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N683 billion TETFUND: C’mittee of VCs accuse Reps of extortion

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N683 billion TETFUND: C'mittee of VCs accuse Reps of extortion

A simmering tension is brewing in the camp of the Committee of Vice Chancellors over a controversial letter from the House of Representatives’ Committee on TETFUND to the heads of federal universities to stay action on the implementation of the N683 billion 2024 intervention fund the federal government recently approved for public tertiary institutions in the country .

According to sources familiar with the matter, the vice chancellors of public universities in Nigeria are fiercely warming up to stoutly against what they view as a grand new extortion method by members of the committee to rip them off through threats of strict oversight in the matter of the N683 billion.

Recall that on January 12, 2024 the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) made public President Bola Tinubu’s approval to release 2024 intervention funds for tertiary institutions. The fund is expected to make a difference, and go a long way in solving some of challenges public schools are facing, though some still say it’s just a drop in the ocean

What ever it’s, it will provide some sort of respite, and the money is twice the amount of N320 billion released last year.

Sources say that each university will get N1.9 billion comprising N1.6 billion annual direct disbursement and N250 million from zonal intervention fund.

In like manner, each polytechnic is expected to pocket N1.1 billion; N1 billion as annual direct disbursement and N150 million from zonal intervention fund , while each of the colleges of education will have on its coffers the sum of N1.3 billion each, N1.2 billion being the annual direct disbursement, and N150 million will be sourced from zonal intervention fund.

Sources hinted that hours after the funds were made public, federal lawmakers, specifically, House Committee on TETFUND, chaired by Miriam Onuoha (APC, Imo), wrote the Committee of Provosts of Colleges of Education, the Committee of Rectors of Polytechnics and the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, instructing them to stay action on the implementation of the intervention fund until they are cleared to proceed by lawmakers.

In the letter dated 12 January, seen by Business Hallmark, the House committee instructed all heads of tertiary institutions to “stay action on the implementation process until submission and appearance before the committee is concluded”.

The lawmakers then requested vice chancellors to submit “full implementation details, including but not limited to the drawings, designs and specifications for all projects, procurement and services as contained in your 2024 TETFUND Normal Intervention Allocation letter issued to your Institution.

“All submissions in thirty hard copies and a Soft copy are expected to reach the Committee Secretariat in Room 305, Third Floor, White House, House of Representatives, National Assembly Complex on or before Friday 23 February, 2024 while your appearance before the Committee is slated for Tuesday 27 February 2024 at Committee Room 107, House of Representatives, New building, National Assembly by 2:00 p.m.,” the letter read in part.

Competent sources told Business Hallmark that the letter from the green chambers sparked angst, resentment and led to a firestorm of debate among vice chancellors, with some of them labelling the action of the legislators as another discreet ploy to extort them.

In telephone calls and WhatsApp exchanges, among themselves, the vice chancellors were said to have resolved to call the bluff of the Committee, fuming and vowing to resist the move. The heads of the tertiary institutions are said to have expressed anger and frustration over incessant demand by the legislature for money, and resolved to work together to resist what they called the current misadventures.

“They (lawmakers) want to know the contracts that are available so that they can send their agents as contractors. All they want to do is to send in agents,” one vice chancellor told this medium asking not to be named so he is not victimised by the lawmakers.

“Once the money was announced by the government on Friday, it was like a shark that smelled blood in the water; their intervention is to get their boys to bid for some of the contracts,” the source added.

Business Hallmark’s investigations revealed that federal lawmakers are always demanding for money, admission slots, employment slots and the inclusion of their handpicked contractors for projects in schools.

A vice chancellor, who does not want his name revealed for fear of victimisation said, “All the information they are asking us to provide are with Tetfund. So if they mean well, why can’t they ask Tetfund to provide them. Why are they asking us to travel to Abuja with loads of documents? Why can’t they even ask us to email the documents to them. Can’t they do the so-called hearing by Zoom?

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“Do they not know that it will cost all heads of tertiary institutions a lot of money to travel to Abuja by air and by road and then lodge in hotels to attend the so-called hearing? In these days of heightened insecurity, are they not aware of the risks inherent in unnecessary travels?”

Nigerians are already used to reports of extortion by NASS committees.
Not too long ago, there was a slew of reports exposing how some members of the Ad Hoc House Committee Investigating job racketeering in government entities, demanded bribes from agencies, including tertiary institutions.

The series led to the launch of an investigation by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) on the activities of the committee, yet, such bribery schemes persist among lawmakers, who continue to use investigative hearings to perpetrate corruption. Just last week, the Supreme court upheld the five year sentence of former Reps member, Farouk Lawn for involvement in the $500000 bribe on oil subsidy scam probe from Mr. Femi Otedola in 2014.

