Okey Sampson, Aba
It is said that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers. But when more than two elephants do battle, the damage will be more. This, certainly, rings true for what is presently playing out at the Abia State College of Health Sciences and Management Technology (ASCOHMAT), where, since the appointment of Prof. Chidi Ezeama in June 2016 as rector, the college has not had peace. It has, through acts of omission or commission, jumped from one crisis to another.
Few months after the appointment of Ezeama, he was on a serious collusion course with the workers of the institution, who accused him of nepotism and over staffing of the college through indiscriminate employment when existing workers were owed several months of salary arrears. They alleged that the state government granted him waiver to employ few staff but that the rector went out of his way to appointed staff in excess, including his wife, Ezeama Akpaego Nwaogbu, who had retired from the civil service; his daughter, Chidi Ezeama Nnenna Ellen and his son-in-law, Jonadab Obidiya Shulammite.
As the hullabaloo that the employment dust raised was dying down, another crisis of gargantuan proportion that could consume the institution if nothing is urgently done to address it is rearing its ugly head. This time around, the roaring rector, as some workers of the college prefer call him due his style of administration, has drawn battle lines against the chairman of council of the school, Chief Chris Ezem; the registrar, Mrs. Mary Kalu, and the internal auditor, Mr. Richard Isinguzo.
Isinguzo was the first to be on the rector’s hot seat. What was the matter, one may ask? The institution’s governing council had between 2012 and 2013, years before the appointment of Ezeama, taken a decision on the proper placement of two academic staff –Mr. Adimuko Obieze and Dr. Lucy Mejeh, with the corresponding payment of the accruals. According to a memo submitted to council by the internal auditor, in response to query issued him by the rector, Isinguzo stated: “On January 5, 2018, the rector invited me for a discussion on the above issues and he informed me he was satisfied with my explanations. After submitting the salary for the month of April, 2017, the rector called me on phone to ascertain the increase of salary of Mr. Adimuko. I did explain to him it was as a result of the proper placement, after which the rector approved the salary for payment.”
The internal auditor, therefore, thought all was well. But it was not so. “It may be necessary to state that the rector has become rather hostile to me since I presented him with issues which I informed him may likely affect me if external auditors come visiting and thus I shall begin to disallow them. Some of these are: collection of N150, 000 lodge maintenance as well as N380, 000 rent accommodation, which amounts to double collect; excess of N200, 000 security vote and use of so much money in disposal of waste more than the college can generate.”
According to investigation, the internal auditor entered into the rector’s black book when, he, in tandem with Council’s decision, wrote a report that one Kingsley Amaghereonu (said to the rector’s boy), who works in the pay roll department, allegedly padded his salary to the tune of N132, 500, should refund such amount. Our investigations further showed that while the rector allegedly developed cold feet over the issue of the said Amaghereonu, he was hell burnt on ensuring that the money paid to Adimuko and Mejeh as a result of their proper placement as approved by Council were refunded because they were considered not to be on his side, which is part of his problem with the registrar.
Next on the rector’s shooting line was the registrar of the institution, Mrs. Kalu. The registrar’s dilemma began with her implementation of some vital decisions taken by the governing council of the institution of which she was the secretary and the rector, member. One of such decisions was that the wife of the rector (a retired civil servant), who he employed alongside his daughter and so in-law should be placed on CONTEDISS 9 and not on CONTEDISS 13 as demanded by the rector. This earned the registrar two queries in two days from the rector.
Let’s take a journey down the line of the queries, which is causing ripples in the institution presently. On March 21, 2018, in a query with reference No. ABSCOHSMAT/RT/RG/2/002/18, titled, Refusal to receive my memo, the rector wrote: “I observed that you refused to receive and also instructed the staff under you not to receive the memo sent to you by the rector yesterday, 20th March, 2018. In view of the above, explain within 48 hours the reason for such official misconduct and why disciplinary action should not be taken against you.”
Before the registrar could respond to the query, another came the following day thus: “Recall that on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, before and during the management meeting, you consistently used abusive language on the rector. This is unbecoming of a registrar, who is accountable to the rector. Your joining the family of the rector in your abuses was very surprising and calls for explanation.”
While responding to the queries, the registrar recalled “on March 20, 2018, in your office, you expressed your wife’s bitterness towards me for placing her on CONTEDISS 9 instead of CONTEDISS 13. I duly explained to you that it was Council’s decision to so place your wife who had already retired from civil service. I reminded you that you were present when Council took that decision and it was wrong to blame me for Council’s decision. I am not in a position to alter the decisions of the Council to suit your interest.”
The responses to the queries did not go down well with Ezeama. In a memo sent to the registrar dated March 29, 2018, with reference No. ABSCOHMAT/RT/RG/2/003/18, titled, “Suspension from official duties”, the rector wrote: “Sequel to the answer to my query for refusing to accept mails and instructing the staff under you not to receive any mail from the rectory, I write to categorically state that your answer is insulting- a one sentence reply to a query from the rector without reference number, dated March 22, 2018 and is not acceptable.”
Ezeama further said: “You have also consistently refused to take orders from the rector, and have rather repeatedly taken orders only directly from the Governing Council of the College, thereby causing serious confusion in the institution. This behaviour of yours amounts to serious acts of insubordination. As the chief executive of this college, you are hereby suspended from your official duties from today, March 29, 2018 till further notice.”
Governing council chairman’s involvement
Rector’s action against the registrar irked the Governing Council chairman, Barrister Ezem. The chairman’s exasperation rested on two planks. One, actions undertaking by the registrar, which the rector was not happy about was as a result of decisions taken by the Council of which Ezeama is a member and was present. Point two, Ezem reasoned that as secretary to council, the rector had no powers to suspend the registrar without recourse to the governing body.
To put his stand in the matter in official platform, chairman of the governing council, on April 4, 2018, wrote a letter to the rector stating: “I wish to draw your attention to the fact that the registrar is the secretary to the governing council and a member of the college whose appointment was confirmed by the council in line with the enabling laws. Accordingly, you cannot unilaterally suspend her from office without reference to the governing council. I, hereby, direct that you withdraw and put on hold the said suspension and channel all complaints formally to the governing council for necessary and further action.”
Council chairman, Rector fight dirty
The ‘war’, which had been fought over the years within the four walls of the institution, took a new and wider turn on April 5. The rector, instead of bringing any misgivings about the chairman of the council to the governor of the state, who appointed them, decided to petition the Abia State House of Assembly against the chairman. In a 10- paragraph petition titled, “A call to save our institution”, the rector marshaled out 10 ‘sins’ of the chairman. They include, among others, alleged collection of N175m loan, award of contract without due process, sale of abandoned vehicles and hijacking of the day-to-day running of the college and instigation of members of management against the rector’s authority. On the sale of vehicles, the rector wrote: “The council chairman approved the disposal of the college vehicles without due process. The vehicles they sold to themselves at takeaway prices include a Pathfinder SUV, which was sold at the cost of N120, 000 and two Toyota Camry salon cars, which were sold at N60, 000 each.”
The rector was not done yet. He further wrote: “The council chairman, Barr. Chris Ezem, was a member of the council when they took a loan of N175m from Fidelity Bank Plc for the college administrative block, which has become an elephant project. In other to cover his illicit involvements regarding the loan, Barr. Ezem, who doubles as the loaning bank’s legal adviser, without disclosing his conflict of interest, approved the taking of another loan from the bank to offset the one they took before I assumed office.”
Ezem added: “When he could not secure my support on this issue, he became angry and has been attacking me. The council in her last meeting approved the reduction of the rector’s security vote and converted it to the council chairman’s office.”
To cap it all, the rector alleged: “This council has never attracted any good thing to the school. They come to the college on a monthly basis and insist on their sitting allowance, which runs into millions of Naira. This council has not cared about the many months salary arrears owed to the staff of the college.”
The rector concluded his petition thus: “These are just mere summaries of what we have been experiencing in the college. As it is now, the college owes arrears of salaries of seven months. These are no business of the council; the rector has been shouldering the responsibilities alone whilst the council is looking for money to squander.”
