President Bola Tinubu on Sunday directed a comprehensive inquiry into the alleged N585m scandal in the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.
He vowed to “decisively punish” those involved in any breaches and infractions unravelled during the investigations.
The President gave the directive in a statement issued by the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mohammed Idris, as anger grew over the alleged breach of the Federal Government’s financial regulations.
The development comes just as ministries prepare for their first performance assessment by the end of January
Several groups and individuals including the Peoples Democratic Party, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Femi Falana, SAN; the Yoruba Youth Assembly and other civil society groups demanded an unfettered probe of the leaked memo by the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Betta Edu, instructing the Accountant-General of the Federation, Dr Oluwatoyin Madein, to pay N585m into the private bank account of a project accountant in her ministry, Bridget Oniyelu.
The minister had claimed that the N585m payment was meant for vulnerable groups in Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Ogun, and Lagos states, describing the allegations against her as baseless.
The Media Assistant to the Minister, Rasheed Olarenwaju, in a statement, said that it was legal within the civil service for such payments to be made into private accounts of staff members, especially project accountants.
“Oniyelu Bridget is the Project Accountant for the GVG (grant for vulnerable groups) from the Department of Finance, and it is legal in civil service for a staffer, the project accountant, to be paid and use the same funds legally and retire the same with all receipts and evidence after the project or programme is completed,” he had said.
However, the Accountant-General of the Federation, Dr Oluwatoyin Madein, denied that her office honoured the request to pay N585m into a private account as directed by the minister.
The Director of Press in the OAGF, Mr. Jacob Mokwa, in a statement on Saturday, said the AGF does not make payments on behalf of MDAs.
Madein stated that her office received the minister’s request as contained in a letter referenced FMHAPA/HQ/S.208 and dated December 20, 2023, but did not honour the request.
But addressing the public indignation over the revelation, the information minister said, “In light of recent events, the President has directed that a thorough and comprehensive investigation be conducted to ascertain the accuracy and validity of the reported details.
“The Ministry of Information and National Orientation acknowledges the concerns raised by the public regarding the alleged payment of funds into a private account by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.
“We are aware of the narratives circulating widely and wish to assure Nigerians that the government takes these issues most seriously.
“The Federal Government, under the leadership of President Bola Tinubu, is transparent and accountable to the people, and committed to ensuring that public funds are allocated and utilised effectively and efficiently to address the needs of Nigerians.”
The statement, titled ‘Minister of Information and National Orientation addresses circulating narratives on payments made by the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs,’ assured that the President would sanction those involved in any breaches and infractions unravelled during the investigations.
It stated that the government was “determined to unravel the truth as it relates to this matter,” assuring Nigerians that “appropriate action will be taken to ensure that any breaches and infractions are identified and decisively punished,” in line with the administration’s commitment to public accountability and due process.
However, the statement warned the public against reinforcing the various unverified narratives circulating on the Internet, adding that the Ministry of Information and National Orientation was the primary source for verified information about events and actions of the federal government.
“Only accurate details will be shared with the public. The ministry is committed to providing timely updates to keep Nigerians informed about the progress of the investigation.
“We urge Nigerians to exercise patience as the investigation unfolds. The government is focused on ensuring a fair and unbiased process, and the findings will be communicated duly and transparently to the public,” Idris said.
Falana faults minister
Human rights lawyer, Falana, urged the humanitarian minister to stop insulting Nigerians following her claims that the allegations of a N585m fraud were baseless.
He argued that the payment was in contravention of the extant Public Service Rules, as well as the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Act and the Penal Code applicable in the Federal Capital Territory.
He noted, “The minister has arrogantly said that the N585.18m fraud allegation is a mere fabrication by her detractors and an alleged attempt by mischief-makers to undermine her ministry’s effort in fighting corruption and uplifting the needy.”
Falana noted that though the AGF had successfully frustrated the criminal diversion of the said sum of money from the public treasury, it was clear from the leaked memo of the minister that the offence of an attempt to commit a felony had already been completed.’’
On its part, the PDP asked the President to immediately sack and prosecute the embattled minister of humanitarian affairs for alleged money laundering.
The PDP in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Debo Ologunagba, Sunday, said it was heartbreaking that a minister entrusted with public funds to support millions of poor Nigerians turned around to allegedly divert hundreds of millions of naira meant for the wellbeing of the poor.
“The continuing stay of Betta Edu as minister is therefore provocative and amounts to stealing from a people and daring them to do their worst. It further confirms our party’s position that the Tinubu-led APC government is a cesspit of corruption; a haven for thieves and treasury looters,’’ Ologunagba stated.
The statement read in part “For emphasis, section 713 of Nigeria’s Financial Regulations, 2009 provides that personal money shall in no circumstances be paid into a government bank account, nor shall any public money be paid into a private bank account. An officer who pays public money into a private account is deemed to have done so with a fraudulent intention.”
“The apparent fraudulent intention by Betta Edu in diverting public funds into a private account; an action which was appropriately declared illegal by the Accountant General of the Federation, Oluwatoyin Madein, is consistent with APC’s character and proclivity for plundering of public resources.’’
The PDP further alleged that Edu is in consort with two prominent APC officials in the Presidency and the National Assembly to divert billions of naira to personal accounts.
The party asked the EFCC to immediately invite Edu for questioning and take further steps to commence a system-wide investigation into the alleged large-scale corruption and treasury looting pervading ministries, agencies and departments under the APC administration.
