Dirty War Over Money Tears Punch Apart, as Editor Opens Can of Worms on Multi-Million Naira Corruption Scandal
Like Chinua Achebe rightly puts it, ethics, morality and professionalism have completely fallen apart in one of Nigeria's leading newspapers, The Punch going by the weight of corruption allegations levelled against a top management staff of the media house by the most senior editor of the paper in a petition to the company's board of directors and exclusively obtained by iReports-ng.According to one of the directors of the company who is not happy with the happenings in the organisation, the use of the newspaper by its Executive Director, Publications, Mr Azubuike Ishiekwene to corruptly enrich himself at the expense of other stakeholders has come to a head, hence his decision to leak the petition of one of their editors who resigned only last week.
The petition details how Ishiekwene, known for his open and persistent criticism of corruption in Nigeria through his back page column in The Punch, intimidated, displaced and forced about five editors and several other editorial staff out of their job in a bid to protect and promote several individuals including corrupt politicians he collects millions of naira from as well as organisations where he serves as a consultant or director designate. The latest of such that brought out the expose against him is the allegation that he collected N15 million among other benefits from the Lagos state government to entrap and sack the most senior editor of The Punch, Mr Steve Ayorinde over the latter's failure to stop publishing negative stories against Lagos State government believed to have engaged Azu, as he is often called in Nigerian media circle, as a consultant.
According to iReports-ng sources in the organisation, some directors of the company especially children of the founder of The Punch, Chief Olu Aboderin, who are on the board have long been complaining about the activities of Azu and are now poised to use the latest scenario to ease him out of the company to protect their family's heritage and legacy. The petition which was addressed to the Chairman of the board, Chief Ogunsola and copied to other directors and members of the board is an eye opener, a must read and indeed a can of worms. According to a director who spoke to iReports-ng in Ibadan on Wednesday,” what I have read about the young man at the centre of the allegations is incredible and I know that his friends in the Nigerian media wont want to expose one of their own and I think that is why you online publishers out there have to help us expose these too many scandals to save a reputable organisation like The Punch from going down to ignominy” . The director added that if attempts are being made to cover up the allegations, some of them will not mind to petition anti-graft agencies like the EFCC to investigate all the allegations that border on corruption.
The petition which is a direct fall out of the Tinubu/Fashola rift largesse says it all and it is reproduced below:
March 1, 2010.
Punch Nigeria Limited,
Punch Place, Lagos-Ibadan Expressway,
Magboro, Ogun State.
RE: My Resignation – Clarifications and Petition
I would like to bring a few important issues to your notice, exactly one week after I was advised to resign my appointment as Editor of The PUNCH by the Executive Director, Publications, Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, over, as I suspect, issues bordering on my supervision of the coverage of the political tussle between the Lagos State Government and the State's House of Assembly. I feel constrained to make a few clarifications, knowing that a clear injustice has been committed against my person and career through the harsh and unexpected decision to force me out of Punch. In my text message to you on the night of Sunday February 21, I had sought your understanding to be given a fair hearing, and had suggested that an Independent Panel be constituted to probe the event of Tuesday February 16 which, as I understand it, Mr. Ishiekwene used as a basis for demanding my resignation.
However, because I was unable to reach you before you travelled out, I have decided to write you a formal letter of petition and to seek your understanding in copying every member of the Board of Directors of Punch Nigeria Limited with a view to establishing that Mr. Ishiekwene's action against me was informed largely by his alliance with the Lagos State Government as a Consultant who is strongly suspected to be on its pay-roll. Acting in a manner that he did against me suggested to me that he was duty bound to protect the interest of the Lagos State Government in the Punch titles. It is my candid opinion, therefore, that the clarifications and the disclosures of consistent pattern of impropriety and corrupt practices by Mr. Ishiekwene that are contained in this petition may save the newspaper's integrity from the pangs of one man who has mastered the art of using the system for his selfish, pecuniary interests.
A little background to the Lagos debacle
Please allow me to offer a quick reminder on how the Lagos State story became so controversial and perceivably problematic. It was last November that The PUNCH broke the story of how the Lagos State House of Assembly was considering impeachment moves against Governor Babatunde Fashola over a number of listed allegations. Our report was a result of independent investigation by our correspondents, backed with documents and reported in a fair and balanced manner, with all parties to the story having their views reflected.
Sir, you will recall that on Management's instruction, a front-page note stating that we stood by our story was published at that time, after Governor Fashola made insinuations to fault our story. Up till today, the Lagos State Government has not responded to the three questions we raised in standing by our report. The best that the Government did was to argue that there was no problem between the Governor and his predecessor, Ashiwaju Bola Tinubu. None of our reports ever said there was.
