The Unwholesome Recall of Suspended NHIS Boss

Usman Yusuf
Yusuf

President Muhammadu Buhari through a presidential fiat returns Usman Yusuf, executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme, to office after six months of suspension for alleged fraudulent activities, much to the chagrin of Nigerians who feel that the allegations against him should not have been ignored

By Olu Ojewale

THE anti-corruption stance of the President Muhammadu Buhari is once again under public scrutiny, following the reinstatement of Usman Yusuf, the suspended executive secretary, ES, of the National Health Insurance Scheme, NHIS. Since the news about Yusuf’s reinstatement surfaced on Tuesday, February 6, a lot of Nigerians have been asking what criteria Buhari used in recalling him back to his post having been indicted by a ministerial panel on allegations of corruption and abuse of office.

On Thursday, February 8, the workers’ union of the NHIS demonstrated to showed their discontent by staging a peaceful protest against the reinstatement of Yusuf. The union workers were seen at the NHIS office in Utako, Abuja, carrying banners denouncing his return.

The unionists, who paralysed activities in the NHIS, sang protest songs and argued that the reinstatement of the ES would thwart his investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.

Addressing the workers, Razaq Omomeji, chairman, Association of the Senior Civil Servants of Nigeria, ASCSN, the NHIS chapter, alleged that the reinstatement of Yusuf would worsen the state of the agency. “The man has a case in court. We are calling on President Muhammadu Buhari to revisit allegations against Professor Yusuf and investigate this matter before reinstating him.

“EFCC is investigating him and president Buhari should allow the investigation before recalling him,” Omomeji said.

The workers called on Buhari to reverse the reinstatement immediately, saying his reinstatement was a mockery of Buhari’s anti-corruption war. The protest lasted about one hour after Yusuf resumed at the NHIS headquarters in Abuja.

Perhaps, sensing the untoward implications of the reinstatement, Buhari allegedly summoned Isaac Adewole, minister of Health, and Attahiru Ibrahim, who acted as executive secretary of the NHIS during Yusuf’s suspension to the Presidential Villa on Wednesday, February 7.

President Buhari
President Muhammadu Buhari

Ayo Osinlu, head, Media and Public Relations of NHIS, confirmed the meeting on Wednesday in Abuja. But the outcome of the meeting was yet to be disclosed at press time.

The president, had recalled Yusuf through a letter signed by Abba Kyari, chief of staff to president. The letter with subject matter ‘Recall from suspension of Professor Usman Yusuf, dated February 5, with ref no: FH/COS/10/6/A/29, was addressed to Adewole and delivered to the Ministry of Health on Tuesday, February 6, in the evening.

It said in part: “The above subject matter referred, kindly note that His Excellency Mr. President has approved the recall of Professor Usman Yusuf from suspension effective immediately.”

Yusuf was initially suspended from office on July 6, 2017, by the minister of Health after directives from the office of the Vice president, Yemi Osinbajo while in acting capacity as the president.

The minister, had in his letter to Yusuf, directed him to step aside and hand over to the most senior officer at the agency so as not to influence outcome of the panel set up to investigate the allegations of gross misconducts against him.

A panel commissioned by the minister after Yusuf’s suspension later found him culpable of infractions that ranged from nepotism to theft of public funds. The panel submitted its report to the Presidency in September last year.

Reports alleged that since his appointment on July 29, 2016, Yusuf had violated procurement laws and gave out contracts to cronies without due process.

The last straw which led to his suspension was that Yusuf allegedly bought a Prado SUV for N58 million shortly before Ramadan, though his approval limit was N2.5 million.

When the minister ordered his suspension based on the weighty allegations, Yusuf was said to have bluntly told Adewole that only the president had the power to suspend him and not the minister.

The House of Representatives had also called for his reinstatement, pending the outcome of the probe into the allegations against him. Some members of the House actually believed that Yusuf was being witch-hunted because he failed to carry out order of the minister.

Nevertheless, his recent reinstatement has not gone down well with Nigerians who have reacted with anger, shock, and disbelief.

The ASCSN, in a statement issued on Wednesday, February 7, by Alade Lawal, its secretary-general, said the action of the president was capable of being interpreted to mean that the government’s anti-graft crusade was “selective and designed to deal with specific targets.”

The statement said: “This is one intervention too many and as such Mr. President should allow Yusuf to retire from service to have time to run his personal business. How can a government official being investigated for a whopping sum of N919m fraud by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission be reinstated by the government that came to power promising to sanitise the system? This is very unfortunate. We, therefore, urge President Buhari to rescind his action and allow Prof. Yusuf to leave the system in peace.”

Besides, he said the president’s action was capable of lending credence to Yusuf’s arrogant public statements several times that he could not report to the minister of Health, since he dealt directly with the president, and that his return would amount to passing a vote of no confidence on the minister.

Similarly, Kola Ologbondiyan, PDP national publicity secretary, in a statement in Abuja, on Wednesday,  February 7, alleged that the “Presidency stinks of corruption and has lost all claim of fighting graft, as long as it continues to protect alleged indicted officials of the administration.”

