Friday, September 21, 2007

Reps exchange blows as Etteh defends self

THE hitherto cold war between the pro and anti-Etteh groups in the House of Representatives over the N628 million controversial contracts snowballed yesterday into physical fighting between the two sides.

The scene was the sitting of the ad-hoc committee set up by the House to probe the contracts for the renovation of the official residence of Speaker Patricia Etteh and that of her deputy, Mr. Babangida Nguroje, as well as the purchase of vehicles.

All was set for the Speaker to commence her testimony when trouble started. The session was thus adjourned abruptly but not without Mrs Etteh submitting a written defence.
As soon as the Speaker was invited by the chairman of the nine-member committee, Mr David Idoko, to take the witness box there was an explosion of applause apparently from her loyalists who had filled up the venue.

This was followed by shouts of ‘ole, ole’ (thief, thief) from her opponents led by Mr Emmanuel Jime representing Benue State and an attempt by other members to restrain him led to an open confrontation, which sparked exchange of blows by members including Mr Jime, Mr Dino Melaye (Kogi State) and Mr Samuel Sejoro (Lagos).Other members who were there as observers tried unsuccessfully to restrain them.

Chairman of the committee, Mr Idoko, made strenuous efforts to restore order but his voice was drowned in the din and Mrs. Etteh, surrounded by security personnel and other aides, had to be spirited out of the venue.

Thereafter, chairman of the investigative committee announced an adjournment, adding that subsequent sessions of the committee would now be in camera amidst protests from other members of the committee.

The Speaker had arrived the venue of the sitting at about 10a.m even before the arrival of members of the committee who came in about 10 minutes later but the session could not start because many of the committee members were yet to arrive on account of the confusion, which arose from the timing that had been announced during the last sitting.

Mr Idoko apologised for the mix up and explained the decision of the committee to hear the testimony of the Speaker first rather than that of her deputy, Mr Babangida Nguroje, who was next on the order of appearance.He said the change in the order of appearance was necessary to enable the Speaker to go back to the chambers to preside over the plenary session for the day.
Female Reps restrained from exchange fisticuffs

As the committee adjourned, the confrontation shifted to the chambers where members began a fresh row. Saadatu Sani representing Kaduna State, Betty Abiafe from Rivers State and Mercy Almona-Isei were physically restrained from attacking one another by other members on the floor of the House before the arrival of the Speaker.
Nobody has monopoly of violence — Etteh

When the plenary session started at about 11.05am, a fuming Mrs. Etteh said after offering the opening prayers that “nobody had a monopoly of violence” and admonished members to embrace peace.The incident dominated the discussion in the plenary with Mr Leo Ogor representing Delta State moving that the fighting incident be referred to the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges for investigation, a position supported by Tam Brisibe from Delta State.
He argued that the incident was totally “unparliamentary” and that aborting the hearing had denied the Speaker an opportunity to be heard. “The Speaker remains the Speaker until she is removed. We as parliamentarians talk of due process but we violate it. It is insulting to use offensive language,” he said.

Mr Olaka Nwogu representing Rivers State cautioned the House from rushing into judgment, saying it was necessary to wait for the emergence of all the facts. According to him, “at moments like this, a parliament that distinguishes itself should be careful. I believe it is wrong to characterise anybody especially the Speaker.

“At the same time, whatever happened, the next step must be left to the investigative committee, which has the responsibility to report to the House,” he said and was supported by the Minority Leader of the House, Mohammed Ali Ndume.Mr Stanley Ohajuruka from Abia State proposed that the House should resolve the contending issues in an executive session where members would be free to voice their worries, saying if that was not done, “I see a situation of things getting out of hand.”

Mohammed Sani Abdul supported this, stressing the need for the House to speak with one voice and not to allow emotions becloud their reasoning.

