Breath of freedom from the judiciary for ex-governor Ambode
For some time now, politics in Lagos State has been mixed with some discreet battles. First, it was the underground succession battle, which saw the man in the middle of the storm, former governor Akinwunmi Ambode survive an impeachment plot by the state House of Assembly.
The lawmakers had accused the former governor of mismanaging the state’s resources and failing to get legislative approval for some projects. To survive, Ambode had to succumb to the high-wire politicking orchestrated by kingmakers in his All Progressives Congress (APC). That rapprochement marked the governor out as about the first incumbent to lose out at the primary election stage in his re-election bid.
Yet, if Ambode expected to enjoy some respite after leaving office, he was mistaken, because ever since he handed over to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, he has been battling with one crisis or another.
What turned out as a foretaste happened on August 27, when men believed to be operatives of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) raided the former governor’s Ikoyi and Epe residences.
The Speaker of Lagos State Assembly, Mudashiru Obasa, followed up that macabre dance by constituting an ad-hoc committee to investigate the Ambode administration.
Obasa appointed Mr. Fatai Mojeed, a lawmaker from Ibeju-Lekki I State Constituency to head the investigative committee, comprising 15 other lawmakers.
As part of its mandate, the committee was “to look into the procurement of 820 buses scheduled for the state’s public transport, probe Ambode’s Light-up Lagos and Imota Rice Mill projects, among others.”
The committee went into action by inviting the Accountant-General of the state, Mrs. Shukrat Umar, just as it had earlier interrogated former commissioners, who served in the immediate past administration.
Those that faced the panel included, the former Commissioner for Budget and Economic Planning, Mr. Olusegun Banjo, his Energy and Mineral counterpart, Mr. Olawale Oluwo and Mr. Toyin Suara, who served as the Commissioner for Agriculture.
The panel looked into two chief issues, particularly the alleged procurement of 820 vehicles with the state’s share of the Paris Club refund without the approval of the State House of Assembly and the allegation of evading budgetary approval.
During the proceedings, Banjo claimed that Ambode did not involve the Ministry of Budget and Economic Planning in the controversial procurement of the 820 mass transit buses at the cost of N45 billion.
The former commissioner was also said to have disclosed that his principal avoided the procurement tradition laid down over the years in the state, as well as not involving his ministry in the purported purchase of the mass transit buses.
But giving a contrary testimony during the proceedings, the state’s Accountant-General said the State Executive Council (SEC) approved the procurement. He added that the State Treasury Office (STO) acted on the SEC approval before the fund was released.
However, when details of the proceedings elicited critical public reactions, Banjo repudiated reports of the October 7 proceedings on two related grounds: He claimed he told the probe panel that the issue of the bus procurement had been under fiscal consideration before he joined the SEC in February 2018.
Secondly, he said he told the committee that the bus procurement was not part of the fiscal regime he managed between February 2018 and May 2019.
Similarly, Oluwo disowned reports, which indicated that he indicted Ambode at the proceedings regarding the budgetary allocation for the N1.63billion LED-UK streetlight project, just as he claimed that he testified alongside Suara, his former colleague in the Ambode’s cabinet as the Commissioner for Agriculture.
His words: “For the avoidance of doubt, I reiterate that I did not and could never have indicted Akinwunmi Ambode. I am a committed democrat, a loyal team player and a strong believer in the principle of collective responsibility.”
At the height of the unfolding drama, the lawmakers summoned the former governor several times to give account of his stewardship without success.
Sustaining their onslaught, the lawmakers, in an advertorial published in national newspapers, the Assembly listed five offences against the former governor and asked him to appear before it by 1pm last week, making it the second time of the summons on the immediate governor.
The first time was when he was told to appear alongside his former commissioners for Finance, Economic Planning, Justice and Attorney General, and Permanent Secretary, Economic Planning.
It would be recalled that the House had set up an ad hoc committee to investigate some issues bothering on financial misappropriation during the Ambode administration.
But in a statement, the Assembly disclosed that the former governor and the former officials refused to appear before the House committee.
