Nigerians who volunteered to help fight the deadly Ebola disease in Sierra Leone and Liberia, returned home a fortnight ago, after spending about six months on the frontline against a virus that ravaged several countries last year, killing over 20,000.
The volunteers returned alive and well, although they are yet to complete an expected 21-day quarantine period.
But they have sad tales of deprivation and maltreatment, and accuse officials of the Nigerian government and the African Union of stealing from them while they risked their lives.
On Wednesday, some of the volunteers were locked in a hotel in Abuja where they had camped since returning to Nigeria, after days of bickering with health ministry officials.
PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation, interviews with officials of the Nigerian government and the AU, and several volunteers since their arrival in Abuja, show a programme that was beset by crisis, poor management and fraud, worse than the hotel scandal.
“I have now confirmed that serving or representing Nigeria is a waste of time as the country treats those who have done her proud shabbily,” said Oladimeji Adepoju, a medical doctor volunteer.
Mr. Adepoju and 197 other Nigerian volunteers travelled to the two West African countries in December, to help stem the tide of Ebola. Their ordeal began even before they departed Nigeria.
While in Lagos, some volunteers who arrived from other parts of the country realized their names were missing from the list of those travelling to Liberia and Sierra Leone. The names were shortlisted by the Federal Ministry of Health.
“I had seen my name back in Abuja that I was shortlisted,” Uju Nnaji, a nurse deployed to Liberia. “But I was shocked when I got to Lagos that my name and those of several others were already missing. Our names had been replaced with others.”
Ms. Nnaji said she succeeded in having the officials restore her name. Others were not so lucky.
“Looking back now, I wished I had not worked my name back on that list because my suffering and humiliation only commenced from that moment,” Ms. Nnaji said.
It turned out, recruiters had fraudulently enlisted non-medical personnel alongside medics, against the directive of the African Union. PREMIUM TIMES has obtained documents showing the Nigerian contingent comprised doctors, nurses, laboratory scientists, as well as geologists, engineers, hairstylists, a physicist, economists and even electricians.
In Liberia, shocked AU officials soon realized the Nigerian team had more staff collecting data than performing specific medical duties.
For the volunteers, their first concern about pay was with Basic Transport Allowance. Each person cleared to travel was to receive $1,000 as BTA paid by the AU. But leaders and recruiters of the Nigerian team denied such provision had been made, a claim countered by AU officials.
Julius Oketta, a general and mission leader of the African Union Support to Ebola Outbreak in West Africa mission, confirmed they should have been paid BTA, and explained to the volunteers that the AU had paid $250,000 (N50million) to the Nigerian government, expecting that 250 volunteers from the country. Contingents from other African countries received same amount before travelling.
Besides the BTA, the volunteers were to be paid their December salaries before leaving Nigeria. They never got that, while contingents from Ghana and Kenya were given theirs before leaving for Liberia.
Abdul Salami Nasidi, chief executive officer of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, accused of receiving the money – from the AU – denied doing so. But an AU accountant told PREMIUM TIMES the money was paid. He did not confirm who received the payment.
“Many of us were very hungry,” Akeem Akanbi, one of the volunteers, said. “I had call duty arrears which I had just collected- about N700, 000; so I wasn’t affected but the other contingents did not find it easy. There were five other people that were depending on me on a daily basis, so I had to care for them.”
Faced with deprivation, the volunteers pressured Mr. Oketta to release $1,000 to each to them, as feeding allowance. It was the last time the money would come as and when due. The same with salaries.
There were discrepancies in the payments of salaries too. While some got their salaries in full, others were short paid. Under the AU structure for the Ebola volunteer service, a nurse earned as much a $6700 while doctors received $8000.
Accommodation, illegal deductions
There was also problem with the accommodation. Apart from being allocated residential quarters with defects such as sewage problems, rents in the two countries soon climbed and changed to U.S. dollars once it was clear the new tenants were foreigners funded by the AU.
“The accommodation we were given, in most cases, all of them had problems” a nurse who identified herself as Folayemi said.
In Liberia, PREMIUM TIMES findings revealed that the best accommodation was supposed to cost $2,500 per month and was located in Chiasma courtyard. The manager of the property, a man who simply described his name as Mr. Taylor, said the initial agreement with the AU required each contingent to pay $2,500 per month. According to him, that covered 24 hours power supply, laundry services, swimming pool, internet wi-fi and DSTV cable service. The plan was to make the volunteers very comfortable.
However, this was upturned by an official of the external affairs department of the Liberian government attached to the AU, identified as Lawrence, who claimed the AU would provide electricity since the houses were not connected to the country’s national grid.
