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Betta Edu: Forces behind her fall

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..as North, South fight over largesse

By OBINNA EZUGWU

At 37, beautiful and energetic, Betta Edu had the world under her feet. Connected to some of the closest people to President Bola Tunubu, the erstwhile national women leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), had little trouble securing the ministerial portfolio of the new but very lucrative ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.

But inexperience has dealt her a deadly blow, and less than five months into her new role, the former Cross River State commissioner for health has fallen from grace to grass, mocked and ridiculed as the face of corruption, and the Tunubu government, wanting in legitimacy, has quickly cashed in on an opportunity to show some seriousness.

Edu, it would be recalled, was suspended by President Tinubu after a leaked memo she addressed to the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF), Dr. Oluwatoyin Madein, showed that she ordered the transfer of N585.2 million into the private bank account of a civil servant, Oniyelu Bridget Mojisola, who is the accountant in charge of grants for vulnerable Nigerians. The said sum, it was gathered, was meant for payment to vulnerable groups in Akwa Ibom, Ogun and Cross River states.

She also approved funds for flight tickets and airport taxis for the ministry’s staff to Kogi, a state with no airport. Though her defense in this case could be that typically officials travelling to a state without an airport would use the airport in a nearby state.

Initially obdurate amid the outrage the memo generated, the embattled minister, through her special adviser, Rasheed Olanrewaju Zubair, first denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the N585,198,500.00 was approved. And subsequently on Saturday, she took to her Facebook page to dismiss the fraud allegation against her as baseless and an alleged attempt by mischief makers to undermine her ministry’s effort to fight corruption.

But she must have miscalculated, failed to read the room, and would soon find herself standing alone in the cold. The AGF Madein came out to deny approving the payment, arguing that her office does not make payments for projects and programmes on behalf of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs).

She also noted that no bulk payment is supposed to be made to an individual’s account in the name of the project accountant, contrary to the minister’s position that it was legal for Onyelu Bridget to be paid the money as the Project Accountant for Grants to Vulnerable Groups (GVG).

Not everyone is satisfied with the explanation of Mrs Madein, who some have accused of being cahoot with the suspended minister, even as others have said she ought to explain to Nigerians the specific steps she took to stop the illegal transfer. But in the meantime, she remains safe, while Edu faces the music.

On Monday, the inevitable suspension happened, and the ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Abel Olumuyiwa Enitan, has since assumed responsibility. Edu is officially gone, disgraced and left in the cold by his close friends in the presidency – some of whom, like the Minister of Interior, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, have gone on PR overdrive to save their own heads.

Edu, tired and despondent, was pictured in the office of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) – where she’s now a regular guest, with her passports seized – looking like a ghost of her former self.

She was grilled by the anti graft agency for hours on Tuesday, after her predecessor, Sadiya Umar Farouq, who is also facing allegations of corruption in the handling of N37.1 billion social intervention funds during her tenure.

Betta Edu

 

Her attempt to see Tinubu shortly after her suspension on Monday, was of course, unsuccessful, as the president may have decided to use her to make a point about his administration’s non tolerance for impunity, one for which he has received commendation from many, including the leading opposition figures Atiku Abubakar, former vice president and candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in the last presidential election, and Peter Obi, his Labour Party counterpart, both of whom nonetheless insisted that it was not enough.

Tinubu, who came to power with a poor reputation, and had faced persistent criticism for wasting public funds on needles foreign trips, among other wasteful spending such as budgeting over N100 billion to purchase cars for lawmakers, and had indeed budgeted and approved N15.9bn for himself and the vice president, Kashim Shettima, to travel in the first six months of his government, is now basking in the euphoria of anti corruption image, with the EFCC chairman, Ola Olokoyede, boasting when he received the Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in Abuja on Tuesday, that under his principal, nobody is too big to be investigated. The grandstanding being at the expense of the Cross River born medical doctor who is now known as the face of the N585million scandal.

There could be a point in the argument that the amount involved is way too insignificant to justify the level of uproar it has generated, given the humongous amounts of money public officials have been busted for stealing in recent months and years, but more than the amount involved, the scandal has exposed the level of impunity with which public office holders flagrantly disregard the law of the land. And for many, this ought to be the focus.

