Recruitment fraud rocks Nigeria anti-pollution agency stalling workers pay for years

More than 200 staff of the Hydrocarbon Pollution Restoration Project, HYPREP, have renewed their plea to the Nigerian government for the settlement of the salary arrears owed them since 2013.

HYPREP was set up by the Federal Government in 2012 to implement the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP, report towards the restoration of Ogoniland and other parts of Niger Delta affected by oil pollution.

However, three years after its inauguration, the take-off of the agency has been stalled, as it appears not to be enjoying popular support necessary to function effectively.

The people of Ogoni, whose area formed the subject of the UNEP study, have since declared their opposition to the establishment of HYPREP in place of an independent body to cater for the specific interest of their environment.

The Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke, said in 2014 that apart from the transitional phase of the project as recommended in the UNEP report, the government had not achieved the major objective of cleaning up the area.

The government had commenced a review of the functions of the body and the law setting it up.

According to the Minister, the structural reviews were necessary to guarantee appropriate and accountable restoration programme, particularly in setting up of an independent body as recommended in the report.

As part of the review, PriceWaterHouseCoopers Nigeria was hired in 2013 to conduct a staff audit in order to verify the background of the workers recruited for the project.

The audit was to focus on the staff files, approvals for payments, Staff nominal roll and employment letters and salary schedules and bank statements.

PREMIUM TIMES learnt that the audit uncovered widespread fraud involving the irregular employment of more than two thirds of the 201 people hired.

In 2012, about 92 people were on the payroll of the agency. Out of the number, the audit said only 34 workers were regular appointees with proper documentation. All others were on various terms of contracts allegedly unknown to the authorities of the Ministry.

On January 30, 2014, the joint venture partners, represented by Shell Petroleum Development Company, SPDC, which are responsible for 80 per cent of the funding of the project, had approved the release of N2.5billion for the payment of the salary arrears for January to December 2013.

The approval followed a save-our-soul plea by the workers for the payment of their outstanding salaries contained in a letter to Mrs. Alison-Madueke.

The letter, signed by Eloye Youdeowei and Paul Idahosa, along with eight others, on behalf of the affected workers, urged the minister to intervene and direct the immediate payment of their entitlements.

“We wish to let you know, Madam, that since February 2013 when we were last paid our arrears of 2012 salaries, we have not received any other kobo for our services.

“We wish to humbly and passionately appeal to you in the name of God Almighty and all that is good, just and noble to kindly and graciously consider the approval and payment of our salaries and arrears from January 2013 to date,” the workers said.

Recounting their ordeals, the workers claimed some of their colleagues, particularly those who had disengaged from their previous jobs, have either died or lost loved ones while waiting for the pay, while other have either been evicted from their accommodation, or their children thrown out of school.

To facilitate the payment, the Ministry of Petroleum Resources had asked the then HYPREP National Coordinator, Joy Nunieh-Okunnu, to liaise with the NNPC to work out the reimbursement strategy.

The staff list submitted by the Coordinator contained 201 names, made up of 142 regular and 59 contract staff, who would draw a total of N2.8 billion as salary.

However, the huge difference between the request and the N188 million paid in 2012 raised eyebrows, resulting in a query by the legal department of the Ministry, demanding information on the terms of their employment.

Questions raised from the query included a justification for the outstanding claims, as the Human Resources Department of the Ministry said its investigation revealed that approval was given for the recruitment of only 34 staff.

Apart from authorization for the recruitment of the 142 regular staff and the contract document for the 59 to ascertain their legality, the department said clearance was sought on the salary structure approved for them.

PREMIUM TIMES investigations revealed that the long delay in the payment of the arrears of salaries may have been as a result of the failure of the Coordinator to provide the required justification for the salary.

Attempts to get Mrs. Nunieh-Okunnu’s reaction was not successful, as she refused to respond to several calls and text messages to her telephones on Tuesday.

One of the affected workers, who confided in our reporter, traced the roots of the problem to greed among top officials as well as a bitter disagreement between the minister and Ms. Nunieh-Okunnu, who was forced to resign last year.

“There were a lot of ghost names on the agency’s payroll”, the staff said. She asked not to be named, to avoid her being victimized. “The Coordinator was always having issues with the minister.”

A spokesperson to the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Petroleum Resources, Jamila Shuara, who is now the acting Coordinator, HYPREP, said the delay in paying the workers’ two years’ salary arrears was as a result of the ongoing restructuring of the project.

“The issue of salary arrears is as a result of the ongoing restructuring of the project’s processes to enable it achieve the objectives the federal government set it up,” the spokesperson, Kingsley Agha, said. “The Ministry has to review the appointment of various staff to ensure that they conformed to stipulated standards.”

On why the restructuring exercise was taking so long to complete, the spokesperson noted: “How are you sure that was not one of the reasons the Coordinator was asked to go?” he asked.

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