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Opinion

N2 trillion constituency project fraud: ICPC an empty vessel, fails to prosecute suspects

The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, or ICPC, was established five years ago with great fanfare in an attempt to confirm that Nigerian lawmakers were carrying out constituency projects nationwide. However, the anti-graft agency has not brought any charges against the people it named in its annual reports, as required by the Act that established the commission.

“The responsibility for investigation and prosecution of offenders thereof” was granted to the ICPC by the Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act 2000, which created the organisation.

Documents have revealed that between 2003 and 2024, at least N2 trillion was invested in so-called constituency initiatives in Nigeria, but no tangible projects or programmes that may even slightly benefit the country’s citizens have been produced. The enormous sum of money, which is distributed annually in the amounts of N95 billion to the 109 senators and N100 billion to the 360 members of the House of Representatives, is intended to give additional immediate impact programmes to the communities from which legislators originate and accelerate the rate of development in those areas.When the ICPC first announced its plan on April 2, 2019, it concentrated on 12 states and included representatives from the Nigerian government’s Accountant-General Office, the Federation’s Budget Office, and

When the ICPC first launched its initiative on April 2, 2019, it concentrated on 12 states. Along with officials from the Nigerian Institute of Quantity Surveyors, Accountant-General Office, Budget Office of the Federation, and some journalists, they tracked projects purportedly undertaken by lawmakers in the North Central states of Kogi and Benue, the North East states of Adamawa and Bauchi, and the Northwest states of Sokoto and Kano. The others were the states of Edo and Akwa Ibom in the south-south, Lagos and Osun in the south-west, and Imo and Enugu in the southeast.

The commission conducted multiple verification exercises throughout Nigeria between 2019 and 2023 and discovered some alarmingly high levels of graft embedded in the constituency projects by legislators. The evidence viewed by the commission also demonstrates that individuals who are keen to exploit constituency projects as a smooth way to take money from the public coffers and smile at their bankers have been sharpening the poison of plundering the treasury year after year, rather than it abating.

The ICPC expressed grave disapproval of the pervasive falsehood that has been depriving the government of funding in its report from 2022, following their verification of constituency projects throughout the nation. Still, the commission only made critical observations. The commission did not have the guts to name the individuals responsible for the illegal acts, but it did acknowledge that it had discovered instances in which lawmakers had given themselves or their proxy companies contracts under their constituency projects. The total amount of money involved in constituency project fraud was estimated to be in the billions of Naira.

The ICPC has been extremely reluctant to reveal individuals who have inflated constituency projects or diverted the funds intended for the projects, as an unwritten rule protecting the verification programme. It has also remained silent regarding the lawmakers indicted and has not brought any legal action against anyone for the constituency project fraud. However, the commission returned early this week with its standard report of accomplishments, stating that under its phase five tracking project, no fewer than fifty unidentified consultants, contractors, and MDA officials were being investigated. It disseminated the story via its X-moniker Twitter account.

The anti-graft agency also boasted that it had frozen no fewer than 200 bank accounts that had been used for fraudulent transactions related to constituency projects, recovering cash worth N5.6 billion and saved the government money overall. However, in response to a question from Saturday Vanguard regarding the actions being taken to prosecute those their own reports had implicated in relation to constituency projects, the ICPC spokesman, Azuka Ogugua, declined to comment.

To its dismay, the ICPC found that despite having started the fifth phase of the verification project and submitted its reports, the nation was still losing billions of Naira to the mischievous actions of legislators and government employees in important ministries, departments, and agencies. In certain constituency projects, contractors served as the politicians’ nominees’ stand-ins.

This could potentially clarify why, even with the ICPC shining a spotlight on constituency project implementation over the years, not much seems to have changed in terms of less money being syphoned off by those who also nominated the projects and the contractors to carry them out.

When former president Olusegun Obasanjo expressed disapproval of the developments and said that they were cloaked in fraud, the story surrounding constituency projects remained unchanged. “We both understand what constituency projects entail. Without missing a beat, Obasanjo declared, “It is just corruption,” on August 15, 2017, during a public engagement in Minna, Niger State. The previous president displayed courage by looking at the attendees, including parliamentarians, and taking the daring allegations.

Even the immediate past chairman of the ICPC, Prof Bolaji Owasanoye, who spearheaded the tracking of constituency projects under an initiative called Constituency and Executive Projects Tracking Group, CEPTG, must have been shocked at the level of rot inherent in the scheme.

But he managed to give a balanced view of the commission’s finding. He said, “The outcome of the tracking exercises was positive with regards to the commission’s desire to engender value for money in government projects implementation and sustaining impactful governance within the local level.

Aside from diverted funds, which were recovered or completed projects hitherto abandoned by contractors, the outcome of phase one was a mixed bag of revelations. The tracking exercise revealed lots of mismanagement of funds and the non or shoddy execution of projects that would have had greater impacts on the lives and well-being of the people if they were executed to specifications.

