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Allegation of bias: Again, Benue lawmaker Herman Hembe in eye of the storm

Written By Idoma Television on Tuesday, February 14, 2017 | 11:50:00 PM

From Ndubuisi Orji,  Abuja

Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Hon. Herman Hembe is in the eye of the storm again.

A public hearing by the committee on the Centenary City in Abuja is enmeshed in controversy, with former Senate President and immediate past Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Anyim Pius Anyim, accusing the Benue born legislator of bias.

Hembe, who was first elected into the House in 2007, is not new to controversy and scandals. Daily Sun recalls that since he ran into troubled waters as chairman of the House Committee on Capital Market, it has been one controversy after another.

In 2012, for instance, the House Committee under his chairmanship had instituted a probe into the activities of the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) under the leadership of Ms Aruma Oteh as Director General (DG).

But hardly had the probe taken off when Oteh accused Hembe of soliciting for N39million bribe from her agency to stage the probe. However, the legislator insisted that on the contrary, it was Oteh who attempted to compromise his committee by offering to sponsor the public hearing.

Besides, the then SEC DG while questioning the credibility of the Benue born legislator said the latter collected estacodes and a business class ticket from the agency, to attend a conference in Dominican Republic, without attending the conference, and without making any refund.

“The reason I am questioning your credibility is that on October 20, the SEC gave you estacodes and a business class ticket to travel to emerging markets conference in Dominican Republic. Please tell the Nigerian people whether you actually went there, and if you didn’t, please, also tell the Nigerian people whether you have retired the monies.

“Is it fair, Honourable Chairman that you would try to damage my own reputation, because I want to serve my country, because I am fighting to sanitise the Nigerian capital market? Is it fair on me as a Nigerian? Is it fair on the apex regulator? Is it fair on the Nigerian people, “ Oteh, had queried.

In the controversy that followed, the House leadership replaced Hembe as chairman of the public hearing, so as to sustain public confidence and ensure that whatever report the committee comes up with, passes the test of objectivity and fairness.

Five years down the line, another sensitive investigation been undertaken by the lawmaker is suffering a crisis of confidence. A drama, akin to the SEC probe played out in the House of Representatives recently. At the inaugural sitting of the public hearing on the Centenary City, by the House Committee on FCT, Anyim asked Hembe, who chairs the committee, to disqualify himself from presiding over the public hearing. He said the lawmaker was on a witch hunt and out to get even with him over the SEC bribery saga.

Anyim, said Hembe wants to use the investigative hearing to settle scores with him. Besides, the former SGF alleged that Hembe has been sending messages to the Managing Director of the Centenary City Plc to see him in private. Anyim noted that it was when the MD refused to see him that the committee chairman decided to go ahead with the investigative hearing.

The committee is investigating alleged irregularities in the Centenary City project, which sits on 1,267 hectares of land in the FCT.

Daily Sun gathered that the Centenary City was a legacy project conceived by the immediate past administration to commemorate the country’s centenary celebration in 2014 and was coordinated by the office of the SGF under Anyim.

The former SGF, who was present at the inaugural sitting of the public hearing, said Hembe was angry with him for refusing to sack Oteh during her face off with the lower chamber.

He said the FCT committee chairman had planned to use the investigative hearing into the Centenary City Project to pay him back. Consequently, Anyim demanded that Hembe disqualifies himself from heading the investigative hearing so as to guarantee fairness.

“You have told everybody that cares to listen that when the former DG of Security and Exchange Commission accused you of demanding bribe from her, you pushed for her to be sacked and I refused to sack her while I was SGF and so this is an opportunity for you to pay me back.

“Mr chairman, I would not allow you to use the National Assembly platform to pursue this personal vendetta, it’s not acceptable and I will not submit to it because it offends the rule of fair hearing and all I’m asking for is fair hearing.

