Alleged N10 billion airport project fund: Abia drags Ikpeazu, others, to EFCC

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*Publishes audit report

From Boniface Okoro, Umuahia

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Abia State government, on Monday evening, disclosed that it has since handed in the report of the KPMG Forensic Audit on the financial dealings of the immediate past administration led by Dr. Okezie Ikpeazu, to Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), for further investigation.

The government made this known during a news briefing at Government House, Umuahia, on the outcome of the State Executive Council meetin, also declassified the KPMG Forensic Audit report and formally released it to Journalists.
The report which has aggravated the squabbles between the incumbent administration and officials of its predecessor, revealed alleged financial malfeasance during the eight year-tenure of the Ikpeazu-led government, from 2015 to 2023.
According to the state Governor, Dr. Alex Otti, who first let out snippets of the forensic audit report in far away John Hopkins University in United States of America, the audit uncovered about N107 billion contract scandal.

Said Otti while delivering a lecture while delivering a lecture on good governance and transparency at John Hopkins University:
“Talking about corruption, I had set up a forensic audit as soon as I took over last year in Abia. And so that there won’t be any argument, I called in one of the top three audit firms in the world, and not too long ago, they turned in their report and some of the things in the report are frightening.

“So, N79.3 billion was paid to seven contractors for contracts that were not executed at all up till today. Another N15.9 billion, almost N16 billion, was paid to 63 contractors with no supporting documents anywhere in the state. Another N12 billion was paid to two contractors for contracts that do not exist.

“Out of this figure, N10 billion was, on September 25, 2020, and that is almost four years, paid to some contractors for the construction of Abia State airport. We have spent time trying to locate the airport and up till now, we have failed.

“So, as we continue to look for our airport, we have also involved security agencies to help us search,” an indication that the state government may have advanced the document to EFCC even before Otti’s trip to America.
.The Governor has insisted at different fora since the audit report became public knowledge that it is either that the players during the Ikpeazu administration show Abians the N10 billion airport or they bring back the money which was released for the project.
Explaining more on the audit report during his May 9th, 2024 edition of his Monthly Media Chat tagged “Otti Speaks to Abians,” the Governor who said the report would soon be published, as the opposition and several other interest groups had demanded, narrated thus:

“The immediate past Governor’s denial (about the missing airport) is not unexpected. First of all, when it was announced, they went to the media abusing the government and saying that the government lied, there’s nothing like that.

“And when the media house that got hold of the report published it…, by the way, they didn’t deny. It is a report by KPMG. What they said is that they diverted the money into roads. It is for them to come and show us the roads.

“But what is true is that in the bank statement on the 26th of September 2020, when people were dealing with Covid, that a debit went into the state account for N10 billion and the description was payment for 80 percent contract of the Abia airport.

“That is true and incontrovertible. The statement is there, the report is there. By the way, the report will be published very soon. But I can assure you that as reported by the media , it’s KPMG that did the forensic audit. On the 13th of October, and that’s almost three weeks after, a letter was written by the then Governor to the House of Assembly, requesting for approval of N10 billion for the construction of Abia airport. On the 14th of October, one day after , a letter was written to the then Governor, giving him approval of the N10 billion that he required for the airport. So, clearly something went wrong. An ISCO was raised in between these days.
“Our engagement with the company that received the money gave an impression that the company was deceived. The Managing Director of the company said that he told them that he has never built an airport before and that it is not his area of competence, neither did he apply to them to construct an airport.

“So the people denying, the question for them is: How come money moved into an account of somebody who has said he neither sent in a bid for an airport nor has he the competence to construct an airport?

“And according to him (the Managing Director), the then goverment asked him to move the monies elsewhere. He showed us letters from the then government to move the money in different tranches to 32 companies. And that he did, on the instruction of the former government.
“So, like I have said, the rest of the work will be done by security agencies but what is important for our government is either that somebody is showing us the airport or somebody is returning our money. That is what is important to us. We are not interested in all the fire works and all the abuse. We are not even interested in anybody going to jail, except if they are telling us that somebody whose money is missing should not look for the money. Where I come from, if your property is missing, you have to look for it.”
However, responding to a publication of the report by an online news medium, spokesman of the Ikpeazu-led administration, Chief John Okiyi Kalu, admitted that the then government got a N10 billion loan to build an airport but abandoned the project after traditional rulers in the state advised against it. Okiyi explained that the money was now diverted to road construction.
“I was a member of the Abia State Executive Council (Exco) and functioned as Honorable Commissioner for Information,” Okiyi negan, “when the idea of constructing Abia Airport was first discussed during Exco meeting of 24th September 2020.