The need to be fair, balanced and accurate, before and after you called a management meeting over the issue, had always guided our operation in the newsroom, especially in January when we published the two-page advertorial by the True Face of Lagos. Apart from the fact the said advert went through the usual legal scrutiny and approval, as the Editor has no role, whatsoever, in determining how adverts are approved, a news story was prepared from the advertorial upon advice by the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, with a clear instruction that all the parties mentioned in the allegation be interviewed. With the ED Publications (Mr. Ishiekwene) being aware of that development, as I was obliged to inform him of the copy flow for each day, especially stories that would be promoted on cover of the paper, we published both the advertorial and the news story on the allegations against not just the Governor, but also against Tinubu and members of the House of Assembly. This style, as you are aware sir, is the standard practice in Punch, whereby stories are expected to be sourced from advertorials that are of news value. As Editor, I met on ground the policy that encouraged the Advert department to always draw the attention of the Editor to advertorials that are of news value. This was how we sourced cover stories from such advert publications like the listing of prominent Bank Debtors by the Central Bank of Nigeria in August and October 2009.
Initial Indication of Discomfiture
Beyond suspicion, it had come to my knowledge ever since we published the story about impeachment moves against the Governor that my boss (ED Publications) had an unusually close rapport with the Media Team of the Lagos State Government, which had often boasted subtly that “Senior Editors' in the key papers were on its side. I must stress that each time we published a story they did not seem to like, like the story on how Lagos State Officials were changing official cars at will, which was published in October 2009 and the story about the Revocation of plots of land in Lekki Phase 1, which you asked us to do in January 2010, we had always been subtly reminded that the Lagos State Government had the ears of a particular Senior Editor in Punch. It was an open secret that the ED Publications regularly attended meetings of the media consultants to the Lagos State Government, made up of a few Senior Editors and Chairmen of Editorial Boards. However, an obvious attempt to pander to the wishes of Lagos State Government by the ED Publications became evident at the beginning of February 2010 when he asked that I should redeploy Kemi Obasola from the Politics Desk to the Education and Science Division. He did not give any specific reason other than the need to remove her from the “Heat”. I complied.
Kemi, by the way, was the only accredited correspondent covering the House of Assembly, who had continued to cover the House even when she was initially re-deployed to the Education Desk. It was on the instruction of the ED Publications that Kemi was returned to the Politics Division again last December when the need to beef up the division became necessary. Then a few days later, the ED Publications instructed that I should suspend another correspondent on the Politics Desk, Mudiaga Affe, for missing the Joint Press Conference by Tinubu, Fashola and Chief Bisi Akande at Tinubu's residence on February 3. In spite of the fact that no formal query was issued to Mudiaga and my explanation that the correspondent could not have known about the impromptu press conference having returned to the office at 2.30 pm (the conference held at 6pm), the ED, Publications insisted that he must go on suspension. I complied.
Obviously, those two acts, curious as they were, had sent panicky signals to the newsroom. I could not offer any plausible explanation to the Conference members – Assistant Editors – on why Obasola was redeployed and Mudiaga suspended for no just cause. The only explanation was to inform both the Politics and News desks to bring every copy on the Lagos controversy directly to me, for onward vetting by the ED Publications. Please let me also add that our sources in the House of Assembly were reluctant to release the complete document of the committee that probed the proposed 2010 budget for the State because they feared that if the ED Publications had access to it, he would release it those he was consulting for in the Lagos State House, thereby endangering their lives. It was astounding hearing how Mr. Ishiekwene was alleged to be consulting for Lagos state.
Tuesday February the 16th
As far as the Lagos State controversy was concerned, all that we had planned to do on Tuesday February 16 for the Wednesday paper was to publish the response of Mr. Bamidele Aturu, lawyer to the journalist and activist, Richard Akinnola, who had gone to court to stop the probe of the Fashola Administration by the State House of Assembly. The decision to do this was arrived at by the ED Publications after speaking with you, I suppose, because we had published on that Tuesday the submission by Festus Keyamo, the lawyer to the House of Assembly, over why the probe should continue. The Keyamo story, I should clarify, was used after the MD/E-I-C spoke with me about it on Monday 15th in the presence of the Saturday Editor, Mr. Joseph Adeyeye, (having first called the Judiciary Editor, Tony Amokeodo, about the development) to the effect that being a story that happened in the open court and had been reported on Television on Monday afternoon, we were obliged to report it. Should there be a query as to why the copy was used, the MD told me in the presence of Mr. Adeyeye, I should feel free to say that he approved the story.
However, later on Tuesday the 16th, the News Editor drew my attention to the arrival of a story from the House of Assembly about the fact that the people behind the True Face of Lagos had, for the first time, appeared in public at the House of Assembly. The Assistant Photo Editor, Segun Bakare, also brought to me printed photographs sent from the House of Assembly with the faces of those behind the allegations. I quickly asked the News editor to inquire from the Politics Editor, Semiu Okanlawon, if his division had the story. I was told that Semiu was not on seat. I then asked Kemi Obasola if she was aware and her response was positive, because the story was also sent to her email box.
