A senior Nigerian lawyer, Femi Falana, says he would file a suit on Monday against the federal government over alleged corruption in the award of a contract for the production of the Combined Expatriate Residence Permit and Alien Card (CERPAC).
This is also as the Special Presidential Investigation Panel (SPIP) for the Recovery of Public Property told PREMIUM TIMES it is investigating the matter.
Those Mr Falana wants to drag to court are the Ministry of Interior, the Office of the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Nigeria Immigration Service, he said on Saturday.
Particularly, Mr Falana accused the Minister of Interior, Abdurahman Dambazau, of illegally increasing the CERPAC fee from $1,000 to $2,000 December last year.
He said the company handling the contract, Continental Transfert Technique Limited (Contec), would also be joined in the suit.
“We’re going to court on Monday,” he said weeks after he had vowed in a petition to initiate court proceedings if the allegations of fraud and abuses he raised were not investigated.
Late January, Mr Falana in a petition asked the Minister for Finance, Zainab Ahmed, to probe the contract between the Ministry of Interior and Contec after the CERPAC was hiked 100 per cent to $2,000 in December.
PREMIUM TIMES understands that the service provider for the production of CERPAC, Contec, wrote the interior ministry on December 11, 2018, seeking a review of the fee charged for the cards from $1,000 to $2,000.
Two days after, December 13, the ministry replied through the permanent secretary, Mohammed Bello. In the letter obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr Bello conveyed the approval of the minister, Mr Dambazau, to the company.
Inside the petition
Mr Falana expressed worry that “within two days of applying for the increase, the Minister of Interior approved the request.”
He noted that engaging “foreign consultants to collect it (CERPAC fees) is a contravention of the Presidential Executive Order No. 5 which has ‘prohibited the engagement of foreigners to perform services that can be provided locally by Nigerian citizens’”
Mr Falana said asking the foreign nationals to pay the fees in U.S. dollars is a breach of the CBN Act 2014, which stipulates that the currency issued by the Central Bank of Nigeria shall be the legal tender for the payment of any amount.
“The most fraudulent aspect of the illegal increase is that out of the huge revenue realised for the payment of the CERPAC fee, only 30 per cent of it is paid to the Federal Government at the official rate of N306 while the foreign consultants are allowed to pocket the remaining 70 per cent.
“It may interest you to know that the foreign consultants have been directed by the minister of interior to pay the said 30 per cent into a dedicated account in a commercial bank in flagrant contravention of the Federal Government’s policy on Treasury Single Account. which unifies Government accounts to enable the ministry of finance to maintain oversight of the Government cash flow,” Mr Falana said in his petition obtained by this newspaper.
He concluded: “If our requests are not granted, we shall not hesitate to institute legal proceedings at the Federal High Court for the recovery of the huge fund that is being criminally diverted by some highly placed officials at the ministry of interior and their foreign collaborators.”
Authourities, company react
PREMIUM TIMES has not been able to interview officials at the ministry of finance but there may have been actions from there already. We saw a February 11 letter to the ministry by the company. The letter indicated the ministry had forwarded Mr Falana’s January 29 letter to the company.
In the letter through its lawyer, Adewole Adebayo, the company dismissed Mr Falana’s allegations as “blatantly false” – “from the title of the letter to the entirety of the correspondence.”
The company said the CERPAC is not handled by “foreign consultants” but it alone is the “project financier and partner” and it is owned “by a Nigerian of good standing” from ” the great State of Borno.”
According to the information on its website, Contec is owned by Benoy Berry, a businessman of Irish-Indian descent. But he is now a naturalised Nigerian, an official at the ministry of interior told PREMIUM TIMES.
It considers itself a “Nigerian corporation” in the U.S. court filings seen by this newspaper.
On the alleged breach of TSA policy, the company said the government’s portion of the revenue is “administered by the bank in compliance with the TSA policy.”
A spokesperson in the ministry, Osaigbovo Ehisiemen, further explained, in a separate interview with our correspondent, that the partner bank, Polaris, collects the fees and remits the government’s share into the TSA.
In another letter, obtained by PREMIUM TIMES, from the ministry of interior to Mr Falana on February 12, the ministry’s director of legal services, Folakemi Adelore, said Contec has been in a contractual relationship with the ministry since 1999 and that the CERPAC is “totally” financed by the company.
In our exclusive earlier report, the minister for interior, Mr Dambazau explained the basis for the hike.
He said: “The increase is part of reforms being carried out because of the fraudulent nature in the expatriate quota which has been denying Nigerians employment and also revenue.
“Some companies bring in labourers in their hundreds and register them as experts/professionals but pay them as labourers while they remit most of the money to their countries. Many of them do not employ Nigerians to mix so that our people take up management positions after some time.”
In that report, the NIS chief, Mohammad Babandede, disputed Mr Falana’s allegation of a 70:30 sharing ratio between the company and the government.
In December 2018, the contract was reviewed to give 55 per cent to the company, 33 per cent to the federal government, five per cent to the ministry of interior and seven per cent to the NIS, according to Mr Babandede.
But before the latest review 2018, the company had a massive 72 per cent share. That was because the company proposed to build 28 additional offices and it did within four years, Mr Babandede explained.
Before the review of the sharing ratio in December 2018, a senator, Solomon Olamilekan, quoted by The Cable on October 11, 2017, said Nigeria “is in bondage.”
Falana insists on litigation: “Minister abused the law”
In reaction to the company’s response and the letter from the ministry asking him to withdraw his allegations, Mr Falana told PREMIUM TIMES: “We are going to court!”
“Where did he get the power to increase the fee?”
While standing by his allegations of abuses of TSA and CBN Act contained in his petition, Mr Falana said the process of the increase contravened Nigerian Constitution.
“The president ought to have sent a bill (to the National Assembly) in line with section 59 of the Constitution which states that no levy, tax or fee can be imposed without a law,” the senior lawyer told PREMIUM TIMES.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the panel on public asset recovery, Okoi Obono-Obla, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES Sunday morning that his body is looking at the allegations of “criminal diversion of public money” against Mr Dambazau by Mr Falana.
“We received the petition two weeks ago and we are working on it,” he said.
Mr Obono-Obla said the preparations for elections delayed their work.
“Whatever our findings we’ll let the public know. We are a public body,” he said.