In another invitation through a public notice titled, ‘Notice of summons: Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode (the former Governor of Lagos State),’ and signed by the Clerk of the House, Mr. A. A. Sanni, the former governor was reminded of the importance of appearing before the House to shed light on a five-point infraction raised by the Assembly.
But, perhaps in a swift move to counter the summons, Ambode procured a court order asking Speaker Mudashiru Obasa and members of the committee to appear before it on Wednesday, the same day the Assembly had asked him to appear before the committee.
The former governor had informed an Ikeja Court on Tuesday that the 820 buses procured by his administration got budgetary approval from the House of Assembly.
He maintained that the purchase was captured in the state’s 2018 Appropriation Law as a Capital Expenditure under the heading ‘LAGBUS Public Transport Infrastructure (MEPB); Part financing of 820 buses’.
He added: “It was unconstitutional for the House to attach another condition in Section 9 of the Law for further approval to be sought before incurring any expenditure on the purchase of the buses.”
Making the claims in a motion ex-parte moved by his counsel, Mr. Tayo Oyetibo (SAN), the former governor prayed the court to, among others, halt the planned probe of the procurement process by the lawmakers.
While granting his prayers, Justice Adesanya summoned the Speaker, House Clerk, Mr. A.A Sanni; Chairman of the Ad hoc Committee set up by the House to probe the procurement, Fatai Mojeed and members of the Committee.
Others expected to appear in court were Gbolahan Yishawu, A.A Yusuff, Yinka Ogundimu, Mojisola Lasbat Meranda, M.L Makinde, Kehinde Joseph, T.A Adewale, and O.S Afinni.
Justice Adesanya also ordered that the originating processes and all the accompanying processes filed by the claimant (Ambode) be served on the defendants and subsequently fixed Wednesday for hearing of the motion for interlocutory injunction.
In his suit, the former governor contested the constitutionality of the probe, claiming that the buses were procured based on budgetary approval as part of the Bus Reform Project of the state government designed to revolutionise public transportation in line with global best practices.
He alleged that some of the lawmakers breached his “constitutional rights to a fair hearing” on August 27, 2019, when, during proceedings of the Assembly, they criticised and accused him of purchasing the buses without budgetary approval and that the procurement was a waste of public funds.
He pointed out that the same lawmakers that raised the accusations also constituted themselves as the probe panel, even as he denied allegations that he failed to honour summons by the committee.
The former governor also averred that no former Commissioner, who served in his government, indicted him when they appeared before the House on October 15, 2019.
Ambode also claimed that the “entire members of the House” had already adjudged him as having committed wastage of public funds by the procurement of the buses.
He is seeking several reliefs including a declaration that “sections 8 and 9 of the Appropriation Law of Lagos State 2018, which required the approval of the House of Assembly of Lagos State before the certain expenditure of money is incurred by the Executive Branch of the State is …unconstitutional.”
Ambode also sought a declaration that the lawmakers have no power to indict him. On Wednesday, he got some respite as a Lagos High court ordered the Assembly to halt its planned probe pending the determination of the case filed by the former governor. This came on the day he would have been grilled by the Assembly on how he managed the state resources when he was governor.
Justice Adesanya adjourned till November 20, 2019, for the respondents in the matter to respond to the plaintiff’s application.
The lead counsel to the respondents, Mrs. Adenike Oshinowo prayed the court to give them time to respond to the application because it was received late.
“We were served the notice very late yesterday and we shall be opposing the application and we are asking for a date,” she said.
Following the adjournment, Justice Adesanya also ordered the parties to maintain the status quo pending the outcome of the case.
In the meantime, the joint committees of the Lagos State House of Assembly probing the activities of the former governor have complied with the ruling by staying action on the matter and adjourned the matter until further notice.
While addressing journalists after the adjournment by the Committee, Hon. Fatal Mojeed stated that the matter was adjourned indefinitely as the Committee got court summons to stay action on the matter and that they had to respect the order of the court.
He said: “We are lawmakers, we are not law breakers, which was why we had to adjourn the matter indefinitely. The people of Lagos should be expecting more from us,” he said.
