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ICPC and DSO: Lai Mohammed walking into self trap?

By Kolawole Johnson:

In 2006, a global initiative was driven by the International Telecommunication Union for digital switch over (DSO) of broadcasting from analogue to digital.

The Geneva agreement which set 17th June, 2015 as the deadline for the UHF switchover received a boost in Nigeria in 2007 when late President Umaru Yar’Adua approved the transition effective from 17th June, 2012.

Consequently, a Presidential Advisory Committee was set up to that effect, the Ministry of Information, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and other key stakeholders were members.

Two years after the PAC had turned in its report, the Federal Government constituted the White Paper Drafting Committee which was chaired by the then Permanent Secretary, Ministry of information and National Broadcasting Commission was a member.

Consequently, around August, 2011, a national white paper on the digital switch over was drafted to give Nigerians a new broadcasting experience. Alas, more than eight years after, the dream is still crawling.

THE CLOG

In the final whitepaper, government adopted the recommendations to split Broadcasting Services into Broadcast Content Provision and Broadcasting Signal Distribution.

Aside the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the whitepaper approved that a private signal distributor be licensed immediately while others could come on stream as market exigencies dictate.

In 2014, the National Broadcasting Commission that was elected to guide the process advertised the opening for a private signal distributor.

Sixteen companies bided and Pinnacle Communications, a fully indigenous company, won. The company thereafter paid the sum of six hundred and eighteen million naira ( 618m ) mandatory license fee to the federal government.

When the license was eventually issued, the company discovered that some vital provisions in the initial license template had been removed from the final document issued after the stipulated fee had been paid.

The management approached the court for redress which stalled the process of the digital switch over until the present government came on board.

In 2016, the NBC, determined to return the country to the path of progress on the global initiative, invited Pinnacle communications for talks to end the debacle.

After series of meeting, stakeholders heaved a sigh of relief when words came out that agreement had been reached between Pinnacle Communication and the government.

Though industry watchers had alleged that the three month deadline given to the signal distributor to set up its operation in Abuja, in order to qualify for any payment, as part of the agreement was a trap to disqualify the indigenous company knowing that such was nearly impossible.

Surprisingly the company beat the clock. The Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo opened the Abuja Digital Switch Over Station in 2016 and Kaduna station was also commissioned by Mallam El-Rufai, the Governor of Kaduna State.

The sum of 2.5B was, therefore, paid to the company after the Abuja station was successfully delivered. The white paper which is the guiding document for the DSO gave the power of approval to the Minister of Information.

lai

Lai M
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed

That should not be strange; the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information then served as the Chairman of the White Paper Drafting Committee. Mr Lai Mohammed, therefore, signed and approved the sum to be paid to the company.

In a twist of fate, while stakeholders, including the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, were busy celebrating Pinnacle for a job well done, news came out that The Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, ICPC, without any court order, had frozen the Pinnacle Communication company’s account.

Again, the signal distributor approached the court and finally got justice months after when the court directed that the accounts be opened. The ICPC thereafter charged the company to court alongside the Director General of NBC, Dr Moddibbo Kawu, for what was described as misapplication of N2.5b seed grant.

THE CASE

April 15th, 2019, ICPC posted a press release on its website announcing the trial of the DG and two other principal staff of Pinnacle Communication.

A part of the statement reads, “The trio is facing a 12-count charge bordering on abuse of office, money laundering and misleading a public officer with the intent to defraud the federal government, in contravention of Section 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, 2000.

The Presidency had in 2016, released N10 billion to the Ministry of Information and Culture for the DSO programme and a White Paper was issued directing how the process should be executed.

Based on the guidelines provided by the White Paper, two companies were nominated to handle the process, one of which was ITS, an affiliate of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). N1.7 billion was released to it as seed grant for the commencement of the switch-over.

It was alleged that Kawu fraudulently recommended Pinnacle Communications Limited, a private company, to the Minister of Information and Culture, for the release of N2.5 billion against the guidelines contained in the White Paper”.

