Posted by By TONY ICHEKU, Abuja on
* How bid to ensure everyone shared from unspent allocation cost Health minister her job
If Prof. Adenike Grange, until Tuesday the country’s Minister of Health, had agreed to toe the established line of corruption in the ministry prior to her appointment, she would not only have got a lot more than the N10 million she allegedly got, but nobody else would probably have heard about the unspent 2007 allocation scandal that has now landed her in trouble and also cost her the job.
According to Saturday Sun investigation, what blew the lid on the scandal was the fact that the new minister insisted that all staff must benefit from whatever leftover money that was to be shared.
Until this verbal directive that seemingly democratized the corruption in the ministry, the practice was for a cult of very senior civil servants to share the money among themselves.
However this year, an understanding was reached to share the money to all ministry staff irrespective of grade level.
That effort at ensuring equitable distribution of the loot now appears to have backfired, and is now threatening to splash mud on the integrity Grange has built over the past three or four decades as a medical practitioner of repute.
"The usual custom in the ministry had been for senior civil servants from the rank of level 12 upwards to share among themselves any unspent fund from the previous year’s budget rather than return same to the treasury", a retired senior civil servant confided in Saturday Sun .
According to him, "if the woman had not insisted on sharing the thing ‘in the market’ like she ordered, she would have got as much as N30 million and nobody would have heard a whine anywhere".
To access the fund and also not fall foul of the presidential directive that all unspent allocation be returned to the treasury at the end of the year, the bureaucrats concocted and awarded a contract valued at N32 million, while the unspent fund whose value was put at over N300 million was factored in.It was a desperate search for a heading under which the money would be entered or expenses into which the excess could be padded.
After the award of the contract, the amount was withdrawn and shared among the staff, including the minister who allegedly got the sum of N10 million as her share.
A chunk of the money was also allegedly given to National Assembly committees overseeing the ministry.
The Saturday Sun source said that there was nothing new in what happened at the Health ministry, as that is usually what plays out in other ministries at the end of each year. What exposed the situation at the Health ministry was the fact that "the woman was so naïve that she decided to democratize the ‘chopping’. That was the beginning of her problem.
According to the source, "with so many people partaking, it was bound to leak out. When you are doing something like that, the fewer people that participate, the better for secrecy".
The deal, however, went burst when the contractor failed to execute the contract and an official in the accounting department alerted the EFCC.
The minister was alleged to be reluctant to receive her share, but was persuaded to do so by senior officers who spent two days "toasting" her to partake in the illegal deal. She was eventually convinced to take the money when the civil servants who are well engrained in the system told her that it was a legitimate benefit, as the government accounting system had no provision for reabsorbing such unspent budgetary allocations.
She eventually capitulated and has today, had to quit her job, accused of encouraging and collaborating with civil servants to share the ministry’s unspent allocation from the 2007 budget.
Still on unspent allocations racket
Saturday Sun investigations however revealed that what happened in the Health Ministry was only a tip of the iceberg of colossal fraud that followed President Umaru Yar’Adua’s surprise directive that all unspent allocations be returned to the treasury at the end of the year.
The new financial regime was in sharp contrast of what obtained in past administrations when senior civil servants from all parts of the country rushed back to Abuja at the end of the year to share whatever was left of the year’s allocations to their respective departments.
However, a federal lawmaker who closely followed the efforts to return unspent allocations told Saturday Sun that many smart civil servants still managed to find a way around the directive.
"We still had many instances of last-minute contracts, as well as payment of debts that were either never owed or were never scheduled to be paid off in the subsisting fiscal year. They just devised all manner of avenues to take out the money. I was once a civil servant and I know exactly what I am talking about", the lawmaker insisted.
He gave further insight into how the unspent allocation rackets operated in virtually all the government departments:
"There is a certain civil servant who never stays beyond December 27th of any year wherever he is holidaying. Even if he were in his village, he would rush back to Abuja to make sure he’s in town by the 28th. He would always ensure that his annual leave did not fall into December ending. That is when they do all manner of ‘retirements’.
"All of them have their drawers loaded with ticket stubs from different airlines – both local and foreign. They have blank receipts from virtually every hotel anywhere in the country, as well as receipts for car-hire services and all other sundry services engaged by the departments.
"As soon as they sit down to retire the outgoing year’s expenses, they can claim to have organized a training workshop in Kaduna at a total cost of N40 million. The workshop needed not to have held. All that is important is that the officer making the retirement is armed with receipts and tickets to cover the cost of accommodation for the delegates and participants, honorarium to speakers, as well as receipts for payment of venue, public address systems, conference materials etc.
"Of course the supervising officer who should raise questions would not do so because he/she would get a huge cut of the money. Everything is approved.
They will keep retiring until they have factored in all the unspent money. And in some instance, when they want to play the ‘dedicated officer’, they could even report that the department had an unspent amount which had been banked and would be carried over the to the next year. But usually the reported ‘unspent’ is an insignificant fraction of what really was – usually not more than 3%.
Incidentally, since the sharing was usually done clandestinely, there are instances when the beneficiaries short-change themselves by under-declaring the loot. In such instance, even if the shortchanged people get to find out, the matter is immediately hushed up to avoid any scandal. One of the National Assembly committees, for instance, was said to have been given almost twice what the forwarding officer declared to the committee. But nobody raised alarm in the open, for fear of scandal".
He further added: "I guess what happened in the Health ministry was that Prof Grange probably thought such fraud, usually dressed as ‘Welfare Package’ was a legitimate thing to do, which was why she insisted every worker, and not the senior officers alone, should be entitled to some welfare. Now, as she has regrettably found out, it was not ‘welfare’ after all. It was a systemic fraud".
The Rep member said that it was the colossal nature of this unspent allocation fraud in the system that forced the House to discontinue the inquest to unearth all that was involved, after a whopping N457 billion – including the N7 billion returned by the House of Reps – had been traced.
According to him, the total money still hanging out there could well be more than twice what has already been returned. "It is a vicious racket that could consume any unwary investigator. That is why we have to approach the issue cautiously and in piecemeal. For our own safety and for the safety of this democracy we are presently enjoying".