In his reaction, Gbolahan Yishawu said the House was not trying to witch hunt anybody or put anybody on the spot for any reason.
Yishawu stressed that the Assembly was not being pushed by any individual on the matter while recalling that the issue dated back to 2017, when it was included in the appropriation law, but was not approved by the House.
However, Mr. Olaniran Obele from the chambers of Mr. Tayo Oyetibo (SAN), counsel to Ambode, protested that they were not allowed into the committee meeting.
Obele stated that they were at the Assembly to hand-over the court summons to the Committee Chairman and the Speaker, but that the summons was not accepted and that they were prevented from witnessing the Committee’s meeting.
“The court said that nothing should be done about the matter and we tried to serve notices to the Chairman of the Committee and the Speaker of the House, but they refused to accept it from us. We didn’t come here to submit court proceedings alone, but we came to represent the former governor,” he said.
The web of political horse traders
MEANWHILE, though the Assembly has postponed till further notice, the move to probe Ambode’s four-year tenure in office, the dust raised by the action has refused to settle.
Keen observers of the development, especially stakeholders of Lagos State politics have continued to pick holes on the actions of the state Assembly.
Apart from describing the entire business as ill-advised and targeted at further damaging the image of the ex-governor, the stakeholders believe the development was ostensible because the former governor has fallen out with the national leader of All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, to whom the lawmakers owe allegiance.
Some stakeholders see the probe as a Tinubu agenda to get back at Ambode, for trying to use the state’s structure to unravel the Tinubu political dynasty.
Relationship between Tinubu and his political protégée dates back to when Ambode served as Accountant General of Lagos State during Tinubu’s administration.
When former President Olusegun Obasanjo of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) withheld federal allocations due to Lagos State councils, because Tinubu, as governor created additional 37 Local Council Development Areas (LCDA), insiders confirmed that it was Ambode, who devised strategies that helped the government survive financially through enhanced Internally Generated Revenue (IGR).
Ambode was part of Tinubu’s Economic Think Tank that improved on the tax regime for Lagos until the late President Umaru Yar’Adua authorized the release of Lagos State’s withheld council allocations.
The financial skill exhibited by Ambode did not only endear him to Tinubu but also made the former Governor Babatunde Fashola, who succeeded Tinubu, to retain him as the state’s Accountant General.
The bond between Tinubu and Ambode was further strengthened after the release of the withheld funds. It was alleged that Ambode deferred to Tinubu, instead of Fashola, who was the governor, an act Fashola considered as gross insubordination and disloyalty. It took the intervention of major party stakeholders to stop Fashola from dismissing Ambode from service.
However, having lost the confidence of the governor, Ambode was said to act on the advise of Tinubu and eased himself out of government.
But, party leaders were said to have tactically managed the development in such a way that they made it appear that Ambode voluntarily retired from service.
His boss was also said to have given him a commendation letter when the Lagos State chapter of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) went public with the information that former Governor Fashola dismissed Ambode for financial misappropriation.
Sources explained that the script played out after Ambode had emerged as the flag bearer of Lagos APC for the 2015 governorship election.
A third and critical factor, which was described as the major act of loyalty demonstrated by Ambode to Tinubu was the risk he took to save the national leader from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission’s (EFCC) investigation in 2008.
A source confided in The Guardian that, “It was an open secret that when a petition was written to the EFCC against Tinubu about the N500million Eko Akete Housing project, which the Tinubu administration didn’t execute, and the allegation that his government was diverting about five per cent of Lagos tax through the Alpha Beta Consulting firm, to finance his (Tinubu) political platform, the EFCC invited Ambode, the erstwhile Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Lagos State Development and Property Corporation (LSDPC), Mr. Taofeek Abiodun Oki, a senior manager in one of the new generation banks and others to testify.
