Cross River Government, EbonyLife TV Unable To Account For 2.4Billion Calabar Media City Loan

In Breaking News, Business & Economy, Entertainment and Lifestyle, National News, Politics, Reports

by crossriverwatch admin

Studio Tinapa
Studio Tinapa

The circumstances surrounding the 2.4 Billion Naira loan the Cross River State government obtained in 2012 from First Bank PLC for the Calabar Media City Special Purpose Vehicle between the State government and EbonyLife, operators of EbonyLife TV on DSTV have remained shrouded in ominous secrecy.

What CrossRiverWatch investigation has revealed is that there is no such Calabar Media City in Cross River State and the loan too cannot be accounted for by the parties involved.

In June 2012, the Cross River State House of Assembly authorized the granting of a N2.4billion loan to the state government for the Calabar Media City-Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) between the government and Ebony Life, operators of Ebonylife TV on DSTV.

In a letter to the Assembly dated 31st May, 2012, and obtained by CrossRiverWatch, Governor Liyel Imoke had said the essence of the facility is to set up an entertainment channel, which would serve as the hub of African Private Television Entertainment in Calabar Media City.

He said EbonyLife, the partner, is highly experienced and will handle the operation; while Ministry of Finance Incorporated, MOFI, another partner, will assist in overseeing the business.

He said the revenue prospects of the business are high; and that it is envisaged that the government guarantee will never be called-in for failure of the business to meet its obligation.

“Calabar Media City, through EbonyLife, has secured the patronage of Multi-Choice company. The total fees of N2 billion is expected from Multi–Choice in the first year of operation,” he added.

Imoke stated that other revenue services include several projects that will yield income from professionals, institutions, and tourists, as the projects will also include Calabar Film Academy, Calabar Film Festival, Calabar Music Festival and Calabar Festival Week.

According to him, the business revenue plan shows that by the third year of operation, the revenue will be N3.8 billion and by the seventh year, the total income expected will be N33.3 billion.

Highlight of the First Bank offer showed the borrower and therefore, the obligator is Calabar Media City with tenor of 48 months and 16 per cent interest rate, with other fees granting at a total of 1 per cent flat.”

More than two years on, CrossRiverWatch has been making pain staking effort to engage the critical actors to tell us:

*What has become of the loan?

*Who have been the players in its disbursement and management?

*What has become of the Calabar Media City?

*What has been the impact of the deal on the development of the media in Cross River State particularly with struggling home grown media platforms that are being starved of support?

*What employment opportunities, and other infrastructural development has it brought to Cross River State?

Within the past four months, CrossRiverWatch reached out to both the management of EbonyLife, the Cross River State Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Justice and the Bureau of Public Private Partnership (BPPP), The Chairman Cross River State House of Assembly Committee on Appropriation, the management of DSTV, First Bank Nigeria PLC and critical stakeholders like the Nigeria Union of Journalists in the state and the Association of Cross River Online Journalists, ACROJ.

The experience has not only been herculean but has also revealed an attempt by relevant actors both in the public and private sector to employ taciturn to cover what is obviously a brewing financial scandal.

First, CrossRiverWatch contacted the Calabar office of the Bureau of Public Private Partnership, BPPP whose role is to initiate and oversee any Public Private Partnership, PPP deal for the state government.

While authorized sources refused to be quoted, a senior staff of the bureau told our investigator under anonymity that “We did not handle that particular contract because as at then this present BPPP management was not on sit; it was the Ministry of Finance and Justice that handled the Media City contract, we don’t even have records on that, Ministry of Finance is the supervisory agency”.

The State Commissioner of Finance, Etim Caiafas when contacted over a month ago has refused to respond to enquiries on the topic. After several weeks of feigning hectic work schedule, he grinded down to not taking our investigators calls and not responding to messages and at the same time refusing an appointment.

But a Director in the Ministry who pleaded not to be named for lack of authority to speak on the matter revealed to CrossRiverWatch that: “That Calabar Media City project is one project nobody really wants to talk about. That project was a conduit. It will be difficult for you to get any information from Oga. There are interests in that deal that are beyond any of the commissioners that were involved. You will sure have problems gathering accurate information because the first family’s interest is involved.

“It is common knowledge here that apart from the fact that the project is the First Lady, Mrs. Imoke’s project veiled in her friend who is running the station, yet even with all the money involved, the state tax authorities had earlier locked up their Tinapa studio for tax default.” The Director said.