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The minister had for instance, insisted that she broke no laws even when her request clearly contravened Chapter Seven, Section 713 of Nigeria’s Financial Regulations 2009, which states that “Personal money shall in no circumstances be paid into a government bank account, nor shall any public money be paid into a private account.”

But many agree that it’s a deep rooted systemic rot entrenched in the civil service, one which the minister, while she may also have dubious intentions of her own, could be a victim of, as was the case with Adenike Grange, former minister of health, who was approached by ministry officials at the airport to approve payouts of unspent vote for the year. The approval, which she eventually gave, would dent her otherwise sterling career, even when she profited nothing from the approved sum.

“What I sense in the case of Edu is a conspiracy to bring her down,” said a civil service source, who craved anonymity. “She was deliberately allowed to fall into that trap. Ideally, what happens is that even when a minister, out of lack of experience, wants to commit such blunder, the experience civil servants will advise. The question is, who leaked the memo in the first place?”

Indeed, there’s been suggestions that Edu’s downfall may not be unconnected with the exposition of corruption under the National Social Investment Programme Agency (NSIPA), which led to the suspension of its CEO, Halima Shehu, by the president, who subsequently named Akindele Egbuwalo, the national N-Power programme manager, to replace her in acting capacity, pending the conclusion of investigations.

The anti graft agency has meanwhile, said it traced N34 billion placed in six different banks liked to Shehu and her relatives

Insider sources, who spoke to BH indicated that Shehu’s sack did not go down well with certain interest groups in the ministry, who may have connived to set the suspended minister up. It was gathered that part of the issue in contention is the N60bn domiciled in NSIPA’s account, the control of which pitted Edu’s southern camp against Shehu’s northern front.

Corruption pool

Since its creation as the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development by former president Muhammadu Buhari in August 2019, the ministry, which changed to the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation under Tinubu, has become in many people’s opinions, a cesspool of corruption.

Alleged N30bn fraud: Sadiya Farouq arrives EFCC office

Sadiya Farouq

From the time of the former minister, Sadiya Umar Farouq, who is currently facing EFCC probe over alleged graft to the tune of N37bn, the ministry has operated with near to zero accountability. The former minister had for instance, claimed she spent humongous amounts of money to feed school children, even during the COVID lock down. Many claims of payment to vulnerable households were also not verified.

“The public outrage over her (Edu’s) action, I think is misplaced,” said Frank Tietie, a lawyer and Arise TV analyst. “The reason is that it is an obfuscation of issue. She made a complaint to the EFCC over what she considers a malfeasance. But what we’re now seeing is the real issues being overtaken by something she’s done, which I consider as a norm in the public service.

“So, if the president is going to be dispassionate, I think he should excuse her and take up the challenge of overhauling the entire public finance system.”

Reflecting on the case of Minister Adenike Grange, Osita Chidoka, former aviation minister, also contended in a submission on X that the Edu saga is only “a reflection of the systemic failure in our public service.”

Chidoka noted that from publicly available and unverified reports, the Honourable Minister received a memo from Mr. Thalis Olonite Apalowo, National Program Manager, Grants for Vulnerable Group, to approve a request for cash distribution to vulnerable groups in Kogi State on 6 November 2023. On the same day, the Minister approved.

He contended that the program manager ought not to have written to the Hon. Minister directly. “The bulk payment of allowances to staff must have been a tradition in the Ministry before now. The Hon. Minister, due to inexperience, pressure, or greed, fell for the organised scam prevalent in the Ministry since the disastrous President Buhari years,” he said.

“The next day, 7 November 2023, the Permanent Secretary, Abel Olumuyiwa Enitan, an experienced civil servant (from public records, he has been Permanent Secretary since 2018), minuted the approval to the DFA to “process further as approved above.””

Another issue, according to Chidoka, is that the Permanent Secretary is the only person in the Ministry, who should seek approval from the Minister.

Mr. Apalowo, he said, “should have sent the memo to Permanent Secretary ab initio. He ought to have sent the memo to the internal audit, for audit and compliance, to budget to verify fund availability and then forward it to the Minister for approval.

