Bettagate: Wonders shall never end in Nigeria – Dr. Muiz Banire

Mr. President made my day when on Monday, the 8th day of January, 2024 he announced the suspension of the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Dr Betta Edu. Certainly, this does not imply a proven indictment of the Minister in the imbroglio surrounding the illegal transfer of the sum in excess of five hundred and eighty-five million Naira from the public treasury into a private account. Prior to this development, I had attempted a conversation around the various press statements attributed to the immediate past Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Hajia Sadiya Umar Sadiq; that of the embattled immediate past Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr. Godwin Emefiele and that of Boss Mustapha, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, all denying the suggestion of corruption against them by various groups while at the helms of affairs. That was the mission I set out to achieve in the last two editions of this column but unfortunately could not be realized to the unfolding of other urgent issues such as the death of Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu and the sudden garrulous attitude of some public officials.

But as God works, little did I know that Bettagate was to unveil shortly, helping to drive home the point I wanted to make in that initial edition. Somehow, this will further relegate to the background the discourse around the press statements of the various state actors mentioned above as I am more bothered with the afflictions beleaguering the social investment schemes of the federal government. The scheme is essentially meant to provide social security and bring succour to the vulnerable in the country. It started during the regime of the past administration headed by the reputably incompetent President of Nigeria who introduced same without any safeguard mechanism. Right from the inception of the scheme, I have never believed in its operation as seemingly desirable as it is.

I recall that upon the introduction and domiciliation of the scheme in the office of the then Vice President, Prof Yemi Osibajo, GCON, SAN, I had approached him on an occasion to express my reservation on the scheme. My view simply then was that rather than engage in cash transfer with no meaningful trail and impact on the people or productivity, it would be better to invest the funds in economically impactful ventures otherwise it would amount to sheer waste of resources. I recall advising that if the total sum had been converted into the establishment of agro industries, creating permanent employment for some people, it would automatically provide a much more robust social insurance system for a sizeable number of Nigerians.

A meaningful investment will not only enhance productivity but will show something concrete for the investment. Unfortunately, this piece of advice did not sit well with the administration and the scheme continued with all its lapses. With time, the scheme was unveiled to be a cesspool of corruption with several accusations floating around it. In the first instance, to the best of my knowledge, there was no credible social register in place as there was no genuine household survey conducted to generate this. As usual, available unreliable data were munched together in a haphazard manner to constitute what was purportedly endorsed by the lazy consultants of the international financial institution posing as supervisors , while only protecting their personal interests.

What was regarded then as social was just amalgamation of the names of family, friends, associates and some communal members. Recall that at several times and on several occasions , various civil society organizations and individuals, including my humble self, had called for the release of not only the social register to us for audit and verification.

We also consistently demanded the release of the lists of the beneficiaries of the social investment schemes throughout Buhari’s tenure but none was provided. The entire enterprise was shrouded in secrecy till date. I remember that at a point in time, while schools were closed due to Covid-19 pandemic, pupils were said to have been fed with humongous amounts running into billions of Naira.

All attempts to unearth the beneficiary schools and students failed without a blink from the then president. This was how billions were vanishing without transparency and accountability, and yet President Buhari cared not. There is no better way to describe that era of perfidy than the manner Farouq Kperogi put it, “All that happened during Muhammadu Buhari’s eight-year reign was unstrained, stratospheric, eye-watering corruption the scale of which Nigeria had never experienced.

It was a raucous, brazen, cheerfully irresponsible kleptocratic bazaar. While happened, governance took the backseat, leading me to characterize Buhari’s reign as the era of ‘ungovernance’.” I totally agree with the apt description of the governance holocaust. While I do not want to dwell on the past, the presence is also not looking good until the presidential intervention few days ago. As the Yoruba put it, oju ti o ba maa ba’ni d’ale, ko ni ti aaro ma se ipin which literally means the beginning foretells the end.

The future is certainly not rosy for the same Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation with the early signs we are already experiencing under the suspended Minister. The accusation was initially the release of mind-boggling sum in the Ministry that is unaccounted for under the pretext of verification of social register by way of household survey of over 11 million people withing a month or thereabout. As there was nothing unusual in that, I bothered not myself until the recent information that a whooping sum in excess of 585 million naira was released from the public treasury into a private account of a government official.

My expectation was that the Minister would debunk the allegation but shockingly, her aide, Rasheed Olanrewaju Zubair, Special Adviser to the Minister on Media and Publicity, rather than do that, went on a defence expedition that glaringly confirmed the allegation.

As I read the various reactions from the Minister through her aide and that of the Social Investment Management office through another subordinate of the Minister, I cannot but marvel that truly, wonders shall never end in Nigeria. The initial reaction of the Special Adviser to the Minister on Media and Publicity was that the Minister was being persecuted by those criminals she unveiled, simply, a case of corruption fighting back being made.
In a contradictory manner, a day after, however, the release from the office of the Social Investment Management stated otherwise. Who is then to be believed? As conventional, once a lie is told, you need several others to sustain the trigger.

This is the situation the Minister found herself. In fact, at a point, the suspended Minister had alluded to the fact that the Accountant General’s office was aware and approved the transaction, just for the Accountant General to denounce the story as she did not only confirm the impropriety of such transfer of public fund into a private account, she also revealed the truth that once quarterly disbursement is released to the Ministries, the Accountant General has nothing to do with expenditures. Obviously, both the Minister and her aides seemed to be oblivious of the Financial Regulations of the federal government in taking the wrong step under investigation and in attempting to exculpate the Minister from the allegation.

The extant Financial Regulations confers the power to initiate and superintend financial release on the Chief Accounting Officers of the MDAs, usually the Permanent Secretary.
The essence of this arrangement is to insulate the political office holders from financial transactions that might divert their attention from the ultimate purpose of their appointment and put them in trouble when allegations of financial malfeasance start flying in their Ministries. By Chapter 7, Section 713 of the said Nigeria’s Financial Regulations 2009, mixture of public and private funds is forbidden by anyone in the public service. In fact, it specifically prohibits private funds from being moved into public treasury and public funds from being moved into any private accounts.

To underscore the gravity of contravention, the Regulation further provides that “Any officer who pays public money into a private account is deemed to have done so with a fraudulent intention’.
From the account given by the Minister via her aide, the sum was meant for the vulnerable in the four states of Lagos, Cross River, Ogun and Akwa Ibom States. The said amount of N585, 189,500.00, payable from the National Social Investment account number 0020208461037 was so transferred into the personal account of one Onyelu Bridget, in United Bank for Africa. The claim is that the said Bridget is the project accountant for GVG.

The usual excuse is that some detractors are at work as Africans are never in short supply of enemies when they are caught in flagrante delicto. Their enemies must be blamed for their misdemeanour as no Nigerian or African blames himself when he is short of public expectations. If this wrong payment was done as a result of ignorance of the Financial Regulations on the part of the Minister, it is the position of the law that ignorance is no excuse in law that would work against her. In the light of the above, there is no doubt that the transfer involved is illegal and therefore fraudulent.
The implication of this is that the Minister has no defense to this.

To worsen her situation, the Accountant General of the Federation denounced the transaction and indeed categorically pronounced such transfer as illegal. It is expected that she ought to have a source of legal advice when taking major decisions if she is not legally educated herself. Until proven guilty, however, the law still presumes the suspended Minister innocent assuming the case were to go before the court. Unfortunately, this presumption might not assist the Minister when political considerations are involved and the executive is required to take a decision to put the government in the good books of the sneering public, a misinformed section of which has not forgiven the President for winning the election that brought him into office.
No matter the ignorance or good intention of the Minister, the presumption of corruption in the provision of the Financial Regulations is not looking good on her.

Notwithstanding her supposed good intention, on the other hand, such might be difficult to prove as one adage says the devil himself knoweth the mind of man and another adage says the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In both situations, the case is damning for the suspended Minister. Beyond even the law, how morally and pragmatically defensible is it for an individual to hold on behalf of all the entitled vulnerable the total sum that is meant to reduce their suffering? Is that transparent or accountable? Certainly not.

The need to maintain accountability and probity before the doubting Thomases that the Nigerian public has become has made the President to act swiftly in making the press release by which the Minister was suspended. I verily hope that our public officers shall give good accounts of themselves in all situations henceforth. As I opined above, the occurrences and the unfolding revelations in the expenditure of the social investment fund is confirming largely the fears that most of us have.
Now that there is so much hunger in the land and the prices of foodstuffs are escalating with nobody’s fault, I believe this fund that is becoming slush fund, should be converted into intervention fund for the provision of logistics and storage for food items to reduce escalating cost of food prices. In the same vein, there is scarcity of drugs in the country, either by way of non-availability or unaffordability. Nigerians are equally dying in droves due to this.

All these palliatives fund need to be appropriately channeled in these directions. These are the basic needs of Nigerians currently. I am aware that the President also has directed the overhaul of the processes of administering the social investment fund, which clearly demonstrates that the President is aware of the irregularities and loopholes in the course of administering the fund. I honestly still believe that it is not the right way to go. As remarked above, any such excess fund should be channeled towards the establishment of industries capable of generating employment. If children or relatives of the vulnerable have gainful employment, they will take care of their loved ones that are vulnerable.
Finally, let me from my experience state that what has happened is not exceptional in the public service.

Once the end of the budget year is approaching, unspent balances in the accounts of the ministries and agencies are vacuumed and hidden somewhere, to be retired and accounted for later. I suspect that this is likely to depict what has just happened in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. Mr President and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) may therefore wish to comb all the Ministries and agencies in this regard. So many frivolous expenses take place that period, all just to misappropriate public fund to which they are trustees and custodians. I must not conclude this conversation without commending the President on this as the Yoruba say, yin ni, yin ni, ka le se miran.

It is praises of good conduct that encourages its repeat. Acts such as this will engender confidence in the administration. Right from the issue of Emefiele, through the coordinator of the social investment fund, to the forex probe and now this, it is not all motion but movement.

Let me commend the Chairman of the EFCC also who I had doubts about his having free hands to operate. To date, my brother has no excuse from all the referrals from Mr. President, which shows that Mr. President has confidence in him. I pray he is able to navigate the turbulent waters of corruption in Nigeria and justify the confidence. The country is down and effective tackling of corruption is the only immediate option we have.

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