He noted: “The House is burning inside. Everyone has something to say. Let’s find time to hold an executive session so that everybody can let out steam and at the end of the day, things will be resolved. We should not destroy our democracy.”Based on the submissions, the House went into an executive session.
The Speaker put the question of whether or not to go into an executive session to a voice vote and it was adopted.Briefing the media later on the outcome of the executive session, chairman of the House Committee on Media and Publicity, Mr Eziuche Ubani, said the House agreed to rescind its decision to refer the lawmaker’s show of shame to the Ethics and Privileges Committee after the principal actors, Jime and Melaye, had apologised to the House.
“They apologised to the House and they apologised to Nigerians. The motion to refer it to the Ethics and Privileges committee has been reversed,” he said.

Ubani also said the House had granted a five-day extension to the committee to enable it complete its assignment, which has been affected by the death of a member of the House, Olusegun Oladimeji, from Oyo State, adding that the Speaker would now appear at a date to be chosen by the committee.

Similarly, he said the House had banned all members who have not been invited by the committee from going to the venue in an attempt to forestall a repeat of yesterday’s incident, adding that opposing camps in the House have resolved to stop holding meetings forthwith to give the committee a free hand to carry out their assignment, which he noted had been impaired by such activities.According to him, the overall objective of the House was to ensure that the committee was seen to be working effectively.

My defence, by Etteh
Meanwhile, Mrs. Etteh in her written defence said: “The need to renovate and upgrade the houses in question was conveyed to me by the management of the National Assembly when it drew my attention to the obvious lapses and inadequacies in the structures that ought to house the presiding officers.”

Her words: “First, it was pointed out by the management of the National Assembly in its memo to the Body of Principal Officers that the official residence of the Honourable Speaker had not undergone any major renovation since 1999. It, therefore, required major reconstructions, renovations and upgrade. I hereby submit the memo under reference as Annexure 1.“Second, it was observed by the management of the National Assembly that the entire complex as at time in question was bare of furniture and household utilities. By government policy, the life span of the official furniture is four years.“Therefore, it is the normal practice to renovate official quarters and provide furnishing when the tenure of the occupant expires.

“Third, apart from the fact that the complex required total furnishing, it was also confirmed that the structure of the houses needed major structural, civil, mechanical and electrical engineering works. Some parts leaked, admitting rain and other elements into the room; some walls had crated and there were other structural defects that needed to be rectified to restore the buildings to functional use. The external parts of the complex also required rectifications. The Federal Capital Development Authority, FCDA, had also written the Clerk of the National Assembly, copying the immediate past Speaker, indicting the imminence of the demolition of the security post a distance away from the main House.

“Four, since 1999, the Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives has no official residence. The official residence of the Deputy Speaker was commissioned about a year ago but has remained uninhabitable. Mr. Chairman, Honourable Members, let me quote from the statement of the Management of the National Assembly in this regard: ‘The National Assembly wishes to put on record that the value of the contract for the upgrade works including security system in the cluster of structures at the official residence of the Honourable Deputy Speaker is N90,269,225.25 while furnishing and fittings cost N55,200,000. 00.

This residence has never been occupied, because it is not habitable. The compound is located adjacent to a stream, and this makes it marshy especially during the rainy season. It is also close to a major storm drain which regularly overflows with storm water that causes substantial damage to the precincts. Moreover, the compound adjoins an uncompleted and abandoned fire station as well as the only recreation facility for Apo quarters. It, therefore, demands extensive re-engineering works to enhance security, improve the technical status of the structures and avail the entire premises a facelift.’“This is tendered as Annexure 2.
Procedures and due process

“It was after exhaustive consultations on the best way forward that the management of the National Assembly invited, by selective tender, bids for the execution of the contracts to upgrade, renovate and furnish the official residences of the Presiding Officers. I understand that the recourse to the government-approved option of selective tendering was dictated by the desire to protect the security of the residents which are regarded as security sensitive.

“Mr. Chairman, I invite you to note that as Speaker of the House of Representatives, I am the Chief Executive of the House while the Clerk of the National Assembly is the Chief Accounting and Administrative Officer of the National Assembly. All correspondences to the House are addressed to the Speaker. Where correspondences are routed to any other person, approval to initiate action or any matter in relation to the House must be given by the Speaker.

