January 14, (THEWILL) – Suspended Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Dr Betta Edu, was once seen as a rising star in President Bola Tinubu’s cabinet. At just 37, she was the youngest minister in the government and considered to be close to the President. She was in charge of overseeing the National Social Investment Programmes (NSIP), a flagship initiative that aimed to tackle poverty and empower vulnerable groups in Nigeria.
However, on Monday, January 8, 2024, her political career came to a screeching halt, when the President suspended her from office with immediate effect and ordered the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to investigate her for alleged financial misconduct. The suspension was announced in a statement by presidential spokesperson, Ajuri Ngelale.
In the statement, the Presidency said that the suspension was in line with Tinubu’s commitment to uphold the highest standards of integrity, transparency and accountability in the management of the commonwealth of Nigerians. The President promptly charged a panel headed by the Coordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Wale Edun, to conduct a comprehensive diagnostic on the financial architecture and framework of the NSIP, as well as to reform the relevant institutions and programmes to eliminate all institutional frailties and win back lost public confidence in the initiative.
The suspension of Edu and all the social intervention programmes of her ministry came as a government response to the public outcry that greeted the scandal that had engulfed the ministry in the past week. The scandal broke out when local media reported on a leaked document that allegedly showed Edu instructing a senior treasury official to transfer N585.18 million of public money into the personal bank account of Bridget Oniyelu, the accountant for the government’s Grant for Vulnerable Groups initiative.
The Grant for Vulnerable Groups is one of the NSIP programmes that Edu’s ministry was responsible for. It is a cash transfer scheme that provides N20,000 to poor and vulnerable households every month to help them cope with the economic downturn. According to the ministry, the programme had reached over 1.6 million beneficiaries across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory as of December 2023.
I have been a vitriolic critic of government programmes in the country that purportedly pays cash to “vulnerable people” in our country where there is hardly any verifiable data of people. They are just avenues to steal money.
The leaked document, which was signed by Edu, stated that the transfer of the funds to Oniyelu’s account was for the “implementation of grants to vulnerable groups” in the first quarter of 2024. It also stated that the transfer was approved by the Accountant-General of the Federation (AGF), Dr Oluwatoyin Madein. However, the AGF denied that she authorised the transfer and said that she had only received a request from Edu’s ministry to release the funds to a designated government account, not a personal one.
The revelation of the document sparked public outrage, as Nigerians questioned how Edu could have approved such a huge amount of money to be transferred to a personal account, rather than a government one. Many also wondered how the money was supposed to be used for the implementation of the grants, when the beneficiaries had not yet been identified or verified. Some also accused Edu of embezzling the funds for personal purposes so early into the Tinubu administration.
Edu, however, denied any wrongdoing and said that the document was part of a plot by mischief makers to tarnish her reputation and that of the President. She said that she had acted in good faith and that at no time did she divert public funds to private accounts. She claimed the misinformation was diversionary and aimed at deviating the attention of the EFCC.
According to the statement released from her office, “There is no substance in the said publication currently in some online media and it does not deserve a response.”
She said she was simply clearing the air “because social media, in recent times, has been riddled with lots of fake and unsubstantiated news. The desire to drag traffic and also make a desperate living by many bloggers has spurred several online content makers to throw caution into the wind and rev in propaganda aimed at attacking government appointees.”
Indeed, her explanations fell on deaf ears. Personally, I believe the minister should have resigned and her failure to do so says a lot about the content of her character. With the evidence piled up against her, her reputation has been dealt a massive blow and leaving with what is left of her name is wise counsel. Should the EFCC investigation prove beyond doubt that she is culpable, I will recommend that she be dismissed, prosecuted and made to serve time together with any other accomplice involved in the scandal.
She has betrayed the trust of Nigerians and violated the principles of public accountability and due process. All the monies stolen from the NSIP since its inception must be traced and refunded to the treasury, especially as they are meant for the most vulnerable of our population.
This fact also makes Edu’s alleged crime even more egregious. It is part of the challenges and controversies that have plagued the NSIP, which had been criticised for poor implementation, lack of transparency, corruption and political interference.
It is worthy of note that President Tinubu has ordered a comprehensive investigation into the entire ministry with Edu, the immediate past minister, Sadiya Umar Farouq and Halima Shehu, the National Coordinator of the National Social Investment Programme Agency, who was fired for allegedly diverting about N40 billion from the programme, directors, past and present officers of the ministry as well as a contractor, James Okwete, now before investigators at the EFCC.
The investigation of the entire Humanitarian Affairs Ministry is a test of the Bola Tinubu Administration whose crusade of Renewed Hope aims to lift millions of Nigerians out of poverty. The President must now show that he indeed has zero tolerance for corruption and that there will be no sacred cows, not even in his kitchen cabinet. That is the best way to turn this around in his administration’s favour and he has begun well with Edu’s suspension and THE sacking of Shehu. He needs to go beyond that and act decisively when the investigation is over.
In all, this is a setback for the NSIP, which had been hailed as an ambitious and comprehensive social protection programme, even though a nebulous cloud of suspicion hangs over it due to the acute lack of data to support its cash-sharing programmes. Now, this scandal has eroded the public confidence and trust in the programme and raised doubts about its impact and sustainability.
The fate of Edu and everyone else linked to the scandal in the ministry currently lies in the hands of the EFCC, which has the mandate to investigate and prosecute them for any financial crime.
The EFCC has not yet commented on the matter, or confirmed if it has commenced its investigation. Nigerians are watching keenly, and expecting justice to be done. They are also hoping that the Tinubu administration will take decisive steps to reform the NSIP and ensure that the funds meant for the poor and vulnerable are not diverted or mismanaged by unscrupulous officials.
The way this ends will be a marker for this administration.