Corruption Super Highway

 

East West Section 4 awarded to Gitto Construction Co.
East West Section 4 awarded to Gitto Construction Co.

Allegations of corruption continue to trail work on Section IV of the East – West Road which has been stalled in spite of billions of naira spent on it.

BY ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO

Six years after the federal government of Nigeria through the Ministry of Niger Delta, MNDA, paid out N2.3 billion to Gitto Costruzioni Generali Nigeria Limited for payment of compensation to people whose properties were marked for demolition in Eket Urban, Akwa Ibom State, the beneficiaries have not received the money.

TELL confirmed that the money was paid to Gitto and the company confirmed receiving the payment. But the money surprisingly disappeared from the custody of the Italian company. Here is what happened: It was decided that the double carriage way would no longer pass through Eket township, but a facelift would be given to the township road, while a bypass would be built, in what looked like a bonus for the area.

As a result of the change in concept, some people apparently felt that the compensation would no longer be necessary, but did remain silent on what becomes of the money already paid out by the government to the contractor for that purpose. Investigators suspect that the disappearance was with the connivance of ministry officials. The problem is that there is no bypass, no dualization of Eket Urban and no disbursement of compensation to beneficiaries.

The only sign that the forest so designated may one day become a super highway is a lonely innocent signpost on a seven feet pole at kilometre 109 in Ikot Ebok that says: “By-Pass Exit.” Behind it stretches a quagmire of mangroves, tendrils, leeches and swamp that men, machines and money must conquer to make that dream come true.

Eket Bypass Exit
Eket Bypass Exit

At kilometer 117 in Ikot Use Ekong is a less lonely sign post standing as an evil omen in a built up neighbourhood announcing, “End of By-Pass.”

Beneath this veneer of innocence is a seething cauldron of politics, advocacy, guile, corruption and conspiracy that came together and made the dualization of the 338 km East West Road a work in progress for ten years now. The distance between Ikot Ebok and Ikot Use Ekong is just eight kilometres but the trouble thereof spans Akwa Ibom State, Niger Delta, Gitto Costruzioni Generali and Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, MNDA.

Since 2014, work has been stalled at the Eket Urban area of 50 km Section 1V of East-West Road, which runs from Onna to Oron in Akwa Ibom State, because of conflict over the introduction of a by-pass. Currently, Akwa Ibom is the highest oil producing state in the country and the Eket axis is the host of Exxon Mobil.

The contract for the 338km East West Road, which spans five states of the Niger Delta – Delta, Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Cross River – was divided into four sections to quicken completion and shared among four contractors: Section 1, Warri to Kaiama in Bayelsa State – Setraco; Section 11, Kiama to Eleme Junction in Rivers State – Julius Berger; Section 111, Eleme Junction to Onna in Akwa Ibom State – RCC; Section 1V Onna to Oron in Akwa Ibom. Lately, Section V Oron to Calabar was added but the contract was not awarded before the end of the Goodluck Jonathan administration that initiated it.

The contracts were effectively awarded in 2006. In principle, then president, Olusegun Obasanjo, verbally awarded the contract for the whole road to Julius Berger under the pressure of re-election campaign in 2003 at the Liberation stadium in Port Harcourt.

However, this did not become a reality until three years later. Even at that, Julius Berger, which was awarded the most challenging part of the road, was forced to pull out in 2007 due to insecurity as Niger Delta militants saw the company’s engineers as sitting ducks to make money and also bargaining chips for their political struggle.

When Julius Berger left, the federal government added Section 11 to Setraco, the contractor already handling Section 1.

Ten years on, the cost of the road has ballooned from government to government, minister to minister, as each added variations. The total cost in 2006 was N197 billion but in December 2015, Usani Uguru, current minister of the Niger Delta Affairs, claimed that the cost had skyrocketed to over half a trillion naira at N586bn, out of which he claimed that only the sum of N267bn had been paid. He also stated that when he met with the contractors that performance has not been commensurate with disbursements.

