April 13, 2024

N2trn constituency project fraud: ICPC toothless bulldog, fails to prosecute suspects


•Shocking no indicted person held accountable —Eze Onyekpere
•Govt must urgently develop strategy to address corruption —Dr Zikirullahi

By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor & Luminous Jannamike

Five years after the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, launched with fanfare, a robust effort to verify the execution of constituency projects by Nigerian lawmakers across the country, the anti-graft agency has failed to prosecute those it indicted in its yearly reports in accordance with the Act setting up the commission.

The Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act 2000 which established the ICPC vested it “with the responsibility for investigation and prosecution of offenders thereof”.

Records have shown that at least N2 trillion has been sunk into the so-called constituency projects in Nigeria between 2003 and 2024 without any concrete results to show in terms of projects and programmes that could add even marginal value to the people of Nigeria. The huge cash, which is dispensed in the sums of N95 billion to the 109 senators and N100 billion to 360 House of Representatives members yearly, is meant to provide additional quick impact schemes to the communities where lawmakers come from and quicken the pace of development in those places.

On April 2, 2019 when it launched its initiative, the ICPC focused its attention on 12 states, taking along officials from the Budget Office of the federation, Accountant-General Office, Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors and some journalists to track the projects claimed to have been undertaken by lawmakers in the states of Kogi and Benue in the North Central, Adamawa and Bauchi in the North East, and Sokoto and Kano in the Northwest. Others were: Imo and Enugu in the South-east, Lagos and Osun in the South-west and Edo and Akwa Ibom states in the South-south.

Between 2019 and 2023, the commission has carried out numerous verification exercises across the length and breadth of Nigeria and found some disturbing levels of graft ingrained into the constituency projects by lawmakers. Evidence seen by the commission also confirms that rather than abate, the venom of looting the treasury has been sharpened year-on-year by those who are eager to use constituency projects as a seamless avenue to draw from the public till and smile to their banks.

After verifying constituency projects across the country, the ICPC in its report in 2022, frowned seriously at the deep-seated misnomer that has continued to rob the nation of funds. However, the commission did not do more than render scathing remarks. Although the commission claimed that it found instances where lawmakers awarded contracts under their constituency projects to themselves or their proxy companies, it did not have the courage to mention the names of those involved in the illicit acts but admitted that the overall amount involved in constituency project fraud ran into billions of Naira.

As an unwritten rule guarding the verification programme, the ICPC has been very reluctant to expose those found to have inflated constituency projects or diverted the cash meant for the projects while it has also remained silent over the lawmakers indicted and has failed to prosecute anybody for the constituency projects fraud. But early this week, the commission came again with its generic report of achievements, claiming that no fewer than 50 unnamed contractors, consultants and officials of MDAs were being probed under its phase five tracking project. It shared the report on its Twitter handle also known as X.

The anti-graft agency also boasted that no fewer than 200 bank accounts used for the fraudulent transactions in respect of constituency projects were frozen and cash worth N5.6 billion was recovered and as cumulative savings for the government. The ICPC spokesman, Azuka Ogugua, however, declined to respond to an inquiry by Saturday Vanguard on what they were doing to prosecute those their own reports indicted over constituency projects.

Although ICPC has launched the fifth phase of the verification programme and rendered its reports, it has also discovered to its chagrin that the country was still losing billions of Naira to the antics of lawmakers, government officials in critical ministries, departments and agencies. There were constituency projects in which contractors were proxies of the nominating lawmakers and top government officials.

That may perhaps, explain why despite the searchlight being beamed on the implementation of constituency projects by the ICPC over the years, not much appears to have changed in terms of reducing the amount of money being diverted by those who also nominated the projects and the contractors to execute them.

The narrative around constituency projects has not changed from when former president Olusegun Obasanjo frowned at the developments, saying that they were shrouded in fraud. “You and I know what constituency projects mean. It is simply corruption,” Obasanjo said at a public event in Minna, Niger State on August 15, 2017, without blinking an eye. The former president was bold to look at the people including lawmakers at the event and made the audacious allegation.

Even the immediate past chairman of the ICPC, Prof Bolaji Owasanoye, who spearheaded the tracking of constituency projects under an initiative called Constituency and Executive Projects Tracking Group, CEPTG, must have been shocked at the level of rot inherent in the scheme.

But he managed to give a balanced view of the commission’s finding. He said, “The outcome of the tracking exercises was positive with regards to the commission’s desire to engender value for money in government projects implementation and sustaining impactful governance within the local level.

Aside from diverted funds, which were recovered or completed projects hitherto abandoned by contractors, the outcome of phase one was a mixed bag of revelations. The tracking exercise revealed lots of mismanagement of funds and the non or shoddy execution of projects that would have had greater impacts on the lives and well-being of the people if they were executed to specifications.