Out of 524 projects under phase one, 195 were education projects, while 46 were health-related. The implication of diversion or mismanagement of public funds meant for development purposes is that communities are being short-changed and unable to access life-changing social services, thereby deepening poverty, increased diseases, heightened ignorance, spiralled criminality and unrest in the society”.

Reacting to the failure of the ICPC to prosecute those it indicted in its reports, Dr Zikirullahi Ibrahim, the Executive Director of Resource Center for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED), said: “We have always argued that anti-corruption agencies such as ICPC, EFCC, and the Code of Conduct Bureau are not truly independent due to political interference from higher authorities. This interference hampers their work and prevents them from effectively addressing the issues they encounter. As a result, these agencies are not free to investigate and reveal the details of corruption cases thoroughly. The refusal of the ICPC to expose corrupt individuals and recover illicit funds highlights the challenges faced in combating corruption. Preventing corruption is crucial, as it is better to prevent it than to cure it later.

Unfortunately, large sums of money have been lost, and much of it cannot be traced. This is why there is an urgent need for the current government to develop a comprehensive strategy to address corruption. A clear, detailed plan is necessary, not just vague statements about fighting corruption. Such a strategy would allow for accountability and measurement of progress. Right now, the situation is unclear, and the government’s approach to fighting corruption is unknown. To resolve these issues, the government needs to establish the autonomy of anti-corruption agencies and remove any political interference. Until this is achieved, the problems will persist. Recent incidents, such as the arrest of a journalist for reporting on corruption in the military, demonstrate the need for change. Transparency and accountability are essential for combating corruption effectively.”

On his part, Mr Eze Onyekpere, Executive Director, Centre for Social Justice, said: “It shouldn’t have been just a matter of recovering the money; there should have been some form of punishment and prosecution to deter such irresponsible conduct in the future. I am shocked that despite claiming to have conducted loot recovery, no one has been prosecuted or held accountable. This lack of action means that they (lawmakers) could continue their activities in the future without consequence, which is unacceptable.”

In his contribution, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, the Head of Transparency International (Nigeria), and Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), said: “I commend the ICPC for recovering public funds that had been misappropriated by some lawmakers. The issue of looting funds for Constituency projects began during the Obasanjo era when he encouraged the idea of projects without putting in place any proper legal framework for it. Legislators, ministries, and the press must begin to take responsibility, as these projects frequently lack proper oversight and accountability. In many cases, these lawmakers collude with contractors, resulting in subpar projects, incomplete work, or total non-execution. Furthermore, there is a pressing need for increased transparency and public input regarding the projects’ relevance to the community’s needs.

“Currently, appointees in the ICPC and EFCC are often limited by political corruption and influence, which can hinder necessary action, including recovery and prosecution. This environment of judicial and political corruption may prevent successful legal proceedings, leaving those responsible for embezzlement untouched while they enjoy their ill-gotten gains.

“As a result, the ICPC focuses on recovering funds within its jurisdiction while avoiding judicial processes that may prove unsuccessful due to corruption. This approach prioritizes the recovery of public funds over full legal prosecution to avoid losing both the money and the case. ICPC and EFCC must be supported by the President to overcome significant challenges to fulfil their mission, including budget cuts that limit their capacity to tackle fraud effectively. Public support for anti-corruption agencies is also vital, as the very institutions that oversee them can impede their work.

“To advance their mission, these agencies must navigate a challenging environment in which the lawmakers they investigate are often the same individuals who could either provide or withhold the resources necessary for them to fulfil their mandates through the Appropriation Bill. Consequently, the ICPC seems to place greater emphasis on recovering misappropriated funds while steering clear of prolonged legal battles that could deplete their already limited resources. This strategic decision prioritizes the recovery of funds for the public’s benefit.”

“While the commission may appear to be working and fulfilling its mandate of investigating, and monitoring constituency projects to checkmate corruption, the inability of ICPC to prosecute lawmakers and top government officials involved in siphoning huge cash meant for such intervention, leaves much to be desired and sets the anti-graft fight back. It is as if the commission is not only condoning the suspects because of their overriding political influence but it is also appeasing them, while the nation’s scarce resources are actively being frittered away by the same set of predators posing as defenders of the people’s mandate and well-being.

“The ICPC must move away from the unhelpful ritual of playing to the gallery by regularly ‘verifying’ constituency projects across the country to reprimanding those found to have soiled their hands in the process of awarding and implementing the so-called projects whose impact is not being felt where they are said to be located. The relevant laws are there in the country’s statutes and the agency only needs to muster the needed political will and determination to face the people whose appetite for diverting public funds knows no bounds.

“By merely recycling this national annual ritual and drawing media blitz to itself and its officials, the ICPC may end up advertising itself as a toothless bulldog that can only bark but cannot bite while the stench of graft arising from the zonal intervention projects suffocates the land. If that happens, the commission might etch itself on the wrong side of history and unwittingly appease those who don’t wish us well as a nation”.

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