How NIMASA Sponsored Nigerian Judges Handling Its Cases On Juicy Foreign Trips

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The embattled high court judge, Rita Ofili-Ajumogobia, who is facing a 30-count charge of bribery and money laundry, was treated to lavish foreign trips by the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency, NIMASA, while presiding over cases where the agency was either a party or had interest, PREMIUM TIMES can authoritatively reveal.

Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia held so much sway over NIMASA under the leadership of Patrick Akpobolokemi that the agency flouted its own employment policy simply to grant the judge’s daughter, who is an employee of the agency, a curiously extended study leave.

Interestingly, Mr Akpolobokemi alongside other officials of NIMASA is currently being prosecuted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for laundering N1.2 billion.

In four of the charges against the Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia, the EFCC alleged that she received a bribe of N5 million from senior lawyer, Godwin Obla, around May 21, 2015 with the aim of “perverting the course of justice in respect of suit number FHC/L/C/482C/10.

“That you, Hon. Justice Rita Ngozi Ofili-Ajumogobia, between the 10th and 30th day of May 2013, in Lagos, within the jurisdiction of this honourable court, being a judge of the Federal High Court, enriched yourself with a total sum of $130,000 through your account (0032091183) domiciled in Diamond Bank Plc, so as to have a significant increase in your assets that you cannot reasonably explain in relation to you your lawful income,” one of the charges against the duo read.

In the suit FHC/L/C/482C/10, a former director-general of NIMASA, Raymond Omatseye, was charged with N1.5 billion fraud involving bid rigging and contract splitting. The case was handed over to Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia in November 2012 after the original judge in charge, Binta Nyako, was transferred to Makurdi, Benue State.

On May 21, 2016, Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia, sentenced Mr. Omatseye to five years in jail after finding him guilty of 24 out of the 27 counts of the charge. She specifically ruled that Mr. Omatseye awarded contracts above stipulated threshold.

Mr. Omatseye insisted he was innocent and has since approached the Appeal Court for a review of the judgment.

Ironically, Mr. Obla, who is now facing corruption charges alongside Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia, was the counsel for the EFCC, which prosecuted Mr. Omatseye.

The EFCC has now claimed that Mr. Obla offered Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia a bribe of N5 million to declare Mr. Omatseye guilty. The anti-graft agency claimed that the senior lawyer, transferred the alleged bribe from the account of his company, Obla and Company Limited with United Bank for Africa, to Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia through the bank account of Nigel and Colive Limited in Diamond Bank.

The EFCC said the judge and Mr. Obla acted contrary to sections 64 (1) and 97 (1) of the Criminal Law of Lagos State, No. 11, 2011.

Mr. Omatseye, who was placed on suspension while he was facing trial, alleged that forces within NIMISA did not want him back to his post and were ready to do anything to, including securing a bogus conviction, to keep him permanently away from the agency.

NIMASA LARGESSE FOR OFILI-AJUMOGOBIA

PREMIUM TIMES’ investigations have revealed a clear conflict of interest on the part of Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia while presiding over the controversial case.

Apart from the case involving Mr. Omatseye, further investigations show that the controversial judge got other largesse from NIMASA while presiding over cases involving the maritime agency.

Documents, including official internal memos of NIMASA and travel documents, seen by this reporter revealed that the judge, who is also on the blacklist of the National Judicial Council for professional misconduct, accepted curious lavish favours from NIMASA while presiding over a $400 million suit between the maritime agency and the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG).

NIMASA had dragged the management of the NLNG to court claiming the gas company ought to pay 2 per cent cabotage and 3 per cent freight levies worth $400 million for shipping by Bonny Gas Limited, a subsidiary of NLNG.

At the time Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia was adjudicating the suit between the two agencies, her daughter secured a plump job at NIMASA. The judge also stood as her daughter’s guarantor so that she could be granted an undeserved study leave to pursue a medical degree in South America, in clear violation of the agency’s recruitment policy.

NIMASA also sneaked the judge’s name into its delegation attending two workshops, which are of no relevance to judicial officials, in the United States in 2013 and 2014.

PLUM JOB AND DUBIOUS STUDY LEAVE

On February 7, 2013, just before the judge began entertaining arguments from the prosecution and the accused – having adjourned hearing a couple of times from November 2012 when she was handed the case – Aribim, her daughter, secured a plum job as Medical Services Officer II at NIMASA.

According to NIMASA’s employment policy, a confirmed member of staff may only apply and be granted study leave with pay after he or she has spent at least two years of continuous service at the agency and maximum period of the leave should not be more than two years.

Similarly, an employee may be granted up to four years of study leave without pay if he or she has put in at least two years of continuous service at the agency.

Worried about a large number of employees applying for study leave, the management of the agency decided to place additional hurdles before applicants.

