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January 17, 2021

The curious case of Is’haq Modibbo Kawu and NBC’s N2.5bn

The curious case of Is’haq Modibbo Kawu and NBC’s N2.5bn

This rather curious case has been ongoing since May 2019, but I’ve managed to ignore it. First, I’d somehow missed the news, so I was a latecomer to the party. Secondly, the idea that Mallam Is’haq Modibbo Kawu was accused by the ICPC, Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, of allegedly “using” his “position to confer corrupt advantage” to his friends as Director-General (DG) of the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC, was incongruous. Even for Nigeria. Where does one begin? Before his appointment as DG in in 2016, Kawu was a vociferous critic of Emeka Mba, then DG of NBC, levelling all sorts of accusations against him. The term ‘critic’ is perhaps too mild to adequately capture Kawu’s fervour. Soon enough, Mba (who was appointed by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2013) was unceremoniously removed from his position. Although he was among several others relieved of their jobs, there was no doubt that his removal was tied to allegations made against him by the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission).

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Mba was arrested in January 2016 for what the EFCC said was diversion of NBC funds. Several figures were mentioned, N10 billion, 15 billion and N2.9 billion. Four years later, the case continues.  Although in that period, Mba writes that the EFCC discovered the supposedly diverted funds “in the same NBC bank account where the money was received from MTN as license fee.” And later in (October) 2016, when the EFCC returned the money to the NBC, the whole thing was dressed up as if the agency achieved this “feat” through some James Bond-like operation. Bearing the foregoing in mind, it’s understandable why some eyebrows were raised when Kawu was appointed as the NBC DG in what seemed like ‘payment’ for a job well done. He had already talked himself up as the better man for the job, at least better than you know who. Kawu promised that Nigeria “will not miss the June 2017 deadline for digital switch over as the administration of President Buhari was committed to the scheme.” I’m not sure that digital switchover has been achieved yet.

Now, fast-forward to May 2019, and Is’haq Modibbo Kawu is accused of alleged corruption? Although unlike Emeka Mba who was removed from his position almost as soon as allegations were made against him, Kawu got to stay on as DG for almost one year after allegations were levelled against him by the ICPC. He was only suspended mid-February 2020 after a public outcry. Writing in June 2019 with the Twitter handle @AbdulMahmud01 (Great Oracle) said:

“In a sane country, Modibbo Kawu would’ve resigned from office or pushed by his appointor! N2.5b is not a chicken change. Remember Emeka Mba was pushed by PMB to clear the way for this crook. They called a good man a bad name to hang him, but Emeka is today vindicated.”

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Still, that the government needed public outcry to act was the more baffling considering the fact that the Buhari administration is known for its stance against corruption. That grace period enjoyed by Kawu while allegations hung over him appeared eventful. There are allegations of witness intimidation or outright vendetta made by Human Rights Writers Association Of Nigeria (HURIWA).

Kawu is accused by the ICPC of allegedly making payment of N2.5b seed grant to Pinnacle Communications Limited, one of the signal distributors for the Digital Switch-over projects. Charged along Kawu were Lucky Omoluwa, chairman (now deceased) and Dipo Onifade, chief operating officer of Pinnacle Communications Ltd. Also joined in the case is the minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed who approved the N2.5b payment. The ministry of information supervises the NBC. Lai Mohammed who has not been very forthcoming in terms of court appearances maintains his actions (payment approval) were based on the advice he received from the NBC under Kawu. Since May 2, 2020 when Is’haq Modibbo Kawu was first arraigned along with his two friends, a lot of legal manoeuvring has happened. By July, one of the accused persons Lucky Omoluwa had died leading to the re-arraignment of Kawu and Onifade. Their latest court appearance on December 1, 2020 was when the Court of Appeal ruled that they (Kawu and co) have a case to answer. Their appeal had sought to overturn the decision of the Federal High Court which had ruled they had a case to answer.

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I’m no legal commentator nor am I a court reporter. So, forgive me. I think we’ve had enough of the legal drama involving the suspended NBC DG. Not to mention the fact that the case is ongoing. However, I’m highly intrigued by the turn of events. You’d be as intrigued if you had followed Is’haq Modibbo Kawu’s writings as a columnist. For this article, I scoured Vanguard Newspapers’ archives. I didn’t find some of the articles I remember reading where Kawu levelled all sorts of accusations against Emeka Mba. Suffice it to say that for someone so unapologetically partisan, Kawu should never have been made the head of a regulatory agency like the NBC in the first place. But I did manage to save one column. Writing under the title: “NBC and NTA: Regulator and broadcaster in the 2015 elections,” after an initial attempt to sound detached, Kawu wasted no time in showing his real objective for that piece. He might as well have put Emeka Mba in the headline as he has done in past articles. Here are excerpts. I’ll let you be the judge:

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“The National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), is the regulatory body for Nigerian broadcasting and by law, is expected to ensure that broadcast organisations strictly adhere to standards of objectivity and professional ethics in their electoral and other outputs. But in the lead to the 2015 elections, NBC became partisan and was therefore unable to regulate, enforce the rule or sanction offenders like AIT, because the Director-General of NBC himself, Emeka Mba, was a staunch supporter of President Goodluck Jonathan. He laboured under the delusion that he had presidential cover and was under the wings of Jonathan’s SGF, Pius Anyim as well as being very close to the Diezani Allison-Maduekwe…Against this backdrop, NBC lost focus and became very much part of the problem. Similarly, Nigeria has not been able to position the NTA and FRCN as genuine public service broadcasters, in the tradition of the BBC, SABC or CBC. In those traditions, the public service broadcaster is dedicated to the national good, and is not operated as the propaganda mouthpiece of the regime or administration in power.

“In the Nigerian setting, the appointment of the leadership of these organisations takes place in a context that obliges them by tradition and practice, to operate a grovelling tendency of servitude. The activities of the president and his wife become the most important items of day-to-day news, while in the election season the stations are turned into handmaidens of the electoral interests of the incumbent leader and his political party. In a season of change, Nigeria has very vital decisions to make about the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) and the NTA and FRCN. The NBC’s leadership today is very much part of the baggage of the Jonathan period and that brings into sharp focus the need to shield the institution from the type of crude partisanship exhibited in the lead to the 2015 elections. NBC should play its regulatory role; able to hold broadcasters to their obligations as well as being able to sanction violators of the Nigerian Broadcasting Code as they relate to election coverage. That means that the Director-General of the NBC must never be part of the media team of the incumbent president or become so obviously biased in favour of an incumbent.”

Did the NBC under Kawu perform better during the 2019 elections? Did Kawu distance himself from President Buhari? Even before being made DG (or especially so he could be made DG), Kawu showed through his writing that he worshipped the ground on which the President walked. Then the man tried to run for governor while still DG! Kawu contested in the ruling party APC’s governorship primaries in Kwara State in October 2018. Meanwhile, one accusation Kawu consistently levelled against Mba was his purported support for the then ruling party PDP. I’m not sure how it works or whether there are special rules for Kawu but how objective and professional can a DG who’s running for political office be? Do heads of SABC or BBC run for political office while heading a government agency?

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After campaigning for independence for government-owned broadcast stations, Mallam Kawu became a big convert of the war against hate speech. And perhaps a religious champion. It was under him that MURIC (Muslim Rights Concern) claimed victory for the NBC ban of the video for the song “This is Nigeria” by Falz. MURIC took offence at the depiction of Islam and had initially threatened legal action against Falz perhaps due to a momentary memory lapse. Someone may have reminded them that Falz is a lawyer, his father Femi Falana, SAN is a lawyer as is his mother Funmi Falana. Not to forget his younger sister Folake, who’s also a lawyer. MURIC used the NBC to ambush Falz as they would later boast.

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I understand that some might see nothing wrong in whatever Kawu did. How he carried out a campaign just so he could get the job. I imagine those people will probably say: ‘All na hustle.’ But I think it’s important that we begin to call out this kind of behaviour. As I write, there are others like Kawu hustling their way to appointments or promotions, not caring whom they malign in the process.

  • FULL DISCLOSURE

In the interest of full disclosure, I know Emeka Mba and I’ll go as far as saying he’s my friend. I was introduced to him during his tenure as DG of the National Film and Video Censors Board, NFVCB circa 2006. This was well before he became the DG of NBC in 2013. As a TV/Film critic, the Censors Board and the NBC are my natural allies. Incidentally, I was actually closer to the NBC than any other government agency. This column started in 1998 seeking the improvement of broadcasting standards. I regarded myself and NBC as being on the same side, pushing for the same things. This much was recognised by Danladi Bako, former NBC DG who thought I was an important part of the Commission. As he was leaving the NBC, he introduced me to his successor, Dr. Silas Yisa with words to the effect: ‘Onoshe is part of the family.’ And he wasn’t wrong and I’m sure there are people at the NBC who think I’m still part of their family even though I can hardly recognise the new NBC family under Prof. Armstrong Idachaba. But that’s another story. The reason for this ‘shalaye’ is to say that I’m only speaking for myself (I didn’t consult anyone) and letting the facts as I see them speak for themselves.

Onoshe Nwabuikwu, AIRTIME columnist is a renowned TV/Film critic, and Film scholar. She also has experience in Advertising as a senior Copywriter and Corporate Communications as Communications consultant.

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