Issues of financial misappropriation at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development are currently unsettling activities at the ministry. Taiwo Hassan reports
Over the years, agric stakeholders and members of the organised private sector (OPS) have been complaining over the lean financial allocation by the Federal Government to the agric ministry to prosecute its activities for the fiscal year.
They say it is ‘inadequate’ in meeting the sector’s priorities that are set-aside for its financial year, considering the role the sector plays in the economy.
For instance, the Lagos chapter Chairman of the All Farmers of Nigeria (AFAN), Otunba Femi Oke, in an interview with this newspaper sometime ago, said that a look into the country’s affairs as of today, the era of oil dominance, which everybody was focusing on, has gone and now Nigerians are talking about agriculture as the key sector to be embraced.
He pointed out that the only regrettable thing bedeviling the sector was the fund allocated to the sector on yearly basis.
He said: “But we realise that Rome was not built in a day as we have started from where is good for our economy. You will recalled that last year’s budget allocation for the sector was about N98 billion and this year’s own is being increased to over N100 billion and this is giving us joy that we are now more recognised in the Nigerian economy.
“So, I will say yes again that President Muhammadu Buhari has done well for the sector because of what we are seeing in this regime, the work they are doing for the agric sector and the economy.”
So, imagine, a sector that has been underfunded for years is now in the news for the wrong reason following allegation of fraud and misconduct by one of its former top official.
However, the decision of the Head of Service of the Federation, Folasade Yemi-Esan, to query a former FMARD Perm Sec, Mohammed Bello Umar, over his role in the misappropriation of over N119 billion in the agric ministry has shown that all is not well with the ministry.
For instance, this newspaper gathered that there have been mouth-watering contracts awarded to under-performing contractors and concealed from the public because of high-wire politics.
However, some of these contracts were awarded without due process by officials of the ministry.
Regrettably, these lacuna have stalled the growth and development of the country’s agric sector from attaining its potential.
For instance, it was reliably gathered from FMARD that the reason for the failure in implementing the 20 per cent cassava flour inclusion in bread under this present administration was because of lack of presidential support for the scheme.
A top director in FMARD, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to New Telegraph on the matter, said that the Federal Government’s 20 per cent cassava flour inclusion in bread under the HQCF initiative died naturally because President Muhammadu Buhari was reluctant and skeptical about the success of the scheme based on the recommendations he got from the ministry’s top hierarchy.
The source explained that President Buhari believed that it was a waste of fund to continue to vote N10 billion yearly for the scheme because of the lean national budget.
However, the the query issued underscored the need for government to beem its searchlight on the ministry’s activities despite its lean budgetary allocation to ensure that due process is carried out in contract awards.
In a letter dated May 11 and signed by Folasade Yemi-Esan, Head of Service of the Federation, Umar was alleged to have engaged in acts of misconduct while he was the permanent secretary of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and rural development.
The permanent secretary was accused of not paying eligible contractors despite the budgetary release of N98 billion to the agriculture ministry in 2018.
He was alleged to have used the entire 2019 first-quarter release of N7 billion to pay for the 2018 contracts that were already funded.
The query reads in part: “The attention of Mr. President has been drawn to the acts of serious misconduct against you in your former post as the Permanent Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on which he has given further directive.
“Specifically, it was alleged that in spite of the budgetary release of the N98,405,763,678.68 in 2018, (which represents 99.44 of 2018 appropriation) you did not take necessary action to pay the eligible contractors, which led to the ministry having an outstanding contractual liability in the sum of N48,429,543,895.72.
“Under your leadership as the accounting officer, the ministry utilised the entire 2019 first-quarter release of N7,737,208,135.18 to pay for the 2018 contracts that were fully funded In 2018, which constitutes virement without authority.
“As accounting officer, you oversaw a transaction for the purchase of a building for the use of the ministry at the sum of N7,044,746,264.06 without the conduct of the mandatory statutory structural and mechanical integrity tests; and prior approval of the FCDA Public Building Department; the building was eventually found to be an uncompleted carcass requiring billions of naira to complete and make safe for occupation.
“Under your watch as the accounting officer, the ministry procured seven deep drilling rigs for borehole at an average cost of N300,000,000.00 without recourse to the Federal Executive Council.
“And in April 2019, you gave out the seven rigs procured at over N1.3 billion to some individuals under fraudulent arrangements, without the approval of the minister; and one of the rigs linked to you is yet to be returned despite several written reminders; and you misplaced the intervention funds approved for the purchase of strategic grains and the establishment of the Rural Grazing Area settlements in violation of extant financial regulations.”
In his reply, Umar denied the allegation of financial misconduct made against him by the Federal Government while acting as the Perm Sec in FMARD.
In his letter dated May 15, 2020 titled: “Re: Allegation of Acts of Serious Misconduct in my former Post of Permanent Secretary in FMARD” to the Head of Service of the Federation, he explained that he was constrained to give details of transactions.
Umar explained that all transactions at the ministry of agriculture and rural development were approved through administrative process and principles as traditioned in the conduct of government business.
He also noted that FMARD run a rolling budget year-in year-out as most projects are been captured as on-going.
In addition, the former Perm Sec explained that all contracts/procurement followed due process during his time at the helm of affairs.
According to him, there were procedures for contracts/procurement and payment handled by various departments in all government agencies, FMARD inclusive;
and that his tenure commenced from January 10, 2019 to December 18, 2019 and hence could not be held responsible or liable for actions prior to January 10, 2019.
“I am constrained to give details of the transactions I approved to set the record straight and clear my name. I will like to state the following that all transactions at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development were approved through administrative process and principles as traditioned in the conduct of government business.
“That FMARD runs a rolling budget year in year out as most projects are been captured as ongoing; that all contracts/procurement and payments at the FMARD followed due process. There are procedures for contracts/procurement and payments handled by various departments in all government agencies, FMARD inclusive,” he noted.
He denied the allegation that contractors were not paid in due time.
“The allegation of contractors not being paid is totally false. All contractors whose contract was captured in the 2018 budgetary allocation were paid in accordance to budgetary releases. However, contractors whose contracts are on-going were rolled over as on-going. Rollover capital projects are not new in contract management,” Umar stated.
With the Federal Government’s inquiry into FMARD’s activities still on-going, agric stakeholders will be watching with keen interest the possible outcome of the alleged fraud, which in one way had stalled development of the country’s agric sector.