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Inside ministers’ many battles with heads of agencies

The ongoing battle between the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi and the embattled Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala-Usman, which culminated…

The ongoing battle between the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi and the embattled Managing Director of the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA), Hadiza Bala-Usman, which culminated in the suspension and probe of the latter over an alleged N162.32billion unremitted funds, is another round of the many conflicts between ministers and heads of agencies and parastatals under their supervision, Daily Trust on Sunday reports.

Over the years, ministers in charge of some federal ministries have had running battles with heads of some agencies under their purviews over issues largely bordering on supremacy battles on accounts of an alleged attempt by one party to usurp the other.

With such clashes usually come allegations of insubordination,  financial impropriety, abuse of office, award of contracts without following due process, non-remittance of appropriate funds to government’s coffers and other infractions.

While these ministers adduced various infractions as reasons for their ‘fights’ with heads of agencies under them, analysts, however, believe there are always more “behind the scene” reasons and vested interests for such actions.

Such altercations, according to some analysts, also affect operations of the concerned agencies, even as they erode political authority in governance across the board, with public interest suffering the most.

Two former ministers who spoke with Daily Trust on Sunday on the issue yesterday described such open confrontations as signs of indiscipline and the inability of the government to maintain a cohesive administration.

Some chief executive officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said ministers would want to be on the drivers’ seats instead of providing direction to those who are the actual drivers.

“My minister, for example, would want to dictate to you who gets a particular contract and keeps sending copies of curriculum vitae for prospective employees. He would not bother about how you do what he requests. He just wants it done,’’ he said.

Another head of the agency who also craved anonymity said chief executive officers like him often drew the ire of their supervisory ministers because some instructions if carried out, could land one in trouble.

“In everything, self-preservation is the most important instinct. You cannot risk yourself to please another person,’’ he said.


Recurrent decimal

Among some of the ministers who have had running battles with heads of agencies under their purview in the last four years are former Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, who orchestrated the suspension of the then director-general of the Security Exchange Commission (SEC), Mounir Gwarzo, and former Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, whose clash with the executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) at the time, Professor Usman Yusuf, led to the exit of the latter.

Others include the Minister of Power, Sale Mamman versus the managing director/chief executive officer of the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Company (NBET); Minister of Power versus the managing director of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA); Minister of Power, Sale Mamman versus the managing director of the Transmission Company of Nigeria; Minister of State for Labour, Festus Keyamo versus former director-general of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE), and the latest one between the Minister of Transportation and suspended managing director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman.


Amaechi versus Hadiza over N162.32bn ‘unremitted’ funds

The latest of such drama is what is seen as the ‘triumph’ of Minister Amaechi in his long-drawn cold war with the managing director of the NPA, Hadiza Bala-Usman.

The Presidency, on May 6, 2021, announced the suspension of Bala-Usman, adding that she would face an administrative panel over an alleged non-remittance of N162.32billion to the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF).

The suspension was announced by a presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu.

In a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari, dated March 4, 2021, Amaechi, had requested for the audit of NPA’s account over alleged unremitted operating surpluses between 2016 and 2020 as flagged by the Budget Office of the Federation.

The letter, titled “Remittances of operating surplus to the Consolidated Revenue Fund Account (CRF) by the Nigerian Ports Authority from 2015-date,” was signed by the minister.

“In view of the above, I wish to suggest that the financial account of the activities of the Nigerian Ports Authority be investigated for the period 2016 to 2020 to ascertain the true financial position and the outstanding unremitted balance of N165,320,962 697,” the minister stated.

But responding, the embattled NPA boss said the allegations against her were not true.

In a letter to the chief of staff to the president, Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari, dated May 5, 2021, a copy of which was made available to Daily Trust on Sunday, she said the figures provided by the Budget Office of the Federation as the operating surplus for the respective years on which basis they arrived at the shortfall were derived from submission of budgetary provision and not the actual amounts derived following the statutory audit of the authorities financial statements.

