The communpance of Sadiya Umar-Farouq, former minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Halima Shehu, national coordinator of National Social Insurance Program Agency, NSIPA and Betta Edu, who succeeded Farouq as minister, but currently suspended, is common knowledge to all Nigerians.
The fall of the aforementioned ‘princesses in the kingdom of politics ’ from Olympian heights has been trending on both social and traditional media platforms, so much so that it is difficult to all on planet earth and located in Nigeria not to have heard of the sleaze.
The buzz about the graft that they allegedly committed has been on such high decibel and so deafening, that even the deaf and dumb who must have been watching television stations with sign language translations are by now aware of the financial scandals that have bedecked the three women, not like ornaments such as gold trinkets ,but they are festooned with warts and moths symbolizing corruption of epic proportion in government which they are being accused of perpetrating.
It is rather astonishing how the three erstwhile powerful and ravishingly beautiful women, two of them former ministers and the third a chief executive officer of a critical department of government have become reminders of Helen of Troy in Greek mythology.
According to legend, Helen of Troy’s mother is the goddess Nemesis, who is the personification of retribution.
So, it is such an irony of life that these women strutted the corridors of power in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, from 2015 to 2023 until they got linked together by alleged acts of corruption resulting in their stunning fall from Olympian heights in the political firmaments into the abyss of scorn in which they are currently wallowing.
The common thread linking the threesome is that they all at one point or the other since 2015 led the ministry of humanitarian affairs and poverty alleviation which in all shapes and forms is like modern day Petroleum Trust Fund, PTF which was a sort of treasure trove established during the watch of late General Sani Abacha as head of state of Nigeria 1993-1998.
By way of recollection, the PTF, which was a government intervention agency receiving a portion of income from crude oil sales after petrol pump price, was increased. It was so awash with cash that it became a sort of bazaar for quick fortune seekers to make fast money.
In fact, apart from the regular PTF, there was also Army PTF that catered to the interests of the military. In that branch of PTF, accountability or prudence in expenditure was not on the agenda.
The image of that intervention agency was so sordid that if someone was seen to be spending money lavishly, the question would not be that he/she was throwing money around like a drunken sailor which was a popular cliche at that time.
But due to the substantial quantum of funds domiciled in the PTF, and it was a norm to waste public funds, when observing someone who was spending money recklessly, the immediate assumption was that he/she was associated with the PTF or its contractors.
In fact, the PTF became a metaphor for extravagant use of public funds.
This negative perspective of the PTF is how Nigerians currently perceive the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, established by the immediate past President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, during his tenure from 2015-2023. Interestingly, our immediate past president, then Gen. Buhari rtd had served as the pioneer chairman of PTF, founded by Gen. Sani Abacha, during his military reign from 1993 to 1998.
Pivoting back to the instant issue of BettaGate being scrutinized in this piece, the narrative of how the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs became flushed with funds is very remarkable.
To provide a concise overview, let me present it in a capsule form.
In October of the previous year, after the incumbent administration took charge of Aso Rock Villa, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) sanctioned the establishment of the Humanitarian and Poverty Alleviation Trust Fund with the goal of raising $5 billion annually and that was a big deal.
This information was shared by the then minister, Dr. Betta Edu in a press conference.
“Every year we hope to be able to raise at least 5 billion dollars within this fund and this is from the various funds and sources.We are hopeful that with the creation of this funding,we can sit down with all the key stakeholders including other ministries and actually work out the full modalities of implementation in Nigeria.”
The minister had further given an explanation on how the funds would be applied in alleviating poverty:
“This will also respond to challenges as well as adequately address the issue of poverty in Nigeria and bring victory for the poor and indeed, bring help and succor which the Renewed Hope Agenda stands for”.
But given the alleged reckless spending of funds within the ministry as evidenced by the current scandal, Nigerians are getting a raw deal as the minister appears to have resorted to using mere disguises and rhetorics to deceive both the political leadership and the masses into thinking that the critical mass of long suffering Nigerians were about to be pulled out of poverty by the ministry designated for the purpose and task.