First, ICPC claimed that two companies were nominated to handle the process of the DSO. This is FALSE. Only ITS, an affiliate of NTA was nominated. The other company won the right through a bidding process.

Secondly, ICPC inferred that NBC DG fraudulently brought Pinnacle to benefit from the process. This, again, is FALSE. Pinnacle became the second signal distributor in 2014, the new DG, Moddibbo, resumed in 2016.

Thirdly ICPC alleged that the payment was fraudulent because it is against the guidelines contained in the government White Paper. Again, this is FALSE. I have the white paper in my office, on my phone and tablet; there is no single section to support that argument. Rather, section 11 (2) C directed “that the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) should put in place necessary conditions and ensure that close to a level playing field is achieved”.

NBC DG Kawu
Director General of National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Mallam Is’haq Modibbo Kawu

The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed rightly referred to this provision as the justification for approving the payment since the second signal distributor, ITS, received the sum of 1.7b naira.

Fourthly, ICPC claimed Lai Mohammed was misled. As at April 15th, 2019 when ICPC released that statement on its website, Lai was yet to make any statement to the commission as his statement was dated 13/06/2019.

Question, why did the commission conclude that Moddibbo misled Lai when the Minister was yet to make any statement? A clear case of conspiracy?

The white paper guiding the process made the Minister the accounting Officer for the Digital Switch Over grant yet ICPC exonerated him even before obtaining a statement from him.

In turn, Lai, the supervising official who approved the payment was made a prosecuting witness. Curiously, the Minister has refused to appear in court.

The next adjournment date is close, will Lai show up?

I remember watching some visuals of the opening ceremony of the Pinnacle transmission centre in Kaduna; the Minister described the MD of the company as ‘an uncommon Patriot who is investing in the growth of the broadcasting industry without the usual motive of profit of an average business man’.

That statement was made long after the payment of the said 2.5b in question. It simply means the Minister knows more than us.

In Lai’s statement to ICPC, he admitted that he approved the payment based on the strength of section 11 (2) C quoted by the DG, NBC, stating that he did not need to go to council for any approval in respect of the payment to Pinnacle Communication Limited as there was already an existing presidential directive covering such payment.

What exactly is he going to say differently to satisfy ICPC as a prosecuting witness? Will Lai come to court to contradict himself? Will he work into this open trap?

Posers to ICPC! The Ministry of Information, through its Permanent Secretary, chaired the committee that drafted the white paper and the present Minister of the same ministry has access to the document.

A section of the same document was cited by NBC for request for payment to Pinnacle Communication and the Minister approved citing same provision, meaning he agreed that the request was in order on the strength of section 11 (2) C which he alluded to in his statement.

The presidential directive on disbursement of fund for the process gave power of approval to the Minister.

NBC Lai Idachaba
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed and chairman of NBC Refrom Implementation Committee, Prof. Armstrong Idachaba, who doubles as a director at NBC

In the light of the above, who should be prosecuted if payment is considered illegal? If a section of the white paper was relied on for payment, what exactly made the payment illegal?

How did Moddibbo mislead Lai when he cited a provision of the guiding policy for request?

Since Lai has knowledge of same section alluded to by Is’haq Moddibbo Kawu for payment request, what stopped the Minister from declining if he considers it illegal?

If Moddibbo relied on section 11 (2) C to recommend Pinnacle for payment and Lai relied on same section to approve, as stated in his statement, why did you exonerate Lai when you decided to prosecute Moddibbo?

NBC best logoSince the entire case is hinged on the allegation that the payment is illegal and the White Paper relied upon by ICPC supports the payment, is ICPC not wasting the time of the court?

If the White paper supports the payment, will the ICPC media trial of the signal distributor not amount to disservice to the nation as that could affect the company’s reputation?

*Johnson, a commentator on national issues, can be reached via: strategypower.com@gmail.com