INVESTIGATION: How Cross River Government Awarded Questionable Contracts And Paid For Unfinished Projects

In Breaking News, Investigation, Reports

By Sylvia Akpan

In a striking case of financial impropriety, the Cross River State Government’s dealings with a contractor have been exposed, revealing instances of overpayment for both rescinded and uncompleted projects, Sylvia Akpan reports.

In a curious twist that blurs the line between landscaping, gardening, and education, Awokaris Greenworld Industrial Limited, a company registered to provide environmental services, found itself in the spotlight after securing education contracts worth N110m. The company curiously got contracts in the education sector, winning bids to print and deliver state examination materials for N90m and offer consultancy for the formalization of British Canadian University Obudu for N20m. This unexpected leap from tending greenery to handling crucial educational projects raises eyebrows and questions. How did a garden-focused enterprise venture into shaping minds and curricula?

Awokaris Greenworld Limited was registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) on June 11, 2013. The board of directors of the firm includes Christian Himabe Awowoh, Ekaete Kate Udo Awowoh, and Christian Himabe Awowoh (jnr), and its headquarters is located at No. 9, Oyenmakeihi Abyosubi Airport Road, Warri, Delta State. 

Despite tremendous efforts by the reporter to get Awowoh to answer questions as to why money was received by them, the company has since not responded to my emails, SMS, and phone calls.

Christian Himabe Awowoh is the South-south representative of Nigeria’s extractive industry transparency initiative and the Chief Executive Officer of Awokaris Greenworld Industrial Limited.

His LinkedIn profile, also shows that Christian Awowoh is a piling Engineer at Hallibrown Intanation with 58 followers and 57 connections.

Christian Awowoh LinkedIn chatbox locked

On August 31, 2023, the reporter sent an email to the company’s email address at info@awokarisgroup.com and it was greeted with silence.

Mail sent to Christian Awowoh

On the same day, the reporter sent an SMS to the phone numbers attached to the company but the calls went unanswered.

Similarly, the reporter sent a WhatsApp message to Christian Awowoh and observed that when the message was sent, it had his profile picture but when the message was delivered and read, his profile picture disappeared, leaving that of his wife.

Christian Awowoh before reading the messages delivered to him by the reporter
Christian Awowoh blocked the reporter after reading her messages without responding to questions.
Christian Awowoh’s contact before blocking the reporter.

On November 4, 2023, the reporter sent the same message to Awowoh’s official Facebook and Instagram accounts but no response was given and calls were not received.

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063585706551, https://instagram.com/christianawowoh?igshid=NGVhN2U2NjQ0Yg==

The reporter found out through his official Facebook handle that Christian Awowoh is also a politician and a representative of the South-South Geopolitical Zone in the Nigerian Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, NEITI. In 2019, he declared interest in the position of the Cross River State House of Assembly in Obanliku Local Government Area in the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP and lost.

Awokaris Greenworld Industrial Limited also has Ekaete Kate Udo Awowoh, his wife, and Christian Himabe Awowoh (jnr), his son, as the director.

From all indications, Christian Awowoh has subsequently blocked the reporter on WhatsApp as his profile picture has suddenly disappeared.  The reporter confirmed this by sending messages twice and they were not delivered. This is coming after Christian Awowoh read the message from the reporter by 12:37 PM on November 4, 2023, without deigning any response.

Awarding the N110 million contract to the company is in direct violation of Part 3, Section 6(a) of the Cross River State Procurement Law, 2020 Law No. 9, which stipulates that all bidders must have qualified personnel with pertinent experience to fulfill the obligations of the procurement contract.

Furthermore, findings from the state Due Process and Price Intelligence Bureau lay bare a perplexing scenario: despite prematurely terminating the contract for the supply of examination materials – without providing an explanation – the company still received a staggering N250m from the government. This payment (made in two installments – N90m on November 23, 2020, and an additional N160m on June 18, 2021) exceeds the contracted N110m by N140m. And the government has given no explanation for this either.

This is all according to the Due Process Bureau https://ocds.dppib-crsgov.org/#/records

First and second tranches of the money awarded for the contract.

Even in light of these substantial payments, a critical examination of former governor Ben Ayade’s end-of-tenure report reveals a disconcerting reality: the completion of the British Canadian University remains elusive, casting shadows over the effectiveness of the allocated funds.

