The Ambode probe •Fresh twists and turns

•Controversy over indicted perm sec’s status

BOLA BADMUS, TUNDE ADELEKE and LANRE ADEWOLE take a deep look into the ongoing efforts at imposing probity on the stewardship of a former helmsman of a rich state with the opaque financial regime.

 

THE unveiling of the alleged corruption probe of the immediate governor of Lagos State, Mr Akinwumi Ambode, by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) is the newest twist to the battles of the Epe-born accountant and while it came as a surprise to many, the discerning saw it long coming.

Saturday Tribune had, in its June 1 edition, exclusively reported of the coming probe which sources within the ruling political establishment in the state said was aimed at further weakening him politically and possibly forcing a premature end to his political career.

It was also reported that those after the former governor would be using fronts instead of engaging him in public brawls that could buy public sympathy for him, just like it worked for his immediate predecessor, Mr Babatunde Fashola, who incidentally had his own raw deal at Ambode’s hand.

Ambode, then, was said to be fighting the battle of his now-estranged godfather and national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), Senator Bola Tinubu, who was seen as moving against Fashola to stop his ministerial prospect.

No N9.bn traced to my account ― Ambode

With Ambode’s government reportedly releasing the incriminating documents, information in public domain proved that Fashola’s administration was not completely prudent with public funds but President Muhammadu Buhari still went ahead in 2015 to appoint him a super minister, heading a three-in-one Ministry of Power, Works and Housing.

After four years in the saddle, Buhari has reappointed him and would soon be taking office again as minister, following an all-clear by the Senate.

Mr Fashola was never probed for the alleged infraction.

Following the falling out with Tinubu over his aborted second term bid, Ambode was seen drawing closer to the seat of power in Abuja, a move many interpreted as seeking a federal appointment, possibly ministerial, in the footstep of his once-revered predecessor-in-office.

Saturday Tribune learnt that Ambode was close to achieving his ministerial target before a last-minute bubble saw Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora replacing him as the second ministerial appointee from Lagos State.

Though it could not be ascertained if the alleged corruption probe had a hand in the reported last-minute decision by the president to give Ambode a wide berth, an undeniable fact is that the anti-corruption commission had been on the case for a while, investigating the alleged looting before coming before Justice Chuka Obiozor of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, to blow the lid off the alleged scandal.

As a matter of routine, those under federal appointment considerations are always run through security and financial crime lenses but with scores of Buhari’s latest appointees, including ministerial, having alleged corruption baggage before becoming the president’s men and ultimately his key partners in the Next Level project, many of those with political understanding of the season of appointments hold that Buhari didn’t just want to appoint Ambode minister, regardless of whether any report from the Ibrahim Magu-led EFCC could have returned a negative for the former Lagos helmsman.

It would remain a matter of conjecture reading the reason Ambode was dropped from the ministerial list until the president decides to speak about it, but the camp of his traducers, believed to be decked to the hilt by associates, supporters, sympathisers and friends of his estranged godfather, Tinubu, can count his current travail as another one over him even if the president ends up making him the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, a position currently being occupied by Tinubu’s ally, a former Justice of the Supreme Court, Mr George Oguntade, who is now 79 years old, having retired in 2010 at the mandatory age of 70.

With the way he was bundled out of the ministerial list, which major consideration appeared to be pure political patronage considering its total dominance by very active politicians with debatable performances in previous elective and appointive assignments, those mocking the former governor believe that if he would be getting anything at all from Aso Rock, such an appointment would still be inferior to the ministerial opportunity denied him.

Following his denial of the ticket of the APC for a second term, Ambode had concentrated all his energy on President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign, while sparingly showing up at the state chapter campaigns.

He was also said to be one of the alleged highest donors to the presidential campaign.

Top-notch information said Ambode and the president had a pact sealed when he paid the Abuja supremo a thank-you visit for visiting Lagos to inaugurate his legacy projects, an event boycotted by Tinubu over Ambode’s alleged refusal to leave those projects to the incoming governor, Mr Babajide Sanwoolu, to complete and commission.

 

Insider job

Nearly all political operatives in the state agreed that the current travail of the former governor was an insider job, though the identity of the author of the petition which the EFCC is reportedly working on, is yet to be unveiled. Even if unveiled, informed sources within government circle said only novices would believe that such a name would be one that could easily be traced to “the main source of his (Ambode’s) problem. When he was instigating the embittered Alpha Beta former managing director against his former benefactor, only those who knew could link him with it. That is the way it works,” a political analyst, said of the reading of the unfolding scenario.

Though the state House of Assembly had raised some alleged impeachable offences against him at the height of the faceoff between him as governor and the legislature headed by his unhidden enemy, Honourable Mudashiru Obasa, the new frontier of hidden bank accounts and alleged money laundering is a flank not exploited before now.

However, in the June 1 exclusive report of Saturday Tribune, the issue of missing hefty sum of money was already listed as one of the reserved whips to flog alleged rebellion out of the former governor’s system.

