Attorney-General Abubakar Malami has demanded the corruption case file of the director-general of the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), PREMIUM TIMES can report.
Moddibo Kawu was charged by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC) for allegedly misappropriating N2.5 billion, a scandal that could slow down the nationwide rollout of the digital transmission of home television signals.
The anti-graft office is also prosecuting Lucky Omoluwa, Dipo Onifade and their firm, Pinnacle Communications Limited, for allegedly conspiring with Mr Kawu.
PREMIUM TIMES recently learnt of a March 26 letter in which Mr Malami demanded that the case should be immediately transferred to his office “for further review”.
The attorney general has the legal authority to assume supervision over any criminal case instituted by the Nigerian government.
However, anti-graft detectives are furious that this might be an attempt to frustrate another high-profile corruption case and vowed to resist it, PREMIUM TIMES learnt from multiple officials familiar with the investigation. Also, in contention is the timing of Mr Malami’s request, officials said.
Mr Kawu, a journalist with a background in both print and electronic media, is scheduled to be arraigned on Wednesday, after missing court appearances on health grounds when the case was last heard.
The ICPC announced Mr Kawu’s scheduled court appearance on Monday, indicating that it was unwilling to comply with the directive it received from the attorney general three weeks ago.
A spokesperson for the agency said she was not aware that Mr Malami had asked for the case file. But Mr Kawu admitted to PREMIUM TIMES on Monday that he petitioned the attorney-general to review the case “because the ICPC had been untidy with it”.
Anti-graft officials, speaking under strict anonymity because they were not cleared to disclose details of the investigation, said they feared that handing over the case to Mr Malami could effectively put Mr Kawu’s prosecution in jeopardy.
Mr Malami and Precedence
They recalled a recent case in Katsina in which Mr Malami was strongly suspected to have undermined the ICPC.
A federal judge in Katsina terminated the case after Mr Malami approved a fiat for the state government that ended up frustrating the case.
Mr Malami also courted controversy when he advised the administration against further prosecution of prominent suspects in the $1.3 billion Malabu Oil scandal.
But, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) disagreed with Mr Malami and proceeded with the case. The advice proved a major setback in the trial of Dan Etete and other major players in the deal in Italy, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
Neither Mr Malami nor his spokesperson returned requests for comments about the March 26 letter to ICPC.
In 2012, the Nigerian government issued a white paper which enumerated the modalities for the country’s adoption of digital switch-over — the transition from analogue to digital broadcasting.
The white paper recommended two digital broadcast signal distributors, one for government broadcast (NTA stations) and another one for private stations.
The paper recommended Integrated Television Services (ITS), an existing subsidiary of NTA, to carry the state television’s signals. NBC was mandated to conduct competitive bidding to select a private firm to handle private signals.
In 2014, after about a dozen firms were examined, the NBC licenced Pinnacle Communications for the project. The government did not enter into an agreement to pay Pinnacle for the project at the time.
As a private firm, it was expected to generate income by charging for distributing signals on behalf of private television stations across the country.
But when Mr Kawu assumed office in May 2016, he commenced a series of negotiations with Pinnacle that ultimately ended with the government having to pay the company N2.5 billion for carrying digital television signals to homes in at least six states and Abuja.
In its initial charges prepared in January, the ICPC accused Mr Kawu of conferring corrupt advantage on Mr Omoluwa, a broadcast executive and long-time associate of Mr Kawu’s.
The agency said Mr Kawu knew that Mr Omoluwa’s Pinnacle Communications was not eligible for a government seed grant, yet earmarked up to N2.5 billion for it.
The ICPC said Mr Kawu cleared Pinnacle Communications for government funds in a 2017 letter to the information minister, Lai Mohammed, even though such arrangement was not in the white paper that should have guided his conduct on digital switch-over.
Detectives also identified a conflict of interest and suspected wrongdoing in a series of bank transfers and foreign currency conversions that were initiated by Mr Omoluwa, court filings said.
Mr Omoluwa strongly denies all corruption allegations, and even counter-sued the ICPC for defamation, seeking N1 billion in damages.
‘No Charitable Signal’
Mr Kawu sat down with PREMIUM TIMES to push back on some of the allegations that had been circulating about the N2.5 billion payout on Monday.
He said ICPC had failed to adequately understand the matter before bringing charges.
