EXCLUSIVE: Top NCC Officials Enmeshed In N122 Million Fraud

TECH DIGEST – Two senior officials of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) are currently enmeshed in a N122 million fraudulent claims scandal, PREMIUM TIMES can exclusively report.

The officials, Yakubu Gontor, head of the finance department, and Philip Eretan, former head of the internal audit department of the agency, received the funds as allowances for trips they never made.

They were indicted by an investigative committee which was set up by the commission’s governing board in 2020.

While Mr Gontor was said to have received a total of N54 million as accruable allowances for official trips he never made, Mr Eretan is said to have fraudulently raked in about N68 million.

The committee, which was headed then by Millionaire Abowei, a professor and member of the board of the commission, recommended that apart from refunding the illegally received monies, the two officials should be made to face a disciplinary panel with appropriate sanctions meted out to them, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.

However, the Umar Danbatta-led management of the NCC, which in 2020 won the Ethics Compliance and Integrity Scorecards (ECIS) award of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), has refused to discipline the indicted officials as recommended by the committee, nor call for their prosecution.

When contacted, the agency did not deny the allegations against its officials but said “it is an administrative matter that has been handled.”

Our reporter’s findings, however, revealed that the amount fraudulently claimed by these officials is being deducted in instalments from their emoluments.

Despite this, many workers at the agency, who are privy to the development, are wondering why the management of NCC has continued to shield the accused officials from prosecution.

Some of the workers, who spoke to our reporter on the condition that their names are not disclosed for fear of victimisation, said the leadership of the commission has, by its conduct, “made the agency undeserving of the award it received and celebrated just last November.”

They also alleged that the agency’s pledge to promote the culture of accountability during the launch of the ICPC anti-corruption unit at NCC headquarters was a mere “window dressing.”

NCC’s executive vice-chairman, Mr Danbatta, at the inauguration of the Anti-Corruption and Transparency Unit (ACTU) in December, pledged to “continually maintain high ethical standards in all its regulatory activities consistent with the federal government’s efforts to entrench the culture of accountability and transparency in the ministries, departments and agencies.”

How it all began

In 2019, about 70 NCC officials noticed irregular deductions from their allowances over a period of time.A

Accordingto reliable sources, some eventually noticed cumulative deductions that ranged between N500,000 to N3 million depending on their levels and grades.

The development led to complaints by the workers who were told by the management that they flouted the agency’s cost-cutting measure that was put in place to minimise the cost of governance.

“We were accused of travelling beyond three times in a month as recommended by the cost-cutting circular. But our trips were approved by the same management and we reported when we returned,” an angry junior official told our reporter.

NCC Board sets up committee
The board of the NCC, which was then led by a former senator, Olabiyi Durojaye, set up an investigative committee to probe the matter but the coronavirus pandemic lockdown slowed down the committee.

Also, the abrupt removal of Mr Durojaye from office was also said to have affected the task of the committee.

But Mr Durojaye’s successor, Adeolu Akande, a professor of political science, could not ignore the cries of the workers, who had insisted that they did not flout any rule.

The new board, therefore, in 2020, set up another five-member investigative committee chaired by Mr Abowei. Other members of the committee included Ubale Maska, an engineer; Adeleke Adewolu, a lawyer; Salmon AbdulAzeez, an engineer, and the Commission’s secretary, Felix Adeoye. Mr Adeoye served as the committee’s secretary.

The committee commenced its probe in May 2020 and submitted its report to the board on June 24, 2020.

According to insiders, out of about 70 officials whose names appeared on the list, only the duo of Messrs Gontor and Eretan were indicted by the investigative committee.

However, almost one year after the report was submitted to the NCC board, and the board’s directive to the management to ensure the prosecution of the two indicted officials, the management is not known to have taken any action.

Another official of the commission, who also does not want to be named, told our reporter that; “All the other workers were refunded by the management but N54 million and N68 million respectively are being deducted from the pay of Gontor and Eretan.