However, Godsday Orubebe, one of his predecessors, confirmed to the National Assembly, NASS, in 2014 that the project was revised from N197bn to N349.86bn in 2009. He attributed the increase to improved design that added 40 bridges and 1040 culverts. If the N267bn confirmed paid is deducted from this, the balance for sections 1 to 1V should be N92.86bn. This amount is more realistic in relation to the completion rate attained by the various sections.

Stephen Oru, who replaced Orubube when he resigned into active politics, put the overall completion rate at over 90 percent. For Section 1, he put it at 99 percent and section 11 at 90 percent. When the Magazine inspected sections 111 and 1V, from Eleme Junction to Oron, last week, RCC, according to workers on site, had also attained 90 percent. The bulk of the problem appears to be Section 1V, which is the shortest section at 50kms, with completion rate put at 80 percent.

TELL’s investigation showed that Section 1V ran into a hitch in what appears a clever scheme by some Eket elites whose properties were marked for demolition in Eket urban to save their properties. They approached the Akwa Ibom State government and sold them the idea of a by-pass for Eket urban because of the high population density.

 

The kite they dangled before the state government was the Ibaka deep-sea port it is building at Oron. The argument, which appears reasonable, was that if the heavy traffic of articulated vehicles expected from the port is allowed to pass through Eket Urban, safety of the residents could be jeopardised.

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The state government bought what some now see as a self-serving argument and lobbied the federal government to approve a by-pass for Eket urban, which was approved in principle but the contract was not awarded till the end of Jonathan’s regime on May 29, 2015.

In the original design, the existing carriageway from Ikot Ebok to Ikot Use Ekong is to be expanded to 24 metres, a median created and a new carriageway of 24 metres created to the left of the existing carriageway to make it a dual carriageway, known in Nigerian parlance as ‘dualization.’

It means that all properties within 30 metres to the left of the existing carriageway would be demolished for the additional carriageway. In the proposed alternative, which is a compromise, the existing carriageway is evenly expanded on both sides 12 metres each, saving all the properties marked for demolition. This is described as “gutter to gutter rehabilitation” in technical term.

Unknown to the youths that the road design had changed, they were appalled to see Gitto stop dualization at James Town Junction and start a “gutter to gutter rehabilitation” in Eket urban, which they considered different to the design of the East West Road from Warri to Oron.

Eket Urban controversial gutter to gutter rehabilitation
Eket Urban controversial gutter to gutter rehabilitation

“That was when our organization, the Five Villages Youth Movement confronted Gitto and demanded that they should embark on the actual dualization of the road,” Samuel Etukudo president of the group said in an interview by the side of the contentious “gutter to gutter” dualization in Eket Urban.

Prior to this, enumeration for compensation had been completed along the whole 50km stretch of Section 1V, to a total of N4, 890, 482, 064.00 or [N4.89 billion]. For the assessment of compensation, the 50 km was divided into five sections A to E. Section A, a semi-urban section was enumerated for N650,379,150.00 and paid up; Section C, semi urban, N1,307,278,537.00 or [N1.3 billion] with payment in progress; Section D, rural section N221,074,225.00 with payment completed; and Section E, semi urban, N391,063,326.00 with payment completed.

However, in Section B, Eket Urban, the highest compensation of N2,320,686,826.00 was approved but not a kobo paid. The valuation consultants were Messrs James Inlama Consult and Messrs Emma Wike & Partners.

The youths discovered that the N2.3bn compensation for Eket Urban had been paid by the federal government to Gitto since 2009, but the company did not disburse the money, as done in other places. “So we now asked them, where is that money?” explained Etukudo.

Gitto told them the money had been “reabsorbed”! The company further directed the youths to the Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs, if they needed details. The youth leaders met with the representative of the ministry at the site and asked questions.

