Contract scandal: House of Reps in rowdy session
However, the much expected deliberation on the issue was stalled as the Speaker took the winds off the sail of her accusers. She announced a one-day adjournment to honour the late Senate President, Chief Evans Enwerem immediately after approving the votes and proceedings of the last sitting of the House.
Enwerem died on August 2, 2007, when the House was on recess.
Despite the hurried adjournment, trouble for the Speaker and her deputy may be far from over, with a call on her by her predecessor, Ghali Umar Na’Abba, to submit herself for probe.
This is coming at a time the Action Congress accused the National Assembly management of attempts to cover up the scandal.
The House Chief Whip, Bethel Amadi, however, said its leadership was not afraid of probe, as he defended the Speaker and her deputy, against any wrong doing.
Palpable tension had gripped the House on Tuesday as members came into the chambers for the commencement of proceedings, which kicked off at about 11.12a.m when the Speaker breezed in without the usual announcement of her entry by the bearer of the mace.
The stage for a rowdy session had been laid by a group of members working under the name, Integrity Group, who insisted that the Speaker must step aside for a probe of the contract, while members sympathetic to the Speaker said that she had not done anything wrong to warrant her vacating the seat.
Etteh had stopped her accusers in their tracks as she announced a one–day adjournment in honour of the late Senate President. The adjournment jolted members, who had prepared to raise the issue of the contract under the privilege order since it was not listed on the order paper. The lawmakers resorted to shouting, while some moved with fury towards the mace.
Eight men of the Sergeant-at Arms, commanded by retired Col. Emeka Okere, had formed a protective shield round the mace, as members pushed themselves around.
When order was restored, after about 15 minutes of rancour, Etteh received a thunderous applause. She later called on Hon Independence Ogunnewe to offer prayers for the repose of Senator Enwerem’s soul.
Speaking after the adjournment, Hon Farouk Lawan and Hon Halims Agoda, who are leading the assault against Etteh, agreed with her that it was the tradition of the House to adjourn for a day in honour of any dead principal officer.
"There is nothing to jubilate about what happened on the floor of the House today (Tuesday). We have just observed the tradition of respecting our departed officer. It is the practice worldwide," Agoda said.
Lawan said the mere fact that the issue of the contract scam was not raised did not imply that it had died, adding that it was as a result of respect for the dead that the issue was not raised.
"There is always tomorrow. The fact that we did not raise it does not mean we will not raise it. The issue is a moral burden. It is for one person to raise it and I can assure you that somebody would raise it in our next sitting," he assured.
Spokesman of the House, Hon Ezuiche Ubani, denied any storm in the House, saying that it was un-African to play politics with the death of a fellow human being, not to talk of a former Senate president.
Meanwhile, three young men who claimed to represent the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) were arrested by security agents at the back entrance of the National Assembly on account of distributing inciting leaflets against the Speaker.
Na’Abba who spoke to newsmen after he delivered a paper at a seminar organized by a group, Yar’Adua/Jonathan Solidarity Forum, also disclosed that both himself and immediate past Speaker, Aminu Bello Masari, had met with Etteh to find out "what is really going on."
Said he: "This is the business of the House of Representatives and I have spoken on the matter and I had earlier said that if there is any wrong doing, then the House must investigate the matter and that is all.
"Well, you see these are our colleagues. We called them to find out what was going on and that was what we did. Nobody said that the Speaker must take a particular course of action or the members must take a particular course of action. We only wanted to find out what was going on."
Na’Abba, however, refused to disclose what he and Masari found out. Pressed further, he said: "Am not an investigator. We only met to find out what was going on following what we have been reading in the papers."
Na’Abba also denied making any move, either alone or jointly to save Etteh’s neck.
However, the Action Congress (AC) has accused the management of the National Assembly of engaging in a futile attempt to cover up the N628 million contract scandal in the House, warning that the scandal may eventually consume all those seeking to sweep it under the carpet.
In a statement issued in Abuja on Tuesday, by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the party slammed the defence offered by the assembly’s management, saying it had further compounded the problems of the Speaker.
It accused the Clerk of the National Assembly, Nasiru Arab, of playing on semantics in an attempt to hoodwink the citizens by claiming that N579,216,417.50 was spent not on renovation but on "total upgrading" of the so-called cluster of structures in the two residences.
"Does this person know exactly what he is saying? What is the Assembly’s business in totally upgrading houses that are barely two years old, one of which has yet to be occupied? Did the ‘total upgrading’ involve bringing down the houses and rebuilding them? In any case, what is the total cost of constructing both houses that it would cost even N579,216,417.50 to upgrade or renovate?
"This official also claimed due process was followed in the award of the three contracts for the renovation. He is either lying or engaging in deliberate mischief. Afterall, the ‘Integrity Group’ of the House has revealed that the meeting at which the contract was awarded was not properly constituted in that no quorum of statutory members was formed; that the meeting lasted only 40 minutes despite the huge amount involved in the award and that costing was indeed duplicated in some instances.
"The four questions raised by the group would also be of interest to the assembly management:
Was the expenditure of N628 million naira or whatever amount provided for in the House budget for fiscal 2007? Who authorized the awards of the contracts and did she/he have the powers to do so? In the light of Mr President’s low profile style of governance and indeed the socio-economic realities of the country, was the expenditure justified and was due process followed in the award of the contract?"
The party said the hasty and thoughtless "clearance" given Etteh by the assembly and Senate President David Mark was not surprising, adding, "after all, it is said that birds of the same feather flock together."
Defending roles in the controversial contract, Chief Whip, Bethel Amadi said that the leadership was not afraid of any probe into the matter.
According to him, it was premature for anybody to demand that the Speaker resign her position when she had not been found guilty.
"We are not against any probe. We have nothing to hide because due process was followed in the process leading to the award of the contract to upgrade the Speaker’s house and that of the Deputy," the Chief Whip said.
Amadi asked the accusers of the Speaker to wait for the outcome of investigation into the contract before passing judgment, noting that it was only when the report of such an investigation was before the House for deliberations that one can talk about stepping aside.