“Pinnacle Communications is not a non-profit organisation and could, therefore, not have been able to provide a charitable signal to homes,” Mr Kawu said.
He said the ICPC had been deliberately oblivious to the timeline of the deal. He said he was not the one who licenced Pinnacle. He said that was done by the previous director-general under the Jonathan administration.
Mr Kawu said he met an ongoing lawsuit instituted by Pinnacle against the NBC for reneging on some of the earlier agreements before the licence was issued.
“But I immediately moved to resolve the crisis through a process of arbitration because it was delaying the country’s deadline for digital switch-over,” he said.
Following a series of discussions, the firm agreed to withdraw its lawsuit and work with the government to resolve the dispute, which centred around electronic programme guide and content aggregation,” Mr Kawu told PREMIUM TIMES.
Although a pilot phase was launched in Jos in April 2016, it was not until December 2016 that the formal commissioning was held in Abuja by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who represented President Buhari at the event.
Mr Kawu said Pinnacle completed the switch-over, a “milestone for the country” at the time, even though it had not been paid.
He said the NBC board decided to pay Pinnacle in May 2017, six months after the launch, to avoid reversing the progress already made with the launch, especially as television stations were not paying for the digital broadcasting as most parts of the country had not been hooked up to it.
The technology had been rolled out only in Enugu, Oshogbo, Gombe, Jos, Kaduna and Abuja, with bigger markets like Lagos, Kano and Ibadan still being structured. Abuja residents can access 30 digital channels.
A visit to Pinnacle
PREMIUM TIMES saw modern broadcasting equipment during a visit to Pinnacle Communications head office in Asokoro, Abuja, on Monday evening.
The company also has a transmission facility on a 1.6 hectare in the hilly Mpape neighbourhood. All the major digital broadcasting equipment in the facility were custom-built in 2016 and supplied by America’s GatesAir, a broadcasting instruments manufacturer.
“It costs a lot of money to manufacture, supply and install all those equipment,” Mr Kawu said after taking PREMIUM TIMES on a tour of the headquarters and the transmission site. “This is not to mention the N685 million the company had paid for the licence.”
‘Through the roof’
Mr Kawu admitted that the white paper that was adopted in 2012 did not initially contain provisions for private firms to be paid, but said the NBC board paid Pinnacle N2.5 billion ”using its discretionary powers”.
He said the firm got N2.5 billion because in 2015, it was paid N1.7 billion, ”long before naira and American dollar exchange rate shot through the roof.”
“At the time ITS was paid N1.7 billion, the exchange rate was N165 to a dollar,” Mr Kawu said. “By the time we paid Pinnacle in 2016, a dollar was N385.”
Mr Kawu said the board followed section 11c of the white paper, which mandated “a level-playing field” for ITS and private signal carriers.
“Since the government had paid ITS N1.7 billion in 2015, we would not have achieved a level-playing field as dictated by the white paper if we did not give Pinnacle the support it deserved, especially when it completed the project and commissioned it without a dime from the government.”
Mr Kawu, the pioneer editor of Daily Trust, said he was proud of his efforts to strike a balance between public and private signal carriers, decrying the public scorn that had been directed at him.
Asked repeatedly to state the specific amount that was converted to the dollar to arrive at N2.5 billion for Pinnacle, Mr Kawu said he did not know, but believed the dollar amount “would be in a document somewhere.”
He said he told the information minister that “the prevailing exchange rate” was used to calculate the payment for Pinnacle.
Also, despite admitting to PREMIUM TIMES that he had been friends with Mr Omoluwa for over 30 years and consulted for Pinnacle before he was appointed NBC chief, Mr Kawu insisted he saw no conflict of interest.
“I did not personally benefit from the contract,” Mr Kawu said. “Our friendship helped us to quickly resolve the court cases and get the digital switch-over off the ground.”
Multiple sources at the NBC told PREMIUM TIMES that both Mr Kawu and the board were repeatedly warned against approving the payment because it was inappropriate.
“All that Pinnacle did was exactly what it was licenced to do,” a top NBC official with technical knowledge of the project told PREMIUM TIMES. “There was no condition for them to have been paid for doing what they claimed they could do.”
Another official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the payment to Pinnacle ”was analogous to Nigerian government funding private broadcasters”.
“Payment to ITS was largely because it was government-owned, just the way government still funds the NTA till today,” the official said.