“We asked them, why? They said that Eket people demanded for a by-pass. We now asked them, who are the Eket People? They said the elite of Eket demanded for a by-pass from James Town to Onna Head Bridge.”

For four months, the youths held up the work and they had the police to contend with. The traditional rulers were not any better informed about the change in the road alignment in Eket. Obong

Etim Charles Abia, paramount ruler of Eket and president, Eket Traditional Rulers Council said the by-pass was not necessarily their idea: “We were told by the then minister, Orubebe that they were going to do a by-pass in Eket… It wasn’t his idea but the federal government said it was a state policy; that’s what they want to do.”

Ime Solomon Udoh is a chief and one of the elders of the town, but he felt so aggrieved with the situation that he joined the youths in the standoff against Gitto and MNDA. “I was the person who blocked them. We want them to build this road to specification; we are not happy with what is happening. I don’t know anything by myself; they are just playing mago mago (fraud). That was why we blocked them but the so called stakeholders said they (Police) should shoot at sight. This is the only place we have problem; we don’t want gutter-to-gutter rehabilitation in Eket. On this we stand.”

Our investigation revealed that on March 15, 2010, Domenico Gitto, the managing director of Gitto submitted the draft proposal of Eket Bypass Road to the minister of Niger Delta through the director of infrastructure. The submission, he noted was based on “the several discussions held on the subject.

According to him, “…this solution gives added value saving on the existing project and also ensures a solution which would not only cater for present but also future traffic demands by providing two alternate routes through Eket Town. In addition, this solution would guarantee that the socio-economic harmony of Eket Town is not hampered in any way but rather enhanced.”

In paragraph three of the letter, Gitto stated clearly, “This solution can be achieved within the existing project costs.” In other words, there would be no extra costs to the government for the rehabilitation of the Eket urban and constructing the bypass. It also means that the N2.3bn compensation money may be channeled to the rehabilitation of the eight-kilometer Eket urban area based on the new design that will not involve demolition of previously enumerated and marked structures, including the Royalty Hotel, said to be the biggest hospitality resort in the oil city.

Unfortunately, Gitto died on June 26, 2012, under very dramatic circumstances in Abuja, at the office of the Ministry of the Niger Delta where he had gone to hold a meeting with then minister, Orubebe and had a heart attack in his waiting room.

At the time, Gitto was said to be under heavy debt burden and pressure from both local and Italian banks for loans taken to execute government projects not paid for. After his death, the brief that there would be no extra cost to the government on the Eket Urban Road rehabilitation and bypass road was jettisoned.

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0n November 26, 2014, the ministry of Niger Delta Affairs wrote to the Eket Conference of Village Heads complaining of the “Injunctions and stop work order on the on-going rehabilitation of Eket Township Road along Eket-Oron Road by the youths.” The letter signed by I.I. Okah, a deputy director, told the traditional fathers that, “The Ministry of Niger Delta on the contrary is vigorously pursuing the procurement of Eket Bypass as an addendum and work will commence on Eket Bypass as soon as the project is procured.”

He further informed them that four things had been done in this light: survey of the alignment; final design and working drawing; enumeration of economic trees and structures by valuation consultant engaged by MNDA and bill of engineering measurement & evaluation (BEME). He added that the rehabilitation of the Eket Township Road would be completed by December 2014.

On December 18, 2014 Obong Abia, then presiding member, Eket Traditional Rulers Council, wrote to Stephen Orise Oru who replaced Orubebe as minister on the contentious project. He informed the minister that the community met on December 16 and that “The overwhelming decision of the entire people of Eket is that the Federal Government would be unfair to Eket people if the East-West Road from Warri to Oron has maintained a dual carriage design except the little bit that passes through Eket Town.”

He communicated to the minister that the community had lifted the injunction and that work should resume. “It is our understanding that the original contract N0 5853 still subsists but was only varied by the addendum of the bypass. If this is correct, we expect the road passing through the town to continue with the original design and be wide enough to take the expected increased traffic because even with the bypass not a few people would prefer to take the shorter route through the town.”

