February 03, 2024

Betta Edu and the crime scene called Nigeria - Ikechukwu Amaechi

Dr Betta Edu, the vivacious and chirpy politician from Cross River State, must be introspecting now. Just yesterday, she had the world at her feet, literally, and Nigeria was her oyster, where, it seemed, she could achieve anything she wished. And she achieved a lot. Born October 27, 1986, Betta chalked up incredible attainments in only 37 years. Right from the time she completed her secondary education in 2001 at the Federal Government Girls College, Calabar, and obtained her first degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Calabar in 2009, her rise to superstardom has been incredible. In 2015, Governor Ben Ayade appointed her as Special Adviser on Community and Primary Healthcare. Since then, she has been on a helluva of a journey. Shortly after, she became Commissioner for Health and in 2020, she also doubled as the chairman of the Cross River State COVID-19 Taskforce. It was a measure of her charisma that in August 2020, she became national chairperson of the Nigeria Health Commissioners Forum.
A Fellow of the African Institute of Public Health Professionals, in March 2022, Betta Edu, transcending state politics, became the youngest national Woman Leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC). She became a role model of sorts for not only young people but also women, so much so that in July 2023, the Asabe Bashir-led Maryam Babangida National Centre for Women Development, in collaboration with the Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, bestowed on her an award of excellence in leadership for gender inclusion and women empowerment in recognition of her “commitment to championing the cause of empowering women, children and other vulnerable groups in Nigeria.” Three years before then, the same Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development gifted her the Nigeria Quintessential Woman Award, and the National Youth Council of Nigeria gave her another award of excellence.
Then, as an icing on her cake of accomplishments, President Bola Tinubu nominated her minister. She was promptly cleared by the Senate and in August 2023, she was sworn in as Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, making her the first female minister from Cross River State and the youngest in the Fourth Republic. But like the Evil Forest in Chinua Achebe’s magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, that kills a man on the day that his life is sweetest to him, Betta Edu has fallen from grace to grass, becoming in the process the butt of all asinine jokes and ridiculed as the poster girl of corruption in Nigeria. She has been shoved off her high perch, suspended by Tinubu, who denied her access to the presidential villa, and handed over to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for probe. Her travel documents have been seized, laying her utterly bare. Meanwhile, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, Abel Olumuyiwa Enitan, has taken over the leadership of the ministry.
For all intents and purposes, Betta Edu’s roller-coaster trajectory in the corridors of power has come to a dramatic end. The only thing that could equal her spectacular fall from grace to grass is her equally meteoric rise from grass to grace. She has been thoroughly humiliated. In some climes where self-esteem is still considered priceless, she should be on the suicide watch list. But this is Nigeria. Those who have committed worse crimes are in higher offices right now.
No matter what the outcome of the EFCC probe is and I don’t see how she will be exonerated of financial malfeasance having owned up to the vexatious memo seeking to transfer N585 million of public funds into private account contrary to statutory regulations – Betta Edu will not return to the Tinubu cabinet. Chapter 7 of the Federal Government Financial Regulations, section 713, which unequivocally warns that public and personal money should not intermingle, states: “Personal money shall in no way circumstances be paid into a government bank account, nor shall any public money be paid into a private bank account. An officer who pays public money into a private account is deemed to have done so with fraudulent intention.”
And that is exactly what Ms Edu did. Did she not know about that regulation? I bet she did. If she knew, why did she flout it so whimsically? Impunity, knowing full well that the act of public officials paying public money into private accounts is the norm. To be sure, this is not the first time Betta Edu will be entangled in a scandal. Her stewardship as the chairperson of the Cross River State COVID-19 Taskforce was not without reproach. The Cross River State chapter of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) passed a vote of no confidence in her, alleging professional misconduct bordering on fraud in her handling of the COVID-19 assignment. In other climes, such baggage would have been an issue during her ministerial screening. Not in Nigeria. Both the security agencies and the Senate never bothered. The Imperial President, on whose mandate everyone stands, wanted her to be a minister, so, a minister she must be.
But I am not worried about Edu. Her goose is cooked. She will be lucky not to be jailed. President Tinubu will milk to the fullest any mileage her humpty-dumpty fall will give him as a leader not in bed with corruption. Already, for taking action against the minister, many Nigerians have festooned him in anti-corruption robes. That is his luck. But if anything, the Edugate, as the Betta Edu scandal has been dubbed, has confirmed the fact that Nigeria is a huge crime scene. It is an embarrassing systemic failure and though Tinubu has, no doubt, ticked all the right boxes with the actions he has taken so far, the specter of corruption is not about to be exorcised primarily because the president cannot champion that cause. The reason why the Betta Edu scandal blew open was not because the system flagged it but because aggrieved insiders who have an axe to grind with her for contesting their sole proprietorship of the stealing franchise in the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry leaked the memo. The trouble in the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry started last October when Ms. Halima Shehu was appointed the National Coordinator and CEO of the National Social Investment Programme Agency (NSIPA), a parastatal in the ministry. Edu apparently would have preferred Dele Yakubu, now Senior Special Assistant to Tinubu on Humanitarian Affairs and Poverty Alleviation, for the job. She lost out in the power game. The minister, who is a signatory to the NSIPA account, either out of greed or spite for the coordinator, started making withdrawals to the tune of about N3 billion without the knowledge of the NSIPA coordinator. On finding out, Ms Shehu, in a desperate bid to retain control over the agency and its finances, transferred the remaining money out of the accounts that Edu had access to. The suspended minister moved against her and the EFCC hauled her in. Not wanting to go down alone and aware of what Edu had done with the money she unilaterally pulled out of the NSIPA account, memos that were hitherto safely tucked away, started flying around.
But there is nothing new. Since its creation by the Muhammadu Buhari presidency, the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry has been a cesspit of corruption with no accountability whatsoever. It is good that Edu’s predecessor, Sadiya Umar-Farouq, is in the law’s crosshairs now over allegations of corruption in the handling of N37.1 billion social intervention funds during her tenure. The rot in the Humanitarian Ministry goes round and every well-meaning Nigerian should be worried. The Edugate is only the tip of the axiomatic iceberg. Ours is a country where people pay millions of Naira to secure ministerial appointments and committee chairmanship is offered to the highest bidders in the National Assembly. Those orchestrating these heists are high priests on the presidential altar. Nobody borrows money to secure ministerial appointments in the name of service. That is why Nigeria has become a huge crime scene. While Betta Edu’s fall from grace to grass is gratifying, those squawking that Tinubu has turned the corner on the anti-corruption fight are mistaken. It is still a steep climb to sanity.
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