President Muhammadu Buhari gave fresh ammunition last week to the growing legion of critics who maintain that his war on corruption has been half-hearted and selective when he reinstated the embattled executive secretary of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Professor Usman Yusuf, who was under a suspension order, charged with gross violations of the public service code.
Specifically, Usman was accused of converting N919 million in subscribers’ premiums to his personal use, purchasing a Sport Utility Vehicle for N58 million, approved contracts worth some N1 billion for his cronies and proxies, and loading the payroll with his relatives. The Senate also accused Yusuf of “corruptly” spending N292 million without recourse to any approving authority.
Weighty charges indeed, and more than enough to cause the Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, executive head of the supervising ministry, to suspend Yusuf and order investigations. Yusuf refused to appear before a committee empanelled by the minister and clung to his post, claiming that only the president could suspend him. The committee worked without the benefit of Yusuf input. Its findings, we understand, were placed before the president last September.
Last week, some four months later, the report finally got his attention. Through his Chief of Staff, Malam Abba Kyari, the president informed the minister that Yusuf had been reinstated and had been admonished to work harmoniously with the minister.
This amounts to a disingenuous evasion of the problem. It would be helpful if the minister and the head of an agency within the ministry related harmoniously. But the issues under review go far beyond that. They are rooted in allegations of criminal breach of public trust, which the minister has a duty to act on as stipulated by the governing rules, counting on the president’s encouragement and support, within the framework of the war on corruption.
They are a manifestation of the bureaucratic indiscipline that has hobbled the civil service and rendered it almost impermeable to innovation and change. And it needs to be said that they are inimical to the agenda of change on which the president was elected.
The way this matter has been handled is disturbingly reminiscent of the case of Abdulrasheed Maina, the pensions chief implicated in the loss of N17 billion in pension funds under his charge. Declared a wanted person, he disappeared from public view for a while, under the protective custody of the very officials who should have turned him in, and was eventually discovered at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, having been reinstated through the back door.
If in the instant case the Presidency has come into possession of compelling evidence warranting Yusuf’s reinstatement, it ought to have brought it to the attention of the Minister of Health. If its judgment is that the minister exceeded his powers in suspending Yusuf, it ought to have communicated that judgment and how it came by it to the minister.
Neither the twain nor indeed the public has been served well by the president’s intervention. Until Yusuf is officially and transparently cleared of all charges, a dark cloud of suspicion will hang over him and public trust in the NHIS will to that extent be undermined.
Yusuf’s reinstatement has left Adewole and the public wondering what he did wrong and what he could have done differently. More poignantly, it amounts to a not-so-subtle declaration of no confidence in Adewole’s leadership and judgment.
It has reinforced public wariness about how the war on corruption is being conducted.
But it is Adewole that has suffered the most damage. He has been treated shabbily. Absent a redress, he should follow the path of honour.