The community also requested for the addition of walkways on both sides of the road in the Eket Urban for the safety of pedestrians.

Nduese Essien, the Atta of Eket and a two-time member of the House of Representatives, was the minister of Housing and Environment at the time. He told the Magazine in an interview that he was a member of the Federal Executive Council, FEC, when Orubebe brought a memo to the council on the proposed modifications at Eket Urban section of the East West Road.

“He came with a proposal that he did not want to dualize the Eket Urban because so many blue chip properties will be affected and that he will do a bypass.”

He did not buy the idea. “I told the Minister that it will not work; that the contract was awarded from Warri to Oron and compensation had already been paid to the construction company by government at that time but the company was reluctant to disburse the compensation to the beneficiaries for reasons best known to him.”

Subsequently, Essien was invited by the construction company to a meeting with the community “but I refused.” The meeting failed. He explained that the company put pressure on all stakeholders and some agreed while some remained adamant. The rehabilitation remained controversial. “This has caused a lot of dissension in Eket. Some people, including me, are accused of collecting money to let them continue the dualization.”

He regretted that “the quality of work in Section 1V is the least.” He equally confirmed that FEC did not award any contract for the bypass.

Under the circumstance, Essien feels the solution is that “the contract should be executed as awarded. But if they want to do a bypass, they can also do a bypass as another contract.”

On January 28, 2015, the MNDA wrote to Eket Paramount ruler and reassured the community of the ministry’s “commitment to the realization of the Eket bypass road dualization project as an integral part of the East West Road contract. The award of the contract is on-going and will be completed soon.”

He gave the specification of the rehabilitation as “12.8m, as against existing7.3m”, and much narrower that the designed 24m reflected on paper by the contractor. However, the ministry conceded to the community’s request for walkways on both sides of the road.

On February 10, the ministry wrote to the paramount ruler again and informed the community that “necessary designs for the walkway have been completed and are ready for implementation by the contractor. They then requested that the Paramount Ruler prevail on the youths to let work continue unhindered. It was learned that this was done and the youths decided to pursue their quest through the anti-corruption agencies to unravel what they believe is corruption.

When TELL inspected the “gutter to gutter” rehabilitation recently,  work was on going on the drainages on both sides of the road but the walkways promised the community on both sides for safety are not provided for.

The Paramount Ruler and other stakeholders expressed disappointment over that. It was found that work only resumed recently after the visit by Usani Uguru, the new minister in December 2015. The minister was said to have been visibly angry at the pace of work in Section 1V, especially the crisis in Eket Urban.

Uguru has not responded to our request for an interview for the ministry to explain the murky business going on in Eket. We also wanted to find out from the ministry what has become of the N2.3bn compensation money for Eket Urban, which was paid to Gitto in 2009. One year after Gitto received the money it submitted a proposal for a bypass.

And seven years after, the bypass is only a signpost while the rehabilitation is just starting. That amount of money would have yielded 300 percent interest in the seven years it has been with Gitto.

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A ministry official said the minister is “unhappy about a number of things “but may not want to talk now until he has carried out a comprehensive audit. It was found that the ministry had on two occasions directed Gitto to pay the compensation through the consultants but the contractor refused to comply.

On July 8, 2010, Anietie Offiong, an engineer and deputy director highways, wrote to Gitto, directing that the N2.3bn compensation money be released to the evaluation consultants for disbursement to the beneficiaries but the contractor refused to comply.

In May 2014, the sum of N71,371,400.00 was paid to 587 beneficiaries as loss of economic rent from their marked structures. It was also found that Gitto also refused to pay the consultants N203,083,273.84, being 10 percent professional claim and part of the N2.3bn.

It was also found that there was no formal directive from the minister to Gitto to start the job but there was a policy directive from Oludare Lawrence Alaba, the ministry’s representative at the site, on September 30, 2014, to Gitto, directing the contractor to commence the gutter-to-gutter rehabilitation of the Eket Urban Road.

