OrderPaperToday – On Wednesday, President Muhammad Buhari threw a thunderbolt that took many by surprise. A statement from the presidency announced the unexpected suspension of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr. Babachir Lawal and ordered an investigation into allegations of violations of contract laws and due process made against him.
Mr. Lawal would remain in limbo pending the outcome of the investigation being undertaken by a three-man committee headed by vice president Yemi Osibanjo with National Security Adviser (NSA), Munguno and Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami as members.
In December, the SGF had been indicted by a Senate panel in the award of contracts under the Presidential Initiative on the North East (PINE).
President’s Volte Farce…
The President’s decision on Lawal is more of a volte farce given that Buhari had stoutly defended the top official against the Senate’s call for his sack from government. In a letter addressed to the Senate in January, 2017, President had exonerated the SGF of any wrongdoing in the handling of PINE contracts, accusing the upper chamber of bias. Picking holes in the fact that only three out of the nine members of adhoc committee signed the interim report, President Buhari had insisted that he could not act on the resolution to sack Mr. Lawal. And instead of handing over the matter to the anti-graft agencies, Buhari rather asked his Minister of Justice to investigate it further. With that move, not a few concluded that the SGF grass-cutting scandal was heading for a nullity after all the drama.
A Grass-cutting Affair…
Recall that in 2016, the immediate-past Senate Leader and now suspended Senator, Ali Ndume, had moved a motion on the deplorable humanitarian crisis in the North-East. Consequent upon that motion, the Senate set up the adhoc committee headed by Senator Shehu Sani (APC, Kaduna) to investigate the claims of corruption and diversion of aids and funds meant for the alleviation of the calamity of victims of the crisis. The case of a contract on clearing of weed in a location in Yobe State by a company promoted by Lawal was a high-point of the investigation, one which earned him the notorious sobriquet ‘grass-cutter.’
When the committee started sitting, the suspended SGF declined to honour to clear his name. The company, Roller Vision Limited, linked to him and also indicted in the alleged fraud, did not honour the invitation as well.
Eventually just before the 2016 Christmas break, the Senator Sani-led committee submitted an interim report which indicted the SGF and his company. The report which was unanimously adopted by Senators recommended that Lawal be removed from office and subsequently prosecuted by anti-corruption agencies for allegedly violating relevant provisions of the Public Procurement Act, 2007 and the Federal Government Financial Rules and Regulations pertaining to the award of contracts. The report said PINE took undue advantage of the emergency situation to over inflate contracts. It said inter alia: “Not only that, contracts were awarded to companies belonging to top government officials’ cronies, family members and close associates. For example, Rholavision Engineering Limited incorporated in 1990 with RC No.159855 at the Corporate Affairs Commission, Abuja to carry out information and communication technology services, anchored by David Babachir Lawal, the current Secretary to the Government of the Federation was awarded consultancy contract for the removal of the invasive plant species in Yobe state on 8th March, 2016.
“Although, Lawal resigned the directorship of the said company in September, 2016, it is on record that he is still the signatory to accounts of the company. About 95 to 100 per cent payments of all contracts awarded by PINE have been paid even as some contracts are yet to be fully executed, e.g, payment of One Hundred and Eight Million naira (N108 million) only for the supply of 1100 units of temporary tarpaulin carbines at Three Hundred and Two Thousand naira (N302,000:00) per unit made to Dantex Nigeria Limited despite the fact that 125 units valued at N37.7m were yet to be supplied.
“lt is absolutely true, that there is serious humanitarian crisis in the North-East as evidenced by the plight of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) both in camps and within the host communities. There is hunger, disease, squalor, deprivation and want amongst the lDPs. This observation is corroborated by a statement accredited to the United Nations’ Deputy Coordinator of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Mr. Peter Lundberg to the effect that ”a projected 5.1 million people will face serious food shortages as the (Boko Haram) conflict and risk of unexploded improvised devices prevented farmers from planting for the third year in a row, causing a major food crisis in the North East.”
A Battle Foretold….
But Mr. Lawal’s battle with the Senate started way back in 2015 shortly after the election of Senator Bukola Saraki as President of the Senate against the decision of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) which had chosen Ahmed Lawan from Yobe as its preferred candidate for the top post. That action propped up a collage of powerful forces in the presidency against Saraki. In the Senate and much of the National Assembly corridors the SGF was seen as the major force driving the prosecution of Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT). On different occasions, Lawal called on Saraki to resign on account of his CCT trial.
Constituency Funds Tango…
The issue of constituency projects for members of the National Assembly was another touchy point in Lawal’s sour relations with the Senate. More than once, the suspended SGF stated that the Federal Government under his watch will not release budgeted funds earmarked for constituency projects.