Aftermath his controversial loss at the October 2, 2018 primaries of the party to now-incumbent Sanwo-Olu, the APC hierarchy consistently accused Ambode of funding then-PDP candidate, Mr Jimi Agbaje and allegedly working against Sanwo-Olu and APC as a way of getting even with Tinubu. He denied the anti-party accusations.

As a way of making it impossible for him to channel funds to Agbaje, the lawmakers under Obasa were used to stop him from accessing the 2015 budget, while many of the commissioners in his cabinet, because Tinubu wanted them, reportedly became completely disloyal to him.

Captured and hemmed in, Ambode was said to have become a loner at the dying days of his administration, only relying on associates with long history of unshakeable loyalty.

One of the said few is Adewale Adesanya, named as the principal suspect in the alleged N9.9 billion scam which the EFCC is now hanging on Ambode’s sturdy shoulders.

Identified by the commission as the permanent secretary in the office of the chief of staff to Ambode as governor, Adesanya was accused of being the main man running the alleged heist show with the commission saying before the court that he would be the one to be prosecuted when investigation is completed.

 

Adesanya who?

For a man said to have pulled an alleged heist of almost N10 billion within a period of about eight months, Saturday Tribune decided to seek him out and dig more about him, considering the amorphousness of the title credited to him.

Investigation, however, showed that Adesanya was never a permanent secretary in the office of the chief of staff to the governor. Rather, findings showed that Adesanya is one of the former staff who had worked in the State Treasury Office (TSO) which Ambode oversaw as part of his constituency as the state’s accountant general during the administration of Fashola.

In particular, he was said to be a cashier in the office of the chief of staff on Grade Level 15.

Another aspect of his story has it that the largely unknown fellow was called out of retirement by Ambode when he became governor as an aide, but definitely not engaged as a permanent secretary. The man in the eye of the storm is also discovered by Saturday Tribune not to be anywhere near his place of assignment in Alausa under Ambode, lending further credence to the claim he is a retiree pulled out for a special assignment.

While mum is the word about his whereabouts within the seat of government at Alausa, there are no doubts the hitherto innocuous civil servant will soon become a face adorning major news outlets when the planned trial begins.

The expose from the EFCC which has kept tongues wagging in the state got the court granting a temporary forfeiture order freezing three different accounts belonging to the state, which were linked with the alleged fraud.

Magun’s commission claimed that the said accounts, used to transact the alleged money laundering business, are domiciled with First City Monument Bank, Access Bank and Zenith Bank and numbered 5617984012, 0060949275 and 1011691254, respectively.

In the affidavit filed by the commission, it asked the judge to freeze the accounts reportedly opened in September 2018 pending the conclusion of the investigation and possible prosecution of Adesanya.

Through its investigator, Kunmi Daniel, the commission claimed “a huge inflow of N9,927,714,443.29” from the Lagos State accounts into an FCMB account opened on September 17, 2018 during the administration of former Governor Akinwunmi Ambode and operated by Adesanya.

He also alleged that the schedule of the FCMB account showed how Adesanya, in collaboration with other signatories to the account, “made fraudulent transfers from the accounts of the Lagos State government and dissipated the funds housed in the said accounts.”

“The trend in the account is that the account always witnessed huge inflow from Lagos State government in the above-scheduled accounts managed by the respondent (Adesanya),” Daniel said, adding that it was upon the receipt of intelligence report that the EFCC analysed it and found it worthy of investigation.

 

Tightening noose?

A common theory being bandied around regarding the alleged fraud is that it was election slush fund, considering the timing of the opening of the accounts under probe and the party’s primaries which Ambode lost to Sanwo-Olu. Creating such a slush fund for election purposes is also believed to be a common practice among public officeholders in the country and with the EFCC disclosing that the close to N10 billion had been depleted to a mere N300 million, the wild theory keeps spreading among Lagosians and elsewhere. On Thursday when Saturday Tribune contacted the EFCC, its spokesperson, Mr Tony Orilade, said investigation was ongoing and whoever is invited for questioning, whether Ambode or Adesanya, should be considered to be part of the ongoing process of ascertaining the truth concerning the money, believed to be public’s.

According to him, “the order of the court is part of the ongoing investigation. If anyone is invited, it will still be part of the ongoing investigation.”

Unlike under Ambode against Fashola when those in charge of minding the image of the administration were ready to volunteer information about Fashola’s alleged graft, though not on record, their counterparts under Sanwo-Olu were completely gum-lipped.

There were no official comments and everybody was avoiding the issue like leprosy. The administration currently has no chief press secretary while Gboyega Akosile, the deputy chief press secretary, would not volunteer any information.

Efforts to get the side of Ambode’s story through his then chief press secretary, Mr Habib Aruna, were also fruitless as calls were not going through to his mobile line.

The Ambode probe is also believed in political circles to represent another conundrum for the anti-corruption crusade of President Buhari, considering the suspect as an alleged major donor to the president’s re-election campaign.

