By Simon Ebegbulem, Benin-City
The politics of Edo State, ahead of the 2016 governorship election, charged up, last Wednesday, after the State Executive Council meeting, when the Oshiomhole government ordered the investigation of some projects executed during the tenure of former Governor Lucky Igbinedion. The decision came as a shock to many, particularly after the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state, under Chief Dan Orbih, had persistently attacked the administration of Governor Adams Oshiomhole for turning its back on the happenings during the administration of Igbinedion.
This was when the likes of the former Secretary to the State Government under the Igbinedion administration, Pastor Osagie Ize-Iyamu, and others were in Oshiomhole’s ACN, now All Progressives Congress, APC. Their argument then was that it was the same people who allegedly destroyed the state during that administration that now moved to the APC to back Oshiomhole.
But the governor kept his cool, insisting he would not be distracted from his developmental projects by probing the past administration. While Igbinedion was in the PDP, he and his followers worked for the emergence of Oshiomhole, after the labour leader had completed his second tenure as President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). Before Oshiomhole’s coming, the Binis had zeroed on the current Political Adviser to Oshiomhole, Chief Charles Idahosa, but they rejigged when the erstwhile NLC leader showed interest in the governorship election. They rallied round Oshiomhole because of his solid credentials to oust PDP from the Edo Government House.
Since then, Igbinedion and Oshiomhole had enjoyed cordial relationship to the chagrin of the PDP. Even when the latter’s relationship with the father of the former, Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, went sour, the erstwhile governor was always there to ensure peace between them. The going was good between them until Ize-Iyamu, a close ally of Igbinedion, left the APC for the PDP and the land use charge was introduced in Edo. Due to the dwindling allocations from the Federal Government, the state government decided to look inwards to generate funds, but the move, it was alleged, did not go down well with people like the senior Igbinedion who is said to own several properties in Benin City and his Okada home town.
The state government had argued that it would collect tax from the rich to take care of the poor. This decision, it was learnt, brewed cold war between the Comrade Governor and the Esama. But Oshiomhole remained resolute in collecting the levy. Meanwhile, the junior Igbinedion remained calm in the politics of the state but broke his silence last June during the birthday celebration of his bosom friend, Ize-Iyamu, where the former governor declared that Oshiomhole’s successor in 2016 will be a member of the “family”, apparently giving his backing to the governorship ambition of Ize-Iyamu. However, since the recent war of words between the former and the current governor broke out, those sympathetic to the Igbinedions accused Oshiomhole of exhibiting ingratitude, a claim the Benin Elders Forum disagreed, saying: “ A lot of Nigerians even expected Oshiomhole to go for presidency and not governor because of his credible credentials.”
The simmering war between the junior Igbinedion and Oshiomhole came to the open, last Wednesday, after the State EXCO meeting when Oshiomhole ordered the recovery of the $31 million allegedly taken from government coffers during the administration of Igbinedion.
The state Commissioner for Information and Orientation, Mr Louis Odion, who briefed journalists, said: “There is the issue of the fraud that was discovered while turning our books. We found that the sum of $31 million was taken from the state coffers under the administration of Chief Lucky Ogbinedion. The Comrade Governor has directed the Attorney-General to commence legal action in that direction. So in the coming days, the state government will take legal action to ensure that what was (allegedly) stolen from Edo State government is recovered.
When you convert $31 million to naira, it fetches you a whopping N7 billion. You can imagine what N7 billion will do in improving the human condition in Edo State”. While expressing gratitude on behalf of the Comrade Governor to the people of the state and the private sector for compliance with the land use charge, the State Commissioner for Commerce and Industry, Hon. Abdul Oroh, said, “The $31 million, which was (allegedly) stolen from the people of Edo State, is in connection with the project called Avrant Cement Company situated at Ekpe, near Ikpeshi in Akoko Edo Local Government. The company was supposed to produce cement to take advantage of the large scale deposit of limestone in that part of the state. The company was registered as Abat Cement Company Ltd and this company had three shareholders.
The Abat Cement Company had 75% shares, Edo State government had 15% shares and 10% shares were reserved for ‘other Nigerians’. Although Edo State government was given only 15% share, 100% of the revenue invested in the company, $31 million was taken from the account of Edo State government. This money was withdrawn from the account of Edo State government under Afribank. As the money was withdrawn, construction of the company started and all the major structures were in place, 90% completed, machines were installed but there was no other contribution from any other source for the construction and procurement of these equipments. So everything invested in that company came from Edo State government.”
Reacting, Igbinedion, in an advertorial, accused Oshiomhole of misinforming the people of Edo on the issue, asserting that his silence on several issues in the state should not be misconstrued as cowardice. He said: “ While I view these as the antics of a drowning man, I wish to ask Governor Oshiomhole why it took his government over seven years to uncover a fraud of this magnitude.
Could it be that the he has been in slumber all this while and has just woken up? In a nutshell, Oshiomhole is trying to tell Edo people that I built a cement factory for myself using Edo funds. Oshiomhole’s aim and that of his cohorts with this skewed information is to whip-up sentiment as usual. Quite unfortunately, he no longer enjoys the sympathy of Edo people even as his claim contains no iota of truth. I am gladdened that in an attempt to cast aspersions on my person, Oshiomhole, through his aides, enumerated various industries I established while serving as governor of Edo but I challenge him to point to any industry or factory his administration has established for Edo people in the past seven years he has governed state.
“On the AVA Cement Company, for that is the true name of the company they are referring to, Oshiomhole claimed that I used Edo $31million to execute the project to about 90 per cent. And to his Information Commissioner, the $31million amounted to N7billion. I challenge Oshiomhole to send an evaluation team to the factory and let us see what their findings would be. As at 2006 when the AVA Cement Company project kicked off, the exchange rate for a dollar was about one hundred naira; hence $31 million then amounted to about N3billion. So, if Edo State government invested N3billion for a project that gulped well over N20billion, the question is, where did the balance of N17billion come from? Oshiomhole and his commissioners will certainly not answer this question for fear of revealing facts. I make this few clarifications to set the records straight and to remind Oshiomhole not to take my dignified silence for cowardice. Moreover, the courts are open to him. Nigeria has gone past his stone age of sentencing people on the pages of newspapers”.
In what seems to be a twist, the PDP in the state, in a statement by its spokesman, Chris Nehikhare, condemned the attempt to probe the administration of the former governor by Oshiomhole, describing it as political witch hunt. But the state Commissioner for Information, Odion, described both Igbinedion’s reaction and that of the PDP as laughable.
The war between the incumbent governor and the former, one year before Oshiomhole will hand over to his successor promises to be interesting. Oshiomhole may be soaring towards eliminating what is left of the PDP in Edo ahead of the 2016 governorship election. The battle in the coming days will be fierce following the swift response of Igbinedion to the allegations.
Oshiomhole is known to be ruthless when fighting any perceived god father. But question is, can the former governor get the ammunition he needs to fight this battle? Can he withstand an Oshiomhole who may be forced to open up the books of the former administration and drag him again to the EFCC? The two combatants are known to have common friends. Are those friends prepared to wade into the crisis before it gets messier? These are the questions waiting for answers. The next few weeks will be revealing.