In an internal memo, NIMASA/APD/I.1, dated August 11, 2014, and signed by M.O Thomas on behalf of the director of administration and personnel services, the agency resolved to only grant study leave with pay to only confirmed employees that have put in five years of continuous service at the agency. Staff with less number of years of study could from then only apply for study leave without pay.

But in a shocking twist just over a month later, on September 24, 2014, the management of agency, for no apparent reason at the time, sent out another memo that not only overruled the requirement for embarking of study leave, stipulated in the August 11, 2014 memo, but further loosened the agency’s original requirements for employees going on study leaves.

“Further to our memo Reference NIMASA/APD/I.1 dated August 11th, 2014 on the above subject matter, I have been directed to inform you that unconfirmed staff with Third (3rd) Class and ordinary Pass degrees willing to embark on Masters degree programmes are free to do so without recourse to the minimum requirement of 5 years of continuous service in the agency as earlier stipulated in the memo under reference.”

But two letters written by the judge’s daughter and addressed to NIMASA’s administration and personnel services seen by this reporter soon revealed why the management of the agency had strangely overruled itself just a month after tightening its requirements for study leave.

On August 15, 2014, less than two years after she resumed work at NIMASA, Aribim wrote to the management of NIMASA informing it that she has secured admission into the Direct MD programme (MBBS) at Texila American University, Georgetown, Guyana, a tiny South American country that shares borders with Brazil and Venezuela.She further requested to be allowed to embark of a study leave.

It is not clear if she was aware of the directive sent out just four days earlier, which effectively precluded staff members with less than five years of service from going on study leave; but it is believed that she was aware of the agency’s original rule allowing only confirmed staff who have put in up to years of service to take study leaves.

“Examine in line with current policy, please,” read a handwritten note on her letter signed on August 20, 2014, by the deputy director of the human resources department.

Apparently, Aribim’s request was rejected. But soon after the memo of September 24, 2014, was published, she submitted another application for study leave. In her letter, which was wrongly dated 21st July 2014, she revealed that she graduated with a Third Class Bachelor of Science degree.

But this time, she did not only request for study leave with pay for 48 months, but she also requested that the agency pay her tuition fees.

“With reference to the memo from the AD (Training), Reference NIMASA/I.1 dated September 24th2014 on “REVIEW OF THE CRITERIA FOR STUDY LEAVE WITH PAY AND STUDY LEAVE WITHOUT PAY”, I would like to apply for study leave with pay to enable me improve on my current qualification of Bachelor of Science with honours, Third (3rd) class degree,” she wrote.

“I recently secured admission to study the Direct MD Masters Programme (MBBS) at Texila American University, Georgetown, Guyana. Sent along with the said letter was a Statement of Fee for which as stated thereon, the first year tuition fee is Nine Thousand Eight Hundred USD ($9,800), and the accommodation fee is Seven Thousand Two Hundred USD ($7,200).

“I would be grateful if you would kindly approve my study leave with pay for the attendant period at Texila American University (a). If (a) above is approved, also consider favorably, approval of disbursing my tuition and accommodation fees to the institution,” she added.

Contrary to Aribim’s description of the course of study as a Masters degree program, PREMIUM TIMES investigations show that it is actually a Bachelors Doctor of Medicine degree.

On its website, Texila American University described the course as follows: “Doctor of Medicine degree program is a four-year course that provides students the opportunity to learn medicine in a state-of-the-art MD school in the Caribbean.”

On November 21, 2014, Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia, who was her daughter’s guarantor, signed a bond promising that her daughter will attend the course for which she was granted the leave of study and return to the employment of NIMASA after the completion of her studies in September 2018.

Lami Tumaka, head corporate communications of NIMASA, said she was not aware of the study leave granted Ms. Ajumogobia but added that if her case was true, the agency would investigate it.

“I am not aware of the case you mentioned about Aribim Ajumogobia. However, I can say with all sense of responsibility that all staff of NIMASA are guided by the Agency’s Conditions of Service and the Public Service Rules (PSR) which have specified length of time staff must have been in the employ of the Agency before long-term study leave will be granted. If the case of Abirim Ajumogobia is different, then it is an exception and not the rule. This will be investigated.”

Lavish Foreign Trips

Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia did not only draw lavish favors for her daughter from NIMASA, but she also enjoyed some herself.

In 2013, the Federal Ministry of Transport approved some officials of NIMASA, three of its own officials and a Godfrey Bivbere, a journalist with the Vanguard, to attend the Offshore Technology Conference, OTC, in Houston, Texas, United States.

However, Mr. Akpolobokemi, without clearance from the Ministry, gave a verbal directive for the inclusion of five people, including Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia, to be included as part of the NIMASA delegation with lavish travel arrangements and estacode.