On his part, when contacted the State Commissioner for Justice/Attorney General, Attah Ochinke, Esq. said “We only played the legal role and we are not the supervisory ministry that would have been doing updates on the project, our role is basically legal”.

When CrossRiverWatch contacted Hon. Jake Enyia, the Chairman, Cross River State House of Assembly Committee on Appropriation to comment on the matter and update Cross Riverians on developments around the loan; after initially promising to provide helpful information and documents, he also later declined comments and has since refused to pick our investigators calls for several weeks now.

When CrossRiverWatch visited EbonyLife TV studio at Tinapa, it was clear from the gate that very little activity was going on in the Tinapa studio.

Our investigators were told that they could only speak to the Human Resource Manager, HRM Mrs. Anne Ogbe but on reaching the front desk, the officer insisted that: “You cannot see her unless you are on appointment which must be booked via email to her @ ajojo-ogbe@mediaandentertainmentcityafrica.com”.

Several weeks have passed since requests for appointment and enquiries have been sent repeatedly to her mail without response. More than 30 calls, over several weeks to her phone were also not taken and text messages not responded to.

A check at the EbonyLife TV Lagos Studio also did not yield results as our investigators were directed back to Calabar.

At the First Bank in Calabar, our investigators were also directed to the Corporate Headquarters of the Bank or the State Ministry of Finance/BPPP for any information.

The bank officials claimed that the State government, just like EbonyLife, were customers and they are obliged not to reveal details of transactions with their customers to the Press.

Mr. John Ugbe, the Managing Director of Multi Choice Nigeria also declined comment and has avoided an appointment with our investigator who contacted him for information on the matter.

That is how all the relevant actors have over the past 4 months resorted to taciturn to deliberately deny the public of details that have beclouded the administration of the N2.4billion loan.

But CrossRiverWatch gathered from some staff of EbonyLife, particularly those doing NYSC that they are miffed by the fact that almost all the production work of the company is done in Lagos and not in Tinapa.

One staff told CrossRiverWatch that, “I returned from the UK to come home and do my NYSC, full of hope from the promos and ads of the station I saw that there will be something to do and to learn.

“But on getting here, I discovered nothing is really going on here in Calabar, almost all the work is done in Lagos. I don’t get it when they talk about being an entertainment hub in Calabar and all the work is done in Lagos but with Cross River State money.”

A reliable senior source in EbonyLife who was obviously miffed by the silence of the management also told CrossRiverWatch that: “This whole thing should be clear to those who have eyes nah. Your governor wife has a lot of interest here and even if information about it will be available, it can certainly not be now. May be after they exit office!”

The Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ in Cross River state and the Association of Cross River Online Journalists, ACROJ have expressed deep disappointment and concern at the development and called on government and other relevant actors to come clean and speak to Cross Riverians about how that loan has been disbursed and managed.

Chairman of the NUJ in Cross River State, Pastor Ndoma Akpet in a chat with CrossRiverWatch in Calabar said: “The question is who will criticize government if there is evidence that the loan has benefited Cross River state and the media in particular. There are several home grown media organizations with capacity who are struggling because the government has denied them of support. To think that in the face of huge debts, our government still guaranteed a N2.4billion Naira loan for a Calabar Media City that is not known to the NUJ anywhere in Cross River State is to say the least, very disappointing.

“I want to call on government and encourage other relevant bodies and agencies to come out clean and explain to the people of Cross River how that loan has been managed. I also agree with those who say so that, no meaningful activity is going on at the Tinapa studio of EbonyLife and it will be necessary to know where exactly the Calabar Media City is located.

“What has been the impact of the so called media city on the development of the media in the state? What has accrued to the state from the contract? How many jobs has that investment created for Cross Riverians? How will all these trickle down support to home grown media organizations that are struggling to survive?” He queried.”

Mr. Iwara Iwara, the Chairman of ACROJ told CrossRiverWatch that: “We need to hear from those who have the answers to how our N2.4billion was spent or we will assume that the loan was squandered. Where is the Calabar Media City? Has the SPV lived up to it terms of establishment? Why is EbonyLife doing most of its production in Lagos? Is it true that the company belong to Mrs. Obioma Imoke? She has to also tell us if that is true?”

But Mr. Christian Ita, Chief Press Secretary and Special Adviser to Imoke on Media and Public Affairs, absolved the first family of complicity in the project.

“It is ridiculous to want to link the Imoke’s to a company whose ownership is an open secret.” He said.

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