Those in his situation in recent past eventually got what amounted to presidential pardon with the likes of Timipre Sylva, Godswill Akpabio and Danjuma Goje with alleged corruption baggage ending up on the chummy side of the president.

Though tough and resilient, Magu always ends up bowing to the powers that be in Abuja in cases like Ambode’s once political interest creeps in.

 

Probe should be total –Anti-graft groups

Meanwhile, anti-corruption groups are making their voices count in the ongoing efforts to open the once-tightly closed financial books of the state to the public, in anticipation of Ambode also opening up to drag everybody into the open, since both he and his traducers were together at a point.

When Saturday Tribune first broke the news of his planned probe two months ago, a political operator who has had an on-and-off and on-again relationship with the governor said the accountant was not like Fashola who kept sealed lips when being dragged through the mud by Lagos ruling establishment, using the same Ambode.

The source stated that Ambode would fight back in a way that would shock his former friends turned enemies if they dare call him out, using alleged corruption probe. The die appears cast now.

Lanrewaju Suraju Kamoru, Chairman, Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) believes the saga isn’t entirely surprising. According to him, “The latest expose on the Ambode regime in Lagos State is not entirely surprising if you look at the amount of resources generated by Lagos from federal allocation and internally generated revenue, coupled with the fact that Lagos operates the most opaque budget in the country; you don’t know how much comes and how much goes.

“This will be a tip of the iceberg if proper investigations are carried out. The EFCC with this latest action has shown that it’s operating without bias; it’s not a matter of whether a person belongs to one party or another. If you look at Yari, the ex-governor of Zamfara, too, he belongs to the APC. This, to me, is commendable and must be pursued to its logical conclusion. The efforts of the anti-graft body must be supported by Nigerians, including stakeholders like the media and civil society groups,” Kamoru said.

For Adewale Adeoye, Executive Director, Journalists for Democratic Rights (JODER), “the discovery of over N9 billion is a national embarrassment. It confirms widespread speculations that Ambode was very corrupt. I think this was one of the silent reasons behind his rejection by the APC leadership. Imagine if he had won the election, he would have been immune from prosecution. It’s unbelievable that one single man can exploit the people of Lagos in such a savage manner.

“From what we hear, this might be just a tip of the iceberg. There should be thorough investigation. It has also confirmed that politicians who steal public funds do so in collaboration with civil servants.

“Nobody is above the law. We are all waiting to see the outcome of this investigation. I also think the EFCC should return illicit funds to the purse of the states that own such funds. It should not be seized and converted to funds of the Federal Government. It is wrong.”

Chairman, Free Democracy (FreeDem), Stephen Adaramoye, in his reaction, said, “The EFCC is the body saddled with the responsibility to investigate financial crimes. To that extent, it has the right to investigate and prosecute anybody found to have tampered with public funds; nobody is immune, even if it’s the president, except that he can’t be prosecuted while in office. The law should not be a respecter of anybody.

“However, the EFCC has not performed to expectation. It has been used in the past to settle old scores. We have also had cases of the body not acting on petitions, a former Lagos State governor is a case in point. I think they have the right do it. After all, they investigated Mama (Patience) Jonathan. But deep down, there could be bad belle. They are all crooks; no exemption. None of them is clean.”

For the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL), a forensic analysis is needed to determine the real crooks.

Its Executive Secretary Mr Debo Adeniran, in a statement issued by the organisation’s coordinator for media and publications, Adegboyega Otunuga, said, “It will be recalled that in the course of the compilation of our Op-ed Publications for apprising the state government in Lagos State of its performance scorecard, LOP4 (Lagos state Open Parliament), we had asked the general public to furnish us with hard or soft evidence suggesting suspicious lodgings by any government official of funds belonging to the state; nobody was able to do this throughout our investigation for that particular LOP edition.

“It is, therefore, curious, though commendable, if such lodgings have been discovered to be in separate bank accounts and interpreted to be for illicit self-enrichment and corruptive purposes. These banks have also now been revealed by the EFCC to be First City Monument Bank, (FCMB), Access Bank and Zenith Bank with their account numbers given as 5617984012, 0060949275, and 1011691254, respectively. Consequently, we take heed of the screaming headlines of the EFCC that already link the banks’ accounts to the person of the immediate past governor of the state, Mr Akinwumi Ambode, and urge the anti-graft agency to do due diligence in ascertaining ownership, purpose and all necessary examinations of issues, remote and immediate, surrounding the humongous lodgings so as to avert possibilities of any witch-hunt.”

The CACOL boss added: “We remain convinced that official corruption must be tackled frontally if Nigeria must heave a sigh of relief and reverse itself from a seeming trip to economic and social perdition, hence, our total commitment and support for the war against the ogre of corruption. Howbeit, for the fight to achieve the set goals of the current Federal Government and tally with the wish of the majority Nigerians (who are usually the main victims), the innocent must never be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency or self-righteousness.”

Comments