Being the correspondent who was familiar with the story of the Lagos controversy and who was still the only accredited correspondent to the House of Assembly, I asked Kemi to make all the necessary checks and anchor the story with the Political desk, with a clear instruction that since she had been redeployed to the Education Desk, her name should not appear on the story. Instead, the by-line of either of the two new correspondents on Politics desk should be put on the story, as we had done when we sourced the story of the joint press conference at Tinubu's house from other newspapers and the media aides of the three parties concerned. I did express preference for the name of James Azania to be put on the story being the one that I had nominated to replace Obasola at the House of Assembly. My position was informed by the fact that if his by-line had become noticeable, his accreditation to cover the House would be a lot quicker. After the story had been re-rewritten from the copies we got from the House of Assembly and The Nation Newspaper, and additional information sourced directly by Kemi Obasola from the House of Assembly, I took the copy with James Azania's by-line on it with the four photographs to the ED Publications for approval as usual. But he advised that because the persons that appeared for the True Face of Lagos were not the same as those who signed the advertorial and the fact that they cleared the House of Assembly of any wrongdoing suggested that they were acting out a script. I had no reason to disagree with him, although I had thought, and I did explain to him that coming out in the public for the first time would work in Punch's advantage as it would erase any doubt that might have arisen over the identities of those behind the advertorial that we published in January. Nevertheless, we dropped both the story and photographs and I continued with production for Wednesday.
Later the ED Publications called me to his office again to find out if our correspondent was in the House and if the visit of the True Face of Lagos group was listed in the order of the day. I explained all over again to him how we sourced the story and that our inquiries from the Assembly and other newspapers showed that the visit was not listed, but that the Speaker of the House met with them at the entrance of the Assembly, the same way he had met with the people that embarked on a rally to the Assembly in January. On my way home, however, the ED Publications sent a text message for me to see him in the office. I called him back immediately to inquire why he was still in the office at that time – around 11 pm. He said he needed to clarify a few things with me over the Lagos State story and that I should ask the Politics Editor to also return to the office. It was close to midnight when I met with the ED Publications in his office where he handed over a hand-written memo to me to formally explain the source of the story that we had planned to use. He had done a similar memo to the Politics Editor who had absolutely next to nothing to do with the story. I repeated my explanation to him that the News Editor brought the story to me as was sent to us by both the House of Assembly and the Nation newspaper, and that he could see from the list of those copied in the mail that it was sent to all the newspapers. I added that I made my enquiries and Kemi Obasola also made hers to establish the authenticity of the story and after doing the story I asked that Azania's name be put on the story for the reasons I had already stated.Surprisingly, the ED Publications did not appear pleased, insisting that my response and that of the Politics Editor be sent to him in writing before 10 am the next day. It was already around midnight on Tuesday.I later learnt that he had called and sent text messages to Azania, Obasola and the News Editor, Emeka Madunagu, to also state everything that they knew about the story, which was never published.
Ambush Tactics for a Reason
I had struggled within me to unravel why the ED Publications waited till late that Tuesday over a story whose source was obvious; a story that was not used and one which was published by practically all the other newspapers (with photographs) on Wednesday February 17th including This Day Newspaper which later published another set of allegations against the Lagos state government by the group Another Face of Lagos. But having carefully considered the tone and inference of his allegations that I tried to plant a story in the paper, I sensed that it was not the independence and integrity of The PUNCH that he was concerned about, but his personal interests, both pecuniary and otherwise, in using a flimsy excuse of a story that he alleged was not properly sourced, but which was never published, to demand my exit from the company. I wish to remind you Sir, about some of the text messages that you got, one of which clearly revealed that the Newspaper houses that awarded the Man of the Year award to Governor Fashola either did so in return for N25million or got the said amount as reward for the honour bestowed on the Governor. The rumour was not unfounded Sir, and you can find out if the right investigation is carried out.
For certain other newspapers that were considered key, but which did not bestow such honours on the Governor, there was N15million largesse by way of contract to the Senior Editors, including, as I reliably learnt, Mr. Ishiekwene, who are consulting for the government. The need to watch the government's back and either woo over or change unfriendly editors and journalists, where possible, was the charge to those senior editors. Please permit me to state, as we sometimes do in our defence of stories when government officials challenge them, that we are not obliged to supply proof beyond what has been stated or published when we are sure of our facts and sources, that knowing that my facts are correct, Mr. Ishiekwene demanded my exit because he concluded that I was not available to be used by his friends in the Lagos state government. The former Permanent Secretary and Special Adviser on Media to the Lagos state government, Mr. Segun Ayobolu, can corroborate this fact.
