By Festus Akanbi
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission has invited about seven individuals, including officials of a bank in connection with the controversial sale of the headquarters of the moribund Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NECOM House, to West African Aluminium Products Plc.
An EFCC source, who dropped the hint, said the commission swooped on those connected with the sale of the 37 storey-building when its investigations showed that there were a lot of underhand dealings in the process leading to the sale of the NITEL property.
The list of those grilled by the EFCC included two officials of the bank that purportedly facilitated the N5 billion paid for the property, former director general, Bureau of Public Enterprises, Mrs. Irene Chigbue, Managing Director, West African Aluminium Products Plc, and three others.
The liquidator of the NITEL/M-Tel Staff Pension Fund to which NECOM House was assigned, Chief Olusola Adekanola, who undertook the sale of the building could not honour the EFCC invitation because he is currently outside the country for a medical checkup.
All the affected individuals were said to have made useful statements to the anti-graft agency.
West African Aluminium belongs to Chief Suarau Olayiwola Alani Bankole, father of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Dimeji Bankole.
According to the EFCC source, the bidding process purportedly conducted before the sale of the building was a ruse. The commission's investigation was said to have revealed that the bank which claimed to have facilitated the N5 billion paid by West African Aluminium could not show evidence of the transaction.
“There was no bidding process and the commission's investigation has shown that due process was not followed in the sale of the building.
Spokesperson for the EFCC, Femi Babafemi, who confirmed the interrogation of about seven persons in connection with the sale of NECOM House, said up till now, the bank has not been able to defend its role in the transaction.
He explained that the bank could not prove its adherence to the laid down practice that mandates banks to commit the statutory 20 percent equity contribution on such transactions before the loan was advanced to West African Aluminium Company.
“They (officials of the bank) have not been able to produce the document that showed that due process was followed in the loan process. They are yet to come up with the loan document,” he said.
Sources said the latest crackdown by EFCC on the sale of the building belonging to the NITEL/M-Tel Staff Pension Fund may be part of the commission's anti-money laundering drive given that Dimeji Bankole is also being investigated for alleged money laundering activities.
But EFCC spokesperson said Adekanola's absence is stalling the investigation since he is yet to respond to the invitation from the anti-graft body.
The tax consultant is said to be away in Germany for a medical checkup, but EFCC said he will have to report to the commission immediately he returns.
The federal government had constituted a new panel to probe the sale of the 37-storey building located in the central business district, Lagos.
Although the BPE had earlier set up a panel that probed the sale of the building, the action of the NCP was predicated on a petition by the board of NITEL.
The petition, which was signed by the former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information, Ambassador Stephen Willoughby on behalf of the NITEL board, said the sale of the property was carried out by the liquidator of NITEL/M-Tel Staff Pension Fund, Messrs Olusola Adekanola and Co. in contravention of a presidential directive.
He noted that the liquidator acted beyond his brief as his mandate covered only the non-core assets of the organisation that were ceded to the NITEL Staff Pension Fund, from where the building was removed by a presidential directive.
In the petition dated March 15, 2011, Willoughby said the sale was not approved by the Committee of Inspection, the only body authorised to approve such a transaction.
The board therefore asked the federal government to reverse the purported sale and direct the liquidator to account for all the rental income collected on NECOM House since 2006. However, the liquidator, Chief Olusola Adekanola, has denied selling the house secretly as alleged.
He explained that there was no directive stopping him from selling the property after it had been handed over to him for sale to beef up the pension liabilities in the NITEL Staff Pensions Fund. He added that the sale was an open transaction, which was duly advertised and went to the highest bidder.