“Mr Chairman, Honourable members of the committee, ladies and gentlemen, I am convinced that Mr Chairman has a deep-seated personal interest and bias in this matter and so, he’s not in a position to guarantee fair hearing to myself, the Centenary City management and indeed to the entire subject matter. I accordingly demand that Mr. Chairman should disqualify himself and let the Vice Chairman take over and let us continue. So Mr. Chairman, you hand over to your Vice chairman and excuse us to continue. And so, if you will not be able to disqualify yourself, there’s no reason anybody will submit himself to a system and an arrangement that does not guarantee fair hearing. So, we are here for the hearing, we are ready for the hearing but we should get fair hearing,” Anyim, had submitted.

But Hembe would have none of it.  “Point of Order, point of Order, point of Order. No, no, no, no, no. Hold on. The former Senate President cannot assume the chairman of the committee. It’s not fair,” he stated.

Hembe, who said investigations have revealed that Centenary City Plc is owned by two companies -Basic First Limited and Company First Limited – with Messrs Paul Oki and Boma Ozobia as directors of both companies. He queried why two companies with only 10000 share capital should be entrusted with a project of such magnitude.

He said even though he had shown Anyim courtesy as a former president of the Senate, he remains the chairman of the committee and would not allow the former SGF to usurp that position.

“What we are doing here borders on his activities as Secretary to Government of the Federation. For Mr. former Senate President to impute bias when he does not even know what we are doing here, we have not even said a word and he’s already inputting bias,” Hembe, added.

He was however quick to deny inviting the Centenary City MD to see him in private. He challenged anybody with evidence to that effect to come forward with it, adding that “like I said in one forum and I remembered it categorically, that if I had sent messages, messages are beautiful things, they are basically on phones and they remain there. Such a person is free to forward those kinds of documents and say this is how Hon. Hembe has contacted me or whatever.”

At the resumed sitting of the committee a few days later, Anyim’s allegation resurfaced. The counsel for Centenary City Plc,  Emeka Obegolu insisted that Hembe must not continue to preside over the investigative hearing on the Centenary City on the basis of the allegation of bias leveled against him by the former SGF.

Obegolu, who appeared alongside the Centenary City MD, Odenigwe Ike Micheals, said his client had filed an objection before the Speaker of the House, to stop the FCT Committee Chairman from presiding over the investigative hearing. He maintained that the committee chairman must step down, so that his deputy would take over proceedings, to ensure fairness.

“You cannot dictate to us how things should be done here. I’m a lawyer like you, so I know the procedure. This is parliament; you should learn to respect us,” the committee chairman told Obegolu.

Consequently, he directed staff of the Sergeant-At-Arms, to walk him out of the venue of the hearing for “unruly behaviour.” But Michaels followed suit in solidarity.

The walk out of the Centenary City team did not in any way affect the public hearing, as the FCT committee chairman carried on with the exercise. Hembe, while wondering what Anyim’s interest in the Centenary City Project was, said the former SGF must furnish the committee with all relevant documents relating to the project.

According to him, “It is curious to note that the former SGF told the President that the Centenary City plc will be a purely private sector initiative and then turn round to write a letter demanding for the Certificate of Occupancy from the FCTA even as a public servant. What was his interest in the project that he would be the one asking for the release of the C of O even when the Centenary City people had not met the terms of agreement?”

“The former SGF must clear the air on conflict of interest as to why he continued to correspond on behalf of the Centenary City plc even after the company had taken over the project as private investment,” he said.

If Anyim expected Hembe to step aside on the basis of his allegation, he is mistaken.

The legislator, who appears unperturbed by the allegation, has continued with the hearing, with the committee taking submissions from other stakeholders.

The implication, Daily Sun gathered, is that the former SGF would have to wait for the decision of the House leadership on his objections.

The question therefore is, will the leadership handle the issue the same way the Oteh saga was handled, by asking Hembe to step down, once again? Whichever way it goes, the bottom line is that that allegation if not addressed would have a great impact on whatever report the committee comes up with, at the end of the day.

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