In the current 2024 national budget, of nearly N29 trillion that has been appropriated , it is astounding that a staggering sum in excess of five hundred billion had been earmarked for the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation. But the minister , Dr Betta Edu, before she was suspended, had stormed the National Assembly, NASS to contend that the sum allocated to the ministry, which is in excess of half a trillion naira, was not enough.
But she did not have her way in securing an increase that she desired.
However, what is astounding and very concerning to me is the absence of skilled fund managers to lead a ministry flush with so much funds.
That is precisely why, in my evaluation, the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation was a disaster waiting to happen. This conclusion stems from the decision to entrust such a strategically important ministry envisioned to have a high impact on the critical mass of Nigerians on novices. Ordinarily, a lot diligence should have been invested via critical thinking in the choice of the capacity and ability of who mans such a critical institution.
The mistake was made from the beginning, possibly due to the perception of the ministry as ‘ a job for the boys’ rather than a crucial vehicle for achieving the ambitious goal of lifting 10 million Nigerians out of poverty into prosperity, as touted by the predecessor and incumbent administrations.
It is trite to state at this juncture that managing a ministry with such a significant mandate demands an individual with the right expertise, possessing relevant experience in socioeconomic development, and strong funds management skills.
In light of the above, we must question why a nation currently grappling with socioeconomic challenges as the economy is in dire straits would assign a ministry of critical relevance to achieving President Tinubu’s Renewed Hope Agenda, (crucial to his future electoral success) to an individuals lacking expertise in development finance and socioeconomic engineering.
While it remains perplexing to most Nigerians how a feckless individual like Sadiya Farouq was handed the job , during Buhari’s regime,and she claimed to have spent millions of naira feeding school children even when they were at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, it was not surprising to me that her tenure has been characterized by corruption scandals.
It had been alleged that she spent N13.5 billion monthly feeding school children during covid lockdown when kids were not in school. But by her own admission, she has stated that she only spent about N523 million on the initiative when the kids were supposed to be at home with their parents.
Under the current dispensation, I am also not alarmed by the revelation that Halima Shehu , CEO of NSIPA who shuffled N44 billion between multiple private bank accounts as being alleged. When the crime was discovered, she reportedly claimed it was done in error.
Similarly, I am not astonished by the fact that Betta Edu, after purportedly disbursing N3,000,000,000.00 (Three Billion Naira) for the verification of data on the poorest of the poor nationwide, previously acquired by the immediate past administration, attempted to transfer N585 million meant for the poor in some states into the account of an individual said to be the project accountant.
This is in contravention of chapter 7, section 713 of Nigeria’s financial regulations in the public sector that demands that under no circumstances should public funds be placed in private bank accounts. Ideally, the conditional cash transfer money must be directly transferred into the pockets of the hoi polloi that it was meant to help them stave off starvation.
Had the plug not been pulled on the current minister, given her penchant for revelry as being portrayed in several viral social media videos, she could have enjoyed‘dirty’ December with money that belongs to the poorest of the poor in society.
Meanwhile, the long-suffering and downtrodden masses that she was supposed to look after, based on her mandate and as professed in her memos to the Executive Council, must have been pinning away in penury during the yuletide.
That is why it is a sort of poetic justice that the usual dirty fight between women, this time between the minister and the CEO of NSIPA, an agency under the purview of the minister, has opened to the public the Pandora’s box of financial malfeasance that defines the Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation ministry.
At this juncture, it is appropriate to point out that I am comparing the financial malfeasance in the Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation ministry to what occurred in the PTF in the days of Abacha as head of state and then Gen. Buhari as the chairman.As development economists would attest, in classical, or textbook cases, intervention funds are associated with improprieties because disbursements are done in an unstructured manner.
This is validated by the financial recklessness associated with other intervention agencies where huge sums of public funds are inflowed and they have failed to achieve their set objectives , such as OMPADEC and NDDC, which fall into the same category as the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, as well as the PTF.
Were prudence to have been a guiding principle of government at the time the aforementioned poverty intervention agencies were founded, some of the calamitous fall outs from the Ministry, Departments and Agencies, MDAs could have been avoided.