In any case, part of the allegations by the True Face of Lagos was the disbursement of about N183million over six months to certain editors. Sir, you may wish to know that the money that went as reward for the Man of the Year awards and consultancies for certain senior editors came from that pool. I wish to state boldly that if I had anything to hide as an editor, I would not have encouraged the publication of a story that demanded that journalists' role, like that of state officials, also include public accountability. Nor, would I have I insisted at the Standing Committee meeting of the Nigerian Guild if Editors, of which I am the Assistant Secretary General, that the guild should make a categorical statement in its communiqué on the allegations against some of our members. I should state without equivocation that without being told, I knew that you would not have demanded anything less than fair and balance reporting considering the development over the revocation of your plot of land in Magodo GRA by Governor Fashola and the insinuations that The Punch tends to be favourably disposed to Tinubu. Those two important facts consistently guided my supervision of every news copy that affected Lagos state, and to the best of my ability, we handled everything professionally. Therefore, I would like to stress that the ED Publications chose to hide on your plea for caution, merely to protect his interests and lay ambush for an editor who had tried his best in reporting the tussle in a strictly professional way.
My boss did not accuse me of incompetence or fraud; or of fabricating the story, but of planning to plant a story in the paper; the same paper that I edit. I do not think that allegation adds up. In any case, I have never been issued a warning or a query in reporting the Lagos tussle, nor has any of our reports been found to be false or fabricated. On what basis then did the ED Publication then asked for my ouster, not just as the Editor, but from the company?The desperation and speed with which he executed the job should show clearly that the ED Publications was not interested in either issuing a warning, if he felt so disturbed, or release a formal guideline on how the Lagos controversy should be covered, as he had done last year on how general political stories should be covered. Rather, he was only interested in going for the jugular, by presenting a wrong and incomplete account of the situation to you, for a story that was not published; but which appeared in every other newspaper the following day. It was for these reasons and other facts in my disposal that I had sought an independent probe panel of what happened on Tuesday February 16, if only to defend myself and protect my reputation.
Consistent pattern of infractions by Mr. Ishiekwene
I have chosen to merge a petition with the above clarifications with a view to establishing a consistent pattern of infractions by Mr. Azubuike Ishiekwene, while he was the Editor of The PUNCH and which has continued since he became the ED Publications. Suspecting that you may not be aware of this development that is at variance with your stand against corruption, I chose to chronicle a few of those infractions in order to intimate you with the ignoble development that using his position in Punch for pecuniary interest and to fight his private battles have become somewhat of a second nature to Mr. Ishiekwene, and taking a clearly biased position in the Lagos story was a deliberate act that was in sync with his previous, albeit surreptitious, unprofessional conducts.
I should establish from the beginning that what we sought to do with the Lagos story, in my opinion, was consistent with The PUNCH's fearless foray into investigative journalism. One example was how in June 2009 we broke the story of impending doom that might befall many Nigerian banks. As you may recall sir, the story was very controversial, with insinuations that other banks were using us to destroy the so-called mega banks. But less than two months after the publication, the Central Bank of Nigeria confirmed our story with the removal of top five bank CEOs, with astounding allegations of fraud. The said story, I should inform you sir, won the story of the year for the stories published in all the PUNCH titles in 2009, with the authors of the story – Ayo Olesin and Yemi Kolapo – being given cash reward by Management. Business correspondents that could have been sanctioned for rocking the boat ended up being celebrated for a courageous act of journalism brought to their attention directly by myself as the editor.
Power Probe report and Rockson Engineering
Another example, if you indulge me sir, was our series on the report of the Power Probe report by the House of Representatives. As you may recall, we exclusively got the report in August 2008 when the ED Publications was on vacation in the United States. We were the only newspaper that got the report and after your discussion on the telephone with the MD/E-in-C, we started publishing extracts from the report.One of the companies prominently mentioned in the report as having won huge contracts buy had done nothing was Rockson Engineering, whose chairman is Chief Arumeni Johnson. I wish to state categorically that Mr. Ishiekwene is a consultant to Chief Johnson and has never hidden his determination to protect Rockson engineering's interest in Punch.Immediately after we started publishing the excerpts from the power probe, the ED Publications mounted an intense pressure on me from the US, calling me on the phone repeatedly to know who approved the publication of the report, how we got it and what determined the aspects of the report we decided to publish and why it should be promoted on cover. Apparently, the explanation that the instruction came directly from the Chairman served as some deterrent. But I did not miss the sign of desperation in him to have the impact reduced for Rockson Engineering. As soon as he returned from his vacation, he called a meeting of newspaper editors for a parley with Chief Johnson at Sheraton hotel in Lagos. I was reliably informed that Mr. Ishiekwene was the one who personally distributed money to the guests, ostensibly to have them protect Rockson's interest in their papers. He needed not invite any editor from Punch, ostensibly, as he was there to protect the interest of his clients himself.
Beyond his partisan interest in how Rockson Engineering is reported in The PUNCH, Mr. Ishiekwene would later in October (when we had relocated to Magboro) again demonstrated his unprofessional interest in Rockson Engineering when he requested that I should remove Chief Johnson's name and that of Prof. Pat Utomi (who was the Chairman at his book launch) from the cover of the paper among those prominent debtors whose names were released by the CBN. I had explained to him after calling me repeatedly that it would be unethical to do so, because not only were the two names mentioned but also because the debt being owed by Rockson ranked among the biggest and should naturally put him among those whose photographs would appear on cover. The ED Publications insisted that both men were friends of the house whose interests should be protected.
Chief Arumeni Johnson and Arik's special interests
If there was any evidence of how Mr. Ishiekwene had used PUNCH to enrich himself and fight personal battles, it would be in how he had doggedly fought the cause of Arik Air, sometimes at the expense of Punch Nigeria Limited. I shall begin by stating the obvious that Chief Johnson is the Chairman of both Rockson and Arik Air. Mr. Ishiekwene and a friend of his who is also a senior editor in another newspaper, are both consultants to the business interests of Chief Johnson through their company, A&L. The 'A' in that company stands for Azubuike. It should be easy to trace the owners of the company through the Corporate Affairs Commission. In any case, an investigation of all the adverts placed by A&L in PUNCH should reveal the level of conflicting interests, double standards and unethical conduct involving the ED Publications as a result of his involvement with Arik Air as a consultant.
I list a few of such infractions below:
1) Running an advert agency
A&L which is jointly owned by Mr. Ishiekwene has been functioning as an agency for a while on all Arik adverts published in Punch. All commissions of course go directly to Mr. Ishiekwene. Knowing PUNCH's position on advert placements and commissions by staff members, this conduct in my opinion constitute a clash of interest.
Similarly, I would also implore you to request an audit of all the adverts brought to Punch in 2006 by A&L. You will discover that all the adverts from the Ministry if Education on the reforms of Unity Schools were paid in by the Editor's advert agency, A&L, with all the commission going to his pockets and that of his partner. The adverts came as a reward for his consultancy for Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, who was then the Minister of Education. The former Advert Manager, Grace, was the officer used in placing all the adverts.
2) Using PUNCH's office and time for Arik
The last advert campaign in November/December 2009 for Arik's direct flight to the United States was largely executed in the ED Publications' old office in Magboro. The choice of newspaper houses, placements, commissions etc were decided in his office, sometimes affecting his attention and concentration to PUNCH's official duties. Evidently, what should have been done by A&L was brought to Punch premises.
3) Illegally reserving surcharge pages for Arik adverts
For the same last campaign by Arik, Mr. Ishiekwene gave a standing instruction to the Advert Department to give Arik adverts access to Page 5, which is a colour and surcharge page, without Arik ever having to pay surcharge rates. It should be noted that surcharge pages could be released for use by the advert department only when the colour pages must have been exhausted. In that case, the advert manager would have to write the editor to release an early page for advertorial use, and the editor must sign the memo if he agrees that the early page, which is usually a news page, be released for adverts purposes. In such situation, the advertiser would not have to pay surcharge rate.
However, in the case of Arik, the intention was to put the adverts on early pages whenever page 5 was free without paying surcharge rates. This was discovered in December when the Executive Director, Corporate Services requested for an early page for Mr. Jaiye Aboderin's remembrance advert. I was in the Pre-Press hall with the ED Corporate Services (Mrs. Shalewa Aderemi) and Deputy Manager, Prepress (Mrs. Lizzy Diolulu) when the Advert Manager (Mrs. Fatima Obagaye) informed me on the phone that Page 5 had gone to Arik. I demanded to know if Arik had paid surcharge rate but was informed that it had not because the instruction came from the ED, Publications.We then agreed to move the Arik advert off page 5 in order to accommodate Jaiye's advert. Yet, Arik was still published on page 11, an early news page because the advert department did not want to offend ED, Publications' instruction to keep Arik on early pages at all costs, even though they were not paying special rates for it.At least on three other occasions when I inquired from either the Advert Manager or her executives if Arik had paid the surcharge rate any time I saw the advert on Page 5, I was always calmly reminded that they were acting on instruction.
I may not know if A&L would have collected a surcharge rate from Arik Air and was only using its leverage in PUNCH to pay the standard rate, but what is clear is that over time, Mr. Ishiekwene has fraudulently put Arik adverts in early pages without corresponding payments, thereby denying the company its due payment, at the same time denying the paper sufficient news pages.I urge you sir to order that a comprehensive audit of the advert placements by Arik Air between November 2009 and January 2010 be carried out immediately with a view to determining how the company has been cheated and the complicity of Mr. Ishiekwene, through A&L agency, in all these.
