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Federal agencies paid N3.77bn in fictitious ‘estacodes’ to top staff, families

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OFFICIAL documents from Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation (OAuGF) have indicted the staff of Federal Ministry of Finance, National Boundary Commission, the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) and seven other government agencies of receiving fictitious estacodes valued at 3.77 billion naira under President Muhammadu Buhari administration.

The 2018 OAuGF audit report revealed that most of the oversea travels upon which estacodes were claimed had no authorisation from the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, a clear violation of the financial regulation guidelines.

There was also no document to show that officials of these government parastatals undertook foreign trips.

Most of the cases investigated by the reporter revealed that the accused government officials had no boarding passes, air tickets and other relevant documents to validate the oversea trips as claimed.

The National Boundary Commission, one of the federal government’s establishments indicted in the latest audit report. Photo Credit: Olugbenga Adanikin, The ICIR

Not only did the civil servants claim money for the trip they did not undertake, they also violated the directive of President Muhamadu Buhari who, in 2015, banned civil servants including top executives of government agencies from embarking on oversea training except those approved by the head of the civil service.

“…proposals for participation or attendance of international conferences, seminars, workshops study tours, presentation of papers and negotiating/signing of Memoranda of Understanding abroad at government expenses, shall no longer be allowed except those that are fully funded by sponsoring/inviting organizations,” a circular issued by Danladi Kifasi, a former head of civil service of the federation stated.

President Buhari reaffirmed this decision after tenure of the former president Goodluck Jonathan. In 2016, Buhari banned distribution of souvenirs at public events organised by MDAs.

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By October 2019, Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation rolled out stricter measures on the policy, all to reduce costs and cut wastages in the public service. Hence, Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government were directed to submit yearly travel plans to the SGF or office of the head of the civil service of the federation for approval within the first quarter of the fiscal year.

The report by OAuGF has shown that many government functionaries did not comply with the directive.

Those accused of this infraction are officials of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, National Primary Health Care Development Centre (NPHCDA), the Investment and Security Tribunal (IST), Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN), and the Veterinary Council of Nigeria (VCN). Officials of the Federal Ministry of Environment and Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs were also indicted.

NSITF paid estacodes for international travel without approval to spouses of management staff, others 

On seven different occasions, NSITF officials were paid several benefits either directly or through proxy for unapproved international trips and training.

Between January and December 2017, the audit showed how staff of the Fund got N180.8m as estacode allowance, air passage, return tickets and the likes to embark on an unapproved foreign trip.

Another N31.3m was paid to unidentified four top management staff and their spouses as estacode allowances, airfares for vacations abroad, but without approval from the right authorities.

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Also, officials of the NSITF was accused to have paid N467.41 million to four Bureau De Change (BDC) agents in 2013 and 2014, according to the auditor-general’s report.  The payments were reported as estacode or course fee which should have been paid directly to the account of beneficiaries of the training or consulting firms in charge.

“…evidence of a contractual agreement between the Fund and the BDC was not provided for audit. In addition, there was no evidence to show that the amounts paid to the BDC, got to the ultimate beneficiaries,” the report reads partly.

Read AlsoDespite Buhari’s mantra, Nigeria drops further in global corruption ranking

The above offence contravenes the Financial Regulation guideline which says, “A public officer who makes an irregular payment from public funds shall be given 21 days’ notice to offer an explanation, where no satisfactory explanation is given, the amount involved shall the recovered from the officer and such officer shall be removed from the schedule”.

Similarly, other undue payments including N4.94 million; N9.45 million and N11.33 million. N4.42 million were also received as pocket expenses.

In total, the NSITF spent N708.88 million on unapproved foreign trips including estacodes and other benefits.

Ministry of Finance Building, Abuja

Opacity around N2.88 billion released to Finance ministry from the ‘Service Wide Vote’

In recent years, the federal government has criticised MDAs of arbitrary spending from the Service Wide Vote. Though, the law requires agencies and ministries of government to include in their annual budgets, proposed spending for the year, but, in situations where an agency of government needs an important procurement not reflected in its budget, the ‘Service Wide Vote’ is considered an option.

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The service-wide vote otherwise known as contingency budget targets developmental activities.

The federal ministry of finance got a release of N2.88 billion from the service-wide vote which it used to pay estacodes and other allowances of government officials assigned to represent the FG at international conferences such as the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

From the allocation, “payment vouchers were raised for N113.5 million, leaving the sum of N2.8 billion unaccounted for,” the audit reads in part.

Reacting to the allegation, the finance ministry said N2.82 billion (N2,828,771,854.37) was Nigeria’s contribution to OPEC, and it was released by the cash department of the ministry to the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, and not the finance ministry.