For instance, when the Nigerian Sovereign Investment Agency (NSIA) was being set up by the former minister of finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who currently serves as the Director-General of the World Trade Organization, WTO ,a funds management expert, Mr. Uche Orji was headhunted from one of the best financial institutions in the world to lead the multi-billion-dollar agency. This was done to ensure it ran in a manner devoid of civil service bureaucracy.
Before leading the NSIA, Mr. Orji had worked in various organizations, including UBS Securities, New York, where he was a Managing Director and Global Coordinator of Semiconductor Equities Research; JP Morgan Securities, London, where he was a Vice President and later Managing Director within the Equities Division and Analyst in charge of European Semiconductor Equities Research; and Goldman Sachs Asset Management, where he was an Executive Director serving as Analyst/Portfolio Manager covering the chemicals and telecommunications equipment sectors. So, he came to the job loaded with experience.
Several years have passed with the pioneer CEO being at the helm of affairs and his tenure has thereafter expired, and a new helmsman has taken charge. Unsurprisingly and unlike similar intervention agencies, there is no sleaze of any sort emanating from the agency, and the mandate is being successfully delivered.
Mr. Aminu Umar-Sadiq, Uche Orji’s successor, holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Engineering Sciences from the University of Oxford. He also boasts significant experience in the financial services sector, covering Public Finance Management, mergers & Acquisitions, private equity, and asset management.
It was imperative that such a critical agency endowed with huge public funds be entrusted to experienced individuals in NSIA. Therefore, the persons chosen to lead this agency underwent rigorous selection processes to ensure that only the best took on this onerous responsibility.
Was a similar tough measure followed when founding the ministry of humanitarian affairs and poverty alleviation entrusted with a half a billion naira annual budgetary allocation and $5 billion annual endowment fund?
The plain answer is no.
What many Nigerians, and perhaps even those in leadership may not realize is that the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation is as critical to the success of the government as the Ministries of Finance and Health. As an astute leader with both private and public sector experience,President Tinubu handpicked experts like Mr. Wale Edun, a seasoned investment banker, as the minister of finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, and Dr. Ali Pate, with a pedigree from the Gavi foundation and the World Health Organization (WHO), as the minister of health and coordinating minister of humanitarian affairs.
This approach differs from merely selecting random individuals to serve as ministers in the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, as was done during the tenure of the immediate past administration and a position that had been adopted by the current one until the BettaGate scandal unraveled the imprudence in such a decision .The present crisis, in my view, was avoidable and is thus self-inflicted.
Perhaps in recognition of this unforced error, President Tinubu seems poised to correct it, by aiming to change the negative perception of the poverty intervention behemoth. Hence, he has taken the first step by suspending the minister and CEO of the agencies under the ministry’s supervision, which appears too unwieldy and highly unmanageable under a single umbrella.
Clearly, this move aligns with Mr. President’s commitment to good governance as he seems to be seizing the opportunity to refocus the ministry for effective and efficient service delivery, as conveyed by his spokesperson, Chief Ajuri Ngelali, who has released a media statement stating that President Tinubu has directed the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to:
“conduct a thorough investigation into all aspects of the financial transactions involving the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, as well as one or more agencies thereunder.”
In pursuit of the goal of repositioning his administration as one that takes probity seriously, the President has subsequently established an inter-ministerial committee led by Mr. Wale Edun, the Coordinating Minister of the Economy with Dr. Ali Pate, the Coordinating Minister of Health as a member of the six (6) high ranking members of his government to conduct a comprehensive diagnoses on the financial architecture and framework of the social investment programs of the administration.
The goal is to reform the relevant institutions and programs to eliminate all institutional frailties so that it would be exclusively benefiting the disadvantaged households in the nation and thus regain lost public confidence in the initiative.
At the conclusion of this exercise, my minimal expectation is that the ministry will have a well-defined structure with a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), even as it would possibly be unbundled for enhanced service delivery.
Following the exposure of the scandal in the poverty intervention agency , various political leaders have expressed their opinions on what might have gone wrong and the potential culpability and lack thereof of Dr. Betta Edu and her associates. From the optics of Mr. Femi Pedro, a former bank Managing Director and Deputy Governor of Lagos State, the perfidy is attributable to unintentional error or lapse due to inexperience. So justice should be tempered with mercy.