4) Why Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye left Arik
Another dimension to Mr. Ishiekwene's unethical romance with Arik Air was how a former Editor of The Punch, Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye, (who was Mr. Ishiekwene's predecessor as the editor) was frustrated out of Arik as its Head, Media Relations. In 2008 when Arik purchased one of its brand new aircraft in France, part of the arrangement for publicity drawn up by Mr. Ogunleye was to take aviation correspondents to France to witness the historic event. But Mr. Ishiekwene would have none of that, as the media consultant to the Chairman of Arik, and as a Board member designate of the airline, as I am reliably informed, he overruled Mr. Ogunleye, instructing instead that a select group of editors, and not aviation correspondents, should go on the trip, would fly business class and would be paid $5,000 allowance each for the three-day trip. Mr. Ishiekwene personally selected the team of editors, with himself alone from Punch and personally handed over the allowance to them. Of course he left a clear instruction for me that the photograph from the assignment in France should be used on cover, because, in his view, Arik was a major advertiser and a friend of the house. Needless to say that Mr. Ogunleye, who was not even selected to be part of the team that went to France, resigned his appointment immediately. If you are favourably disposed to finding out the truth about Mr. Ishiekwene's involvement in Arik Air's affairs at the expense of Punch Nigeria limited, and how he is now directly in charge of organising and coordinating events for Arik, I urge you to speak with Mr. Gbemiga Ogunleye.
5) Dr. Wale Babalakin's connection
For yet a fuller account of the infractions committed by Mr. Ishiekwene while using Punch to fight Arik's battles, I will also urge you to speak with the Chairman of Bi-Courtney Limited, who is an old boy of the Government College, Ibadan (GCI) like your good self. Dr. Babalakin, I am aware, has a “dossier” on how Mr. Ishiekwene has used the PUNCH titles to fight Arik's war with Bi-Courtney over the concessioning of the old domestic terminal. There were many instances when the ED Publications came to me to push Arik's position and agenda on the tussle. There were several other times when he bypassed me and directly called the aviation reporter and the Business Editor, often harassing and threatening them and goading them to be sympathetic to Arik in their reporting.However, matters got to a head sometimes in November when Dr. Babalakin called the ED Publications on phone to register his displeasure over the way he was using Punch to fight Arik's battle. I know this for a fact because Mr. Ishiekwene later called me to his office, looking obviously ruffled, to inform me to take a good look at the stories that the aviation correspondent would file on the Bi-Courtney-Arik tussle over GAT in Lagos, as, according to him, Babalakin had just called to speak to him rudely.Again, I urge you to speak with Dr. Babalakin on how Mr. Ishiekwene abused his position as the Director of Publications to force The Punch to take sides in a private matter because of his indebtedness as a consultant and Board Member designate to Arik Air.
A catalogue of greedy acquisitions
To strengthen my assertion that Mr. Ishiekwene has always used his position, either as Editor or Director, to seek pecuniary benefits while pretending to be morally upright, I would like to list a few of the corrupt entanglements that clearly showed that Mr. Ishiekwene deliberately compromised his position.
1) Consistent lodgement of money from clients
Right from when he was the Editor up till now, a good number of correspondents in the house stations, especially in Abuja, have Mr. Ishiekwene's bank accounts through which they lodged money for him on a consistent basis. It is no secret to many people that his back page column on Tuesdays are always offered for a lumpy fee and all sorts of assistance to people in government and in the private sector. I urge you to invite for questioning two people in the Abuja office – Ifeanyi Onuba, one of our Business correspondents and Austin Okunbor, the clerk in the Abuja office, who have consistently paid in money into Mr. Ishiekwene's accounts. They can offer useful information on the sources of the lodgements and may even provide bank slips with which the lodgements have been done over time.I dare say that it was an open secret in Abuja in those days of Mr. Ishiekwene as the Editor that not only did many of the senior correspondents have his bank accounts for consistent lodgements, the Bureau Chief was practically obliged to inform dignitaries in the Nation's Capital anytime he was in town as the Editor, and would usually buy about 10 yards of different fabrics for Mr. Ishiekwene as gifts from the bureau. That was a consistent practice for the entire period he spent as the Editor of the daily Punch.
