President Goodluck Jonathan has come under a hailstorm of criticisms for accepting a newly designed and constructed church in his hometown, Otuoke, Bayelsa State, donated to him by Italian construction firm, Gitto, in breach of federal code of conduct for public officers.
The Abuja-based Gitto is involved as a key bidder for multiple government construction contracts, and it currently handles about a dozen projects for the federal government, including a section of the Abuja-Lokoja road, the Shagari Presidential complex and the East-West road.
The president, as any other public official, is prohibited by the Code of Conduct listed as a schedule to the Constitution, from asking or accepting any property or benefits for himself or others from commercial firms, business enterprises or persons having contracts with the government.
But at the dedication of the 2500-seat worship facility on Sunday March 18, the president, speaking cheerily in praise of Gitto Construzioni Generali Nigeria Limited (GCG), said the building was donated to him after he bemoaned the unbefitting status of the previous structure during a meeting with the company’s managing director.
The disclosure has ignited fierce condemnations from activists and opposition groups who view the “gift” as a patronage which Mr. Jonathan found nothing wrong with, but which has the capacity to undermine any gain his administration may have made in dealing with public corruption.
“If as people say IBB institutionalized corruption, then Jonathan has done a third power of that,” said Rotimi Fashakin, the spokesperson for the opposition Congress for Progressive Change.
“It is unfortunate that the corruption we are talking about is emanating from the president himself. The Jonathan regime is a regime that will go down as the worst in transparency; a regime that is entrenching the worst values in the Nigerian polity,” Mr. Fashakin told Premium Times.
On Monday, the anti-corruption campaigner, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, (SERAP) petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), over the donation, demanding a “thorough, transparent and effective investigation” into the deal.
“We are seriously concerned that given the huge sum of money involved and the timing of the church building ‘gift’, the acts may amount to a bribe to the government by a construction company that has sought and obtained huge contracts from the federal government,” the group said.
Since becoming public, neither the presidency nor Gitto has given further details to the understanding that led to the erection of a church for Mr. Jonathan and his kinsmen, nor have both responded to the barrage of attacks that have trailed the donation.
Several calls to Gitto’s office Monday were neither answered nor returned.
Presidential spokesperson, Reuben Abati, could also not be reached for comments.
The offer however once more placed the spotlight on a company that is already known to controversy over the quality and cost of jobs it delivers for the number of years it has operated in Nigeria.
Out of its 23 jobs spanning roads, bridges, buildings and tunnels listed on its website, Nigeria hosts 18 while only five are in Italy. The president’s church is not listed as a project for which any sum was paid for.
Majority of the delivered projects are located in Akwa Ibom, Rivers and Bayelsa States, and also the National Ecumenical Centre in Abuja constructed by the firm for N2.6 billion.
Many other projects have been dipped in complaints from residents of the affected area. An example is the N58.6 billion contract for the construction of the second Niger Bridge. Recently, South East Legislative Caucus in the National Assembly petitioned Mr. Jonathan asking for the review of the project.
Protests have been reported at Akwa Ibom over the Eket/Oron section of the East-West Road contract as well as the Bodo-Bonny Road in Bayelsa State.
Critics have cited the “church gift” as an attempt by the company to curry presidential favour and douse concerns over its competence.
“The best thing for the president to do is to return the gift by paying the company for the job. It is illegal and it is wrong for him to have collected it,” said Eze Onyekpere, of the Centre for Social Justice.