Those tempted to view corruption only in materialist terms, overlooking the abstract subversion of norms and values, will perhaps be forced to have a rethink by simply following the farcical drama currently unfolding at the National Health Insurance Scheme.
Equating his kinship with President Buhari to a talisman, Usman Yusuf was not content at only breaking all extant service rules as the executive secretary, he went a step further by daring constituted authorities at the health ministry to hold him to account.
Directed by the acting president to examine a slew of petitions against the NHIS executive secretary, Minister Isaac Adewole had little or no difficulty in asking him to proceed on a three-month suspension to enable an unimpeded investigation.
Unsatisfied with the defence made by the embattled ES to the weighty charges, Adewole wrote: “Consequently, you are directed to proceed on three months suspension with immediate effect to pave way for an uninterrupted investigation, in accordance with Public Service Rule.”
Tellingly, the workers’ union in the agency were the first to applaud the minister’s action as the right step to curtail what they described as the “primitive stealing going on”.
But in a leaked memo dated July 12 addressed to the minister responding to his suspension over alleged massive graft, among other actions unbecoming of a public officer, the Katsina-born professor pointedly declared he was not answerable to anyone other than President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB), casually hinting that he would rather sit tight.
Drawing confidence, apparently from a mis-reading of sections of the NHIS law, he claimed that only the man who appointed him on a renewable term of five years was capable of questioning his actions or conduct. His words: “By virtue of the NHIS Act particularly section 4 and 8 thereof, my appointment and removal from office whether by way of suspension or otherwise is at the instance of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The waters would be muddied further following a counter-motion by the House of Representatives ordering Yusuf’s reinstatement. According to the House, Yusuf’s suspension is prejudicial to an ongoing investigation into the whereabouts of N351 billion allocated to the agency between 2005 and 2016. Well, let it be said that the freedom of the House to issue express orders does not include the power to compel the minister’s obedience in the circumstance.In any case, when mighty logs fall on each other in the bush, as they say, common sense dictates that evacuation starts with the one on top.
Yusuf’s thinly disguised arrogance surely bespeaks a mindset never seen in public service at that level in recent history. By his academic standing, a man assumed to be a professor can hardly be accused of illiteracy and, therefore, cannot be excused for confusing the meaning of delegated authority. By virtue of being a member of federal executive council, a minister is the president’s agent and the principle of agency therefore entitles him to exercise his principal’s authority in his assigned station.
In the absence of President Muhammadu Buhari, an acting president is supposed to be in place, whose power the health minister would seem to invoke in directing that Yusuf proceeds on suspension.So, only sheer impunity and contempt for everyone, except PMB, could have led Yusuf to word his reply to the minister in the insolent manner he did. Intoxicated by transient power, the little wayfarer from Katsina seems incapable of realising yet that such indiscretion invariably does incalculable damage to PMB, his benefactor. If nothing at all, this will certainly be cited as another exhibit in the now not-so-subtle protestation against the lopsidedness in Buhari’s key appointments, seen as a form of sleaze on its own.
Obviously a product of nepotism, Yusuf instinctively has been feeding the web as well. Among his first actions in office was said to be the appointment of his younger brother as general manager (Legal) and his niece, a level 8 officer from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), catapulted to grade level 13 at the NHIS.
Already, there are reports that the suspended ES has been telling people that he was being “persecuted” because of his refusal to meet an “illegal financial request” by the minister. Well, we honestly cannot rule that out. But even if this were true, it hardly absolves this clear case of mutiny.
Nor will that be sufficient immunity not to answer the substantive charges of impropriety against him. Therefore, the relevant authorities had better ensure appropriate sanctions are meted to him as restitution for this act of rank insubordination in the first place, even if he was eventually found guiltless for the litany of sins he was originally accused of.
Indeed, legion and weighty are the charges against Yusuf. The last straw that apparently broke the camel’s back was his decision to buy himself a N58 million SUV from NHIS funds, way above his N2.5 million approval limit, without the knowledge nor the concurrence of the supervising ministry, despite that his office already had a number of serviceable SUVs.
Before he landed the “juicy” appointment last year, very little was known of Yusuf beside his stint at an obscure medical address in the U.K. and later being found around one influential Kaduna-based contractor. Considering the nature of the operations of NHIS, not a few industry experts had expected a person with managerial or financial bias would be appointed.
When the professor of “hematology, pediatrics and oncology” was eventually named the new NHIS boss, many were inclined to assume that his kinship with President Buhari largely influenced the appointment, more than merit.
But no sooner had he assumed office than alarm bells started chiming literally all over at NHIS, the same way a domestic fire alarm is triggered by the whiff of smoke. He seemed in a great hurry to turn the office into a vending machine for contracts often grossly inflated and incestuous.
First was a phony N400 million training contract allegedly awarded to his “benefactor and confidant” with a view to decimating the N860 million set aside for “training” in NHIS’ 2016 budget.But in reality, according to one of the petitioners, “In one of the trainings, a course fee of N520,000 per staff for three days was approved without recourse to diligent planning but with the mindset to profiteer (sic) his cronies. After a lot of hue and cry from the general staff the fee was cut to N270,000 under suspicious circumstances.Thus the fraud began. Most of these trainings which were scheduled to hold across the 36 states and the FCT never held, while those that held were incomparable to the funds which had all been released for the trainings. There was absence of training materials in most of the designated venues of the trainings.
“Multiples of payment vouchers ranging (from) N19 million, N18 million (to) N21 million were raised to cover up for the payment of over N400 million for these trainings.
“All these spendings he carried out were above his approval limit, but he was always heard to claim that he has the ears of the president, they being from the same state, and whatever your complaints, they will go nowhere.”
There is another allegation that the contract for the supply of e-library equipment to a company (Promatrix Global Resources Ltd) to the tune of N28 million was pre-paid before execution against procurement rules.
In another deal, a princely N150 million was allegedly paid to a consultant “in the training of report writing”. The beneficiary? Yusuf’s own brother.
For now, we can only hope the administrative panel will carry out a forensic investigation and ensure justice is served.
But while awaiting the outcome, we can at least take solace in being provided yet another aperture onto why output never really measures up to input in Nigeria. Sleaze or “job for the boys” certainly was not part of the promises made to the nation when the NHIS was first unveiled in 1999. Rather, the mission statement outlined its goal as a quest to bridge the deficit in the nation’s healthcare, targeting government employees, the organised private sector, the informal sector, children under age five, disabled persons and prison inmates.
Between then and now, a whopping N351 billion has been expended on NHIS with little or no impact felt by the citizenry. In fact, eighteen years after, national coverage is today put at an abysmal 1.5 percent. In the current year, revitalisation of over 10,000 primary healthcare centres (PHC) was listed among NHIS’ priorities, targeted at the most vulnerable in the society, including rural women and children. But the funds earmarked for essential drugs for the people are rather diverted into providing luxury and comfort for officials. Life expectancy remains at 52 years. Malaria prevalence rate is still around 11 percent. Maternal mortality rate is still high. Under-five mortality rate is still over 10 percent.Meanwhile, as things continue to fall apart in public hospitals on account of stolen budgets, more and more Nigerians now resort to churches and shrines in search of healing.
Louis Odion is a Fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (FNGE).