If the initial agreements had been respected, $2,500 would have been deducted from the salaries of each Nigerian contingent for their accommodation expenses. Rather, Mr. Oketta later told the volunteers that $3,000 was to be deducted every month.
Notwithstanding the volunteers paying so much for accommodation and service, power supply was epileptic.
“Initially, we were being given power supply for four hours a day,” Folayemi said. “Most times, it was usually from 9pm to 1am. There was chaos, while the AU was still collecting $3,000 for services not rendered.”
Some of the volunteers shared basic facilities as toilets and kitchen, despite the high rental fee.
Also, Nigerian volunteers in Portnoo, Sierra Leone, were not given accommodation though their money were being deducted for it. Contingents in Kambia in Sierra Leone were also affected.
Transport arrangements were not better. First, vehicle owners hired by the AU withdrew their services after they were owed for their services. The health team had no choice but to use motorcycles or trek in Sierra Leone.
The Nigerian contingents were also denied hazard and hardship allowance paid volunteers from other countries. They were also denied a two-week training ahead of field deployment.
For most of the wrongdoing, all the volunteers who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES pointed at Joshua Obasanya, leader of the Nigerian contingents. They accused Mr. Obasanya of defrauding them. Things degenerated to a point where those who challenged Mr. Obasanya were threatened with deportation.
“Obasanya who ought to be there for Nigerians as the Nigerian team leader rather sold us away” Charles Ogunniyi, a medical doctor volunteer stated.
As things got worse, the Nigerian volunteers appointed Emmanuel Akpapuna, a director of hospital services in the Federal Ministry of Health, to speak on their behalf at meetings.
During a meeting in January 2015, he spoke about the owed BTA which Mr. Oketta, as well as the salaries still being owed. That day, Mr. Akpapuna was summoned for a meeting. There, he was referred to Mr. Obasanya who handed him a flight ticket to Nigeria.
While those who sent him home accused him of having sexual affairs with Liberian girls, and said the Liberian government considered him a health risk to the population and wanted him out, PREMIUM TIMES found that neither the Liberian government nor the AU was in the know about the deportation.
Benjamin Ajah, who later became the head of mission after Mr. Oketta was fired for alleged misconduct, told this newspaper the AU was unaware of the deportation of some Nigerians.
Another volunteer, Kolawole Austine, got his dose of maltreatment too. He was also deported after confronting the “authorities”. He was accused of also being a security risk, several volunteers told PREMIUM TIMES.
Yet another volunteer, Bassey Asanga, was also deported after accusing Mr. Obasanya of sexually harassing her.
More scandals on return
The scandals continued after they had returned to Nigeria May 23.
While returnees to other countries were well treated, the Nigerian were camped in hotels in Abuja, and given irregular meals because the federal government was defaulting in paying.
The Federal Ministry of Health had told the contingents in various hotels that former President Goodluck Jonathan would address them. That did not happen till the president handed power to Muhammadu Buhari on Friday.
“I can’t believe that after going through that shabby treatment in Liberia, we would return to the country to face a worse situation,” said a medical doctor volunteer, Ogala John.
The contingents also complained about being moved around hotels.
“We have been moved from Royal Tropicana to Summit Hotel, Life Camp, then to Legacy Hotel, and Bentley and now back to Royal Tropicana Hotel,” Bolajoko Adeyinka, a nurse who was at Liberia, said. “The first time we came here. We were given two slices of bread and over diluted tea with very little milk. But now they have promised to monetize our feeding. We would be paid N4, 500 each day.”
No public health caution, fresh commotion
Upon arrival, all contingents ought to have been kept in a place with no one going out while observing the 21 days Ebola quarantine period. Rather, several of the volunteers have been free to associate and move about in Abuja.
Yet, the volunteers were welcomed back by government officials who wore glove masks, apparently to avoid any infection from the returnees.
On Thursday, May 28, at the Summit Hotel, Life camp Abuja, all Liberia contingents were told at a meeting by Mr. Nasidi that they had to leave their various hotels latest by 12noon next day or bear the cost of the hotel. The meeting took place at about 9p.m. and ended an hour later.
They were only going to be given transportation fares back to their various locations without their December and May salaries.
The contingents lamented that they had been deceived by the Nigerian government.
Besides the lack of transportation out of Abuja due to the May 29 inauguration, the contingents refused to leave because they have mingled with contingents from Sierra Leone.
“Liberia has been declared free of Ebola, Sierra Leon has not been. But since we got here, they did not separate the hotels; we have been eating together since they are our friends. We have been hugging and playing together,” one of them said.
Counter claims and charges
When Dr. Sanni Gwarzo, chairman of the committee in charge of the returnee volunteers was contacted on Friday over the ejection of the Liberian contingents from the hotel, he said, “Nobody has been ejected. Whoever told you that is telling you a lie. Tell them that I said it is a lie, if you can give me a name I will tell you precisely their situation”.
But PREMIUM TIMES can confirm authoritatively that at a committee meeting which held at Summit Villa, Life Camp, Abuja, in room 308 between 4.30pm to 7p.m. same day, chaired by Mr. Gwarzo, he told the other committee members, “I take responsibility for the ejection of the returnee volunteers from Liberia. I did it to save cost considering the fact that there wasn’t enough funds.”
It seems the decision was not communicated to other committee members.
The marketing manager of Summit Villa, who simply called himself Isa, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that he was instructed by Mr. Gwarzo to eject all Liberian contingents by 12noon and whosoever stayed back was on his own. This was also applicable to returnees from Liberia who were lodged in Royal Tropicana Hotel, and Lapour.
On his complaints about funds, when asked by PREMIUM TIMES about the N60million donated by billionaire businessman, Aliko Dangote, for the care of the returnees, Mr. Gwarzo turned off the phone call.
Mr. Obasanya, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, denied all allegations against him. He refuted the claims that he sexually molested both any women.
“I had no direct contact with the ladies, so I don’t know where you are getting all your information from,” he said. “We had our challenges with some people, but not threatening them with deportation. I had no problem with any Nigerian.”
He, however, refused to discuss the alleged role he played in the deportation of the three Nigerians. He said “I won’t talk about individuals on phone. If you want to talk about them, come officially to my office and I will talk about them. Don’t bring out what is not supposed to be in public. Please and please, I beg you. Please, let sleeping dogs lie.”
He also put off the phone call.
However, when a text message was sent to him about his alleged attack on Ms. Bassey, he called Ms. Bassey and gave this reporter’s phone number to her. Ms. Bassey in turn called this reporter immediately.
She told PREMIUM TIMES that, “Those issues have been resolved. They were a form of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Dr. Sokoya, Obasanya and I are resolving the issues”.
On the owed December money, Mr. Obasanya said the AU signed an agreement individually with each of the contingents. So, it is not possible for the AU to pay their salaries, or allowance through the Nigerian government, because the government did not sign that agreement with them.
“It was stated in their agreement letters what they were entitled to and what were not,” he said. “AU is not a mushroom organization. As we speak now, some have even been paid over and above what they ought to have collected and they have to pay back. Some have collected for four months, and others for five months. Before they left, they were told to write what AU was owing them which they did already and is being computed.”
He also denied the allegation that non-health personnel such as electricians were recruited for the mission.
He said the AU supervised the recruitment and was satisfied.
However, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Davidson George, a senior medical officer said the shortlisting of volunteers was done in Abuja with Mr. Obasanya and then forwarded to AU for screening.
“The AU actually came to the country as observers of the process of recruitment,” he said. “Even at that, Obasanya had his way to fix whoever he had chosen. That is how non-health workers were recruited. The only non-health workers that were to be recruited were supposed to be drivers.
“So I wonder how professionals like geologists, economists, accountants among others were recruited. It should be the experts that were to be sent as Nigeria was called into the mission to showcase their expertise in curtailing Ebola in July 2014. It was not supposed to be a recruitment exercise for all comers.”
Mr. Nasidi on the other hand denied the allegations that the AU gave him any money.
“I am not aware of this, I am hearing about it for the first time,” he said. “AU didn’t give me any money. As regards the December salary, it is the AU that will give them that one, not us. If the money had been released to the NCDC, nobody can touch it because we have an account system. I can assure you that the allegations are all stories.”
He also denied that the government provided N180, 000 for the volunteers.
However, documented evidence available to PREMIUM TIMES indicates that the federal government actually disbursed N63, 581, 250 million at the rate of N180, 000 per volunteer. The government had made provision for 250 volunteers though they turned out to be 198.
Mr. Nasidi had no response when confronted with that evidence.
Emile Diouf, a colonel and logistician in Sierra Leone, said the AU’s finance office is taking care of any outstanding payments from each volunteers.
“They will be paid every money that is due to them,” he said.
However, the volunteers said Mr. Diouf was part of the conspirators and that he knew the AU would not pay the December salary again.
Reached by PREMIUM TIMES, Mr. Diouf was outraged by the decision of the volunteers to contact the media.
On why other countries got their December salaries before departing their countries, he said “It was based on arrangements. Each country was different from the other”.
Ambassador Febe Potgieter Gqubule, advisor, Bureau of chairperson to the AU, did not respond to questions emailed to him.
Editor’s Note: Some names in this story were changed to protect the volunteers from victimization