By Samuel Malik
One of Nigeria’s foremost celebrities, Onyeka Onwenu, has been accused of demanding and collecting kickbacks through her personal assistant, Chika Abazu, from a contractor employed to carry out renovation works at the National Centre for Women Development [NCWD], where she is director general.
The accusation was levelled by Joseph Nwakama, an architect with Solidmark Associates Limited, the company employed by the Centre to carry out the renovation of its guest house.
However, although it was established by investigators from the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission, ICPC, that Mr. Abazu indeed demanded and received a total of N17 million bribe from the contractor, no direct evidence has so far linked Ms. Onwenu to the offence.
So, it was Mr. Abazu who was on July 10 arraigned before a Federal Capital Territory High Court on a six-count charge of bribery and gratification.
The accused pleaded not guilty to the charges but was denied bail and ordered remanded in the Federal Prisons, Kuje, until the case is dispensed with.
The presiding judge, Justice Chukwu Ndukwe, adjourned the case till September 28 for trial to commence.
Although investigators could not directly link Ms. Onwenu to bribetaking, documents obtained by the icirnigeria.org revealed so many wrongdoings by the Centre’s management under her watch, including funding the Solidmark contract with money taken from a Women Empowerment Programme in Zamfara State and spending more than was budgeted for the project. That is apart from paying the contractor even before he was officially awarded the contract.
Court papers obtained by this website indicate that Mr. Nwakama told investigators from the ICPC that he was called by Mr. Abazu, a deputy director at the NCWD and personal assistant toMs. Onwenu, early in April 2014 and asked to submit a bid for the renovation of rooms at the Centre’s guest house.
Two days after submitting the bid, he was awarded the contract and asked to immediately move to site, despite the non-issuance of an award letter.
“After two days he called me and told me that the Centre would like me to do the job because my bill was the lowest, and that I should come and see the DG,” Mr. Nwakama said in his statement.
“When I came, the DG asked me to start work, that I should work day and night (and) that they would give me award letter, agreement and advance latter,” the contractor stated.
The contract, according to the letter, was awarded on April 28, 2014 at the sum of N33 million for 25 rooms, but our investigation confirmed that Solidmark started work earlier that month, long before the formal award letter was issued.
According to bank records, by April 28, when the contract was supposedly awarded, a total of N28, 619, 047.62 had been paid into Solidmark’s Zenith Bank account (April 11, N22, 619, 047.62; April 14, N4 million, and; April 24, N2 million).
The first payment was made through a transfer by the Centre while the other two were through a First City Monument Bank, FCMB, account belonging to a company Transtell Ventures Nigeria Limited. It was discovered that the managing director and sole signatory to Transtell account is Mr. Abazu, Ms. Onwenu’s personal assistant and deputy director at the Centre.
Mr. Nwakama claimed that immediately the first payment was made, he was called by Mr. Abazu to his office, where he was told that Ms. Onwenu needed N23 million as gratification from the total money he would be paid to renovate 55 rooms, even though the contract letter stated 25 rooms.
“He told me that the DG wanted me to give them N23 million out of the money for the 55 rooms. I told him that it was too much (but) he told me that if I was not going to give them, the DG would ask me to pay back the money (N22, 619, 047.62) and the other contractor would do the job,” Mr. Nwakama explained, adding that he told the PA that he had done much work already.
“I had to accept, he then asked me to pay N10 million into his company account, Transtell Ventures Nigeria Limited, with FCMB and I did. He told me that why the DG needed the N10 million was so she could give the First Lady (former First Lady Patience Jonathan),” the contractor said in his statement.
Investigations show that on April 15, 2014, four days after Solidmark received the first payment, the sum of N10 million was debited from its account and paid into Transtell’s FCMB account – 0418352015.
Again, on April 14, 2014, when N4 million was paid into Solidmark’s account by Sadeeq Omar, the Centre’s director of planning, research and statistics, Mr. Abazu called Nwakama and asked him to pay the money into Transtell’s account because the DG needed it, having given the first N10 million to the first lady.
Two days later, April 16, N4 million was paid from Solidmark’s account into Transtell’s FCMB account. According to Nwakama, Abazu told him not to worry as the DG would soon direct that more money be paid into his account.