“I further wish to place on record that since 1999, except for a brief period, I have served as a Principal Officer of the House. In that capacity, I had participated as a member of the Body of Principal Officers. I have thus gained experience in the operation of the Body and the National Assembly procedure for the award of contract.

“The established procedure was complied with in the award of the six contracts in question. I only participated, as usual, in the meeting as member of the Body of Principal Officer; in this case as the Chairman.

“The Body of Principal Officers was called upon at the Tenders’ Board meeting to approve the contracts based on the recommendations of the management of the National Assembly. Their recommendation and record of the decisions taken are contained in the memoranda and the minutes of the meting respectively which are already in your possession.

"It will interest members of the Committee to note that the memo to renovate, upgrade and furnish the residences of the Presiding Officers originated from the Office of Clerk of the House of Representatives. On receipt of the quotations, I minuted them to the Clerk of the National Assembly (CNA) to process. The CNA thereafter directed the Director of Estate and Works (DEW) to process and who in-turn passed same to the Chief Architect to analyse, vet and bring up. From the documents placed before me and the Body of Principal Officers, the Chief Architect confirmed to have carried out a comprehensive analysis of the bill of quantities which inevitably caused the reduction of the contract sum submitted by the lowest bidder from N242, 478,279.00 to N238,852,192.90 (see Annexure 3). For the avoidance of doubt, it is pertinent to state therefore that the contract for the renovation and upgrading of the residence of the Speaker was awarded at the recommended sum ofN238,852,192.90 and NOT N628,000;000 as being touted by those who are out to malign my good name and the office of the Speaker.
10 bedrooms, 7 sitting rooms others buildings in Speaker's residence

“Suffice it to say that the contract sum for works on the Speaker's residence was to be extended on renovating and upgrading of the main house which contains 10 bedrooms, seven sitting rooms, a private office, a study and other facilities.

“There were also a 3-bedroom Guest House, a 3-bedroom ADCs House, a 4-bedroom domestic staff House, a reception block, a radio room, a power house and lock-up garages. It was also to be expended on the construction of a new security house, relocation of the mosque in the compound, the construction of a chapel, furnishings, fittings, communication gadgets and one-year maintenance fee. This also applies largely to the Deputy Speaker’s house except that in his case, the fence of the compound, as a result of the precarious location of the house, needed to be upgraded. A generating set and security devices were to be purchase and installed.

“Mr. Chairman and Honourable Members, it may interest you to also know that of the contract sum of N238,852,129.90 only N59.7 million representing 25% of the contract sum has been paid to date. This amount (N59.7 million) was guaranteed by a bank bond of the value of Nl8l million.

“On the issues of purchase of vehicles, I wish to state that the 10 vehicles were for the use of all the Principal Officers of the House of Representatives as approved by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission. Since it is generally accepted in civil service regulation that the life span of a vehicle attached to a public officers which they used for four years had been sold to them. This necessitated that new set of vehicles had to be purchased for the new principal officers. You may wish to know, Mr. Chairman and Honourable Members, that up to date the vehicles have neither been supplied nor paid for. It is therefore incorrect, mischievous and indeed a misinformation for anybody to say that, I the Speaker, purchased 10 vehicles for use.

Alleged pressure on management of the N/A to award contracts
“Nothing can be further from the truth. It is germane to state the circumstances under which the contracts were awarded.“First, the official residence of the Speaker is not an ordinary residence; it is also a symbol and reflection of the status of the House of Representatives. It is common knowledge that the official demands of my office as presiding officer of the House and, by the special grace of the Almighty God, the official number four citizen of our country, make it practically impossible to play host to all important national and foreign personalities during official hours. As the Speaker, I am entitled to a decent and secured environment where these categories of people can be received and hosted.

“It, therefore, became imperative to expedite work on the official residence of the Speaker, since my private residence at Gwarinpa was not suitable.

