Brouhaha Over Lai Mohammed’s N13m China Trip | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Brouhaha Over Lai Mohammed’s N13m China Trip

minister warns
Posted: May 16, 2016 at 3:30 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Temidayo Akinsuyi

Lagos-  Alhaji  Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture last week got more than he bargained for in the hands of some officials of the National Broadcasting  Commission (NBC) and  online news medium, Saharareporters over a leaked memo detailing his request for loan to an agency under his ministry for  an official trip.

A five-member delegation led by the Minister was to travel to Beijing, China, for a Conference on Tourism for Development. Given the fact that the 2016 budget is still non- operative and there is paucity of funds in the ministry, the Minister, through Mr. Peter Dama, the Director, Public Relations and Protocol in the Ministry then wrote a letter to Ms. Alheri Saidu, the Acting Director- General, National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) requesting for a loan of N13.1m to embark on the trip.

The letter which was typed on the letterhead of the Ministry of Information reads “I am directed to inform you [NBC] that the Honourable Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed is proceeding on official assignment to China on Sunday, 15th May 2016”.

“The Honourable Minister has therefore approved that you loan the Ministry the total sum of (N13,120,470) thirteen million, one hundred and twenty thousand, four hundred and seventy Naira only, to enable him and his team embark on the China trip to carry out the assignment in the interest of the nation”.

“The purpose of this memo is therefore to request for your urgent release of the said amount N13, 120,470.00 for the assignment. The money so released will be refunded as soon as the ministry receives its allocation”.

“Attached is permanent secretary and HMICs approval together with details of the expenditure for your information and urgent necessary action please. Please accept the assurance of the Honourable Minister’s kind regard”.

The exchange of letters between the Ministry of Information and the NBC however became public knowledge after it was published on the website of Saharareporters.  It also generated mixed reactions from cross section of Nigerians. While some described the minister’s action as abuse of public office and breach of protocol, others said there is nothing wrong in the action since the Minister stated in the letter that the money is a loan and will be refunded after his ministry has received allocation. To others, N13m for a trip to China is too expensive, while some also argued that the amount is justified given the exchange rate. Some also called on the  Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate the issue while others also asked President Muhammadu Buhari to wade in if he (Buhari) is indeed sincere about his fight against corruption.

Minister Defends Action

Speaking on the matter, the minister defended his actions, saying the letter he wrote to the NBC seeking for loan is in order.  According to him, the trip as stated in the letter is in the interest of the nation, and not for the minister’s personal visit.

Mohammed’s position was contained in a statement issued by  Peter Dama, the Director, Public Relations and Protocol in the Ministry. It said that the letter to the NBC requesting for a loan of N13.12 million was mischievously leaked to the social media by staff of the commission.

The statement clarified that the loan was to cover tickets and travel expenses of a five-member delegation being led by the Minister to Beijing, China, for a Conference on Tourism for Development.

The statement said that on the sideline of the conference, the delegation would have discussion in China with Set Top Box Manufacturers. It stated that the manufacturers were meant to establish manufacturing factories in Nigeria for the boxes for digital broadcasting processes rather than the current situation in which the boxes were being imported.

“The loan being requested for is for the Ministry to meet up its obligations to enable the Minister and members of his delegation attend the all important Conference. The loan is not meant for the minister alone as personal expenses, but for the expenses of all members of the delegation.

“The Conference is being organised by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation in conjunction with the Government of the People’s Republic of China, under the overall theme “Tourism for Peace and Development. “It will feature amongst others, discussions on major issues for sustainable development including the contribution of Tourism to poverty reduction and peace. “The Conference is a veritable platform to develop synergy and partnership with players in the global Tourism Industry which will go a long way in boosting our drive to diversify the Nigerian economy,”..

“This is meant to conserve our foreign exchange and to also create avenue for job creation for our citizens. “It is clear that the Conference is an all important gathering that will benefit Nigeria, contribute towards diversification of its revenue base and create employment opportunities for Nigerians”.

The minister’s statement also added that it was not unusual for an agency under the Ministry to assist in order to carry out government functions. It said that the request was discussed with the Acting Director General of NBC, who agreed to assist with the loan before the letter was written. “It is therefore shocking to find out that an internal memorandum from the Ministry could be leaked out to the social media by saboteurs in order to embarrass the government,” It said.