When N3 million was paid on August 21, 2014 into Solidmark’s account by the Centre through Fidelity Bank, Mr. Abazu allegedly demanded that the money be paid into his personal account with United Bank for Africa, UBA, for onward delivery to Ms. Onwenu.
As demanded, a day later, the N3 million was credited into Mr. Abazu’s personal account with UBA account from Solidmark, bringing the total amount of money paid by Solidmark to the personal assistant to N17 million.
According to Mr. Omar, the Centre’s director of planning, who paid N4 million into Solidmark’s account on April 14, 2014, the money was taken as a “loan” from the money budgeted for the Women Empowerment Programme in Zamfara West Senatorial Zone, Zamfara State.
The money’s withdrawal, Mr. Omar said, was approved by management but had not been refunded, as at January 26, 2015.
Investigations by the icirnigeria.org revealed that N15 million was budgeted for the Zamfara empowerment programme in the 2014 budget while renovation of the guest house was allocated N30 million.
Despite this, the Centre still took out of the money meant for empowering women to renovate its guest house.
In all, bank documents show that Solidmark was paid a total N50, 129, 047.62 for renovation jobs at the Centre. Curiously, however, after paying out all that money, the contract was summarily terminated without notice, without the contractor completing the job.
Mr. Abazu’s statement to the ICPC, part of the proof of evidence in the court documents, was fraught with inconsistencies. In denying the allegation of bribery and gratification, he first told investigators that as a member of the Centre’s building committee, money was paid into his account for him to pay to the contractor “as the committee deem appropriate the job executed. This was to ensure value for money.”
He then said any money paid by Solidmark into Transtell’s account was for supply of materials, such as sand, cement, granite, etc. made by the latter during the renovation.
According to him, Transtell Ventures Nigeria Limited is owned by his brother, Jude Imoh, whom he introduced to Solidmark during the construction. He would later say his brother, whom he also referred to as Jude Abazu, had done a lot of supplies to Solidmark in the past, suggesting that part of the money could be payment for outstanding balance.
In another statement, however, Mr. Abazu said money paid by Solidmark into Transtell’s account was used by the Centre to buy “television, curtain rails, soap dishes, refrigerators, towels, bath tubs, and other materials for the guest house because management lost confidence in the ability of Solidmark to purchase good quality items.”
According to him, all building committee members were aware that Solidmark was asked by the Centre not to buy the above items and to expunge them from his bill of quantity.
Mr. Abazu again said that the N10 million received by Transtell from Solidmark was paid to a tailor for the sewing of “curtains, duvet, bed sheets, quills, and other accessories for the guest house,” adding that management directed that the money be paid into his account for safe keeping.
While he told his interrogators that his brothers and others were directors in Transtell, he said he did not know if the company had any address in Abuja. This is despite him being the company’s managing director and the sole signatory to its account.
It is also curious that the Centre would elect to pay a contractor through another company, Transtell Ventures Nigeria Limited. The company, with registered address is in Onitsha, Anambra State, was incorporated on October 16, 2002 and has three shareholders, none of who bears Chika Abazu although he is the sole signatory to its account.
In eight years since the account was opened, N133, 113, 854.55 has passed through it, including at least one payment from the Centre not connected to Solidmark’s renovation contract.
Mr. Abazu, whose salary is N404, 129.64 as deputy director, medical services, at the Centre, was described by a member of staff as cunning and greedy person who was bound to run into trouble.
Our reporter visited the NCWD twice in the last two weeks to speak with Ms. Onwenu, but was told she was not in office. The reporter called her on phone but she declined to comment on the matter. Having introduced himself and why he was calling, she told him to go to the Centre and talk to them and hurriedly hung up.
Mr. Abazu could also not be reached for comments as he had not come to work for a while, apparently engrossed with the case that has now landed him in prison custody.
One of the arguments put forward by the ICPC lawyer in opposing his bail application, which swayed the judge in taking the decision to remand him in prison, was that he attempted to bribe the investigative officer who handled his case.
According to a lawyer familiar with the case, Mr. Abazu tried to bribe the investigating officer and was actually led on to pay the money into the ICPC’s corporate account, itself an offence that would be used against him in court.
This report was first published by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting