in 2014, the President of the National Association of Women Journalists, Mrs. Ifeyinwa Omowole, sold the idea of low cost housing for women journalists in the state to the National Union of Journalists, Lagos State Council.
Three years down the line, with contributions running into almost N100m, no journalist or contributor to the scheme has got any house while prospect of getting refunds for their money has become bleak.
The questions arose about what has become of the contributions of more than 700 subscribers and why there only exist three “prototype units” on the said site.
The 800-plot project called Pen Jewel City, a low-cost housing scheme, was to be built by an international organisation, Counselling Research Consulting & Investment Africa, as empowerment for women journalists.
The pool of subscribers was supposed to raise $250,000 representing 40 per cent of the cost.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that NUJ had 1,634 plots of land at Mowe, Ogun State, which the union acquired about a decade ago.
Omowole, an employee of the News Agency of Nigeria, said when it became difficult to get land for the NAWOJ project, which CRCI Africa was supposed to help it build, she approached the NUJ to make use of 800 plots of its land, a request which was granted, thus making NUJ a stakeholder in the project.
Subscribers were initially asked to pay $250 each, with the target that if 1,000 subscribers paid $250 each, NAWOJ would be able to raise the required $250,000.
Along the line, it was learnt that subscribers were asked to pay more in dollars with some contributions reaching as much as $1,000. Some also paid various sums of money in naira. A contribution register sighted by our correspondent showed naira contribution that ranged from N200,000 to N1.5m
Omowole said the actual counterpart funding for each subscriber was N2m.
But when NAWOJ and its members still did not meet up, CRCI Africa pulled out of the deal.
By that time, a dollar account with UBA opened in the name of NAWOJ in which subscribers deposited money, had got a deposit of more than $220,000.
Omowole and the then treasurer of NAWOJ, Tosin Odusola, an employee of Eko FM, were the signatories to the account.
Following the pulling out of CRCI Africa, a Lagos-based local developer, Prime Waterview, was contacted to handle the project.
Our correspondent confirmed that Omowole informed the NUJ, headed at the time by Mr. Deji Elumoye and the Lagos chapter of NAWOJ of the new developer.
On March 31, 2016, a withdrawal of $227,000 was suddenly made by Omowole, triggering an alert by an insider, who was monitoring the transactions on the account.
A day before the MoU with Prime Waterview was to be signed, Elumoye along with the Chairperson of the Lagos chapter of NAWOJ, Mrs. Dupe Olaoye-Osinkolu, confronted Omowole whether the project account had been tampered with and she allegedly denied it.
But the following day when she was confronted with the statement of the account showing the withdrawal of almost the entire amount in the account, she allegedly started to beg them not to expose her.
This was confirmed by a statement Elumoye made to the national headquarters of NUJ, which was obtained by our correspondent.
Elumoye’s statement reads in part, “There was actually a huge withdrawal from the UBA dollar account by Ify Omowole, and I drew her attention to this in March 2016 at Iyalla (Lagos office of NUJ) a day before we were to sign the MOU with the indigenous construction firm and she claimed there was nothing like that.
“The following day, when I showed her the bank’s statement of account, she started blabbing, saying we should first sign the MOU before looking into that. But the Lagos State NAWOJ Chairperson, Dupe Olaoye-Osinkolu, AKA Iya Labour, insisted that would not be. At this point, Ify started begging Iya Labour and when it was becoming rowdy, I had to take my leave and we had to suspend signing of the MOU.”
The veracity of this statement was confirmed by Elumoye.
In another part of the statement, the former NUJ chairman wrote that “Ify kept all information exclusively to herself and did all negotiations with all the contractors without a recourse to Lagos NUJ.”
When asked if she indeed first denied making any withdrawal from the dollar account, Omowole dismissed the story as false.
She said, “I cannot remember anytime Elumoye and myself had such a discussion. The question I was asked was if we had paid the developer and I said no.
“I said nobody could pay the developer without his consent. At the end of the day, we brought out the statement of accounts and they saw that nothing was missing. If there was any problem, the MOU would not have been signed.”
But when the former NUJ President was told that Omowole denied his version of the story, he replied that he wrote things the way he saw them at the time.
He said, “At a point, I did not have much information about the project but by the time the Lagos NUJ was fully involved, I got a clearer picture about what really transpired.
“When the case was conceived, it was more of a NAWOJ thing. They later believed they would need the land we bought for our members if the project was to be successful.
“When we started getting information from NAWOJ about the project, that was when some of these allegations started flying. There is no cover-up. The NAWOJ President did not bribe me. I only discovered the true state of things later.
“Thank God the developer has even given a break-down of how the money was spent and even confirmed that the project would still go on. The contribution in question is between N80m and N85m.”
But what happened to the $227,000 withdrawn by Omowole on March 31, 2016?
This was a question our correspondent pushed to her and she explained that she withdrew the money, converted and deposited it in a naira account.
Omowole claimed to have changed the money to naira at a black market conversion rate of N309.50 to a dollar.
But verifiable records show that in March 2016, dollar to naira exchange rate was at N394.
Omowole said she converted the $227,000 to N70.2m and deposited same in a naira account she opened in the name of NAWOJ which she and Odusola were both signatories to.
But in March 2016, $227,000 converted in parallel market would be N89,438,000.
When Saturday PUNCH reached out to the former NAWOJ Lagos Chairman, (Olaoye-Osinkolu), she also confirmed that Omowole made the withdrawal and conversion unilaterally.
Olaoye-Oshinkolu said at a time when the Federal Government put a ban on the lodgement of dollar currencies in banks, subscribers were paying their dollar contributions by cash at the Lagos office of the NUJ.
She said when the ban was lifted temporarily, the currencies were paid into NAWOJ’s account.
When the ban was put in place again, people continued paying by cash.
But she said there was an instance when Omowole demanded the contributions be brought to her by hand.
She said, “Mrs. Omowole said I should bring the available dollars to her in front of a bank at VI. Because I did not want to be robbed and then be held responsible for losing people’s money, I called the NUJ Chairman to inform him about it and he advised me against it.
“I immediately went to a UBA branch and deposited the money there and informed Mrs. Omowole. That day, the bank did not collect all the notes because of the dates on some of them.
“They were in $100, $50, $20 and $10 notes and amounted to $26,360. I informed her and she told me to hand over the currency to Odusola, her treasurer.”
A written receipt for the money signed by Odusola was obtained by Saturday PUNCH.
Another similar receipt showed that the treasurer collected $1,250 by cash.
These monies allegedly did not make it into NAWOJ’s account.
But when Saturday PUNCH asked the treasurer about it and other allegations of collusion with Omowole, she declined shedding light on the matter.
“A high-level meeting was held a few days ago and I have established the facts there. I cannot add or deduct from it. If all facts have been established and they have taken their decisions, I cannot say something else. I may be the treasurer but I am not the chief accountant,” she said.
When told that there were allegations specifically relating to money she collected personally, Odusola insisted that “all these have been discussed and the facts of the matter established. I cannot repeat what has been concluded again.”
Our correspondent also asked Omowole if Odusola collected money on her behalf or delivered money to her by cash.
She said, “I never collected any money by hand. NAWOJ did not collect money because we are not resident in Lagos as the national exco. Because of the dollar policy, some of the money was collected by cash at the secretariat because subscribers were agitating. Some of them were deposited in the bank.”
Meanwhile, contractor and chairman of Prime Waterview Limited, Prince Adetunji Ogunwusi was said to have confirmed during a stakeholders’ meeting that NAWOJ had mobilised his company with N78m.
But on the site, only three prototypes of the buildings have so far been constructed.
The prototypes have been rejected by NUJ and NAWOJ members as unsuitable for habitation as a result of the tiny size of the rooms.
Saturday PUNCH learnt that there are 713 subscribers on record. But the current Lagos chairman of NUJ, Dr. Qasim Akinreti of Voice of Nigeria, said more people aside the 713 paid to NAWOJ, a record of which he said was not handed over to him when he emerged chairman after the September election of the NUJ.
Akinreti said he was also not availed with the comprehensive number of how much was contributed by subscribers in dollars and naira.
Omowole too told Saturday PUNCH that she could not give an exact figure.
She said, “We have about 713 or 715 subscribers. But we carved out 800 plots. If the people had paid their counterpart contribution and the project had taken off, more people would have joined.
“I won’t give a figure (of how much was contributed in dollars and naira) without others’ agreement. It has to be agreed among all of us.
“When we come together anytime I am in Lagos, we may give a concrete figure. I told you the money was eventually changed to naira. All I can say is that it was less than N100m.”
Findings revealed that the balance in the accounts of the NAWOJ project currently stands at N1.1m, a record of which was handed over to Akinreti.
He commissioned a committee on Friday to look into the matter of the housing project and allegations of mismanagement, with a mandate to give an interim report in three months.
He said, “The unfortunate truth is that it is not easy for anyone to get a refund and pull out at this point because of the MoU and until otherwise agreed, subscribers are still bound by it.
“All parties have not been faithful to their part of the agreement. The NAWOJ President said some people got refund but in the handing over note, there was no record of anybody who got refund.
“The developer said he had spent N78m, which he got in three tranches. I have got the confidence of the developer on the project. People are not likely to get a refund but they will likely get their houses in the long run.”
However, the NUJ chairman confirmed that the prototypes on the site were not good enough and said he did not see a justification for the N78m allegedly expended on the project.
Akinreti promised that those who paid for the NUJ land at the site would get their land allocations by December once their payments were verified.
Meanwhile, Omowole insisted that her union was in negotiation with “funders” that would still make the project possible.
She said, “Efforts to get funding are ongoing. When the developer built a model, we had to stop them from working when we noticed that the rooms were not as large as expected; the land allocated to each bungalow was not big enough.
“When we signed the MOU, we were supposed to pay N400m, then pay N1bn after four months. But we have not even been able to pay the initial amount.
“Every money that was given to us, we gave to the developer. Because of that, everybody agreed that we give the developer till next year, let them source for funding with our cooperation.”
When Saturday PUNCH reached out to the developer, Ogunwusi, over the quality of work that had been done with N78m, he replied by text that he was in Germany and that he had given an account of the project before a meeting of the NUJ.
When told that our correspondent was not privy to the content of the discussion at the meeting, he said he would rather do a face-to-face interview when he was back in Lagos.
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Source : http://punchng.com/tags/journalists/2567