Betta Edu: N370m suspicious items spotted in humanitarian ministry’s 2024 budget

AMID corruption allegations levelled against Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Ms Betta Edu, Economy Post has identified N369.99 million suspicious and ambiguous items in her ministry’s 2024 budget.

Ms Edu is a subject of public scrutiny following a December 20, 2023 memo she addressed to Accountant-General of the Federation, Ms Oluwatoyin Sikirat Madein.

The minister had asked Ms Madein to pay N585.190 million grant meant for vulnerable people in Akwa Ibom State into a private bank account of one Oniyelu Bridget Mojisola, who she described as “the project accountant.”

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In her response, the accountant-general had noted that “although her office received the said request from the ministry, it did not carry out the payment. The ministry was, however, advised on the appropriate steps to take in making such payments in line with the established payment procedure.”

Ms Edu has since defended her action, arguing that she followed the due process. Her Media Assistant, Mr Rasheed Zubair, said in a statement that her action was not illegal as being reported.

“Oniyelu Bridget is the Project Accountant for GVG from the Department of Finance, and it is legal in civil service for a staff, 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,” Zubair said.

Poor defence

However, the defence falls flat in the face of Section 713 of Nigeria’s Financial Regulations 2009, which says that government funds must not be paid into personal or private accounts, and vice versa.

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“Personal money shall in no circumstances be paid into a government bank account, nor shall any public money be paid into a private account,” it says.

Budget of ambiguity

Economy Post has identified several budget lines that are either ambiguous or suspicious in the 2024 budget of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation.

First is an item in the budget termed, “The development of a multi-sectoral funding basket for humanitarian and poverty alleviation activities/ interventions.” This will cost N181.65 million.

A financial analyst said this item was not only ambiguous but suspicious.

“That line item means that the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation plans to develop a multi-sectoral funding scheme to tackle humanitarian and poverty alleviation issues,” said a former senior bank worker, Mr Simon Uguru.

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“It does not mean that the ministry is setting aside the fund for humanitarian activities; it only means that the fund will be used to develop that scheme. It then begs the question why such humongous amount is used for that first-level activity,” he said.

Second is a line item captioned, “Quarterly review, tracking and development of report to the National Committee on Poverty Alleviation chaired by the Vice President.” This will cost N20.218 million.

Analysts wonder why it costs this amount of money to review, track and develop a report that will obviously be developed by the vice president’s office.

“It is so clear that the sittings will be funded from the VP’s office. If not, you would have seen it in the humanitarian ministry’s budget. So, why would this cost over N20 million to execute?” Mr Uguru asked.

Third is a line item tagged, “Performance management and strategic planning,” which is set to cost N15.109 million. This, according to a budget expert, Ms Cecilia Uchendu, was ambiguous. According to her, “Are they monitoring performance or strategically planning for the progress of the ministry? This is nebulous.”

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In the Humanitarian ministry’s 2024 budget, there is also another line item entitled, “Assessment, Identification of gaps, informed decision-making, accountability, learning and alignment with strategic objectives ultimately leading to more effective and efficient sectoral development.” This is estimated to gulp N25.437 million.

Mr Uguru said, “There are repetitions here because any assessment will lead to identification of gaps, informed decision-making and other variables listed here. So, it really means assessment. But what will be assessed or evaluated is not stated here.”

Moreover, the Humanitarian ministry’s budget contains a line item tagged, “Identification of relevant national and international stakeholder to address pressing issues and challenges; foster coordination, advocate for change and review progress on humanitarian and poverty related issues. strengthening the global commitment to humanitarian action, increase collaboration among actors and establish a framework for more effective and sustainable humanitarian interventions.”

This is expected to cost N14.218 million.

According to Ms Uchendu,” This could have been rephrased to clearly define what the funds will be used for. Are the funds meant for experts to discuss pressing issues that are already in public domain? If it is for collaboration among actors, will you give them money or transport fares? You have to state the specific thing you want to do with the money for the sake of accountability.”

She also faulted another line item entitled, “Increase access to employment opportunities for multimendimensionally poor youths via targeted cash transfers and programs.” This will cost N109.240 million.

She asked, “Are you going to increase the poor people’s access to jobs by giving them cash? Does access to jobs increase by training or handing out cash? Is this another cash transfer scheme? Are you setting up business for them? This, again, is nebulous.”

She further said, “If this project is not executed by the end of the year, how will it be tracked? It is not different from the line items that are focused on cash transfers, so nobody can truly track and monitor this kind of line item,” she added.

Ms Uchendu equally faulted the line item tagged, “Strategic roadmap on ethics and informed consent in the ministry,” saying that “it is an internal affair that should not cost anything. You set up an internal committee to develop the roadmap in one week if truly you are sincere.” This line item will cost N4.120 million.

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All the items stated above are estimated to cost N369.99 million.

An email sent to the ministry to explain these line items were not responded. A text message sent to a number on the ministry’s website was not replied.

Probe of humanitarian ministry

Meanwhile, President Bola Tinubu has ordered a probe of the humanitarian ministry. Minister of Information and National Orientation, Mr Mohammed Idris, made this known in a statement on Sunday, noting that the government was determined to unravel the truth behind the allegation.

“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 government is determined to unravel the truth as it relates to this matter, and assures 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.”

Experts warn of danger

Experts have warned that Nigeria will not make any headway with the current budgeting system adopted by ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). They add that the two houses of the National Assembly are culpable as they also insert items that serve parochial, rather than national, interests in the budget.

“We need to stop the use of ambiguous and bogus terms in the budget. We need to be more specific. As a nation, we also need to mention the number of things which we are funding in a line item. For instance, ‘244 chairs at the cost of N15.03 million.’ Some MDAs actually do that, but many do not.

READ ALSO: https://www.economypost.ng/featured/agric-budget-akpabios-zone-gets-21-projects-food-belt-states-receive-nothing/2023/12/25/

“This will enhance transparency and give factcheckers work to do,” Mr Uguru, earlier quoted, said.

For Ms Uchendu, “Nigeria’s civil servants and legislators need reorientation because we all suffer the effects of corruption. When these ambiguous and suspicious items are included in the budget, it is the capital expenditures that suffer. They first remove the money for those items and leave the remaining for capital projects. Even if a ministry budgeted N200 billion but got only N5 billion, it would first cater for those ambiguous projects and leave whatever (if any) is left for capital projects.”

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