The status of the university in question raises significant concerns. On one hand, the state government claimed that the institution is a private university, as there is no law enacted by the state House of Assembly to legalize the entity.  On the other hand, the government spent state resources by awarding contracts to facilitate its formalization and registration.

When the reporter visited the British Canadian University, it was discovered that work had long been stopped and the buildings were stacked with bamboo sticks on the walls while wild grasses were competing for space. A nearby swamp area was left untouched.

An online search on the website of the National Universities Commission, NUC, indicates that the British Canadian University, Obudu, Cross River State was listed as one of the new private universities, with the proprietor listed as Kingshill Education Limited under the mentoring of the University of Calabar, Cross River State.

A simple search on the CAC portal indicates that the university is not owned by Kingshill Education Limited as captured on the NUC website but by two persons, Ikang Gabriel Francis of No. 8, Itu Okon Street, Ikot Ansa, Calabar, Cross River State and Ekpenyong Aniedi Bassey of No. 4, Ene Okon Crescent, Ene, Calabar, Cross River State. (https://search.cac.gov.ng/psc). While Francis was the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Bassey was the Permanent Secretary of the Education Ministry, both under the immediate past administration of Udom Emmanuel.

However, a memorandum of Association obtained from Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) on the university shows that it is wholly owned by the Cross River State government. The document indicates that the private university has one million shares, with two shareholders, both Cross River State government, owning 500,000 shares each. Two separate addresses were provided for the government – No 4  Ene Okon Crescent, Ene Calabar, Calabar, and No 8, Itu Okon Street, Ikot Ansa, Calabar. Curiously, these are the same addresses given to Francis and Bassey, the purported owners of the university, meaning that they probably represented the state during the registration process.

Interestingly, deepening the confusion over the ownership of the institution, a CAC search for Heirbase Management Solutions Limited, which is listed by NUC as the owner, indicates two owners, Heirbase Management Solutions Limited and Cross River State Ministry of Finance.

Thus, in three separate filings on the NUC website, the CAC portal, and the CAC Memorandum of Association, different owners are indicated as owners of the university, with the Cross River state government being linked to each.

Addresses found in British Canadian University document as visited by the reporter

When the reporter visited No. 4,  Ene Okon Crescent, Ene Calabar on November 1, 2023, he met Bassey, the immediate past permanent secretary, Ministry of Education, after being shown the way by a passerby. When the reporter knocked on the gate, she responded from inside “Who is that?” and asked the gateman to open the gate. When the reporter gained a slight entrance into the compound, the reporter inquired “Please, I’m looking for Mrs. Aniedi Bassey Ekpenyong” and these were her words “Who is looking for her?”

The reporter introduced herself as Sylvia Akpan, a reporter from CrossRiverWatch.

“What’s the issue?” she asked.

As soon as the reporter raised questions about the British Canadian University, Obudu, she responded “I have retired so I’m no longer there. I retired two months ago or thereabout. What do you people have to watch this time around? Well, I don’t know anything about it. Anyway, maybe you will see the Commissioner there now. I think he’ll be in a better position to enlighten you on that.”

Meanwhile, Bassey is the same person that the reporter met in her office on September 8, 2023, before her retirement and she referred the reporter to SUBEB.

The reporter visited the second address at No. 8, Itu Okon Street, Ikot Ansa, Calabar same day, and when the reporter asked a question related to the British Canadian University, Obudu, the occupant said that he should be looking for “Ak” who is the one who knows about the university. AK was not around, but the reporter got his number from a neighbor. When the reporter called the person, he insisted that they meet at the former Chinese Restaurant at State Housing.

On November 2, 2023, the reporter met with AK and he asked how she found his address and insisted that he would not speak until he got an answer. When he was shown a screengrab of the evidence, he finally spoke to the reporter, denying any knowledge of the university registration.

Akomaye Agbabia known as AK when visited by the reporter affirmed that he subscribed to the document on the British Canadian University, Obudu but he was evasive.

When the reporter engaged him in another conversation in Efik language, he felt relaxed and began telling the reporter that the project is a white elephant project.