“Based on the presentation made to Exco, we approved the project and also approved the borrowing of N10bn from UBA Plc as initial investment by the state with repayment charged to our FAAC account with the bank. You may wish to recall that during the period the country was still struggling to emerge from COVID-19 pandemic with very low FAAC and IGR inflows across the states.
With that approval by Exco the processes related to the project kicked off. …
“Shortly after we announced Exco’s approval of the airport project, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu received in audience executives of Abia State Traditional Rulers Council then led by HRM Eze Joseph Nwabekee.

“On the 13th of November 2020, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu informed members of the state executive council about the details of his meeting with representatives of the traditional rulers in Abia State who requested that we suspend the airport project and commit the funds earmarked for it to doing more roads in the state as we are surrounded by airports already but need to urgently improve internal roads that would give a further boost to the socio-economic activities of the state. Exco thereafter voted to approve the suspension and request to use the earmarked funds for road projects in the state.
“On the 17th of November 2020, Governor Ikpeazu took to his official X (formerly Twitter) handle to inform netizens that the airport project had been suspended.
“Obviously Governor Ikpeazu must have informed the commissioner for Works of his intention to suspend the Airport project in anticipation of Exco approval, hence the State Ministry of Works selected road projects in our 2020 budget for funding with the N10 billion and allocated resources to the contractors.
“Ferotex Construction Company which is one of the reputable indigenous construction companies with anti-graft agencies’ clearance was selected by the Ikpeazu administration as lead company in the “contractor financier” arrangements with UBA….
“Such lead companies are more or less consultants that would receive the bulk amount and pay other road contractors as banks would not likely agree to enter into multiple agreements with all the contractors.”
Okiyi went ahead to name the companies awarded the road contracts and amounts paid to each of them, arguing that “a serious audit investigation will simply seek to establish if the allocated funds got to the companies and also if the contractors did the work.”
He further argued that ‘those who claim that there was need for ‘virement’ may be speaking out of ignorance in this case. The road projects were already in our approved budget hence no need for further House approval.
“All state revenues are expected to be used to fund state budget and from the time we had approval to spend on the roads instead of Airport there is, in my opinion, no further need for legislative approval.”
But speaking during Monday’s Exco meeting briefing, Special Adviser to the Governor on Media and Publicity, Mr Ferdinand Ekeoma, advised Okiyi and all those defending the Ikpeazu administration to stop dissipating their energies in explaining to the public, but should rather go and tell their stories to EFCC, stressing that the agency has already invited many actors in the “missing airport” saga.
“They have the opportunity to put up the necessay defence, let them go to the EFCC, with all the documents. In any case, EFCC has already started inviting most of the actors involved.
Ekeoma described as despicable, the action of the Ikpeazu administration in obtaining the N10 billion airport project loan before even seeking the House of Assembly’s approval.

“When the Governor was speaking in the United States, he didn’t mention any name, he didn’t even say anybody has been found guilty.
“You discover that about 48 hours after the Governor made that statement, the spokesman of the former Governor shouted and boasted and said they were going to upload documents to show how we have been lying. Till today, they have not published any documents. They handed them over to, I wouldn’t want to call them Social Media e-rats, because they even know that most of the documents they are circulating are indicting: some of them are either forged or fake, and all the rest of them.”
The Governor Otti’s aide added:
“For example, some of the documents they were parading showed where the Governor issued an Exco resolution, directing the Hon. Commissioner for Works to now move the funds set aside for the Abia airport, to rechannel these funds for reconstruction of roads.
“In the first place, the Governor does not issue Exco resolution; and look at that document, it has no reference. They know what they are doing: one document has multiple originals.”
Ekeoma also faulted the timing of the alleged fraud.
“We are talking about N10 billion that was transferred in a COVID-19 year in 2020 when there was global meltdown, they just moved it.
Traditional Rulers visited you, you now changed your mind and decided not to go ahead with the airport project but still went ahead to transfer a whopping N10 billion to that construction company.
“Meanwhile, you had transfered the money before approaching the House of Assembly for approval.
“Now, when you realised that you didn’t want to do the airport again, you couldn’t ask the construction company to return the money, you now directed the company to start distributing the money into dozens of accounts.
“So, is the construction company a bank? Was the company the Accountant-General of the state?, he queried.
“They shouldn’t even be that shameless to even respond because what they did was despicable. N10 billion is not N10, 000, for Christ’s sake. So, let’s leave them to EFCC,” Ekeoma said.
Commissioner for Information and Culture, Prince Okey Kanu, in line with Governor Otti’s promise to make the KPMG’s forensic audit report public, formally released the 360-page report to newsmen at the end of the briefing, following a question on when the report would be published.

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