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“The internal audit, if not in cahoot, would have flagged the anomalies like air tickets to Kogi and other issues. Mr. Enitan’s job is to guide and advise the Hon. Minister. He abdicated responsibility

“The Hon. Minister’s letter, if true, to the Accountant General seeking disbursement to private accounts is the ultimate proof of the failure of the bureaucracy led by Mr. Enitan. My initial questions would be: are these companies contractors of the Ministry? Did they go through a procurement process? Are the payments to the companies total payments, mobilisation payments, or payments based on bank bonds?

“Procurement process documents should have accompanied the letter to the Accountant General indicating the contractual obligations of the Ministry and the approval of the Ministerial Tenders Board. The payments bore the hallmarks of corruption.

“Hon. Ministers have no business with payments, procurements, and human resources issues in the Ministry. The Permanent Secretary is the Chief Accounting Officer of the Ministry and seeks the Minister’s approval when incurring expenditures.

“The permanent secretary is the single point of contact between the Minister and the bureaucracy. At the same time, the Minister is the point of contact with superior and external organs of government and the public.

“The debacle is a clear indication of a government that has not prioritised respect for rules and the training of its appointees. While not peculiar to this administration, but an atmosphere surrounding this government, that appears to reward political appointees for providing conduits for cash-for-patronage seems to be deepening the crisis.

“The Head of Service should investigate and, if found guilty, sanction the Permanent Secretary, Mr. Enitan, and the National Programs Manager, Mr. Apalowo, for clear breaches of civil service procedures.”

Tunji-Ojo battles involvement

Amid the controversy over Edu’s actions, some Nigerians have called for the suspension of Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo, minister of interior, whose firm New Planet Project Limited, got a consultancy contract from the ministry of humanitarian affairs and poverty alleviation.

Tunji-Ojo is known to be close to the suspended minister and some have suggested that the firm could not have gotten a contract from the humanitarian affairs ministry without his influence or knowledge.

Interior Tunji-Ojo admits wife’s firm got N438m payment from Betta Edu

Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo

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But when appeared on Channels Television on Tuesday, Tunji-Ojo clarified that he had in 2019, resigned from the firm he co-founded with his wife in 2009 when he was elected into the House of Representatives.

Tunji-Ojo, who represented Akoko north-east/Akoko north-west federal constituency in Ondo state between 2009 and 2023 before he was appointed as interior minister by President Bola Tinubu, nonetheless, accepted that he founded the company said to be currently run by his wife.

“Yes, I founded the company (Planet Projects LTD) 15 years ago,” he said. “But in 2019, when I won election, I resigned as director of the company almost five years ago. “I’m not a director. I resigned as far back as 2019 and CAC certified it,”

When confronted that he could have used his office to influence a contract for a company in which he is a shareholder in the ministry of his colleague, he said public service rules do not prohibit him from being a shareholder.

“How could I have done that? I’m minister of Interior not minister of humanitarian. On what basis will I do that? Is a company not entitled to bid for anything?, Mr. Tunji-Ojo said..

The interior minister further said, “The question should be, if the company was given a job, did they do the job? Was the job validly awarded?”

His explanation did not, however impress many who have called for his probe and possible suspension, a call an apparently syndicated PR piece on Wednesday, blamed on “passport cabal” fighting back against his reforms in the ministry.

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“The Minister of Interior must be suspended as well. During his appearance on Channels TV, he inadvertently revealed more than he intended, exposing the truth. He admitted to owning New Planet Project Ltd and acknowledged his wife’s role as a director,” said Bulama Bukarti, @bulamabukarti, an analyst and senior fellow at the Tony Blair Institute.

“Furthermore, Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo confirmed that the alleged N438m was transferred from the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs to his company. His defence, or rather excuse, hinges on resigning from the directorship, claiming no involvement in day-to-day operations despite being an owner of the private company. He expects Nigerians to believe he had no part in securing a nearly half-billion naira contract for his own company, where his wife serves as a director. The rapid completion of a high-value consultancy contract within months raises suspicions.

“Questions about the company’s qualifications, services rendered, and the necessity of such an expensive consultancy for a ministry that supposed to be assisting the vulnerable must be addressed. The entire situation, from inception to conclusion, reeks of corruption. The minister’s demeanor during Seun’s interview further highlights the questionable nature of his involvement. President Tinubu should suspend and investigate him, scrutinizing other contracts issued by the disgraced minister of humongous corruption. Tinubu cannot allow these shameless scammers to tarnish his government’s reputation from its inception; decisive action now is imperative.”

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