Nigeria: Vice-Chancellors, Lawmakers Set for Showdown Over Alleged Extortion Scheme

A House committee is asking vice chancellors to stay action on Tetfund intervention fund.

Vice chancellors of public universities in Nigeria are gearing up to fiercely resist what they consider a new extortion scheme by some members of a committee of the House of Representatives to shake them down.

The face-off between the vice-chancellors and the lawmakers concerns the N683 billion 2024 intervention fund the federal government recently approved for the nation’s publicly-owned tertiary institutions, PREMIUM TIMES can exclusively report.

On January 12, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) announced President Bola Tinubu’s approval to release 2024 intervention funds for tertiary institutions worth N683 billion.

The fund-starved public schools are expected to get a respite with this intervention which is twice the N320 billion they got in 2023. Yet, experts believe the fund is a drop in the ocean due to the enormous needs of the institutions.

The sharing formula shows that each university will get N1.9 billion comprising N1.6 billion annual direct disbursement and N250 million from zonal intervention fund.

Each polytechnic will get N1.1 billion; N1 billion as annual direct disbursement and N150 million from zonal intervention fund.

On their part, each of the colleges of education will get N1.3 billion each. While N1.2 billion is from the annual direct disbursement, N150 million will be sourced from zonal intervention fund.

Lawmakers write institutions

However, hours after the announcement of the release, the House Committee on TETFUND, chaired by Miriam Onuoha (APC, Imo), wrote the Committee of Provosts of Colleges of Education, the Committee of Rectors of Polytechnics and the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian University, directing them to halt the implementation of the intervention fund until they are cleared to proceed by lawmakers.

The House committee, in the letter, dated 12 January, asked all heads of tertiary institutions to “stay action on the implementation process until submission and appearance before the committee is concluded”.

The lawmakers asked the officials to submit “full implementation details, including but not limited to the drawings, designs and specifications for all projects, procurement and services as contained in your 2024 TETFUND Normal Intervention Allocation letter issued to your Institution.”

“All submissions in Thirty hard copies and a Soft copy are expected to reach the Committee Secretariat in Room 305, Third Floor, White House, House of Representatives, National Assembly Complex on or before Friday 23 February, 2024 while your appearance before the Committee is slated for Tuesday 27 February 2024 at Committee Room 107, House of Representatives, New building, National Assembly by 2:00 p.m.,” the letter reads in part.

Heated debate, anger

Sources in the Committee of Vice Chancellors told PREMIUM TIMES that the letter from the lawmakers sparked anger and generated heated debate among vice chancellors, with some of them describing the action of the legislators as another ploy to extort them.

In telephone calls and WhatsApp exchanges, the vice chancellors fumed and vowed to resist the move. The university heads are frustrated with the incessant demands for money by lawmakers and have braced up for a showdown to end it once and for all.

“They (lawmakers) want to know the contracts that are available so that they can send their agents as contractors. All they want to do is to send in agents,” one vice chancellor told PREMIUM TIMES, asking not to be named so he is not victimised by the lawmakers.

“Once the money was announced by the government on Friday, it was like a shark that smelled blood in the water; their intervention is to get their boys to bid for some of the contracts,” the source added.

According to the vice chancellors, aside from the incessant demands for bribes, the lawmakers also make other demands like admission slots, employment slots and the inclusion of their handpicked contractors for projects in schools.

Another vice chancellor said, “All the information they are asking us to provide are with Tetfund. So if they mean well, why can’t they ask Tetfund to provide them. Why are they asking us to travel to Abuja with loads of documents? Why can’t they even ask us to email the documents to them. Can’t they do the so-called hearing by Zoom?

“Do they not know that it will cost all heads of tertiary institutions a lot of money to travel to Abuja by air and by road and then lodge in hotels to attend the so-called hearing? In these days of heightened insecurity, are they not aware of the risks inherent in unnecessary travels?”

Extortion by NASS committees

Bribery and extortion by National Assembly committees is not new. PREMIUM TIMES had in a series of reports exposed how some members of the Ad Hoc House Committee Investigating job racketeering in government entities, demanded bribes from agencies, including tertiary institutions.

The series led to the launch of an investigation by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) on the activities of the committee, yet, such bribery schemes persist among lawmakers, who continue to use investigative hearings to perpetrate corruption.

The House also promised to investigate the Committee. However, months after the report, it has yet to announce the outcome of the so-called investigation.

Running against time and fighting for autonomy

Meanwhile, the universities are trying to meet the TETFUND deadline for the process of the implementation of the intervention fund but are now being made to appear before a committee which they said is trying to usurp the work of the governing councils of the respective universities.

Each school has a governing council and a management team responsible for running the affairs of the institution, including the granting of approval for expenditure for projects. The power of the council is enshrined in the Act of the respective school and forms the fulcrum of the autonomy of each school.

The vice chancellors believe that aside from the extortion by the lawmakers, this move by the House Committee on TETFUND could undermine the autonomy of the schools, and erode some of the gains made under the current administration.

After years of struggle, the federal government, in 2023, removed tertiary institutions from the IPPIS, a platform the lecturers have consistently said is against the autonomy enjoyed by the schools.

In addition, the vice chancellors successfully fought against the plan by the federal government to deduct 50 per cent of the internally generated revenue of the schools. After weeks of pressure from the schools, the federal government yielded and exempted the schools.

The VCs believe the showdown with the lawmakers on this intervention fund is one battle they must win as a way of ending the regime of bribery and extortion rampant among members of the National Assembly.

