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Otuoke Church: President Jonathan Committed No Crime - Reuben Abati

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As controversy continues to trail the church 'gift' to President Goodluck Jonathan and his Otuoke community in Ogbia Local Council of Bayelsa State by the Italian outfit, Gitto Construzioni Generali Nigeria Limited (GCG), the Presidency has come out strongly

 saying Jonathan did nothing wrong, and dismissing the uproar as 'another mischievous attempt [by opponents] to denigrate President Jonathan, cast unjustifiable aspersions on his personal integrity and distract him from the serious business of governance.'

The Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), which condemned the 'donation,' asked the National Assembly to initiate impeachment processes against the President. In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the party said: 'To know the gravity of the President's self-admission of soliciting the church 'gift' from the Managing Director of GCG, one needs to understand Section 6 of the Code of Conduct for public officers embodied in the First Schedule of the 1999 Constitution and the Code of Conduct and Tribunal Act (CAP C15) Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.'

But in a terse and laconic press statement, Reuben Abati, Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity discounted such claims, arguing that Gitto merely fulfilled its corporate social responsibility: 'It is indeed ironic that the groups and individuals now castigating the President because a company freely chose to fulfill its corporate social responsibility by helping to renovate a communal place of worship, are also amongst those who constantly berate companies doing business in the Niger Delta for not doing enough to support the development of their host communities. Examples of such corporate assistance to communities, cities and states abound across Nigeria. The President's accusers are certainly not unaware of the fact that the famous Millennium Park in Abuja was donated to the city by a construction company, but we do not recall that anyone was ever accused of receiving the park or other similar communal projects as a bribe.'

The statement further said: 'For the benefit of the unwary who might be taken in by the antics of an unscrupulous opposition that has little or no regard for the truth in the pursuit of their self-serving agenda, the Presidency wishes to state emphatically that President Jonathan never solicited or received a church as 'bribe' from any contractor. Yes, a contractor who has worked and continues to work in Bayelsa state and other parts of Nigeria thought it fit, in fulfillment of its corporate social responsibility, to facilitate the renovation of the small  church in the President's home town of Otuoke. It takes a lot of desperation to translate this act of social responsibility for which there are innumerable precedents in our country into a crime for which the usual suspects are now calling for the 'impeachment' of President Jonathan.' / understands that Jonathan and Gitto are not strange bedfellows. Their strong romance dates back to when GEJ was governor of Bayelsa State. Then, the firm was the state's major contractor. As governor, Jonathan awarded contracts for the Tower Hotel, Gateway Road and other projects to Gitto. And Jonathan is not even the first Nigerian president to maintain such fraternity with the Italian firm. Jonathan's predecessors, especially former President Obasanjo, reportedly had a strong affinity with Gitto. OBJ patronized Gitto with juicy contracts such as the construction of the Second River Niger Bridge. The N58.6 billion bridge, which was planned to be completed within three and half years under the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) deal, is yet to take shape. Also, the company handled the last phase of the National Ecumenical Centre, Abuja, which was completed during the tenure of Obasanjo. Gitto was one of the major contractors that handled the controversial OBJ Presidential Library in Abeokuta which currently hosts the UNESCO Category Two Institute.

This partly explains why Abati, in his statement said: 'For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, the renovated church in Otuoke does not belong to President Jonathan or his family. The Church belongs to the Anglican Communion and the entire Otuoke Community. It has existed for generations and is not a new church 'donated' to President Jonathan by his 'contractor friend' as is being mischievously alleged.'

President Jonathan was reported to have complained to the managing director of the firm about the aging structure, which he deemed unfit for the status of his village, upon which the construction company then re-built the church. Since the dedication of the supposedly harmless 'gift' of the 400-capacity church building last weekend, some eminent Nigerians and groups have condemned it.

The Labor movement cautioned Jonathan against gifts that may cast aspersion on the exalted office. The President of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Peter Esele, said if it was discovered that Jonathan indeed solicited and got the church 'gift' from a contractor that had benefited from government, 'then it is unfortunate.' The Hope Democratic Party (HDP) presidential candidate, Ambrose Owuru, said the reconstruction of a church by Gitto would fuel corruption and lawlessness. Owuru described it as inappropriate and a violation of the law and urged the President to publicly reject the offer because it was morally wrong for his community under whatever guise to accept it from a government contractor.

But Azaiki, a former Secretary to the Bayelsa State Government , said it was wrong for any person or group of persons to insinuate that Gitto built the church for the President as it was not the President's personal property. He said the church belongs to the people and 'there is nothing wrong if Gitto or any other company built a church, a school, market or any other public structure for the community. Azaiki said rather than focus on any interpretation some people would want to ascribe to the renovation of the building, Nigerians should look at the overall benefit of the church to the community.

To the Chairman of the Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) in the state Mr. Sunny Frank Oputu, there was an undertone to the 'gift.' He said if Gitto was so generous, how many of such projects had it donated to other communities in the state? The CNPP boss claimed that Sylva lost the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship ticket because he did renew the contract for the Tower Hotel to Gitto.

Already, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has petitioned the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate the Italian firm's conduct and the extent of the President's involvement in what it described as a 'Greek gift' to Jonathan. In the petition dated Monday, April 2, 2012, SERAP said: '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 firm that has sought and obtained huge contracts from the Federal Government.

But Abati insisted that: 'President Jonathan has not committed any crime or violation of the Code of Conduct for Public Officers by being present at the dedication of the very humble community church building and publicly acknowledging the assistance of a corporate entity in its renovation. Those peddling allegations to the contrary know very well that their charges are baseless and unsustainable.  If they must oppose for the sake of opposition, let them desist from peddling patent falsehoods and make a greater effort to be a responsible opposition by offering intelligent and constructive criticism,' the statement concluded.