By Chinelo Obogo

A former Commissioner for Information, Trade and Investment in Abia State, John Kalu, has rebutted a forensic audit report released by the Abia State government, disputing the report’s claim that funds allocated for an airport project were misappropriated.

in a statement, Kalu said the Abia State Executive Council approved the construction of an airport in Abia State and borrowed N10 billion from UBA to fund the initial investment but that due to requests from traditional rulers, the project was suspended and the funds were reallocated to road projects throughout the state.

Kalu provided a list of contractors and road projects that received funding from the N10 billion, while  arguing that Governor Alex Otti’s audit report did not properly investigate the use of funds and made misleading claims. He claimed Otti leaked the forensic audit report to a blogger rather than publishing it officially and alleged that the governor is using the audit report to distract from the mismanagement of Abia’s finances.

He said: “I was a member of the Abia State Executive Council  and functioned as the Commissioner for Information when the idea of constructing an airport  was first discussed during the executive meeting of September 24, 2020. Based on the presentation made to executive, we approved the project and also approved the borrowing of N10 billion from UBA Plc as initial investment by the state with repayment charged to our FAAC account with the bank. You may wish to recall that during the period the country was still struggling to emerge from COVID-19 pandemic with very low FAAC and IGR inflows across the states.

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“With that approval, the processes related to the project kicked off. The current Secretary to State Government who is an appointee of Governor Otti, Prof. Kenneth Kalu, can review and confirm my claim from the records in his custody. Shortly after we announced exco’s approval of the airport project, Governor Okezie Ikpeazu received in audience executives of Abia State Traditional Rulers Council then led by HRM Eze Joseph Nwabekee.

“On November 13, 2020, Governor Ikpeazu informed members of the state executive council about the details of his meeting with representatives of the traditional rulers in Abia State who requested that we suspend the airport project and commit the funds earmarked for it to doing more roads in the state as we are surrounded by airports already but need to urgently improve internal roads that would give a further boost to the socio-economic activities of the state. The exco thereafter voted to approve the suspension and request to use the earmarked funds for road projects in the state.

“On November 17, 2020, Governor Ikpeazu took to his official X (formerly Twitter) handle to inform netizens that the airport project had been suspended. Obviously, he must have informed the commissioner for works of his intention to suspend the airport project, hence the State Ministry of Works selected road projects in our 2020 budget for funding with the N10 billion and allocated resources to the contractors. Ferotex Construction Company which is one of the reputable indigenous construction companies with anti-graft agencies’ clearance was selected by the Ikpeazu administration as lead company in the “contractor financier” arrangements with UBA.

“A serious audit investigation will simply seek to establish if the allocated funds got to the companies and also if the contractors did the work. Otti’s “ one of the top 3 audit firms in the world” failed to follow the money as expected of any audit firm, even the least ones. Those who claim that there was need for “virement” may be speaking out of ignorance in this case. The road projects were already in our approved budget hence no need for further house approval.  All state revenues are expected to be used to fund the state budget and from the time we had approval to spend on the roads instead of airport, there was, in my opinion, no further need for legislative approval.

“I am also confident that if there was any legal requirement for the House of Assembly approval, the management of UBA Plc must have demanded for and obtained it from government before disbursement of cash for the road projects. Whoever is interested in seeing such approval can contact UBA Plc. It is important to note  that there was no draw down on the funds until November 26th 2020, when Governor Ikpeazu signed, because the bank placed  a lien pending when all the documentation was completed. This can be verified from the relevant UBA accounts by the auditors and Otti’s administration. Indeed, the disbursements continued beyond January 2021.”