government, similar to a previous arrangement the government had entered with Integrated Television Services (ITS).
Pinnacle described the N2.5 billion from public coffers as “a very modest” request for it to continue its digital distribution of television signals to Nigerian homes.
The ICPC court filings also included a voucher that was raised for Pinnacle only a few days after Mr Mohammed approved. The voucher was for N2.5 billion.
An ICPC official in charge of finance and administration reportedly queried the suspicious payments, but he was ignored, according to court filings. He will be amongst the prosecution witnesses.
At least 11 witnesses had been lined-up for the trial by the ICPC, which slammed 12 counts of fraud against Messrs Kawu, Omoluwa, Onifade, and Pinnacle as a separate entity.
Under extant procurement provisions, neither of Messrs Mohammed and Kawu could approve such humongous payment. But the director-general argued that the payment had already been approved by President Goodluck Jonathan before he left office in May 2015.
The N2.5 billion was deducted from about N10 billion in NBC bank accounts. The N10 billion was seized by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in early 2016, amidst allegations that Mr Kawu’s predecessor, Emeka Mba, had squandered it.
The EFCC later discovered that Mr Mba did not squander the money, but it had instead been deposited with Zenith Bank. The anti-graft office subsequently moved the fund to one of its recovery accounts at the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Mr Mba warned against the arbitrary use of the fund, saying it was sourced from private investors and earmarked for the development of digital switchover.
President Muhammadu Buhari later asked the EFCC to release the N10 billion to Mr Mohammed and the NBC. A September 29, 2016, letter by the chief of staff, Abba Kyari, informed Mr Mohammed that the fund had been released strictly for the digital switch-over project and mandated him to provide updates on its judicious use.