They said it was wrong for the committee to write to universities through the association of vice chancellors, because the Committee of Vice Chancellors is not a statutory body, but just an association. Each university is a legal body with its own law, with its own distinct identity. The consensus among the lecturers is to resist what they termed “the regime of extortion” by the lawmakers.

No escaping the multiple “extortion roadblocks”

Most Nigerians are often suspicious of the activities of the National Assembly Committees which they believe are set up not on the basis of need but to reward loyalists and supporters, who then use them (committees) as conduits for corruption, often through blackmailing and extortion. These committees are often classified as “juicy and non-juicy”. Committees that are oversighting “rich MDAs” are regarded premium and most sought after.

The chair of the Tetfund Committee, Ms Onuoha, joined the 10th Assembly speakership race but dropped out at the last minute and later voted Abbas Tajudeen, who won the election. She was subsequently rewarded with the chairmaship of the Committee on TETFUND.

The House of Representatives currently has about 139 Standing Committees with about 25 ad hoc Committees set up since the inauguration of the 10th House in June last year. The duplication of committees means that agencies of government will have to interface with different committees.

Aside from the TETFUND Committee, there are separate committees for universities, polytechnics and Colleges of Education.

Some of the universities’ VCs that spoke with PREMIUM TIMES lamented the number of committees demanding money under the guise of investigative hearings.

This paper reported how an ad hoc Committee on TETFUND, chaired by Oluwole Oke (PDP, Osun), last year, went around tertiary institutions across the country extorting vice chancellors.

The shake-downs of vice-chancellors, rectors an provost are happening despite the paucity of funds at the institutions. It is unclear what the impact of the showdown between the vice chancellors and the lawmakers is going to have on the schools, particularly the students, who have endured periodic shutdowns of schools over disputes between unions and the federal government.

Extortion despite record N344 billion NASS budget

Shortly before the signing of the 2024 Appropriation Act into law, PREMIUM TIMES published a report highlighting the disparity between the allocations to universities and the National Assembly.

Using the initial N197 billion proposed as the budget of the National Assembly, our review showed that the N197 billion could fund 26 selected universities. Despite this huge disparity, the lawmakers jacked up their budget to N344 billion, a sum that is well above the N197 billion used for the analysis.

This paper contacted Ms Onuoha and the spokesperson of the House, Akin Rotimi (APC, Ekiti), they both promised to provide an official response. However, they have yet to respond as of the time of filing this report.

Legal framework argument

Ms Onuoha’s committee cited section 80(3) of the constitution as the bedrock of its intervention. The crux of the argument is that the university cannot spend taxpayers money without approval of the legislators.

Section 80(3) says “No money shall be withdrawn from any public fund of the Federation, other than the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation, unless the issue of those moneys has been authorised by an Act of the National Assembly”.

But a thorough search of the 2024 budget showed that lawmakers actually approved N650 billion as capital release for TETFUND out of the projected N700 billion revenue in 2024. Therefore, money allocated was approved by the lawmakers through the Appropriations Act.

Furthermore, Section 6(d, e and f) of the TETFUND Act gives the Governing Board of TETFUND the power to disburse such funds which have already been approved in the Appropriation Act.

(d) Receive requests and approve admittable projects after due consideration

(e) Ensure disbursements of funds to various public tertiary education institutions in Nigeria

(f) Monitor and evaluate execution of the projects.

Lawmakers are wrong to invite VCs — ASUU President

The President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Emmanuel Osodeke, a professor of soil science, told PREMIUM TIMES via a telephone interview that the lawmakers are wrong to invite vice-chancellors to defend their projects, stating that the governing councils of the different schools are responsible for approval of projects.

He warned the lawmakers not to interfere in the management of the schools as doing so would constitute breach of autonomy.

“What the lawmakers are doing is completely wrong. It is against the rule. TETFUND has been there since 1994, and nothing of such has happened.

“The schools have governing boards that should determine the process. The National Assembly only has the power to ensure the effective use of the money. We are surprised that now that the money has been approved by the president, the National Assembly is insisting that the VCs should bring it to them for approval. It is very funny and we don’t know where they are getting all these ideas from,” Mr Osodeke said.

He added that the lawmakers do not have the capacity to scrutinise projects of all the public schools that are beneficiaries of intervention within the timeframe they stipulated in the letter.

The ASUU president said the action of the lawmaker is reinforcing the insinuations of shake-down. He added that it is going to cost a lot to assemble all heads of public schools in Abuja.

“We have more than 200 or 300 tertiary institutions, so they will come to a committee in the National Assembly to defend their projects, it will take a year. Look at the cost for every vice chancellor to come and defend it and spend three four days in Abuja, if you calculate this, it will run into billions.

“Their interference is causing problems. The National Assembly’s responsibility is to pass the budget, implementation is not their thing. They can do their oversight but not to tell vice-chancellors to go across the governing council of universities, it is making a mockery of democracy,” he said.

When we posed the argument of accountability and transparency, specifically section 80(3) of the Constitution, Mr Osodeke said “Who is inspecting their own (National Assembly) budget? The same budget they inflated to N340 billion, who is monitoring it? Are they above other agencies?”.

He added, “How can a committee of the House meet with all the universities (states and federal), polytechnics and colleges of education? How?

“TETFUND is an intervention fund. What they are trying to do is to waste that money which can be used to develop the universities.”

ASUU is expected to join the fight in the next couple of days, a development that may escalate the showdown between the lawmakers and the academic community.

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