He further went on to say that the immediate past governor, Professor Ben Ayade was only trying to mimic Liyel Imoke because Imoke built the Institute of Management Technology, Ugep which is affiliated with a hybrid polytechnic in the United Kingdom. Hence, the reason why Ayade came up with the British Canadian University, Obudu.

“I never signed anything like this for those two addresses to come because I have a Corporate Affairs Certificate and this Memorandum of Understanding so, I understand what is there.

“This thing I’m suspecting it’s not me ooh but fate has made you meet me to get whatever information you are looking for. It is a white elephant project. To make it easy for you, Ayade is from my place, maybe my brother or whatever but every project of his has been like a smoked screen.

“It was like a cunning way for theft. Even the white elephant project called the Cargo Airport, we don’t even know if they’ll start exporting yam and dawadawa. For a place like Obudu going to site a Cargo Airport in that kind of a place, what are they car-going when we have an airstrip at Obanliku that needs expansion because Obanliku has land. 

“So, for your British Canadian University from the little I know, I don’t think it was gazetted in the government whatever. But the only thing that is functional there is the Obudu German Hospital which has already started and the state government has only 5 percent of shares. 

“The Canadian school, if it were like the Institute of Management Technology (IMT) Ugep, is an affiliate of Hybrid Polytechnic in the United Kingdom. That was the school built by the previous government (Liyel Imoke), it’s 100 percent functional. Ayade had wanted to kill it so he tried to replicate it, and he went to Canada.

The British Canadian University, Obudu.

“For the years they’ve been building whatever they’ve been building, and nothing is really functional. You should understand what it means. It’s a white elephant project because, if they are Canadian, you know the foreign clients the government doesn’t really have hands in their schools, it is private mostly. So, whichever school that thing there is affiliated with in Canada should have been here to at least drive the project fast.

“In all Ayade’s projects across the State, which has he ever completed apart from that death trap at Odukpani?

“When they sign an MoU, monies have exchanged hands, billions. So, that thing there was a systematic way of commandeering land from his people.”

AK’s name was revealed by the true caller as Akomaye Agbabia. His official Facebook handle reveals him to be a Commercial Real Estate Agent. When contacted again on November 4, 2023, after the first meeting, he said he was busy and promised to call back but he never did.

AK’s address No. 8, Itu Okon Street, Ikot Ansa, Calabar Municipality, Cross River State, was captured in a Federal Republic of Nigeria Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2020 Companies Limited by Shares Memorandum of Association of the British Canadian University Obudu Ltd and he attested that he subscribed to the project after which he denied and became evasive.

Official Explanations Remain Elusive

When the reporter visited the Permanent Secretary, Mrs. Aniedie Ekpenyong Bassey in 8th September, 2023, before her retirement, she had insisted that the reporter write to the State Universal Basic Education Board, SUBEB.

 “You are the one who dropped that thing that practically threatened our lives. I was just wondering where all that was coming from because I don’t understand if a due process has been followed or something and it is done to the end, you are now telling me that the person is not qualified, that the person is qualified.”

“Who determines the qualification, is it CrossRiverWatch, is it you, or the ministry? Not even the ministry, not even me because whatever was done, due process was followed, everything signed, everything done so I don’t know. We were lost as to where are we to begin to answer these questions. So, what information exactly do you want, do you want it to indict somebody?”

“So what information exactly do you want, do you want it to indict somebody?

“That contract did not come through the Ministry of Education. It was financed at SUBEB. How did you get to know it was so, so so person because you mentioned the company that was given, how did you get all that, where did you get the information? 

You went somewhere and they told you? She queried.

“Well, I don’t know about it. The procurement person will speak to you. Every ministry has a procurement. So, maybe you will discuss it with him.

When the reporter visited the procurement officer, Austin, who refused to give his full name, insisting that the journalist refers to him as  ‘Austin Procurement,’ he declined to speak on the matter. He insisted that the reporter should get the consent of the Permanent Secretary first. The reporter returned to the Permanent Secretary who asked him to return to Austim, promising to call him.

When the reporter approached again, Austin again, he was still adamant that he would not speak.

“Is it the one (FOIA request) from CrossRiverWatch? It won’t be from me because now, once you have a request like that you have to go back to the Permanent Secretary. The internal document has order. A permanent secretary cannot minute a document to me and direct you to come and meet me.”

