By Henry Umahi
Ever imagined that a minister of the federal republic could change what President Muhammadu Buhari has approved or ratified? Ever believed that a minister could figuratively poke his finger into the President’s eyes without qualms. It is outrageous and obvious affront, but that was exactly what has happened at the Ministry of Environment.
President Buhari appointed Dr. Dominic Ojiabor Abonyi as Registrar/Chief Executive Officer of the Environmental Health Officers Registration Council of Nigeria (EHORECON) in 2015. After a sterling performance in Abonyi’s first tenure of four years, the President reappointed him and he was serving a second term. However, Minister of Environment, Dr. Muhammad Mahmood Abubakar, on assumption of office, removed Abonyi without blinking an eye, in violation of the constitution and extant laws. Abonyi was neither dismissed nor retired, but his salary has been stopped.
The EHORECON was established by Act of No. 11 of 2002 to regulate the practice of Environmental Health in Nigeria. The EHORECON’s mandate includes, among others, the determination of the standard of knowledge and skill to be attained by persons seeking to become members of the profession and improving the standard set from time to time; securing the establishment and maintenance of a register of Environmental Health Officers and publication of such register from time to time; conducting examinations and awarding certificates or diplomas to successful candidates under a prescribed fee; as well as performing other functions as may be conferred by the Act.
)The Abonyi saga
On September 3, 2015, Abonyi was appointed Registrar of the EHORECON by President Buhari through an official communication signed by then Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Danladi I. Kifasi. It was a four-year term.
Prior to Abonyi’s appointment, he was heading the Department of Registration, Ethics and Standards Enforcement of the Council. As Registrar of the Council, he served without blemish.
Six months to the expiration of his first tenure of four years, following stipulated rules and laws, Abonyi, on March 19, 2019, wrote the then Minster of Environment, Suleiman Hassan Zarma, informing him about the winding down of his first term and simultaneously asked for a renewal for continuity, as required.
Sequel to Abonyi’s request, on May 13, 2019, a memo was sent to him by then minister through the Human Resources Director of the ministry, informing him that his tenure had been renewed. These exchanges happened at the twilight of President Buhari’s first term in office, after the President had won his second term mandate and preparing to be sworn in again on May 29, 2019.
Tale begins to twist
After President Buhari was sworn in for second term, he constituted his cabinet and appointed Dr. Muhammad Mahmood Abubakar as Minister of Environment in August 2019. The emergence of Abubakar became the beginning Abonyi’s problem.
On November 27, 2019, a few months into the minister’s tenure, a memo emanated from the ministry asking Abonyi to, “with immediate effect, step aside and hand over the affairs of the Council to the most senior Director of the Council.” The memo was silent on what Abonyi should do after handover, as he was neither sacked nor asked to proceed on retirement from the civil service.
Abonyi obeyed the minister and handed over to the most senior Director of the Council, Mr. Victor Kalu Mba, who was Deputy Director, Head, Human Resources Management Department.
Having stepped aside, Abonyi, on November 29, 2019, communicated Minister Abubakar, to that effect. It was however curious that before the instruction to hand over, Abonyi was neither queried nor faced a disciplinary panel. Checks revealed that up till date nobody has told him his offence, prompting speculation that the ultimate goal was to get rid of him and truncate his second tenure.
After waiting for about four months without any feedback from the minister, who directed him to step aside, Abonyi again, on March 20, 2020 wrote to the minister to inquire about his fate. Silence was the response from the minister.
Like thieves in the night
Abonyi was in his Abuja residence with his family one night when hooded men, claiming to be members of Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), invaded his apartment. They ransacked his house and further humiliated him in the eyes of his neighbours. They accused him of hoarding “suspected stolen cash, vehicles, documents and other incriminating items belonging to the Council.”
At the end of the assault, two of his official vehicles, two laptop computers and documents were carted away.
A beleaguered Abonyi swiftly briefed the minister in person and in writing on June 2, 2020, as regards the incident that took place at his residence. Soon after, the minister appointed Dr. Baba Yakubu Mohammed, who was a junior deputy director, below Mba, as “acting” Registrar” and backdated his appointment to May 6, 2020.
Surprisingly, nothing was said about Mr. Mba Kalu, who Abonyi had handed over to as the most senior after him. Mba is also from South East as Abonyi, setting tongues wagging that the scheme was to make sure the head of the agency does not come from the zone.
Investigation revealed that in the hurry to get Abonyi out of the way, mistakes were made. For example, the date on Dr. Yakubu Mohammed’s letter is May 6, 2020, while the stamp on it carried June 2, 2020.
Checks showed that Abonyi’s removal violates the 1999 constitution of Nigeria (as amended) and the Act establishing the Council as well as the Civil Service rules for the removal of a Chief Executive or Director General. He was not ever queried. He never faced any panel to defend himself on any offence whatsoever, as required in the civil service before a chief executive is removed.
Not understanding what is going on, Abonyi had written to the Secretary of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustafa, and the National Assembly on the breach of his fundamental rights as a citizen, the Constitution and the Act establishing Environmental Health Officers Registration Council, by the supervising minister regarding his second term as Registrar. The National Assembly invited the Minister of Environment, who came and promised to look into the matter.
Ever since, nothing has been heard from the minister. Abonyi has not been retired and therfore still in the civil service. However, he has no office at EHORECON as the minister appointed an acting registrar in his place. Despite still being in service, by virtue of the fact that he has not been retired, his salary was stopped.
When the Daily Sun called the acting Registrar, Baba Yabubu, on phone last Thursday at 11.35am, for his comment, he snapped: “You are calling me on phone and you are asking me (this type of question)? You are not a good journalist. You are supposed to have booked appointment with the pressman of the Council and then he will arrange a meeting, not on phone. I can’t speak on the matter on phone. I will link you up with the pressman of the Council so that you can discuss with him and arrange a meeting.”
As at the time of filling this report, Baba Yakubu had yet to send the number.