“Ambode in particular, as the accountant general, was key to the investigation by the commission, but he never disclosed indicative information that could have been used to nail Tinubu. It was based on that unflinching act of loyalty that earned the former governor promotion to the position of Permanent Secretary, above his seniors in service then, before Tinubu later compensated him (Ambode) with the governorship slot in 2015 in spite of Fashola, who preferred someone else as his successor. That was even when the likes of Senator Ganiyu Solomon, incumbent Chairman of Asset Management Company of Nigeria (AMCON), Dr. Muiz Banire, former Speaker House of Assembly, Adeyemi Ikuforiji, the incumbent Deputy Governor, Dr. Obafemi Hamzat and others who were ahead of the former governor in the race, had indicated their interest to succeed Fashola.
“Ambode was imposed on the party because Tinubu used his political structure to muzzle other contenders. This is aside from the fact that the Christian community in Lagos, at the time, insisted on having a Christian governor.”
Another source, however, lamented that immediately he was sworn in as governor on May 29, 2015, Ambode started on a wrong footing.
“He acquired all perceived political enemies of Tinubu as his personal adversaries instead of embarking a strong reconciliation agenda to mend fences and build a strong structure for his government.
“He also embarked on a vendetta, doing everything possible to undermine and disgrace his immediate predecessor. He was accused of sacking some permanent secretaries, who were his colleagues while he served under Tinubu and Fashola immediately he became governor.
“He did not reckon with those that contested the party’s governorship ticket with him. Another technical mistake he made was personalising governance, such that his deputy could not even sign substantial contracts not to talk of commissioners. The civil servants that were supposed to be his base immediately became his enemies from day one. In addition, his government erroneously tampered with the waste management structure in Lagos,” the source narrated.
However, Ambode’s real problems with Tinubu were said to have started when he was accused of attempting to use his campaign structure, Ambode Campaign Organisation (AMCO) to upstage that of his godfather, during the state’s local government election.
In the process, the former governor also injured the likes of former Osun State governor, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, who is one of the acolytes of the national leader, by trying to penetrate Alimosho Federal Constituency, the political base of the current Minister of Interior.
There were lots of undercurrents. And by April 2018, a member of the Lagos APC, Mr. Fouad Oki, who emerged as the party’s factional state chairman during a parallel state congress, had warned that Tinubu may not support Ambode for a second term just as he specifically accused Aregbesola and the current senator representing Lagos East, Bayo Osinowo, of working against Ambode’s re-election, which none of them had denied till date.
Interestingly, when Ambode was eventually deprived of a second term and replaced with the incumbent governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, he was also expected to get a ministerial slot as compensation for ‘humiliation’ suffered during the primary elections, but to no avail.
Probe and its possible implications
DURING interactions with some party stakeholders, who pleaded not to be named, they expressed reservations over the probe, even as they urged the lawmakers to show restraint.
While some stakeholders expressed apprehensions that the ultimate outcome may not be salutary for Tinubu, who is accused as the architect or for the lawmakers themselves, the majority of who were in the Assembly when Ambode was governor.
Others said, if indeed Tinubu is nursing a presidential ambition in 2023, “to encourage any probe of Ambode now is tantamount to political hara-kiri. The national leader might end up fighting many battles at the same time.”
Yet others believe that the enormous financial secrets of Lagos State might behind Ambode’s boldness in confronting the lawmakers.
Indeed, the immediate past governor was quoted as boasting that the Assembly must reckon with the fact that he was once the state’s accountant general before becoming governor, stressing that he has a lot of information to spill if he is stretched beyond limit.
For now, it is not clear whether the lawmakers would backtrack and give Ambode some respite, especially as the court had instructed all parties to maintain the status quo.
It was gathered that elders of Lagos APC are uncomfortable with the probe, which they described as a needless venture that could exhume several dirty transactions.
This is just as it was revealed that the renewed resolve by the Lagos Assembly to probe the immediate past administration was fuelled by a recent meeting between Tinubu and members of the Governors’ Advisory Council (GAC), where it was suggested that a commission of inquiry be set up to force Ambode to “cough out all that he took”.
A source privy to the meeting disclosed how days after the meeting, the Assembly started placing a series of advertorials, listing Ambode’s sins and subsequently issuing arrest warrants.
But, sources close to Ambode said there was no cause for alarm, saying the probe was merely lawmakers’ misgivings against the former governor.
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