According to him, Yusuf having been officially probed and indicted for abuse of office and fraud to the tune of N919m by a committee set up by the minister of Health, should not have been reinstated by the president.

He charged: “Instead of allowing for the conclusion of investigation and eventual prosecution by the EFCC, the Presidency halted the process and rewarded the indicted official with a recall from suspension, even without any recourse to the supervising minister simply because Prof. Yusuf is not only of the APC but also known to be very close to the president.

“The only way the Presidency can redeem itself from this particular scandal is to immediately return Prof. Yusuf to the EFCC and allow the law to take its course if it is actually fighting corruption in Nigeria.”

Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, a human rights lawyer based in Lagos, said the reinstatement of Yusuf was an indication that the anti-corruption fight was derailing.

Adegoruwa said in an interview: “The impression we get is that government is very soft on the members of the executive. If you recall the case of the past SGF, the allegation against the chief of Army Staff, the allegation against the chief of Staff, and when you recall the case of Maina, clearly, the impression has been created that the ruling government is soft on members of the executive, whereas the leadership of the Senate is facing trial, whereas judicial officers are facing trial. It all lends credence to the fact that the anti-corruption war is lopsided. It has different standards for different people, which should not have been the case.”

That notwithstanding, a top government official said the suspended executive secretary was reinstated because the Presidency believed that the allegations which formed the basis of his suspension by the minister were largely unsubstantiated.

A top government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, disclosed this to some journalists on Wednesday evening.

The source also said the government’s position was that the committee constituted by the minister to investigate Yusuf was neither independent nor free from bias.

He claimed that 20 of the 23 allegations levelled against the NHIS boss were not backed with evidence while others appeared concocted because of evident alterations and mix-ups in dates.

The top source recalled that Buhari decided to appoint Yusuf at a time the Health Management Organisations were short-changing the system, leading to a situation where subscribers to the scheme were not getting the best out of it due to sharp practices on the part of the HMOs and health providers.

The government official said, “But barely one year into his assumption of office was Prof. Usman suspended by the Minister of Health on the strength of a petition by the United Youth Alliance Against Corruption and Association of Senior Civil Servants.

“The minister, relying on the petition, constituted a 17-man committee under the headship of the permanent secretary of the ministry to look into the petition by this body of civil servants.

“Out of the 17 members of the committee, 16 of them were staff of the ministry while one member was from the Department of State Services.

“The request for a nomination from the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission was declined because they feared a conflict of interest.

“From the composition of the committee, it was obvious that the committee was neither independent nor free from bias. Some of the allegations brought against the Executive Secretary by the UYAC could not be substantiated in 20 of the 23 allegations as no evidence was brought forward. Others were obviously concocted as there were evident alterations and mix-ups in dates on some of the petitions.”

The source said further that in his bid to strengthen the weaknesses identified in the execution of the insurance scheme and in the procurement processes,  Yusuf got competent staff seconded to him from relevant organisations in the short run while a comprehensive long term staff replacement was being worked on.

These efforts, he claimed, were eventually thwarted and the officers thereby de-seconded in deference to public service bureaucratic norms as advised by the Ministry of Labour and Employment.

“As part of the N919, 000,000 alleged to have been mismanaged by the ES, it is on record that N411, 688, 704 was paid to NHIS  staff as allowances and also to seconded staff as allowances and entitlements when he resumed,” the source said.

“Payments to the consultants mentioned in the petition went through normal procurement protocol established in the organisation before approval by the Executive Secretary subject to ratification of the Executive Management of the organisation.

“Records within the organisation show that not one NHIS contracts was subjected to Bureau of Public Procurement review within the 2013-2017  period and it was in a view to addressing these anomalies that NHIS wrote to the BPP and other similar organisations to strengthen the procurement functions of the organisation.

“It is not unlikely that there are some individuals or groups who are very comfortable with the old order of doing things that are hiding behind the petition writers,” he added.

The source said it was clear from the investigation that the Presidency identified an acute lack of capacity in the NHIS as organisation and unless a new set of competent managers are found and recruited, the objectives of setting up of the NHIS may remain a mirage.

“This is why the minister was directed to work with the Executive Secretary to redress some of the identified shortcomings within the organisations to avoid a breakdown of one of the Federal Government’s flagship programmes and truncate the intention of government to expand the scope of beneficiaries of health insurance scheme and indeed broaden government’s efforts in repositioning the health sector,” he said.

The government official added that the House of Representatives Committee on Health and the entire House reached more or less the same conclusion and asked for the reinstatement of the NHIS boss.

This, perhaps, gave the government the impetus that Yusuf could return to work, while the EFCC investigation would still continue.

Lai Mohammed, minister of Information and Culture, said this while fielding question from state house correspondents at the end of the weekly federal executive council meeting on Wednesday, February 7.

Mohammed told reporters that Yusuf’s recall would not affect investigation.

“I am not aware that the EFCC is investigating the recently reinstated executive secretary of NHIS but if that is the case I don’t think his reinstatement is a bar to any investigation,” he said.

Based on Mohammed’s assurance, Nigerians would be happy to hear the concluding part of the whole story.

– Feb. 10, 2018 @ 12:00 GMT |

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