“Recall your verbal directives for the inclusion of other stakeholders for the participation in the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) 2013 holding from May 6-9, 2013 in Houston, Texas, USA,” read a letter from the deputy director public relation department to Mr. Akpolobokemi as the director-general of the agency.

“The additional list of stakeholders include 1. R. Ajumogobia (Mrs.), 2. Mohammed Shittu Abubakar, 3. Binta F.M Nyako (Mrs), 4. Chief Mrs. R. Chris-Garuba, 5. Mrs. Mary Madu Hamman

Interestingly, the first three names on the list are federal judges with Mrs. Nyako being the judge who initially handled Mr. Omatseye’s case. Of the others,  Mrs. Rita Chris-Garuba is the wife of the former military governor of Bauchi State, Chris Garuba. She and her husband were implicated in the notorious Halliburton bribery scandal. Mary Hamman is the chief shipping development officer at NIMASA.

An estacode of at least, $6,369.00 was approved for each of the additional persons. Travel document also seen by PREMIUM TIMES revealed that Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia flew to the conference on a British Airway business class flight to the conference.

Again in 2014, the judge was included in a contingent that included NIMASA officials, federal lawmakers, journalists and two other federal judges, Elizabeth Osoka and Shittu Abubakar to attend the Advance Programme on Implementation and Protection of Maritime Infrastructure workshop in Washington DC, US.

It was an all-expense paid trip. Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia also she received $5,400 estacode for attending.

While no reason was given for the inclusion of the judges to attend the 2013 conference in Houston, an internal memo written on April 16, 2014, gave a reason for the inclusion of the judges as part of the contingent to the 2014 workshop.

“Given the importance of this workshop and the high-powered nature of the participants, it is the recommendation of the undersigned that some eminent jurists also be included on the trip to provide them insight into the workings of the Agency and the subject of international ship and port facility security (ISPS) code.”

The NIMASA spokesperson defended the sponsorship of judges for conferences by the commission despite the inherent conflict of interest contained therein. Mrs. Tumaka said it is not unusual for the agency to sponsor judges, journalists, and lawmakers to seminars and workshops overseas to assist them “come to full grasp with the workings of the sector.”

She, however, did not say whether it was ethical for the agency to include Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia at the time she was presiding over two cases the agency had an interest in.

She said while it is normal to communicate instructions verbally, approvals, such as the inclusion of Mrs. Ofili-Ajumogobia on the trip to Houston Texas are usually done in writing.

ALLEGATION OF VICTIMISATION

During his trial for the N1.5 billion contract scam, Mr. Omatseye said in court that he was being persecuted by a former Attorney-General of the Federation, Bello Adoke, for declining Mr. Adoke’s request to discontinue the NIMASA suit filed against the NLNG.

Mr. Omatseye said, “In December of 2010, I was approached by a gentleman, who at that time was the Executive Director of the Cabotage Service of NIMASA, in the name of Ibrahim Zailani.

“Zailani told me that he had been in a meeting with the AGF and that the AGF had directed him to tell me to withdraw a case between NIMASA and NLNG.

“I told him I could not do so because that was the decision of the board.

“Exactly on November 14, 2010, between noon and 1.00 p.m., in my office, I received a call from a gentleman called Tunde Ayeni.

“He said hello, hold on for your caller and then handed the phone over to a man who said he was Adoke.

“The man said, ‘I sent Zailani to you to withdraw the NLNG case, and you have refused-

“He said, ‘Mr. President has called me twice on this matter to instruct you to withdraw this case.

“I responded to him, ‘My AGF sir,’ either you, please send me a memo to that effect or please send a message through my minister to direct me accordingly.

“I am not in a position to unilaterally withdraw the case.

“He said ‘I am the chief law officer of the Federal Republic’ and I replied, Sir, please help me to do as I have requested.

“He asked if I was aware that there was a directive from his office that no government institution can sue another government institution without his permission.

“I told him that the NLNG is majority-owned by foreigners and, therefore, cannot be considered as a government parastatal or agency.

“At that point, he said to me, ‘I have given an instruction, and you have refused to obey.’

“This will be your waterloo.”

Mr. Omatseye added that 10 days after his tense telephone chat with the former minister, three officers of the EFCC arrested him for interrogation, flew him to Abuja and confronted him with a petition against him from the minister of transportation.

Mr. Omatseye claimed the contract approval threshold for NIMASA was N2.5m for supply and N5m for goods and services. He added that these thresholds were not stipulated as at the time he approved the contracts.

He argued that the contracts he was convicted for awarding were approved between December 2009 and February 2010, but the threshold for NIMASA was only put in place by the Bureau of Public Procurement in November 2011.

credit: PREMIUM TIMES

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