• Sunday, February 25, 2024
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Inside multi-billion naira estacode racketeering

Tinubu to set timeline for top political appointees at retreat starting Wednesday

In 2012, Aruma Oteh, former director-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) while appearing before a committee of the House of Representatives, accused Herman Hembe, former chairman of the House Committee on Capital Market, and his deputy, Chris Azubogu, of converting $4,095 to personal use.

The money was given to Hembe as an estacode to attend a conference in the Dominican Republic, but he failed to attend the conference, thereby allegedly committing an offence contrary to section 308 of the Penal Code Act Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (Abuja) 2004 and punishable under section 309 of the same code.

Hembe was absolved of any wrongdoing because, in his testimony, he travelled to the United States but returned when he could not get a connecting flight to the conference in the Dominican Republic. The EFCC would later go to court to get a judgment but the Appeal Court in 2015 said Hembe had no case to answer because the incident was an administrative oversight for which he should have been asked to make a refund. The SEC never disclosed whether they made a request for a refund or they let him go.

Estacode, also known as travel allowance, is money paid to workers while on official duty outside their place of domicile to cover expenditures during travels. It covers expenses for feeding, hotel accommodation, and other incidental expenses while on official engagements.

Under the current arrangements, ministers are entitled to $900; special advisers, $800; directors-general of MDAs, $900; chief justice of Nigeria, $2,000; justices of the Supreme Court, $1,300; Appeal Court president, $1,300; judges of the court, $1,100/$600; Senate president, $1,300; deputy Senate president, $1,100; senators, $950; House of Rep speaker, $1,200; deputy speaker, $1,000, permanent secretaries, $600; officers of level 15-17, $425; levels 7-14, $381 and those on levels 1 to 6, get $206.

Over the years, the public domain had been inundated with reports of abuse of the estacode policy, with top government officials dumping trips, after collecting their estacode allowances. This has become even more pertinent in light of the economic turmoil the country is currently undergoing which some experts say calls for an urgent cut in the cost of governance.

Recent reports had heavily criticised the Nigerian government for carrying large numbers of delegates to COP28, currently going on in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), at the expense of taxpayers. The delegation is made up of 1,411 people from Nigeria, with 590 sponsored by the government, although the Federal Government claimed it sponsored 422. The government delegation will stay 13 days or more in Dubai.

Mohammed Idris, information minister has categorised Nigeria’s delegation to the COP-28 as comprising of government-sponsored (federal and state governments) and non-government-sponsored participants (from private companies, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, media, and academia.

According to Idris, the Federal Government-funded delegation is made up of 422 persons, comprising staff of the National Council on Climate Change, 32; Federal Ministry of Environment, 34; and representatives of other ministries, 167.

Others include 67 from the Presidency, nine from the Office of the Vice President, 40 from the National Assembly and federal parastatals/agencies, numbering, 73.

“As the biggest economy and most populous country in Africa, with a substantial extractive economy and extensive vulnerability to climate change, Nigeria has a significant stake in climate action, and our active and robust participation at COP is therefore not unwarranted,” he said.

Tope Ajayi, another presidential spokesman, said delegates to the event came from all countries whether from government, private sector, media and civil society groups, as parties and the number of attendees are registered against their countries of origin.

“It does not mean that they are sponsored or funded by the government. It must be said also that the fact that people registered to attend a conference does not mean everyone that registered is physically present,” Ajayi said.

President Muhammadu Buhari had between 2016 and August 2018, made over 37 international trips, visiting about 22 different countries, on investment drive.

In his first four years, the former president visited over 33 nations, some of them, twice, spending a total of 404 days, mostly on investment drive.

On average, the cost of each trip hovered between $400,000 to $500,000 per trip, with the average estacode for accompanying presidency officials amounting to $110,000.

The transportation cost is estimated at $35,000, accommodation at $220,000, and $10,00 for honorarium,

Others include $20, 000 for contingencies and media coverage at $10, 000, totalling $405,000.

These are, however, limited to those costs affecting only personnel from Aso Rock Villa, aides, protocol officers, members of the press, security personnel, a cook, a luggage officer and a steward.

The Presidential Air Fleet (PAF) has a separate budget for fueling the planes as well as allowances for the presidential air fleet commander, pilots, and air stewards, so also does the Office of the National Security Adviser, all of which must be provided for, anytime the president makes a trip outside Nigeria.

A recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) showed that foreign direct investment (FDI) fell sharply on Buhari’s watch from $1.45bn in 2015 to $698.7m in 2021 and dipped further to $468.08m in 2022, despite the huge funds invested in foreign trips, ostensibly to attract investment. But this did not stop the former president from approving an upward increase in estacodes.

In August 2022, Buhari approved an increase in duty tour allowances (DTAs) for ministers by 128 percent and those of permanent secretaries by as much as 250 percent.

Duty tour allowance refers to the amount paid by the government when a public servant embarks on an official trip.

The approval of the new allowances was conveyed in a circular dated August 31, 2022, issued by the National Salaries, Incomes and Wages Commission, with reference SWC/C/04/S.6/II/333, and titled, “Review of Duty Tour Allowance in the Federal Public Service.”, signed by Ekpo Nta, chairman of the commission. Nta said the new allowances take effect from September 1.

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The president approved the upward review of duty tour allowances applicable to permanent secretary/equivalent from N20,000 to N70,000, representing a 250 percent increase and minister/SGF/HCSF/equivalent from N35,000 to N80,000,”, or a 128 percent increase.

A breakdown of the new DTA as contained in the circular, also indicates that officers on grade level (GL) 01-04 and its equivalent, are now entitled to N10,000 per diem. This is just as those on GL 05-06 and its equivalent, will be receiving N15,000 per diem, while GL 07-10 and its equivalent, will get N17,500 per diem.

Similarly, those on GL 12-13 and its equivalent, are now entitled to N20,000 per diem, just as those on GL 14-15 and its equivalent, will get N25,000 per diem. Officers on the directorate levels from GL 16 to GL 17 and its equivalent, will receive N37,500 per diem.

Goddy Ehimikhuare, a legal practitioner, berated public servants for using the end-of-the-year opportunity to defraud the government through what he described as ” fictitious approvals”. According to him, flooding Dubai with Nigerians at this time of the year is in line with the regular practice for shopping by civil servants.

“Many of us who are used to them are not surprised by the development. This is the season many look forward to in their travelling arrangements. They used COP28 to get cheap visas, as many would have been denied entry visas on normal requests,” said Ehimikhuare.

President Bola Tinubu has made 12 foreign trips since he was sworn in on May 29, 2023, according to data from StatisSense. In all the trips, he has had to travel with a retinue of aides, mostly sponsored by the government. Apart from the president, several ministers have had occasions to travel with their aides outside the country since they were appointed. These trips cost the country significantly in per diem and other travel expenses.

“They also utilise the opportunity to use unspent funds, instead of returning them to the coffers of the Federal Government. You will be shocked to hear later that this president is not aware of this large number of delegates. We thank the media for exposing these things,” Ehimikhuare added.

Auwal Ibrahim (Rafsanjani), the executive director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), told BusinessDay in Abuja, that civil servants should be blamed for the government’s inability to tackle corruption in Nigeria.

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Ibrahim described the action of civil servants as “pure sabotage,” just as he pointed to “budget padding” as another condemnable act.

“They pad everything just to satisfy themselves. This is how they end up padding budgets. What was a social media influencer sponsored to do at such a global gathering? The government must be more vigilant to prevent future occurrences,” Ibrahim said.