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BY LEO OBAZE
Yesterday, Wednesday, March 8, 2019, the Federal High Court, Abuja, adjourned the trial of the former Director- General of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Emeka Mba, till April 4 for the continuation of hearing.
Justice Kolawale adjourned the matter at the instance of Mr Ikoro Ikoro, counsel to Babatunji Amure, the fourth defendant, who informed the court that he was not ready for the trial.
Kolawale said that the adjournment was to enable counsel prepare to continue with the substantive trial since the trial-within-trial would no longer go on.
Mr I.F. Chude, counsel to Patrick Areh, the second defendant, had told the court of his intention to discontinue the trial-within-trial that the court had ordered at the last adjourned date.
Ikoro said that since the court had adjourned for trial-within-trial, he did not come to court with materials to use to cross-examine the witness in the trial.
Mba is facing trial on an amended 15-count charge, bordering on N2.9 billion fraud. He is facing trial alongside the Director of Finance and Accounts, Patrick Areh, Basil Udotai and Babatunji Amure.
As Nigerians and followers of the Enugu State born lawyer and broadcasting tactician wait for the High Court proceedings to go on, observers say his continued prosecution by the Federal Government through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), presents several agonizing puzzles and contradictions.
To start with, only recently, the Minister of Information, National Orientation and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed admitted that government was grateful for the N34 billion realised by NBC through the special auction of part of the 700Mhz digital dividend broadcast spectrum to MTN Nigeria in June 2015.
Lai Mohammed’s feeling of elation and satisfaction stems from the fact that the amount has been critically pivotal in funding the ongoing implementation of the Digital Switch Over [DSO] from analogue transmission.
Besides, the fund was intact as at the time Emeka Mba was eased out of office.
The applied meaning of this is clear; that this present government is satisfied that the Management of NBC under Mba applied good sense of creativity and innovativeness in creating that critical resource pool that leapfrogged and escalated implementation of the digital switch over plan.
Ironically, while government has appropriated the outcome of that creative and innovative transaction between NBC and MTN, which has given it the impetus to indeed implement the digital switch over along the framework created by Mba’s Management team, the EFCC, an agency of the same government has been seeking grounds to isolate Mba from the high points of the transaction, which culminated in the funds realized from the licensing of the spectrum.
The same EFCC has been studiously working at the same time to criminalize him for working with NBC’s consultants to achieve the desirable. The same consultants that originated the very idea of auctioning the 700Mhz digital dividend broadcast spectrum. Ever heard of cutting one’s nose to spite the face? How is EFCC going about this?
The Commission literally considers that: “well, maybe after all there’s nothing fishy in the transaction, but how on earth could the legal consultants get paid as much as N2.89 billion? This must be evidence of money laundering.”
A lot of ignorance fly around here. Consultants generally and legally negotiate transaction success fees in percentages- whether the transaction is a Public-Private partnership requiring the services of transaction advisors or an industry-specific technical intervention such as the one under review benefits are negotiated in percentages.
The consultants benchmarked its demand for a transaction success fee on a threshold. Both the board and Management of NBC negotiated this down.
It is important that we go through this carefully once more. The EFCC has changed its accusations against Mba severally since this matter was evidently manufactured. And it would appear that the idea is to rope Mba in, by hook or crook. Initially, members of the public were told that Mba misappropriated N15 billion.
The documents of how the transaction was originated, all the justifications and approvals- by even the relevant ministers and the Federal Executive Council- up till its perfection and the crediting of NBC accounts are clear, open and available.
No money was misappropriated. As a matter of fact, no money was even under any threat of misappropriation. The amount in question was lodged with Zenith Bank as collateral for the set top boxes manufacture and government approved rebate for Nigerian households, being a key demand by the Set Top Box Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, before they could even engage or manufacture.
Never mind that due approvals from the NBC Board, Minister, Federal Executive Council as well as President and Commander-in-Chief are all in place.
Puzzles! The puzzles continue. For example, one of the charges against Mr. Mba is: while being director general of the NBC on or about the 31st day of August 2015, “awarded contracts for the supply of set top boxes in the sum of N1,237,400,000 (one billion two hundred and thirty seven million, four hundred thousand naira) for the Digital Switch Over for the National Broadcasting Commission to Gospell Digital Technology, Trefoil Global Investment Limited, Zinox Technology, Media Concept International Limited, Digitune Media Technology Limited, SMK Engineering & Construction Limited, I-Box Engineering Limited, Innosson Communications Limited, African Cable Television Limited, Trendcorp Africa Limited, TV Enterprises, STB Manufacturing Co Ltd, and Design Build Concept Limited without seeking approval of the Bureau of Public Procurement contrary to section 40 of the Public Procurement Act No. 65, 2007, and punishable under section 58 of the same Act.”
But, if all 13 companies got manufacturing contracts illegally, why are they still being used to manufacture the set top boxes? Is it possible that the fact that they are manufacturing the set top boxes as spelt out in the contracts has vitiated the purported “illegality” of the contract as contended by the EFCC?
And if that were to be the case, why is Mba’s status never viewed by the same EFCC through the prism of the successful outcome in every department of the entire framework, engagement, implementation and deployment of the Digital Switch Over?
The reality, however, is that all the set top boxes currently being used for the DSO pilot flag-off in Jos, and the DTT signal distribution service recently launched in Abuja by the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osibajo, are totally and fully the proceeds of what the EFCC contends are illegal transactions, for which Mba is now being prosecuted.
It is like saying that the ram is rotten, but its barbecue (suya) is, nevertheless, irresistibly tasty. Think about this puzzle. For over a decade, Nigeria despite several vows by government, could not meet its international obligation to transition from analogue to digital broadcasting, as mandated by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The recurring challenge over government’s inability to meet this obligation had always been blamed on unavailability of funds. Successive governments failed to appropriate necessary funding for this very crucial national development program, despite mouthing all sorts of promise.
In 2014, the NBC’s legal consultant, Basil Udotai, submitted a proposal to the Commission to help raise funds through a special auction for the DSO project.
The NBC Management, headed by Mba thought the proposal was brilliant. He got the board of the agency involved and the board gave its nod.
All necessary due diligence were done, and transaction success fee requested by the consultants was cut down from 20% to 10% by the board.
It is the cumulative value of that 10% transaction success fee that the EFCC is now holding unto and dressing it up with the bizarre, but annoying toga of the “crime” of money laundering. The straightforward and intelligent thing to do, you would imagine, is examine records of transaction success fees for consultants in similar or related transactions in Nigeria and show graphically how the one in question differs injuriously to NBC from national industry rates.
Strikingly, for the first time in the history of alleged corruption cases brought up by the Commission, the EFCC has been unable in the charges levelled against Mr. Mba, to trace any money to Mba or establish any ground on which Mba may have directly benefited by the transactions or indeed even by its own standards of money laundering.
But, by gosh, no, just hold Mba; subject him to media trial; intimidate, malign, and wear him out. Like Cinna the Poet (in William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”), lynch him; even if he is obviously not Cinna the Conspirator.
After all, some names also carry dire consequences. Although things rapidly lose their meanings these days and the ceremony of innocence is brutally drowned, Emeka’s case is one puzzle and contradiction that will continue to torment the conscience of this nation.
*Obaze contributed this piece from Lagos with additional reports by Business Hilights