Out of 524 projects under phase one, 195 were education projects, while 46 were health-related. The implication of diversion or mismanagement of public funds meant for development purposes is that communities are being short-changed and unable to access life-changing social services, thereby deepening poverty, increased diseases, heightened ignorance, spiralled criminality and unrest in the society”.

Reacting to the failure of the ICPC to prosecute those it indicted in its reports, Dr Zikirullahi Ibrahim, the Executive Director of Resource Center for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED), said: “We have always argued that anti-corruption agencies such as ICPC, EFCC, and the Code of Conduct Bureau are not truly independent due to political interference from higher authorities. This interference hampers their work and prevents them from effectively addressing the issues they encounter. As a result, these agencies are not free to investigate and reveal the details of corruption cases thoroughly. The refusal of the ICPC to expose corrupt individuals and recover illicit funds highlights the challenges faced in combating corruption. Preventing corruption is crucial, as it is better to prevent it than to cure it later.

Unfortunately, large sums of money have been lost, and much of it cannot be traced. This is why there is an urgent need for the current government to develop a comprehensive strategy to address corruption. A clear, detailed plan is necessary, not just vague statements about fighting corruption. Such a strategy would allow for accountability and measurement of progress. Right now, the situation is unclear, and the government’s approach to fighting corruption is unknown. To resolve these issues, the government needs to establish the autonomy of anti-corruption agencies and remove any political interference. Until this is achieved, the problems will persist. Recent incidents, such as the arrest of a journalist for reporting on corruption in the military, demonstrate the need for change. Transparency and accountability are essential for combating corruption effectively.”

On his part, Mr Eze Onyekpere, Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice, said: “It shouldn’t have been just a matter of recovering the money; there should have been some form of punishment and prosecution to deter such irresponsible conduct in the future. I am shocked that despite claiming to have conducted loot recovery, no one has been prosecuted or held accountable. This lack of action means that they (lawmakers) could continue their activities in the future without consequence, which is unacceptable.”

In his contribution, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, the Head of Transparency International (Nigeria), and Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), said: “I commend the ICPC for recovering public funds that had been misappropriated by some lawmakers. The issue of looting funds for Constituency projects began during the Obasanjo era when he encouraged the idea of projects without putting in place any proper legal framework for it. Legislators, ministries, and the press must begin to take responsibility, as these projects frequently lack proper oversight and accountability. In many cases, these lawmakers collude with contractors, resulting in subpar projects, incomplete work, or total non-execution. Furthermore, there is a pressing need for increased transparency and public input regarding the projects’ relevance to the community’s needs.

“Currently, appointees in the ICPC and EFCC are often limited by political corruption and influence, which can hinder necessary action, including recovery and prosecution. This environment of judicial and political corruption may prevent successful legal proceedings, leaving those responsible for embezzlement untouched while they enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

“As a result, the ICPC focuses on recovering funds within its jurisdiction while avoiding judicial processes that may prove unsuccessful due to corruption. This approach prioritizes the recovery of public funds over full legal prosecution to avoid losing both the money and the case. ICPC and EFCC must be supported by the President to overcome significant challenges to fulfil their mission, including budget cuts that limit their capacity to tackle fraud effectively. Public support for anti-corruption agencies is also vital, as the very institutions that oversee them can impede their work.

“To advance their mission, these agencies must navigate a challenging environment in which the lawmakers they investigate are often the same individuals who could either provide or withhold the resources necessary for them to fulfil their mandates through the Appropriation Bill. Consequently, the ICPC seems to place greater emphasis on recovering misappropriated funds while steering clear of prolonged legal battles that could deplete their already limited resources. This strategic decision prioritizes the recovery of funds for the public’s benefit.”

“While the commission may appear to be working and fulfilling its mandate of investigating, and monitoring constituency projects to checkmate corruption, the inability of ICPC to prosecute lawmakers and top government officials involved in siphoning huge cash meant for such intervention, leaves much to be desired and sets the anti-graft fight back. It is as if the commission is not only condoning the suspects because of their overriding political influence but it is also appeasing them, while the nation’s scarce resources are actively being frittered away by the same set of predators posing as defenders of the people’s mandate and well-being.

“The ICPC must move away from the unhelpful ritual of playing to the gallery by regularly ‘verifying’ constituency projects across the country to reprimanding those found to have soiled their hands in the process of awarding and implementing the so-called projects whose impact is not being felt where they are said to be located. The relevant laws are there in the country’s statutes and the agency only needs to muster the needed political will and determination to face the people whose appetite for diverting public funds knows no bounds.

“By merely recycling this national annual ritual and drawing media blitz to itself and its officials, the ICPC may end up advertising itself as a toothless bulldog that can only bark but cannot bite while the stench of graft arising from the zonal intervention projects suffocates the land. If that happens, the commission might etch itself on the wrong side of history and unwittingly appease those who don’t wish us well as a nation”.

Vanguard News Nigeria