Usman further said she wished to request that the chief of staff requested the Office of the Accountant- General of the Federation, which is the statutory custodian of the status of payment to the CRF to provide clarification on the above so as to establish the true position of the organisation’s remittances to the CFR.

While the issue of non-remittance of N162.32 billion is at the heart of the ongoing probe of the NPA, observers are saying that some conflict of interests might be playing some role in the saga.

The suspended NPA boss had reportedly had clashes with the minister over ‘bypassing’ him in key decisions in procurement and other matters.

The latest quarrel, according to sources familiar with the altercation, was about the reappointment of the managing director and constitution of the new board of the NPA without Amaechi’s input.

There have been discordant tunes over the suspension of the NPA boss and the composition of an administrative panel. While some have justified her suspension and probe, others described it as a ‘witch hunt’ by the minister.


NHIS: Isaac Adewole versus Usman Yusuf

In November 2017, the then Minister of Health Isaac Adewole suspended the former executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Usman Yusuf indefinitely.

Yusuf had earlier been ordered by Adewole on July 7, 2017, to proceed on a three-month suspension to pave way for an investigation following petitions against him, one of which was the procurement of a N58million SUV without due process.

Yusuf had refused to follow the directive, saying only the president, according to the Act setting up the scheme, may appoint or remove him.

He had said that although the NHIS Act empowered the minister to give directive of a general nature to the Governing Council of the organisation and could exercise presidential mandate in the absence of the Council, such powers did not include “discipline, suspension or removal of the executive secretary from office.”

But Adewole insisted on the indefinite suspension of Yusuf, saying a committee set up to carry out an investigation had completed its investigation against the NHIS boss and had found him culpable in many areas.

President Muhammadu Buhari eventually sacked Prof Usman Yusuf in July 2019 following the recommendations of the report by an independent fact-finding panel on the NHIS.


SEC: Adeosun versus Gwarzo

In another case, a former Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun and a former Director-General of the Security Exchange Commission (SEC), Mounir Gwarzo had a running battle over an allegation of financial impropriety.

On November 29, 2017, Adeosun suspended Gwarzo from office indefinitely.

Mr Gwarzo was suspended “to allow for an unhindered investigation of several allegations of financial impropriety levelled against him.”

According to a statement by Patricia Deworitshe, deputy director, Press, Federal Ministry of Finance, “the suspension is in line with the Public Service Rules (PSRs) 03405 and 03406.”

“The minister has set up an administrative panel of inquiry to investigate and determine the culpability of the director-general.

“She has directed the suspended director-general to immediately hand over to the most senior officer in the commission, pending the conclusion of the investigation,’’ the statement read.

However, Gwarzo fired back at the then minister, saying he was suspended because he refused to stop the forensic investigation of Oando Plc as directed.

He made the revelation during a public hearing on the need to intervene in the conflict involving him and the minister by the House of Representatives Committee on Capital Market and Institutions. He stated that the minister threatened him to either resign or risk being suspended.

“On October 18, we directed that the shares of Oando should be put on technical suspension. Ae also informed the public that a forensic audit would be undertaken on Oando.

“The following day, October 19, the minister of finance invited me to her office and queried the power I had to carry out the investigation, and I explained to her that the law had given me the power to do the investigation.

“She told me to lift the technical suspension placed on Oando. The permanent secretary was also in attendance, and it was on Friday. I tried to reason with her why it was not necessary to lift the suspension, but she told me that it was important to do that.

But in May 2019, the National Industrial Court, Abuja, ordered the immediate reinstatement of the suspended director-general of the SEC.

Justice Sanusi Kado, in his judgement, held that the then minister of finance, named as the second defendant in the suit, lacked the power to suspend the claimant (Mounir). He is, however, yet to be reinstated.


Mamman versus Ogunbiyi

In 2019, the Minister of Power, Sale Mamman, an engineer, suspended the managing director of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA),  Damilola Ogunbiyi,  following what was described as “some apparent infractions in the agency and lack of due process.