Expressing skepticism about the investigation’s motives, Austin declined to discuss the contract further but affirmed adherence to due process protocols, concluding that “We follow due process here.”

At the SUBEB office, Mr. Ettah Inyang Eyo who was the acting SUBEB chairman said “Because of the screening exercise the Director DPRS just got the mail now let him study and respond.

During the next visit, Mr. Ettah Inyang Eyo, Director of Administration who was acting as Chairman, said that the contract was not awarded by the agency.

“We’ve checked through our records, that contract was not awarded by SUBEB. So you may make further inquiries from the Ministry of Education,” he stated.

Despite repeated visits to the Due Process and Price Intelligence Bureau, no conclusive information emerged.

The secretary ‘Mabah’ who refused to give her other names said “The man is not around, Director is not around”

When the reporter asked to get her contact she said “No Aunty, come back tomorrow” this time with a loud voice.

It was after repeated visits when she felt the reporter was disturbing her that she wrote her number and her name (Mabah) on a sheet of paper and gave.

When the reporter called, she said “Don’t worry, the DG will respond to you via mail or call.

Adding to the opacity, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests sent to the trio, Ministry of Education, SUBEB, and DPPIB were greeted with silence. The FOIA requests specifically asked for the award of contracts to the company that lacks the professional qualification to do both jobs, and why the contracts were awarded in violation of the state public procurement law of 2020, part 3 section 6(a), and why the contractor was paid when the contracts were terminated.

The letters were sent to the Ministry of Education on August 1, 2023; the DPPIB on August 1, 2023 and SUBEB on August 8, 2023.

The FOI requests specifically asked for the award of contracts to the company that lacks the professional qualification to do both jobs and why the contracts were awarded in violation of the state public procurement law of 2020, part 3 section 6(a), and why the contractor was paid when the contracts were terminated.

Development Experts Call For Probe

Richard Inoyo, the Country Director of Citizens Solution Network, and Ukeme-Obong Ekong, State Coordinator of We The People, called for a thorough investigation into the contract in separate interviews.

Expressing their bewilderment, they questioned why a government would allocate funds for the establishment of a private enterprise.

Inoyo conveyed his deep concern, stating, “This development is disheartening. If you examine the Cross River State Government’s track record, you’ll observe an ongoing disregard for the State’s procurement laws. It’s even more disheartening that the current government is continuing this trend of violating its own laws.”

He raised concerns about competence, saying, “When companies lack the necessary expertise, entrusting them with the responsibility of supplying educational materials to the State through the Ministry of Education is fraught with the risk of subpar quality. Such comcannotlity to assess and deliver the required standards, and this is a significant worry for us all.”

In urging the government to take action, Inoyo underscored, that “it is crucial for the government to recognize that this prevailing culture of awarding contracts to institutions or companies lacking the necessary qualifications and competence reflects negatively on governance as a whole.”

“This is unacceptable. It’s high time citizens came together to draw the government’s attention to this unacceptable development. Enough is enough, and we must communicate this message to the government without hesitation.”

Ukeme-Obong Ekong, on her part, emphasized the significance of adhering to due process in public contracts.

She stressed that: “Cross River State has well-defined procurement laws and policies that dictate the selection of vendors and contractors for specific services. Following due processes in contracts is crucial. My concern lies in the fact that companies lacking the fundamental prerequisites – essential technical expertise and adequate human resources – should not undertake projects they are ill-equipped to handle.”

Ekong articulated the broader implications, stating, “When entities are aware that deviating from due process can lead to unnecessary complications, it becomes imperative for our State to embrace transparency and accountability. As citizens, we hold a collective responsibility to ensure our government remains accountable.”

She pointed out the potential consequences of disregarding due process, explaining, “When due process is sidestepped, the integrity of the entire contracting process is compromised. While policies are formulated by legislative bodies, executive officers must implement these policies. Effective governance necessitates alignment between policy creation and implementation.”

In her closing remarks, Ekong emphasized the importance of upholding democratic values, saying, “In a democratic society, adherence to protocols is vital. We must operate with integrity, order, and respect for established procedures. A true democracy thrives when all components of the government work together to uphold the principles of due process.”

This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting.

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