“Why Betta Edu and Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo have not been arrested” – Rudolf Okonkwo

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Without concluding the probe of suspended minister Betta Edu and publicising its findings, lessons learned, and corrective actions taken, the Minister of Finance, Wale Edun, announced the expansion of the conditional cash program to 12 million Nigerians from the previous 3 million. The Tinubu government is moving on as if nothing happened.

But something horrendous happened.

Since its inception, the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation has been a cesspool of corruption. Political leaders always put their favoured stooges there to facilitate the looting of the Nigerian treasury. And there were lots of money to loot. 

The National Social Investment Program Agency (NSIPA) kicked off in 2016 with a $500 million World Bank-backed loan. Later, the Nigerian government added $1.3 billion.

What Betta Edu did when she became the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation was upgrade the looting to power ten with so much haste that it shocked the whole system.

When Tinubu took over as president, his APC’s Southern cabal brought Betta Edu to the ministry to do their bidding the same way the Northern cabal had Sadiya Umar Farouk under Buhari. But knowing how lucrative the ministry was to siphoning easy money without questions, the northern cabal retained Halima Shehu, a disciple of Sadiya, as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Social Investment Program Agency (NSIPA). They supported her instead of Betta Edu’s candidate because she had worked with Sadiya and would protect their interest.

The trouble started when Betta butted head with Halima as soon as she got in there and went to work, moving money around to private accounts and anywhere else that would be out of reach of Halima. It was an open conflict between the two women. Senate President Godswill Akpabio tried to resolve the matter for them at his home office but failed.

There was an effort to move Halima Shehu’s NSIPA away from the ministry to the presidency. Still, Betta Edu fought back the way Akpabio fought back when they wanted to move the NDCC away from him when he was the Minister of the Niger Delta Affairs.

During this fight, Betta Edu ensured that all four program managers under the ministry were from Cross Rivers. She was ready for a fight.

It was this failure of these two women to agree on how to share the loot that led to this open blowup that Nigerians read about. If Akpabio had settled them, we wouldn’t have known about the missing N75 billion.

You will read nothing here that the EFCC does not know. If the EFCC has not acted, it is not because they need more evidence to act. The only reason they have not acted is that those involved in the stealing are highly placed in the Bola Tinubu’s government. The memo signed by Bola Tinubu’s Chief of Staff, Femi Gbajabiamilia, showed President Tinubu himself approved N3 billion that Betta Edu used to verify the social register.

And if Femi Gbajabiamilia’s fingers were on anything, chances are that Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo was also involved. Tunji-Ojo helped Gbajabiamilia become the House of Representatives speaker. Gbajabiamila rewarded him with the powerful Chairman of the NDDC committee in the House of Representatives. That was when Tunji-Ojo became known as the man who spent only dollars in Abuja. Since then, Tunji-Ojo and Gbajabiamilia have been partners in providing “excellent service” to the nation. 

It was under Gbajabiamila as speaker that Tunji-Ojo made the most outstanding contribution to the history of the National Assembly – “off the mic.” Most people do not know that Tunji-Ojo ordered that the then Minister of the Niger Delta Godswill Akpabio’s mic should be turned off to stop him from revealing damaging information about his NDDC committee while he was testifying before Tunji-Ojo’s committee.

So, it was not surprising to anyone when Betta Edu awarded a 430 million Naira contract to Planet Projects LTD for verifying the social register. This company belonged to Interior Minister Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo. As the scandal broke, Mr. Tunji-Ojo went to the press to defend himself, claiming that he was no longer a company director but acknowledged that his wife now runs it.

“The question should be, if the company was given a job, did they do the job?” said Tunji-Ojo on national TV. “Was the job validly awarded?”

It was an unbelievable display of shame. Like the chief justice of the nation, the man had no idea about conflicts of interest.

More importantly, Betta Edu’s ministry announced that 3.5 million poor Nigerians would receive N25,000 each. In the end, only 500,000 Nigerians in five states got the N25,000. What happened to the other N25,000 that should have gone to the other 3 million Nigerians?

The N75 billion that should have gone to the other 3 million Nigerians most likely went to the pockets of well-connected people in the ministry.

Here is how they have always done it.

The ministry will announce that it is sending some money to some people in Nigeria for empowerment, poverty alleviation, or entrepreneurship support. They have various programs that do those things, from Tradermoni to N-Power, to the Conditional Cash Transfer Program, Government Enterprise and Empowerment Program (GEEP), Home Grown School Feeding Program (HGSF), and others. As soon as these programs are announced, government officials lobby for their constituencies to be beneficiaries.

People who know the Minister and others in the ministry send in names. Influential people in the country also wangle names to the Minister. In the days of Prof. Yemi Osinbajo’s Tradermoni, when they just carried cash to markets and gave to people, at the end of the day, they would announce that the government shared billions with millions of Nigerians without any way of crosschecking who the recipients were and how much the government spent.

Due to outcry by accountability and transparent groups, they have made it more sophisticated. This time, the agency stipulates that recipients’ names must be verified, and money must be paid into their bank accounts.

That is where friends of the ministry, like Tunji-Ojo, come in. They get a contract to verify the names and accounts of recipients. 

What happens next is that these contractors, the ministry officials, all work with banks to generate names and accounts.

One of the most common questions Nigerians ask about the ministry’s activities is who the recipients of all the money they share are. There is a reason why you do not know them. And I will explain that to you.

When challenged, the government says that some recipients don’t want to be named, so they respect their wishes and protect their privacy. Baloney. This excuse is a cover to keep perpetuating their crimes. Are the recipients of N25,000 afraid of being kidnapped? If recipients do not want their names out there, they do not desperately need the money.

When the government announced that 2 million people would receive 25,000 Naira each, the actual recipients may just be 500,000. A long list of people on the corruption-feeding pipe pockets the rest of the money. 

Here are a few things that Betta Edu and Tunji-Ojo did with your money, the Nigerian people’s money.

The truth is that the money never got to the people. The registers they claim they have are fake, full of fictitious names.

Now, the ministry and other influential members of society who submit names collaborate with banks to generate fake names with NIN numbers to channel payments. Once payment is made, they collect their illicit percentages of the money and announce an infinitesimal number of actual recipients. 

If you want to catch them, set up a probe to look at the names of any of these government giveaway recipients. And you will end up locking them all up.

Last December, the Minister of Solid Minerals, Dele Alake, announced that the government was subsidising by 50 per cent the transportation cost for Nigerians going home for the Christmas holiday. How many people used that service? How much did the government pay? Which transportation companies received the payment from the government? What are the records of the transportation companies that showed the names and phone numbers of the people who used the service?

All those should be public information. Global best practice requires those responsible for spending funds to provide public information on how they spend it. Zero accountability and transparency are the preferred default state of criminals in corridors of power.

A government that dislikes accountability and transparency has no interest in curbing corruption among its ranks and files. And when that same government has no clue what conflict of interest means, they cannot draw a line between the public and private. And as long as that is the case, nothing changes about that cesspool and the people like Betta Edu, Femi Gbajabiamila, and Olubunmi Tunji-Ojo who swim in it.

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is also the host of Dr. Damages Show. His books include “This American Life Sef” and “Children of a Retired God,” among others. His upcoming book is called “Why I’m Disappointed in Jesus.”

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