• Sunday, May 19, 2024
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How ex-REA boss was fired for fraud he exposed

How ex-REA boss was fired for fraud he exposed

Ahmed Salihijo, former head of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) was fired after first raising concerns about financial irregularities within the agency, BusinessDay’s findings have revealed.

While the official details remain scarce, sources close to the investigation have shed light on how senior officials of REA are enmeshed in allegations of corruption that frustrate any efforts at reform by any chief executive of the agency.

Read also: N1.2bn expenses: Tinubu suspends Ahmad, CEO Rural Electrification Agency

BusinessDay’s findings showed Salihijo had first reported irregularities within the agency’s Treasury Single Account (TSA) disbursements to the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) as early as August 10, 2023.

Between August and September 2023, the Economic Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Representatives, in different invitations, interrogated some top officials of the agency.

Documents reviewed by BusinessDay showed suspicious payments totalling about N1.2 billion were found to have been paid to the personal bank accounts of six officials of the agency’s finance and accounts department between March and July without justification.

These disbursements reportedly include Asuni Aminat – N202 million; Musa Karaye – N126 million; Ogunjobi Folorunsho – N1 million; Okoli Henrietta – N212.9 million; Emmanuel Titus – N211.3milllion; Shehu Laure – N249.8million and Usman Ahmed – N215.9 million.

Insiders told BusinessDay that the alleged mastermind behind the centre of this theft is Abubakar Sambo, director of accounts at REA.

“While Salihijo reportedly initiated the suspension of Sambo’s co-conspirators following Public Service regulations, the dismissal process awaited ministerial approval. However, before this approval could be reached, Salihijo and his team were terminated, allegedly on suspicion of the same offence they had exposed,” a senior source told BusinessDay.

Documents showed Sambo allegedly used his position to authorise “suspicious payments” through the Government Integrated Financial Management Information System (GIFMIS), a financial portal overseen by the country’s Accountant General of the Federation (AGF).

“While the investigation into the missing N1.2 billion is ongoing, Salihijo, who launched the internal probe and reported it to anti-corruption agencies, and another executive, Olaniyi Netufo, who led the internal disciplinary committee, are now facing accusations themselves,” a source told BusinessDay.

Read also: EU plans €37mn investment in hydropower, rural electrification

He added, “During the sittings of the committee, all of the accused officials denied any wrongdoing, insisting they simply followed Sambo’s directives”.

A leaked documents seen by BusinessDay showed two officials of the department, Ogunjobi Folusho and Yakeen Nurudeen, both of whom received N1 million each, said they were told it was for their welfare.

They also accused Usman Kwakwa, Sambo’s personal assistant, of collecting N300,000 cash from them, leaving them with N700,000. Both of them (who were not among the six main beneficiaries) have refunded the money to the ICPC’s recovery account, documents seen by this newspaper showed.

In his response to his query seen by BusinessDay, Nurudeen said the Sambo asked all the Finance and Accounts staff, including National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) members posted to the department, to provide their respective account numbers to Kwakwa for a welfare package.

“When I received the credit alert of N1 million on 19th May 2023, I asked for the purpose from the (PA), and he told me it was on the DFA instruction for staff welfare as promised. Messrs Yahaya Bello, Sunday Uche Odoma, Folusho Ogunjobi and I went to the DFA Office and thanked him for that,” Nuruddeen wrote in a reply to the query issued to him, a copy of which this newspaper obtained.

“Three days later, (Monday, 22nd May, 2023), the PA in the person of Usman Ahmed Kwakwa asked us i.e. Messrs Yahaya Bello, Sunday Uche Odoma, Folusho Ogunjobi and I to refund N300,000.00 (Three Hundred Thousand Naira only ) each in cash. Whilst others agreed and refunded cash, I insisted on transferring the said amount electronically into his bank account.

Despite these revelations, President Bola Tinubu on March 7 placed the Salihijo-led executives on an indefinite suspension over alleged corruption.

The presidency said Salihijo was suspended indefinitely alongside, Olaniyi Netufo, the executive director, corporate services; Barka Sajou, executive director, technical services, and Sa’adatu Balgore, executive director, Rural Electrification Fund, over the N1.2 billion scandal.

Troubled past of REA

REA founded in 2006, has a troubled past. The agency, tasked with bringing electricity to rural Nigerians, has been plagued by accusations of corruption and internal conflicts.

Shortly after its creation, the REA faced potential closure due to an N5 billion fraud scandal involving lawmakers and agency officials.

Read also: Stable and transparent policymaking is essential to reach Nigeria’s electrification targets

The most recent managing directors have all been dismissed under a cloud of corruption allegations and reported power struggles.

Kenneth Achugbu’s tenure as managing director (2012-2016) was marred by corruption claims and a brief suspension.

Damilola Ogunbiyi, the first female MD (2017-2019), was reportedly forced out by a powerful group within the REA that discredits any leader attempting reforms.

Ogunbiyi currently serves as the chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy for All, the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Sustainable Energy for All, and Co-Chair of UN-Energy.

Salihijo (2019- March 2024), a mid-level civil servant, was removed over a fraudulent mis-expenditure amounting to over N1.2 billion over the past two years, some of which has already been recovered by anti-graft agencies.