The minister also sent a private sms to our correspondent which read thus “My dear brother, what is this brouhaha all about? I am billed to attend a World Conference of Ministers in company of four other officials of the ministry. The bureaucrats worked out the total cost using approved official rates”.

“The same bureaucrats informed me that there is no funds in the Ministry of Information for the trip and suggested that the ministry should approach any of the parastatals for a short loan pending when the budget would be signed into law. It must be noted that N13m being bandied about is for the Hon Minister and four other officials. The entire process was transparent. The trip was officially approved by the President. It is not a private trip. How did an internal memo become the property of Sahara Reporters?”

Also speaking with Independent, a top official in the Ministry of Information who does not want his name in print said contrary to rumours being bandied around, the minister has never written to the NBC sourcing for loan except the Chins trip. According to him, the NBC had volunteered to sponsor the some programmes organised by the agency which they asked the minister to attend.

“I am not aware that the minister has written to the NBC before requesting for loan. They only sponsored some of the programmes.  I am aware of the Digital Switch Over Programme in Jos which they sponsor.  The minister has to attend with his delegation. They sponsored that” .

“There was also an International Digital Conference in Dubai, which they (NBC) organised and asked the Minister to attend. Obviously, they have to take care of the minister’s trip.  Last week, there was the Commonwealth Digital Forum in Lagos. The NBC is the arrowhead” .

“In fact, they accepted that Nigeria will organise that conference. They also invited the Minister as Chief Host and Guest Speaker. So, they had to sponsor him.  We have never written to them asking them to sponsor any assignment of the minister except this particular one. They chose to sponsor the minister on their own volition” he said.

Ministry Probes Leakage

Investigations revealed that the Ministry of Information has however launched a full-scale investigation into how the memo, which is meant to be a private letter was leaked to Saharareporters.  Some officials who spoke with Independent described the incident as a breach of trust and “a calculated attempt to embarrass the government by saboteurs”.  Already, some officials in the finance department of the NBC were last Friday summoned to the headquarters of the ministry at Radio House, Abuja to state their side of the story.

According to a source in the ministry “What happened is a clear case of corruption fighting back. It is a clear case of breach of trust and anyone found culpable will be decisively dealt with. Those people who leaked the letter are capable, if not dealt with are capable of doing deadly things, such as spying on the nation and revealing sensitive issues to outsiders. They will be punished so as to serve as deterrent to others”.

Nigerians Speak

However speaking to Independent, a lawyer, Anselm Ogunba said it is apparent that the NBC decided to raise alarm because of the burden the minister is placing on them over incessant loan requests.

“ I think what happened was a deliberate action on the part of the NBC to make the world know what they are going through in the hands of the minister.  Of course, the minister called it a loan, but which DG will have the temerity to approach the minister asking him to pay back such loan? It might also be a ploy to sensitise Nigerians that there is no change anywhere. This is the same impunity that happened under the PDP that led to Dasukigate” he said.

Also speaking, a public affairs analyst, Jack Obafemi said the minister should not bother about probing how the letter was leaked. According to him “As the mouthpiece of the then opposition, the minister should search his conscience and recollect how many of such letters were leaked to the APC, which they in turn leaked to Saharareporters and other online news media. It seems the monster they created has turned around to hunt them” he said.

However, another public affairs analyst, Emmanuel Ajayi had a contrary opinion. According to him, the argument given by the minister is valid because “ One, the budget was just approved and most ministries lack funds to carry out so many programmes. Two, the minister said the money is a loan and will be refunded when the Ministry of Information has received its allocation. I think we should wait for his ministry to receive the allocation and see if he fails to honour his word before we pass judgements. Three, he said the President has approved of the trip and he is going with four other officials. Four, the amount requested (N13m) amounts to nothing when you look at our current exchange rate and the number of days the minister and his team may need to spend in China as well as  other logistics” he said.

EFCC Denies Knowledge

However, the EFCC on Sunday said it is not aware of the leaked memo and has not received any petition from anyone concerning the incident. Speaking with Independent, Wilson Uwujaren, spokesperson of the EFCC, denied any knowledge of the leaked memo or any petition from members of the public on the incident.

“ We are not aware of the leaked memo. We have also not received any petition from anyone concerning the issue” he said.