Ezeama made one appeal to the House of Assembly. “Our passionate appeal is that the House should come to the rescue of the institution and the Rector’s office/authority before things get out of hands.”
On April 23, 2018, the council chairman, in a reply to the petition Ezeama sent to the House of Assembly, responded point by point, to all the allegations made against him by the rector and dismissed them as tissues of lies. He said: “The rector is a big liar. The council has taken very valuable and useful policy decisions to get the college focused and viable but for the incompetence, inefficient and ineffective rector of the college, who lacks administrative and human capacity to move the college forward.”
The chairman of the council equally alleged that the rector hired thugs to disrupt an emergency meeting of the council on April 12. Concluding, the chairman told the House of Assembly: “The rector is totally incompetent to run the college; he is involved in numerous illegal financial dealings as outlined in our attached petition. He has run down the college, he deserves to leave and no more.”
Majority of the workers of the college, who spoke to the reporter are on the side of the chairman of the council. They said that a new rector, who should be able to squarely address the problems of the college is desirable and urgently too. They are the more livid that despite the fact they are being owed nine months salary arrears, the rector allegedly completed a house in his village. They wondered where he got the money for such gigantic house since he was supposed to be owed salary like any other worker.
“We need an insider, someone who knows the problem of the college and will retire here as rector. The idea of seconding somebody from somewhere, who will come and destroy the college after which he will go back to where he came from, is no longer acceptable to us”, one of the workers said under anonymity.
The deduction from the foregoing is that as the gladiators continue endlessly to ruffle their shoulders in the emerging power play, the college is bearing the full brunt – it has remained static. Outside owing of salaries running into nine months, when the reporter visited the college last week, apart from being over grown with weeds, refuse were dumped indiscriminately within the vicinity. What otherwise should be a health institution, indeed presently has all the trappings of a pigs’ colony.
When contacted on phone about the crisis in the college, the council chairman laughed over the allegations of the rector, describing them as tissues of lies from the pit of hell. He denied all that the rector said against him. But for Ezeama, immediately the reporter got him on phone and wanted a reaction to the allegations against him, he retorted: “Okey, have you started again? Have you started again? You were involved in the last one; have you started again? Have you started again? It’s not going to be like the first one you did (whatever that meant).”
Abia House of Assembly intervenes
Based on the petition of the rector to Abia State of Assembly against the chairman of the council and the latter’s subsequent response, the House invited the warring parties over on May 9. Appearing for the House Joint Committee on Public Petitions and Civil Service Matters, the gladiators decided to wash their dirty linen in public. While the rector maintained that his accusation of the inability of the college to pay workers their nine months arrears of salary and to move the school forward generally was because of the interference of the council, Ezem, however, refuted the allegations. He described them as blackmail against members of the council.
Ezem also accused the rector of financial misappropriation and recklessness in the administration of the institution, which he said was the main reason the college, was sliding backwards.
Before the visit to the House of Assembly, two issues were seriously trending in the college outside the ones raised in the petition and counter petition. They were an alleged N9m fraud involving one of the deans and a top shot of the college and N383, 000 said to have been spent to replace the four tyres of the rector’s official Toyota Avalon car.
After taking the submissions of the rector, the chairman of the council, the Registrar, Mrs. Mary Kalu, Bursar, Mr. Obinna Nwokeoma, and other management staff, chairman of the committee, Mr. Chidiebere Thomas-Nkoro, told the parties that the committee would examine the issues and come up with their findings and recommendations within one week.
He urged the warring parties to sheath their swords and work together for the progress of the institution. He said: “We discovered from your submissions that there is a lot of tension. Parties seem to disagree with each other. We are all interested in the furtherance of our constitutional mandate and oversight as government institution. We admonish that you go back and be at peace with one another and make that place conducive for academic programmes and learning.”
As the findings and recommendations of the committee are being awaited, it remains to be ascertained how the peace brokered by the House would work out and be sustained.