Sheriff Laguda argues that reports of graft against the Speaker of the Lagos State House of Assembly are baseless
Integrity is a virtue the media cannot afford to play with. If the media toy with this all-important virtue, its death is imminent. I remember this fact while considering the travails of Lagos State House of Assembly Speaker, Mudashiru Obasa, who must have fought many battles since 1999 when his political life began as a councillor in Agege Local Government Area. But, perhaps, none have been as relentless as the war being waged against him by online news medium, Sahara Reporters.
Since March, the media house has accused the Speaker of laundering money through contract scams. Obasa, a lawyer, has consistently denied the allegations and even warned the website to recant and apologise.
The allegations, which first surfaced on March 21, were repeated the next day in a publication titled, ‘Exposed: Speaker of Lagos Assembly, Obasa, Awards Contracts to self through Company Registered in son’s name’.
In it, Sahara Reporters claimed, among others, that the speaker awarded contracts to himself through companies registered in the names of his father, wife and children. The report highlighted a list of companies it claimed the speaker had been using to award the contracts and launder public funds.
It alleged that Obasa is the sole signatory to all the bank accounts of one of the companies De Kingrun Multipurpose Nigeria Ltd. It didn’t take Obasa long to respond. On March 23, he described the post as fake news on his Twitter handle @mudashiru_obasa and dared the website to provide proof.
The tweet reads: “@Fake News Alert: It’s unfortunate that @SaharaReporters would publish such unfounded allegation. There is a company called Kingrun, but it has never done any business with @lshaofficial. I dare @SaharaReporters to bring forth their evidences.”
But that didn’t stop the online news medium. On March 25, 2020 it repeated some of the claims in a publication ‘Exclusive: Tinubu, GAC back Lagos Assembly Speaker, Obasa, over suspension of Lawmakers, corruption’. The claim was also denied by the speaker.
In another report on April 18, it claimed that Obasa illegally approved and released N45,700,000.00 quarterly to a company, Messrs Bloggers Media for a non-existing quarterly media promotion.
But it pulled down the report with the link: http://saharareporters.com/2020/04/18/exclusive-wasteful-spending-public-funds-lagos-assembly-speaker-obasa-approves-n475m. A click on the link now says page could not be found.
The website followed that up with another report on April 26, titled ‘Lagos Speaker, Obasa, Gets N17m Monthly for Maintenance of Personal Residence, Guest House.’ Obasa, again, wasted no time to respond and this time, he did officially through his lawyer Mr. Lawal Pedro SAN.
Pedro, in an April 30 response said none of the firms mentioned by Sahara Reporters had ever been engaged or awarded any contract by the lawmakers. He demanded, on Obasa’s behalf, that Sahara Reporters publisher, Mr. Omoyele Sowore, retract the story within seven days and apologise, otherwise face a N1 billion libel lawsuit.
The letter, ‘Demand for retraction of defamatory statements published against and concerning the person of Rt. Hon. Mudashiru Ajayi Obasa, and apology for the publication, reads in part: “Upon our discreet inquiry we were able to confirm that the House of Assembly has never at any time engaged or awarded any contract to any of the listed companies in the publication.
“Therefore, we find the publication utterly absurd, abusive, malicious, and amount to irresponsible journalism….” Pedro said although the lawmakers had already denied the “said false and malicious publication on social media platforms” the online medium repeated the claims elsewhere. According to him, the publication had damaged Obasa’s reputation.
Notwithstanding the threat, Sahara Reporters did not stop publishing new allegations. On May 11 and 13 it published two more reports, the former claiming the Speaker tricked a former governor of the state, and the later titled, ‘Group Petitions President Buhari, National Crime Agency Over Gross Financial Misconduct, Abuse of Office By Lagos Assembly Speaker, Obasa’ which merely repeated previous allegations.
But, in the absence of evidence and following past allegations against Sahara Reporters, observers may be wondering if this is not another sponsored campaign against the speaker.
Days ago, the members of the Lagos State House of Assembly described as baseless and misleading the allegation that Obasa spends N17million monthly on maintenance of his residence and guest house. The Clerk of the House, Mr Azeez Sanni, who called the attention of the lawmakers to the April 26 report explained that it was erroneous.
Sanni said: “The sum covers various expenditure of the full offices; the Office of the Chief of Staff, Special Advisers (Budget, Political Matters), office of the Chief Press Secretary, Special Assistant (Protocol), Special Assistant (Research and Development), Special Assistant (Women Affairs), and 15 Special Assistants engaged to attend to the growing demand and specialty of the House.
“I must also state that this expenditure has been in existence prior to the emergence of Speaker Obasa. In fact, it is dated back as far as 2012 when it was N27million monthly and I have the document here to show that the expenditure had been in existence since 2012,” the clerk said. He added that the report by Sahara Reporters was a deliberate attempt to tarnish the image of the House of Assembly.
“On the allegation that the company was registered in 2015, how come the company in question was just engaged in 2018?,” said the clerk.
While condemning the report, the lawmaker representing Somolu Constituency 1 and Chairman House Committee on Finance, Hon. Rotimi Olowo, accused Sahara Reporters of being unprofessional by deliberately publishing misleading reports.
Olowo added: “I believe if it is truly investigative journalism that the medium is practising, it should be able to get the other side of the issue before they rush to publish. The medium published recently that former House of Representatives Speaker was late, which is not true.
“We have procurement law and there are procedures stated by the law. If a contractor makes an overture to the House for contract bidding, it is not just what he came with but what the House eventually agrees. I remember in 2012, I was a member of this House and I remember the amount that was budgeted was N27m but when Obasa emerged as speaker he reduced it to N17million.”
“I think Sahara Reporters needs to be cautioned as it has shown that whatever that is giving them is published without cross-checking,” said Olowo. Obasa explained that it was necessary to correct the wrong impression created by letting the public know that the House is not reckless in spending and not known for frivolous expenditure.
He explained that the essence of announcing the report at plenary was to debunk it as silence means consent.
“As rightly put by the Clerk, this is an expenditure that has been existing before 2015 and he has been able to trace some document to 2012, 2013, 2014, so it shows Sahara Reporters and its co-travellers would not get anywhere and we are not ready to join issues with them. I agree with you that we don’t have to waste our time on them. We remain resolute”, said Obasa.
Laguda, a public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos