Nigeria’s agricultural sector seen by many as the only viable alternative to the oil and gas industry as the nation’s source of revenue, appears to be on a journey of self destruction. But those following its descent into an irreversible cliff of history have warn that unless President Muhammadu Buhari, wields the big stick to clean the Aegean Stable, the country’s hope of an agric-lead economic recovery may eventually end up a tall order.
In the eye of the storm at the moment are three top Federal Government functionaries including a minister and two permanent secretaries who are now washing their dirty lining in public over consistent abandonment of priority projects, diversion and mismanagement of funds meant to improve the fortunes of the sector.
These allegations are coming amidst the age -long angst against successive governments over poor budgetary allocation, shabby implementation of contracts and incompetence, rocking the ministry over the years contrary to the Maputo Declaration of 2003, requiring at least 10 per cent of a country’s annual budget be devoted to agricultural financing.
According to some experts who spoke to Daily Sun, the problems of Nigeria’s agricultural sector have become so huge that even substantial international interventions in its over 40 parastatals under the leadership of qualified academics, have failed to resolve the challenges of food insecurity, poor farm yield and research findings that cannot be put to good use.
But the current scandal involving the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono, Permanent Secretaries Abdulkadir Mu’azu and Mohammed Bello, is raising concern among stakeholders that there may be little or no hope at all for the nation’s agricultural sector in the foreseeable future despite government’s and private sector efforts to make it a key economic growth driver.
To date, industry stakeholders were for instance miffed how about N7billion approved by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), for the purchase of a building, meant to serve as the headquarters of the ministry during the tenure of former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh and Bello, as Permanent Secretary suddenly became a source of controversy more than two years after.
Those at home with the transaction alleged that due process was not followed before disbursements of the princely sum.
It was said that the building in question was found to be in such a terrible condition that itwould require additional N4 billion or more to repair as officials of the Federal Capital Development Authority (FCDA) who should have assessed its structural integrity relative to cost were not contacted to carry out thorough inspection before payment.
Piqued by the development, President Mohammadu Buhari, through the Head of Service of the Federation, Folashade Yemi-Esan, on March 11, 2020, did not only issue a query to Dr Bello to his involvement but also accused him for failing to pay eligible contractors as appropriate.
The query read in part: “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.
“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 N48.429,543,895.722.”
It continued: “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;
“In April, 2019, you gave out the seven rigs procured at over NI .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 misapplied the intervention funds approved for the purchase of strategic grains and the establishment of the Rural Grazing Area Settlements in violation of extent Financial Regulations; two of such misapplications are:
1. “The use of N2.026,838,775.25 to pay contractors and execute programmes from the funds released for emergency procurement of strategic grains which is unrelated to the purpose of the funds.
2. “The use of N3,527, 300, 419.06 for the payment of questionable contracts awarded under the 2018 appropriation from the rural grazing area settlement scheme which is not related to the purpose of the funds.”
But the embattled permanent secretary, has since refuted all the allegations; saying the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had already cleared him of all charges and accused Nanono and Mu’azu of witch hunt.
In a reaction Bello said “kindly note that we have been invited, interrogated and cleared by the EFCC and ICPC on this particular matter after glaring facts were presented to them.”
He went on to open a can of worms by indicting FEC, Nanono and especially, Mu’azu of approving most of the contracts leading to most of the project fund diversions
Bello said: “I have never directed or approved any form of virement during my tenure. The decision to make such payment was released at the management meeting presided over and approved by the current minister of Agriculture, Alhaji Mohammed Sabo Nanono.
“The outlined 5 projects as per para (4) totaling N1, 478, 372, 897.13 as approved vide extract of the said MTB December 2019. The approval was granted under the leadership of Alhaji Sabo Nanono and Dr Mu’azu Abdulkadir being the current Minister and Permanent Secretary respectively.
“These are the same people alleging that the purchase of office building was unfit for use.”
He further alleged that, “The permanent secretary who is actually guilty of virement having since the approval of the above contracts refused to sign and release letters of award of contracts to the respective contractors but instead diverted and vire the funds to other projects in his locality that were never part of the appropriation neither advertised nor bided for. This is a case of unequivocal virement.
“The project in his locality that he awarded and executed in complete disregard for due process is estimated at over N3,000,000,000.00.
“I am not liable to any of the allegations contained there in the query. There are mere concoction based on malice for whatever reason best know to the perpetrators.”
Prior to this scandal, Mu’azu, at a one-day interactive meeting with contractors, in Abuja, threatened to revoke contracts and also not pay contractors who use substandard materials.
He said: “Many of the feeder roads were poorly executed and last barely six months. Many boreholes break down few months after construction. For 2019, we will not pay you if you don’t deliver quality jobs.
“You will bear me witness on the poor quality of project executions being experienced in our previous works, goods and consultancy contracts emanating from the use of substandard materials, unqualified personnel, compromised specifications, among others.
“Contractors nowadays no longer pay strict adherence to quality and standard of project delivery, terms and conditions of contracts, timely submission of all the necessary and required documents according to the contracts specifications and employment of the services of qualified and experienced personnel for proper contract execution.”
Regardless of the accusation and counter accusations, an agriculturist, Damian Paul called on President Buhari to suspend Nanono, Mu’azu and Bello, until a comprehensive investigation is carried out to ascertain the true state of the matter.
He said: “The revelations we are getting show the wickedness of most government officials. They say a different thing and do whatever they like because nobody cares. President Buhari should go beyond issuing queries and suspend all those involved. And if anyone is found guilty, he should not only be sacked but be prosecuted to serve as a deterrent to other public officials.
Also reacting to the messy revelations from top government functionaries, Acting Executive Secretary of Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN), Professor Garba Sharubutu, for instance blamed it on lack of capacity on the part of officers due to the mode of their engagement. He revealed for instance that one of his predecessors was a sociologist, while most staff had diplomas.
“…those that do not want to improve their capacity, have frustrated many professors out of the Council, preferring a Sociologist to take over from a renowned scientist.
“I discovered amongst other crowded work places that about seven agricultural officers were lumped together in an office. There is lack of capacity in the Council’s staff because some have Diploma, NCE, HND, Third Class First Degrees…”