On the other hand, Mr. Babatunde Raji Fashola, the ex-governor of Lagos State and immediate past Minister of Works, has posited that the issue is being exaggerated and the minister is unnecessarily being put through media trial , while Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State has urged Nigerians not to rush to judgment since they do not have all the facts, citing presumption of innocence.
These diverse opinions, viewed by some as driven by selfish agendas, have been rejected by the masses who are commending President Tinubu for holding those entrusted with public funds accountable through the ongoing probe. Little wonder the anger against the perfidious trio persists.
Fortunately, this otherwise negative situation has given President Tinubu’s government a boost, owing to the decisions he has so far taken on the matter. If a poll were to be conducted, it would possibly be marking his highest approval rating in the past seven months since his assumption of the office of the president on May 29 last year. Whether President Tinubu will continue to ride this wave of popularity by earning more accolades through measures such as reducing cost of governance policies like the cut on the number of officials on the entourage of top government officials on trips that he had announced last week, remains to be seen.
However , one thing that is clear is that both policy actions – probing corrupt ministers and cutting cost of governance – have received praise from one of his staunchest critics, Mr. Peter Obi, the 2023 presidential candidate of the Labor Party, LP who is an idol for the Gen-Z and netizens attempting to politically constrain President Tinubu. Despite the efforts of the ‘Never Tinubu’ gang or OBIDIENTS, President Tinubu has consistently eluded their snares and mesmerized them politically.
Considering that President Tinubu has long been celebrated as a master tactician and ace strategist in politics, he has not failed to be attentive to Nigerians who were enraged by the revelation that an estimated 400 people traveled with him to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), to attend COP28 at the government’s expense during these lean times.
That is why, in response to their criticism, he directed that such large contingents accompanying public officials to events perceived as jamborees by Nigerians should be reduced in the future.
It would not be surprising if he also trimmed down the vehicle convoys of public officials, which is another point of irritation for Nigerians. This may involve reducing the number of vehicles allocated to heads of ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) very soon.
Also, the value for money in public contract administration may receive attention, possibly as a recommendation from the committee restructuring the humanitarian affairs ministry. In this regard, President Tinubu might strengthen the existing Due Process Office under the presidency, urging it to take its mandate more seriously.
Once implemented, the masses may no longer resent the government when they believe that their common wealth is no longer being spent without due process or prudence, as seen in contracts like school feeding under Sadiya Farouq’s supervision where as much as N37 billion is believed to have been squandered and the N3 billion contracts for verifying the number of the poorest of the poor acquired during the previous administration , awarded by Betta Edu to some firms that her critics have tagged as phantom as well as Halima Shehu moving to different private bank accounts a whopping N44b earmarked for the work on poverty alleviation.
For the leaders of other branches of government, such as the judiciary and especially the legislative arm led by distinguished Senator Godswill Akpabio and Hon. Speaker Abbas Tajudeen of the House of Representatives, adopting President Tinubu’s approach to cutting the cost of governance, could earn the government public approval.
Already,the legislative branch, after facing public criticism, particularly for purchasing expensive foreign-made Sub Urban Vehicles (SUVs) at the cost of N130m each, needs to align with the executive’s efforts to restore public confidence.
While the executive is gradually gaining public trust through President Tinubu’s recent charm offensive including halving the cost of public transport during the yuletide, and the judiciary is regaining its lost reputation as the last hope of the common man, as evidenced by a recent Supreme Court judgment that was applauded by the masses, but the legislative branch has yet to take decisive actions to win the hearts and minds of the masses through positive gestures that would erase the angst triggered by the ‘let the poor breathe’ a remark by the senate president deemed as snide by some members of the public.
In light of the above it is essential for the legislative arm to follow President Tinubu’s lead in making strides to address public concerns, as this could pave the way for the government’s return to office in 2027.
In any case, the success of these current positive steps so far taken to reposition the administration-image wise depends on the extent to which the anti-graft agency (EFCC) and the ministerial committee, established to reposition the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, are willing to go and the depth of their discoveries.
–Onyibe,an entrepreneur, public policy analyst, author, democracy advocate, development strategist, alumnus of Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Massachusetts, USA and a former commissioner in Delta state government, sent this piece from Lagos, Nigeria.
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