2) A quarterly dedicated account with IBPlc
Immediately after the consolidation era in the banking sector in 2005, Mr. Ishiekwene as the Editor became a PR consultant to one of the big banks – Intercontinental Bank Plc with a mandate to be giving the bank favourable and consistent mentions. His reward for that service was a quarterly lodgement of N1m (One million naira) into an account that was opened for him in IBPlc, which would later be transferred to his other accounts. The quarterly lodgements from IBPlc continued till the middle of 2006, a few months to his promotion as the Controller Publications, when the new Head of Corporate Affairs department of the bank stopped the corrupt lodgements with the explanation that since Mr. Ishiekwene was already the sole beneficiary of the commission on every advert placed in Punch by IBPlc, it was a monumental waste to the bank to continue to pay Mr. Ishiekwene as the Editor N4million a year just to watch the bank's back. It was an open secret that part of the major problem that he had with the former Business editor, Chijama Ogbu, was his (Ogbu's) reluctance to cooperate with Mr. Ishiekwene to milk the banks.
3) Curses and dramatic encounter with Tafa Balogun
One of Mr. Ishiekwene's biggest financial mentors while he was the editor was the former Inspector General of Police, Mr. Tafa Balogun. Through ASP Lakanu, IGP Balogun funded practically everything for Mr. Ishiekwene, including overseas vacation with his family, part of which he would have collected a refund from Punch as a senior manager.However, after IGP Balogun's travails with the EFCC and The Punch, like every other paper, consistently published the story of his fall from grace, it is an open secret that Balogun spoke badly about Mr. Ishiekwene, expressing amazement openly if “Azu was no longer in Punch”! He must have been shocked that the man on who he spent millions of naira could also dedicate his back page column to accuse him of corruption.
Yet, Balogun was not the only top police officer with whom Mr. Ishiekwene had a pecuniary alliance. Former Lagos state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Young Arabamen, was also his financial ally. Apart from the fact that he consistently assisted Mr. Ishiekwene financially, he was the one who supplied most of the gift items that were given to guests at the burial ceremony of Mr. Ishiekwene's mother in Delta in 2003. I was there and saw it, because Arabamen took the glory for his action by branding all the gift items he supplied. But Arabamen was not the only one involved in the 'unholy alliance' during the said burial ceremony. Mr. Ishiekwene, as the Editor, printed a personal letterhead through which he wrote and solicited funds from governors, politicians, bankers and people of questionable wealth, including former Governor James Ibori of Delta State, who out of respect for his office obliged him.Being reliably informed that the gate of Mr. Ishiekwene's residence is bullet-proof, I have often wondered if the fact that the series of unholy alliance with people of questionable means was responsible for Mr. Ishiekwene's choice of expensive security apparatus at home.
) And there was Ayo Fayose
Mr. Ishiekwene's romance with politicians of doubtful characters is as legendary as his false moral crusade on anti-corruption. But his short romance with former governor Ayo Fayose of Ekiti state had a twist of drama akin to that of Tafa Balogun. Fayose had never hid the fact that he gave Mr. Ishiekwene a cash gift of N1million in February 2005 when he celebrated his 40th birthday at his former residence in Omole estate and that Mr. Ishiekwene was a beneficiary of several contracts from his administration. However, their relationship went sour immediately Fayose was impeached and Mr. Ishiekwene lambasted him in one of his columns. Being loquacious, Fayose has said it to the hearing of many people that Mr. Ishiekwene was an ingrate and a false defender of the ethics of journalism.
5) Brand new Chevrolet as a gift
In December 2007, Mr. Ishiekwene got a parting gift from the outgoing Comptroller General of Customs, Joseph Gyan, for being a good ally that gave him positive coverage in the media. The black car is one of the several in the garage of Mr. Ishiekwene who had openly described himself as a car freak. I should know because I was in the ED, Publications' house on Friday February 19 for a surprise 45th birthday party organised for him by his wife. Being one of the last set to leave his house that Friday, oblivious of the desperation to force me out of Punch, I was there when a former staff of The Punch, Funso Aina, made a jocular remark that Mr. Ishiekwene's house was more of an auto mart. Sundry abuse of office, etc I thought I should not end this petition without detailing a couple of abuse of office and actions that qualify as ethical misconduct on the part of Mr. Ishiekwene, which, when verified, would reveal a deep-rooted disposition to using the system for personal gains on the one hand and refusing to own up when his decision was either wrong or did not go down well with you sir.
1) Yusuf Alli and the problematic headline of 2007
Sometimes in late 2007 when Alhaji Yussuf Ali was still the editor, you were displeased with the lead headline about Obasanjo approving the transfer of Bakassi that was credited to the National Assembly. You had justifiably queried the choice of the headline because it was at variance with the import of the story. What you did not know sir, was the fact that the problematic headline, which as I understand it, ultimately contributed to the removal of Alhaji Alli as the editor was cast by Mr. Ishiekwene, who had demanded from Alli as the editor that he must see the news pages before they were submitted. I knew about that development as a Member of the Editorial Board then and like every other member of the Board had detected the error. But we heard reliably on the Board that not only was the headline cast by the ED Publications but that he also begged the Editor to protect him by not disclosing to you that he (Alli) did not cast the problematic headline.If that error was used against Alhaji Alli, as many suspected it must have, then it must have been an unconscionable direct boss to the editor that would have been there with you sir, murderously silent when a subordinate was being punished for an error he did not commit. I can make an easy guess that Alhaji Ali would be willing to testify on that problematic headline as indeed the catalogue of infractions and corrupt practices perpetrated by Mr. Ishiekwene as the Editor and ED Publications, if he is invited.