The minister directed Ogunbiyi to proceed on indefinite suspension with immediate effect after she had been directed to hand over to the next most senior officer in the agency.

He also directed immediate investigations into the activities of the agency towards ‘re-positioning it for better service delivery.’

But Buhari later reversed the suspension to pave way for Ogunbiyi to take a new job at the United Nations.


Mamman versus Amobi

In 2019, the Minister of Power, Mr Sale Mamman, also ordered an immediate step-down of the managing director/chief executive officer of the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Company (NBET), Dr Marilyn Amobi, over myriads of complaints and a series of allegations against her.

On December 10, 2019, the management staff of the agency petitioned the federal government over Amobi’s alleged threat of physical assault on a senior member of staff, Itohan Ehiede.

But the minister,r in a statement by his special adviser on media and communication, Mr Aaron Artimas, said his action was a continuation of the reorganisation and sanitation exercise in the ministry.


Mamman versus Usman Mohammed

In May 2020, the Minister of Power, Sale Mamman also sacked the managing director of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), Usman Mohammed and replaced him with Sule Abdulaziz in an acting capacity.

Mohammed was sacked over an alleged $2billion (about N781bn) Siemens Presidential Power Initiative (PPI).

The document approving the sack was signed by President Muhammadu Buhari and his chief of staff, Professor Ibrahim Gambari.

Mohammed was replaced by Sule Ahmed Abdulaziz, an engineer, as the acting managing director of the organisation.

His removal was also attributed to the frosty relationship between the TCN and other players in the power sector, which many believe has been one of the factors taking a toll on the supply of electricity to Nigerians.

Mamman, who got approval for the shakeup, was also empowered by the Presidency to immediately nominate members of the TCN board and management team.


Altercations sign of weak Presidency – Ex-minister

A two-time minister, Dr Aliyu Modibbo Umar, described the altercations between ministers and chief executives of parastatals under them as embarrassing to the government and a sign that the Presidency is weak.

Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, Dr Umar, who was a minister of commerce and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) at different times, said the unabated altercations portrayed the president in a bad light.

The clashes, he said, also pointed to inadequacies in terms of the appointment of competent persons into key positions, as well as the collapse of key administrative structures that are meant to guide the system.

“The line of authority is very clear; the minister is in charge. No matter how privileged you are, no matter how close you are with the president, as head of a parastatal you have to go through the minister,” he said.

The ex-minister, who is an Oxford University fellow, said though the minister is in charge, however, he ought to also submit to bureaucratic authorities in his ministry, while weighing in political considerations for the professional position of senior civil servants.

Umar said the happenings since President Buhari came into office had become surprising and an issue of concern.

“It is surprising because President Buhari is not new to the office. This was not how he operated when he was there the first time. There were efficient structures and people with sufficient experience and institutional memory manning key offices in the presidency and the State House,” he said.


How to address recurrent clashes – Adoke

The immediate past Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Mohammed Adoke, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), blamed the recurring crises between heads of agencies and ministers on permissiveness, influence peddling and nepotism in the system.

The only way to address the incessant clashes, according to him, is for government to insist on doing things the proper way and draw the curtain on indiscipline and permissiveness.

Adoke said a lot of ministers were overbearing and trying to exert much influence on parastatals and agencies under them, and by so doing, breach laws, and when that happens, there will be a crisis.

He said the undue pressure on heads of parastatals to subvert the system encourages such chief executive officers to also subvert the ministers.

“The president must not allow heads of parastatals to bypass the ministers, and ministers should not breach procedures. The reporting line must be followed. There must be discipline and an end to influence peddling. Proximity, whether religious, ethnic or regional, must not be a reason to circumvent the system,” he said.

He also criticised the situation where the functions of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation has been usurped by the office of the Chief of Staff to the President.

“The Office of the Secretary to the Government is a constitutional creation. It should be allowed to fully function and not have a parallel structure in the name of the Office of the Chief of Staff to the President,” he added.

By Itodo Daniel Sule, Clement Adeyi & John Chuks Azu

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