“With regards to the sum of N113,558,372.85 spent on annual board meetings, conferences and workshops, the sum of N57,000,638.90 was funded from the Service Wide Vote while the balance i.e. N56,557,733.95 was funded from the ministry’s 2017 budget. All the payments made are in line with the mandate of the ministry and all necessary documents including the payment vouchers attached,” response from the ministry read.

The auditor general’s office, however, insisted the accountant general’s office should account for the N2.82 billion.

Foreign Affairs ministry takes loans to fund estacode allowance

The Financial Regulation guideline (2019) prohibits that, “no loan or any form of advance shall be obtained from the bank without prior approval from Debt Management Office.” But, the foreign affairs ministry was found guilty of flouting this guideline.

The audit report revealed that on December 13, 2017, a payment voucher N0: MFA/OC/1281/2017 was raised for N26.40 million in favour of an official of the ministry, and actual payment was made on December 28, about two weeks after.

While officials of the ministry could not provide a valid justification for their actions, the auditor-general’s office posits that loans obtained without authorisation could be diverted for private use.

Besides, the investment and security tribunal was accused of overpayment of estacode above the approved rate. This is to the tune of N3.23 million.

The NPHCDA was also allegedly involved in the irregular payment of estacode to its staff up to N19.56 million.

According to the report, grade levels of the NPHCDA officials were not declared to ascertain how much of estacode allowances was received. Also, the number of days spent on the trip was not stated and the payment documents presented lack approval of the SGF.

Read AlsoNational Assembly approves budget for non-existing Office of Chief Economic Adviser to President for the 6th time

Still, the auditor-general’s office claimed no response was provided to justify the amounts released as estacodes.

Similarly, officials of the national hajj commission of Nigeria were indicted of raising payment vouchers to the tune of N79.05 million.

The four vouchers were reportedly raised on December 18, 2017, for a pre-visit, ahead of 2018 hajj to Saudi Arabia. As observed in other agencies, the vouchers lack relevant supporting documents such as stamped pages on their international passports, air tickets or boarding passes.

Moreover, the federal ministry of environment was accused of spending N10.84 million on unapproved foreign conferences, training and workshops. Similarly, the ARCN also expended N6.62 million on an unauthorised oversea trip.

In 2017, contrary to the directive from the SGF, the VCN also paid its staff N1.07 million to attend the World Organisation on Animal Health (OIE) conference, held in Bangkok without approval.

The registrar has been directed to return the sum into the government’s coffer.

Surv Adamu Adaji, Director-General, National Boundary Commission.

Officials of Boundary commission receive N12.05m estacode on repairs carried out within Nigeria

Based on discovery from the audit report, the national boundary commission paid N12.05 million as estacode to reconstruct pillars at the Nigeria-Niger international boundary. But findings revealed the pillars were still within the Nigerian border, yet, the officials took the money.

“…there was no need for payment of estacode as they did not cross over to Niger Republic for any further activities,” the report stated.

“In addition, the officers that travelled for this programme were engaged to work for fifteen (15) days while the local guide and security personnel were paid for forty (40) days each, and there was no evidence that money paid to officers representing the State and Local government amounting to N960,000.00, got to them.”

A separate N26.78 million was also spent by the agency to attend the 33rd meeting of the Nigeria-Cameroun mixed commission in Yaounde, Cameroun. The event held between 3rd and 14th June, 2018. The audit revealed $2,000 set aside for contingency could not be accounted for. Moreover, there was no evidence of travel such as immigration stamped pages in delegates international passports. Both air tickets and boarding passes were not provided.

Still, no response was provided to the AUGF to justify the spending. The DG has, however, been directed to account for the sum.

Reactions

Yunusa Abdullahi, Director of Information, Ministry of finance pushed the blame to the Permanent Secretary (PS). He said the PS is the accounting officer of the ministry, thus, he is the most appropriate to comment on the discovery.

The ICIR requested for the PS’s contact but Abdullahi did not provide it. He said he was driving, thus promised to share at a later time. As of the time of filing this report, he is yet to fulfil his promise.  

Also, Mohammed Ohitoto, the NPHCDA spokesperson told The ICIR he has “no reaction” to the allegations. Nevertheless, he promised to share the contact of Stephen Yusuf, the agency’s Director of Finance and Account but he never did.

He later called to inform the reporter that the director truly confirmed the anomaly. “Yes, there was something like that,” Ohitoto stated in a phone conversation. However, he claimed the estacode problem has been sorted, stressing that it was no longer an issue.