“It is worthy of note that after my election as the Speaker, I should have enjoyed the privilege of moving immediately into a Presidential suite in a five-star hotel for 107 days which would have gulped over N244,000,000.00 but I rejected this official hotel accommodation provided for me and elected to stay instead in my Gwarinpa private residence. I also directed the Deputy Speaker and all our aides to follow suit. We equally refused to take any money in lieu of hotel accommodation and none of our aides did.

“As a member and now as Speaker, I am committed to service. I am not in any way driven by extravagance, comfort or personal gain. Any responsible officer eager to perform would definitely keep on their toes all those whose duty it was to ensure that the renovation and upgrading works were completed on time to enable us move into our official residences.
Possible lapses in contractors documents

“I wish to state categorically that it is not my responsibility as Speaker or Chairman of Body of Principal Officers to vet contract documents. In all the tender and contracts award documents before you, there was no place where the management that proposed, vetted and recommended the contracts and contractors to the Body of Principal Officers drew our attention to any defect in the documents.

“Notwithstanding, I did not fail to exercise political judgment and due diligence. Permit me Mr. Chairman to quote the minutes of the meeting in issue where clarifications were sought from management:I present the minutes as Annexure 4.Conclusion

“Mr. Chairman and Honourable Members, from the foregoing it is evident that the allegations against my person and office are tissues of lies, misinformation and blackmail. The orchestrated and well oiled negative campaign against me was designed to tarnish not just my image and integrity but to dent the image of the House and foist permanent instability in an otherwise relatively peaceful and stable House. Democracy can only thrive when you have a stable, virile and focused legislature.

“The House of Representatives since the days of former Speaker, Honourable Ghali Umar Na’Abba, and up to date has enjoyed reasonable stability. This has made it possible for the House to exercise its independence, carry out effectively its law-making and oversight functions. The present attempt to destabilise the House using personal and parochial issues should not be allowed to derail our focus.

“Mr. Chairman and respected Members of this Committee, I have established from my body of evidence that:•There was an obvious need to renovate, upgrade and furnish the residences of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker. The case for such work was clearly established by Management of the National Assembly even before I became Speaker.

•There was an obvious need to purchase the 10 Nos vehicles for the principal officers of the House as approved by the Revenue Mobilisation, Allocation and Fiscal Commission and funds provided for in the 2007 Appropriation Act.

•The Tenders Board of which I am the Chairman acted on the professional advice of the Management of the National Assembly who themselves are members and were present at the meeting. Their recommendations and the decisions reached are in the memoranda and minutes of the meeting already in your possession. Mr. Chairman, financial and administrative competence of the management.

•The contract sum for the renovation and upgrading of the residence of the Speaker is N238,852,198.95 and not N628,000,000•The contract sum for the renovation and furnishing of the Deputy Speakers residence is N90,269,225.25 and N50,200, 000.00•The Speaker’s residence comprises the main house which contains 10 bedrooms, 7 sitting rooms, a private office, a study and other facilities. There was also a 3-bedroom Guest House, a 3-bedroom ADCs House, a 4-bedroom Domestic staff House, a reception block, a radio room, a Power House and Lock-up Garages.

•The vehicles for the Principal officers have neither been supplied nor been paid for.•Out of the contract sum of N238,852 198.95 only N59.7 million has been paid to date and this amount is guaranteed by a bank bond for a value of N18l,000 million.

•As at today, no money has been paid in respect of the upgrading works or the furnishing of the Deputy Speaker’s residence.•It is my responsibility as Speaker and Chairman of the Body of Principal Officers to process Contract documents.
I remain patriotic —Etteh

“Mr. Chairman and Honourable Members, my pledge to Nigeria is that I will remain patriotic in the discharge of my duties to the House and the people of Nigeria.
“Finally, Mr. Chairman, the motion which led to the setting up of this Committee prayed the House do set up an independent Ad-hoc Committee cutting across parties to thoroughly investigate the matter with a view to restoring the integrity of the House and its leadership.

“I have faith in your impartiality and independence and I am confident that my testimony this day has cleared the hazy clouds hovering over this matter and that I have succeeded in restoring the integrity of the House and its leadership.“May God bless you as you discharge your assignment without fear or favour, or ill-will.”

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