2) Yomi Odunuga's exit in 2006
Unknown to you sir, a central figure somewhat connected to the allegations of bribery against Yomi Odunuga and a few staff members in 2006 was Mr. Ishiekwene as the Editor. All the senior correspondents that faced the panel in Lagos knew one thing or the other about Mr. Ishiekwene's penchant for corrupt enrichment. On the day that the correspondents and Assistant Editors involved were being interrogated, Mr. Ishiekwene sent a text messages to a couple of them to shield him. The affected correspondents obliged him and chose to go down alone.
3) A spurious letter to the American embassy
In the summer of 2008, Mr. Ishiekwene deliberately bypassed procedure by issuing two different sets of letters on Punch's letterhead for two correspondents, Yemi Kolapo and Kemi Obasola, to assist them secure a referral letter from the Public Affairs Section of the American consulate and ultimately to obtain American visas. While it might not count for much that both the office of the Editor and the Admin department were bypassed in issuing the letters, Mr. Ishiekwene lied to the American consulate and nearly brought the company into disrepute by stating in the letter that Kemi Obasola was a correspondent covering politics, and that she was being sponsored by Punch Nigeria Limited to attend a course and would conduct interviews with known American politicians. None of those was true; so much so that when the officers of the Public Affairs Section of the consulate called me on phone as the Editor to inquire if I was aware of the letter from the office of the ED publications and if indeed the ladies were covering politics, I had to take a painful decision to protect the image of the company by not revealing the truth.
Mr. Ishiekwene knew that although Yemi Kolapo was going on vacation and had applied for a short course in the US in order to renew her visa, Kemi Obasola was only accompanying her on the trip for the funeral party of Yemi Kolapo's mother who had passed on in April.I know this to be true because the two ladies had earlier approached me on the real reason why they were going to the US and I had said it would be ethically wrong for me to approve a trip for an Obasola who on Chairman's advice had then been redeployed from Politics Division to the Education and Science division (that was the first time she would be redeployed before the Lagos story controversy) and that it would be better if she could take a week's leave from her next annual leave since the trip was a private affair.
I hope you would understand that in being this painstaking, all I have tried to do is to present, on the one hand, my own side of the story on how the events of Tuesday February 16 constituted a flagrant use of ambush tactics and injustice against me by the ED Publications. And on the other hand, I have used this petition to show that with a long record of corrupt enrichment and double standard as well as an obvious clash of interest, Mr. Ishiekwene does not appear to have the moral justification to stand in judgement against me in a case in which he, obviously, is the one who has an abiding interest. I have tried to stay within the facts of the matter as much as possible and where possible suggested names of those who could be contacted for verification, or indeed be invited for interrogation, being convinced that for the values of fairness and justice that the PUNCH Managements holds dear, it would only be proper to investigate the allegations raised in this petition.
Although they are germane and could be helpful in establishing the true nature of Mr. Ishiekwene, I did not include other well-known allegations of how former Lagos State governor, supplied the cement for the building of his first house in Alagbado area of Lagos or how Alhaji Aliko Dangote, former governor Victor Attah of Akwa Ibom state and Chief Arumemi Johnson were key financiers of his new home in Magodo. Nor did I include the part of security scare at the airport when Mr. Ishiekwene as the Editor went to receive bags of money sent to him from the National Assembly in Abuja, preparatory to the burial of his mother; or the open secret that he ha already acquired a printing press in Lagos; or even the fact that in spite of his crusade against Michael Aondoakaa, Mr. Ishiekwene had at least once received bribe in dollars from the former Attorney General of the Federation through one of Aondoakaa's contacts.
All I seek is to offer my own side of the story on the Lagos state controversy, in which I have no special interest whatsoever and had never expressed an opinion through my back page column. While I hope that you would consider it welcoming that a probe of all the issues raised be carried out, I shall leave to the judgement of yourself and the good members of the Board to determine if the heavily tainted profile of Mr. Ishiekwene, on the Lagos issues and other matters, fits into the ideals that PUNCH would accept as being representative of good ethics, professionalism, justice and accountability.
Thank You. Sincerely,
CC: Dr. Lekan Are
Ms. Lola Ibi-Aboderin
Mr. Wale Aboderin
Mrs. Angela Emuwa
Mr. Seye Aboderin
Mr. Ademola Osinubi
Mrs. Shalewa Aderemi
Mrs. Olubunmi Oluoch