Similarly, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project has demanded the probe of Edu, the former All Progressives Congress women leader.
The group in a statement signed by its Deputy Director, Kolawole Oluwadare, and made available to The PUNCH on Sunday, urged the President to direct the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Lateef Fagbemi, and appropriate anti-corruption agencies to promptly and thoroughly probe the allegations made against the Minister.
The statement read in part, “Paying public funds into private accounts may create the perception or appearance of impropriety and give cover to any potential wrongdoing or diversion.
“Investigating these allegations and ensuring that the public funds meant to take care of the poor are transparently and accountably spent and recovering any diverted public funds are serious and legitimate public interests.
“The persistent lack of transparency and accountability in the spending of public funds meant to take care of the poor raises issues of public trust, makes the funds vulnerable to corruption or mismanagement, and undermines the integrity of poverty intervention programmes.”
The Co-convener of the Nigerian Civil Society Situation Room, James Ugochuckwu, said the President must show readiness to combat corruption by carrying out a comprehensive audit of all political appointees and civil servants, noting that anyone found involved in corruption, should lose his job.
He submitted, “The President should also take an audit of activities of people in the civil service, civil servants themselves because they are part of this high-level corruption that is going on in this country.
“The President needs to demonstrate that he is out to fight corruption by conducting a comprehensive audit of all the people that he has appointed, all the ministers. And anyone that is found involved in any form of corrupt practice should lose his or her job.”
The Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative and Accountability Centre, Musa Rafsanjani, urged the President to mainstream the anti-corruption fight, adding that Tinubu must also direct the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to investigate principal officers in the ministry in connection with the alleged misappropriation of funds.
He added, “First, and foremost, I am not surprised by the fraudulent activities going on in various places under Tinubu. This is why CISLAC has called on the President to mainstream anti-corruption in his government and we also advised him to appoint people with integrity, experience, capacity and patriotism, not people who will just get their way without a proper understanding of public service.’’
On his part, the Executive Director of the United Global Resolve for Peace, Olaseni Shalom, faulted the lack of accountability in the ministry, noting that the lack of oversight allowed heads of the ministry to “move money around arbitrarily.”
He called on the President to sanction the minister is sanctioned if found culpable, to serve as a deterrent to others.
Meanwhile, the Yoruba Youth Assembly has also called for the sacking of the minister of humanitarian affairs and poverty alleviation.
The group in a statement by his President, Odunuga Babatunde, faulted this alleged corruptive move of the minister saying that the laws of the country forbid that government money should be deposited into personal accounts.
An ex-member of the Osun State House of Assembly, Mr Olatunbosun Oyintiloye, has urged President Bola Tinubu to keep monitoring funds allocated to different poverty alleviation programmes of his administration in a bid to prevent diversion.
Oyintiloye, while speaking to journalists in Osogbo on Sunday, said Nigerians trust Tinubu’s capacity to alleviate the sufferings of the less privileged and called for close monitoring of the funds meant for that purpose.
Also on Sunday, it was revealed that the embattled humanitarian minister allegedly approved funds for flight tickets and airport taxis for herself and her team to move from Abuja to Kogi State when there is no airport in the state.
A total of 14 officials of the ministry and a security official got approval of N3.16m for flight tickets and airport taxis to travel to Kogi to disburse grants to vulnerable groups in the state.
An internal memo from the National Programme Manager, Grant for Vulnerable Groups, which was sent to the humanitarian minister on November 6, 2023, and seen by one of our correspondents, showed that Edu approved the fund for ‘The disbursement under the 2023 Grant for Vulnerable Groups Programmes in Kogi State, 2023.’
The document showed that seven of the minister’s advanced team got N1.54m for their flights and airport taxis from Abuja to Kogi, while the other seven members of her main team including Edu, received N1.62m for the same purpose.
The memo, which was issued by Thalis Apalowo, National Programme Manager, Grant for Vulnerable Groups, indicated that the minister’s advanced team received a total of N2.515m for duty tour allowance for five nights; for local running, which was 30 per cent of DTA (duty tour allowance); and for flight tickets and airport taxis.
Each of them received N200,000 for a flight ticket and N20,000 for an airport taxi, amounting to N1.54m.
Edu’s (main) team got approval of N2,159,500 for DTA for five nights; for local running, which was 30 per cent of DTA; and for flight tickets and airport taxis. Each of them apart from the minister, also received N200,000 for a flight ticket and N20,000 for an airport taxi.
The memo indicated that the minister received N300,000 for her flight ticket to Kogi State, which has no airport, while there was no mention of what she got for her airport taxi.
The memo, however, stated that 3,000 beneficiaries under the vulnerable groups were to receive N20,000 each, making a total of N60m. It stated that the logistics for the disbursement was N3m.
The leaked memo revealed that N3.16m was for flight tickets and airport taxis to Kogi, which is about a three-hour drive from Abuja. Many travellers from Abuja to Kogi State travel by road, including senior officials of the state.
Efforts to get the minister and her media aide were not successful, as both of them failed to respond to enquiries.
A Whatsapp message sent to her aid, Olarenwaju, on the matter was read but received no response, while calls to his telephone were not answered.
Similarly, the phone number of the minister did not connect, but the WhatsApp message sent to her was delivered. The minister has not responded to the message as of the time of filing this report.