It was this directive that Gitto acted on and crisis burst. In addition, Gitto was in another letter from the Abuja office directed to release another N75,303,143.70 from the N2.3bn to the evaluation consultants to disburse as compensation for marked structures on the bridgehead. They were further directed to release N76,724,255.00 to the consultants for disbursement for loss of economic rent and that the balance of N1,965,576,153.46 balance be amortized.

Perhaps, this is what the ministry means when they speak tongue in cheek that the money has been ‘utilized’! In this one word is embedded the suspected corruption, conspiracy and connivance. In the valuation and compensation schedule, all the five sub-sections of the Section 1V have their compensation fully disbursed on paper, except subsection B – Eket Urban – which was enumerated for N2.3bn.

TELL found that this money has not been disbursed to the appropriate beneficiaries and neither the MNDA nor Gitto has provided satisfactory answers to the questions being raised about what has become of the money. That is the task before the anti-corruption agencies to unravel.

Gitto also declined to speak on the issue and referred us to the MNDA. A request for an interview with their managing director was turned down. However, an officer of the company who is not permitted to speak to the press said the compensation money “has been utilized accordingly.”

It was gathered the contractor claimed to have used it, without approval, to make up shortfalls in sub-sections 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Sub-section 2 is Eket Urban. He said the politics of the bypass is really not “our business. We are professionals; we carry out contracts according to the instruction of clients.”

The Independent Corrupt Practices Commission, ICPC, acknowledged receiving the petition of the Five Villages Youth Movement, which was written on November 24, 2014, on November 26, 2014. The case was assigned to Chairman’s Special Unit, which investigated the petition and submitted a progress report on May 18, 2015. The suspects in the case are: Gitto, officials of Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs and Joint Consultants Emma Wike and Partners.

A team of ICPC investigators travelled to Eket with a quantity surveyor from the Ministry of Lands and Housing Development, Abuja, and inspected and evaluated the 50 kilometres Section 1V awarded to Gitto. It was also gathered that the Commission has interrogated appropriate officials of MNDA, Gitto, the consultants and a former minister.

The contract for Section 1V was awarded to Gitto by the Federal Ministry of Works on September 28, 2006, at the cost of N26 billion for 42 months completion period. Five years later on June 15, 2011, FEC approved an upward review of the contract by over N11bn to N37,509,550,669.15 with the new completion period of 26 months. The project was funded initially from the ministry of works, but transferred to MNDA in November 2009. Funds have also been provided by Sure-P to quicken its completion. Put together, N25,749,251,393.87 has been paid on the project, out of the total contract sum of N37,509,550,669.15.

Efforts to get the Akwa Ibom State government’s position on the impasse proved abortive. The state government played a middle role in the arrangement and is believed to have lobbied the minister. At a point the state was alleged to have undertaken to rehabilitation while the federal government funds the bypass. We were at Uyo, the state capital, to interview Aniekan Umana, commissioner of information, on the issue but he rather referred us to the commissioner of works whom he said will know more as that is his area. We waited several hours at the office of the commissioner of works, till he finished with his budget defence, for an interview, only to be told that he had been called by the governor! More efforts made to persuade Umana to respond on behalf of the state failed and questions sent to him to respond online were not answered.

Etukudo said the youths have vowed to fight on: “No matter how long it takes, justice must surely come! There’s no intimidation or amount of offer than can make us shift our ground.”

For the Paramount Ruler of Eket, the story of East-West Road is the story of the trouble with Nigeria: “East-West Road has been really a national shame! How can a stretch of road of 338km be under construction for over ten years? East-West Road typifies what happens in this country. It has been bogged down by a lot of corruption and perhaps lack of appreciation of the importance of this road… I think it is too shameful!”

* This investigation was done with support from Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.

 

Ends.

 

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