Against time and for autonomy

Meanwhile, the universities are trying to meet the TETFUND deadline for the process of the implementation of the intervention fund but are now being made to appear before a committee, which they said is trying to usurp the work of the governing councils of the respective universities.

Each school has a governing council and a management team responsible for running the affairs of the institution, including the granting of approval for expenditure for projects. The power of the council is enshrined in the Act of the respective school and forms the fulcrum of the autonomy of each school.

The vice chancellors are of the view that if left unchallenged, this move by the lawmakers could overwhelmingly undermine the autonomy of the universities and erode some of the gains made under the current administration.

After years of struggle, the federal government, in 2023, removed tertiary institutions from the IPPIS, a platform the lecturers have consistently said is against the autonomy enjoyed by the schools.

In addition, the vice chancellors successfully fought against the plan by the federal government to deduct 50 per cent of the internally generated revenue of the schools. After weeks of pressure from the schools, the federal government yielded and exempted the schools.

The VCs believe the showdown with the lawmakers on this intervention fund is one battle they must win as a way of ending the regime of bribery and extortion rampant among members of the National Assembly.
The buzz talk on the campuses centre on the illegality of the move, as universities lecturers insist that the House committee is wrong in writing to universities through the association of vice chancellors, because the Committee of Vice Chancellors is not a statutory body, but just an association.

A source told Business Hallmark that each “university is a legal body with its own law, with its own distinct identity. The consensus among the lecturers is to resist what they termed “the regime of extortion” by the lawmakers.

Most Nigerians don’t have faith in the activities of the National Assembly Committees, which many people say are set up not on the basis of needs but sheer extortion. They view them as
conduits for corruption, often through blackmailing and extortion. These committees are often classified as “juicy and non-juicy”.

For good measure, committees that are over-sighting “rich MDAs” are said to be premium and most sought after.

The chair of the Tetfund Committee, at the centre of this brewing controversy, Ms Onuoha, joined the race for the 10th Assembly speakership but dropped out at the last minute and later voted Abbas Tajudeen, who won the election.

Many believe her chairmanship of the committee on TETFUND was a form of reward for stepping down and being a good party loyalist.

It should be noted that the House of Representatives currently has about 139 Standing Committees with about 25 ad hoc Committees set up since the inauguration of the 10th House in June last year. The duplication of committees means that agencies of government will have to interface with different committees.

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Aside from the TETFUND Committee, there are separate committees for universities, polytechnics and Colleges of Education.
Some of the universities’ VCs that spoke with Business Hallmark lamented the number of committees demanding money under the guise of investigative hearings.

Last year the news went round of how the ad hoc Committee on TETFUND, chaired by Oluwole Oke (PDP, Osun), last moved around tertiary institutions across the country extorting vice chancellors.

The suspected attempt to shake-down vice-chancellors, rectors an provost came against the backdrop of lack of funds at the institutions. It is unclear what the impact of the showdown between the vice chancellors and the lawmakers is going to have on the schools, particularly the students, who have endured periodic shutdowns of schools over disputes between unions and the federal government.

This extortion is coming notwithstanding the huge National Assembly budget of record N344 billion.

Backed by Sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution, the National Assembly has powers to direct or cause to be directed, investigation into the conduct of affairs of any authority charged with the duty of disbursing or administering money appropriated by the National Assembly.

Furthermore, Section 6(d, e and f) of the TETFUND Act gives the Governing Board of TETFUND the power to disburse such funds which have already been approved in the Appropriation Act.

But the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Emmanuel Osodeke, insists the lawmakers were wrong to invite vice-chancellors to defend their projects, adding that the governing councils of the different schools are responsible for approval of projects.

He warned the lawmakers not to interfere in the management of the schools as doing so would constitute breach of autonomy.
“What the lawmakers are doing is completely wrong. It is against the rule. TETFUND has been there since 1994, and nothing of such has happened.

“The schools have governing boards that should determine the process. The National Assembly only has the power to ensure the effective use of the money. We are surprised that now that the money has been approved by the president, the National Assembly is insisting that the VCs should bring it to them for approval. It is very funny and we don’t know where they are getting all these ideas from,” Mr. Osodeke said.

“We have more than 200 or 300 tertiary institutions, so they will come to a committee in the National Assembly to defend their projects, it will take a year. Look at the cost for every vice chancellor to come and defend it and spend three four days in Abuja, if you calculate this, it will run into billions.
“Their interference is causing problems. The National Assembly’s responsibility is to pass the budget, implementation is not their thing. They can do their oversight but not to tell vice-chancellors to go across the governing council of universities, it is making a mockery of democracy,” he said.

“Who is inspecting their own (National Assembly) budget? The same budget they inflated to N340 billion, who is monitoring it? Are they above other agencies?”

ASUU has vowed to join the fight against the lawmakers in the coming weeks.

 

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