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Many vice-chancellors believe the Reps committee plans to use the opportunity to collect bribes from the institutions.

Vice-chancellors of Nigerian universities plan to resist what some of them consider to be a new “extortion scheme” by a committee of the House of Representatives over the N683 billion 2024 intervention fund for tertiary institutions, PREMIUM TIMES can exclusively report.

About a week ago, the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFUND) announced President Bola Tinubu’s approval to release about N683 billion as intervention funds for tertiary institutions.

The poorly funded public schools are expected to get a respite with this planned release which is more than double the N320 billion they got in 2023. Yet, experts believe that the fund is a drop in the ocean compared to the enormous needs of these institutions.

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

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

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

Lawmakers write institutions

However, hours after the announcement of the release, the House Committee on TETFUND, chaired by

Miriam Onuoha (APC, Imo), took a step that some university administrators say is to shake down the schools and undermine their autonomy.

The committee dispatched letters to the Committee of Provosts of Colleges of Education, the Committee of Rectors of Polytechnics and the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian University, mandating all schools to stop the utilisation of the intervention fund and submit implementation details to them for approval.

PREMIUM TIMES obtained a copy of the letter the House committee sent to the Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities.

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

The lawmakers asked the vice-chancellors 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.

It is not clear why the House Committee decided to write a letter to the Committee of Vice Chancellors, a non-statutory body which is a mere voluntary association of university heads. Each university is a statutory entity created by an Act of parliament. Although some universities in Nigeria have been enmeshed in corruption allegations, the vice-chancellors believe that the action of Ms Onuoha’s committee smacks desperation and indicates a plan to extort them.

 

Heated debate, anger

Sources in the Committee of Vice Chancellors told PREMIUM TIMES that the letter from the lawmakers generated heated debate on a WhatsApp group for vice-chancellors, and many agreed that this is another ploy by the lawmakers to extort money from them by using a phoney investigative hearing to demand bribe through blackmail.

It was learnt that most of the vice-chancellors who participated in the debate expressed anger and frustration over the move by the legislators and decided to fight 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, our sources said.


“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 of the vice-chancellors told PREMIUM TIMES.

The vice-chancellor did not want his name mentioned so he would not be made a scapegoat 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 was 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.

Extortion by NASS committees

Extortion by the National Assembly committees is not new. PREMIUM TIMES had in a series of reports exposed how some lawmakers in the Ad Hoc 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 are believed to persist among lawmakers, who allegedly use investigative hearings as a decoy for corruption.

 

The House also promised to investigate the ad-hoc committee mentioned in this newspaper’s report. However, months after the report, it has yet to conduct an open investigation or announce the outcome of any investigation.

Running against time and fighting for autonomy

Meanwhile, while universities are trying to meet the TETFUND deadline for the process of the implementation of the intervention fund, the vice-chancellors say they are now being made to appear before a committee that is trying to usurp the work of the governing councils of the respective universities.

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

The vice-chancellors believe that aside from their fear that this is an extortion scheme by the lawmakers, this move by the House Committee on TETFUND could undermine the autonomy of the schools, and erode some of the gains they have 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, and condemnation by the public, the federal government yielded and exempted the schools.

The VCs believe the showdown with the lawmakers on this intervention fund is one battle they are sure of winning because according to them, they see the letter by the House Committee as a usurpation of the functions of the governing council.

They said that it was wrong for the committee to write to the universities through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors which is not a statutory body but an association. Each university is a legal body guided by the law establishing it. The consensus among the university administrators is to resist what they termed “the regime of extortion” by the lawmakers.

No escaping the multiple “extortion roadblocks”

Many Nigerians are often suspicious of the activities of the National Assembly committees which they believe are set up not based on need but to reward loyalists and supporters of the presiding officers. The committees are sometimes used as conduits for corruption, often through blackmail and extortion. This is why committees are classified as “juicy and non-juicy”.

Committees that oversee “rich MDAs” are regarded as premium and most sought after.

Ms Onuoha joined the 10th Assembly speakership race but dropped out at the last minute and later voted for Abbas Tajudeen, who won the election. She was subsequently rewarded with the chairmanship of the Committee on TETFUND, regarded as a “grade A” or “juicy” committee.

The House of Representatives currently has about 139 Standing Committees. Also, about 25 ad hoc committees have been 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 university VCs who 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 demanding N5 million from each vice chancellor.

 

All these extortions are happening despite the paucity of funds allocated to run the institutions. It is unclear what the impact of the expected 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.

Reps defend committee’s action

When contacted, the spokesperson of the House, Akin Rotimi (APC, Ekiti), said sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution give the National Assembly the power to embark on the investigation of the tertiary institutions.

“Backed by Sections 88 and 89 of the Constitution, the National Assembly has powers to direct or cause to be directed, investigation into the conduct of affairs of any authority charged with the duty of disbursing or administering money appropriated by the National Assembly.

“So, this directive is well within constitutional bounds and in line with the need to ensure accountability,” Mr Rotimi said in a text message to this newspaper in response to our questions.

 

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 the 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.”

However, a thorough search of the 2024 budget showed that lawmakers approved N650 billion as capital expenditure for TETFUND out of the projected N700 billion revenue in 2024. Therefore, the money allocated was approved by the lawmakers through the 2024 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. The section gives the TETFUND board the power to

(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 wrong to invite VCs – ASUU President

The President of Academic Staff of Universities (ASUU), Emmanuel Osodeke, a professor of soil science, told PREMIUM TIMES in a phone 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 a 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 scrutinize 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 lawmakers is reinforcing the insinuations of shakedown. 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 to 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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