“Though a disciplinary committee was initially set up by the board which was chaired by Mr Adewolu Adeleke, the committee insisted that the management needed to have queried the officials before facing the disciplinary committee. And since then, the management which is led by the executive vice-chairman, Prof Dambatta, has kept mute.”

EFCC’s aborted probe

PREMIUM TIMES is aware that between January and February 2020, both Messrs Guntor and Eretan frequented the Kaduna zonal office of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) following a petition by a yet-to-be-identified group.

But the new leadership of the EFCC in the zone has said it could not trace the details of the matter.

Speaking with our reporter in February, the new head of the zone, Sanusi Abdullahi, said he was only transferred to the zone in July 2020, and that he could not trace the files of the matter.”

“But we are still investigating and I can assure you that we will do our best to know what is amiss,” Mr Abdullahi said.

Group sues NCC, EFCC

A non-governmental organisation, Lygel Youths and Leadership Initiatives (LYLI), has filed an ex-parte motion at the Federal High Court in Abuja, against both the NCC and the EFCC.

The case with suit number, FHC/ABJ/CS/395/2021/ is seeking an order for leave of the court to apply for an order of mandamus “directing and or compelling the first defendant/respondent to reopen the investigation albeit discontinued or conducting a fresh investigation concerning the allegation of fraud against the former head of the second defendant’s department of audit and its incumbent head of the finance department.”

While the EFCC is the first defendant in the case, the NCC is the second defendant.

The group’s action according to its director of legal and compliance unit, Lekan Oladapo, is a reaction to the NCC refusal to accede to its request on the details of the corruption allegations against its staffers.

Mr Oladapo told our reporter on the phone that his organisation had in December 2020, written the executive vice-chairman of the NCC, accusing the management of condoning corruption.

The letter, a copy of which this newspaper obtained, is titled; “Condonation of Corrupt Practices and Obtaining Public Funds Under False Pretences: Our complaints”

“…it has come to our attention that there are serious cases of festering corruption being allowed to go unpunished in your organisation which was discovered sometime on or about June-July this year and the step being taken by the management of your organisation has been far from satisfactory,” the letter reads in part.

It, therefore, requested the report of the investigative committee and urged the NCC management to prosecute the indicted officials without delay.

In its response to the group’s enquiry, which was dated January 8, 2021, and signed by the director of legal and regulatory services, Josephine Amuwa, the NCC said the detail requested by the group was too broad.

The agency, therefore, demanded the specifics of the cases and pledged to respond appropriately.

On January 22, another letter was addressed to the agency by the NGO stating the specifics of the cases and demanded the report of the investigative committee and the resolutions of the board of the organisations on the matter as reportedly taken on June 24, 2020.

“It is our further request that the Commission should furnish us with official steps taken towards enforcing the reports with the related documents. Furthermore, your office is urged to enforce the relevant disciplinary actions to the affected staff and facilitate the speedy criminal investigation and prosecution as required by laws,” the letter reads in part.

In its second response to the group’s follow-up enquiry, the NCC noted that it could not honour the requests of the group.

Ms Amuwa said, “The Commission has reviewed the contents of your letter and notes that you have maintained that the information you seek is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and therefore cannot provide the information you required under the Freedom of Information Act, 2011.”

NCC, accused officials evade questions
PREMIUM TIMES on several occasions reached out to Messrs Gontor and Eretan on the matter but they refused to respond to our reporter’s enquiries.

Calls and text messages sent to the duo were not responded to. Our reporter also sent them WhatsApp messages and even after reading the messages, they failed to respond.

This newspaper on Sunday also reached out to the spokesperson of the agency, Ikechukwu Adinde, on why the NCC has for months failed to act on the matter and he responded by saying the matter is “purely administrative”.

Hours after speaking with our reporter, he called back to say he would provide a substantive response to his inquiry. He is yet to do so as of Monday morning.

A right activist, Olowolafe Dunsi, said the actions of the agency show that “they did not deserve the transparency award given to them last year by ICPC. The officials indicted for fraud should be adequately dealt with.”