Then, Ohitoto fixed an appointment with the reporter to meet with Yusuf on Monday, February 1. He promised to present a justifiable document to validate the director’s claim on the set appointment date.

At about 11 am, on the set date, this reporter met with Ohitoto, and he introduced The ICIR to the director of finance and account.

“It is not an infraction,” Yusuf started with an explanation. He said the trips were not funded by the government but development partners such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Bank, at different periods.

The beneficiaries, he said, were paid estacodes by the partners but it was not commensurate with the regular estacodes payable to civil servants once they travel abroad. Thus, upon arrival to the country, Yusuf said the staff applied to get the “estacode difference.”

A document sighted by The ICIR showed names of the said beneficiaries. There were 19 names including the NPHCDA’s Executive Director, Faisal Shuaib. It also included dates the estacodes were paid, the descriptions as well as the exact amount paid.

“It is the difference in estacodes that they paid and not the full estacodes,” Yusuf stressed.

Curios, the reporter queried the rationale for paying an “estacode difference,” since the trip was not approved by the head of the service or the SGF. While the clarification was ongoing, Rotimi Okunade, a deputy director from the same department interjected. He said the normal civil service rule permits public servants to get estacode refunds on foreign trips of that nature.

Okunade, argued further that the agency’s ED approved the N19.56 million payments. All the while, Ohitoto was seated while these explanations were made.

Eventually, Yusuf said the needed clarifications have been produced and would be presented to the House Committee on Public Accounts as well as the office of the accountant general.

Silence in environment ministry, foreign affairs

To get a reaction, Sagir Mohammed, Director of Information, the federal ministry of environment did not respond to calls and text message sent to his line.

Ferdinard Nwonye, spokesperson for the foreign affairs ministry also did not respond when contacted through text message.

Nimma Egun, the Head of Media, investment and security tribunal told this reporter she cannot react to the allegation, except her chief executive officer does, who she claimed was travelling to Kano.

Surv. Adamu Adeji, Director-General of the national boundary commission acknowledged the irregularities exposed by the audit. He disclosed that the National Assembly (NASS) has summoned the commission, thus, he would rather wait for the hearing before he makes any further comments.

“The panel has given the commission a date to appear and until then, we cannot speak on it,” he said through Efe Ovuakporie, the commission’s head of media and publicity.

Kayode Aiyedogbon, ARCN Head of Media and Public Relations told The ICIR, in a text message he knew nothing about the allegation. “You may wish to carry out your investigation on it,” he said.

At headquarters of the national hajj commission, officials from the media department could not provide an answer to illegal disbursement of N79.09 million. A senior official referred the reporter to the office of the Director of Finance and Account. But, the DFA was said to be in a meeting with the chief executive of the commission. The ICIR waited. After a while, a senior official from the same department who pleaded anonymity disclosed that a response to the query was sent to the Public Account a day before the reporter’s visit. “I don’t think it will be right to say anything for now because this same response would be provided to the national assembly. So we are waiting for the National Assembly’s invitation. Once that is done, we can respond.”

The ICIR also independently verified from another department if the response was sent as claimed. It was gathered 10 issues were responded to and submitted to public accounts committee but it is uncertain if the N79.09 million was included.

Ezenwa Nwakonobi, VCN Registrar, was contacted for reaction on the unapproved trip to Bangkok but he repeatedly terminated the call. Text message sent to him was not returned.

Is Buhari really fighting corruption?

It is worthy of note that most of these allegations of corrupt practices exposed in public service occurred while Buhari is in power. This is despite the President’s repeated commitment to tackling corruption. However, the popular perception remains that he might need to do more.

Beyond this report, other cases of corrupt practices under his government have been reported by the media.

Recent, Corruption Perception Index (CPI) released by Transparency International also revealed how the country is perceived differently on corruption and its continuous drop in the global ranking. Nigeria ranked 149 from 180 nations.

Prof. Bola Akinterinwa in a recent interview with The ICIR advised for a holistic approach in tackling corruption in the system. “So, how do you cut off a tree from the top when the root is still being wet with water. I have not read the report itself. I only heard it over the radio but the report cannot but be right because we see it on a daily basis. Why will the NIMC be demanding for N5000 to register people? They request for money openly and the TI are there, so these are the reasons. No big deal, in fact, if TI has done its work very well, there is no reason why we should not be the 180th country,” he stated.

Author profile

Olugbenga is an Investigative Reporter with The ICIR. Do you have a scoop? Shoot him an email at oadanikin@icirnigeria.org. Twitter Handle: @OluAdanikin

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