On Monday, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization announced that Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has been appointed Chair of its 28-member Board.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala will be succeeding Dagfinn Høybråten as Chair of the US$12 billion multilateral international public private partnership committed to saving the lives of children and protecting people’s health by improving access to immunization in developing countries, including Nigeria.
The former minister’s appointment came months after she spearheaded a controversial decision to pay US$2.2 million to the Geneva-based organization, being a refund for funds allegedly mismanaged by Nigerian health officials.
The refund was made despite protests by officials of the health ministry that all GAVI grants had been judiciously used.
Hours after her appointment was announced, online whistle blowing site, Sahara Reporters tweeted that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala got the position from an organization with whom Nigeria did business under her watch and “paid GAVI $2.2m shortly before she left”.
But in a swift response, Paul Nwabuikwu, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s media aide described the tweet as “lies.”
“GAVI was paid back according to MOU because grant was misused. NOI (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) handed case to EFCC before she left.”
However, several documents reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES showed that despite a robust defence on how the GAVI funds was spent, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala indeed went ahead to authorize the refund.
Allegations of graft
Last year, GAVI alleged that Nigerian officials mismanaged cash grants allocated to the country through the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency between 2011 and 2013.
But the Nigerian health officials fought back, accusing GAVI of manipulating events to suit their narrative and deliberately turning a blind eye to its explanations on how the funds were spent before publishing their final audit report.
Civil society organisations who had undertaken independent investigations into the allegations, after they were made public last year, say their efforts to reconcile their findings with GAVI’s audit report met a brick wall from the organization.
A PREMIUM TIMES e-mail to GAVI, since May 26, seeking explanations for their alleged refusal to entertain explanations from Nigerian officials or organisations over the report remains unacknowledged and unreplied.
Between 2002 and 2014, the Nigerian government, through the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, received vaccine and cash-based support from GAVI Alliance to the tune of over US$100 million.
While US$165 million was disbursed for vaccines, US$143.5 million was for cash support through a number of mechanisms, including Health Systems Strengthening, Immunization System Support, operations costs for vaccine campaigns (Measles, Meningitis, and Yellow Fever), and Vaccine Introduction Grants.
Previous audits by GAVI had raised concerns about how Nigerian officials utilize disbursed funds.
For instance, a four-year audit between 2008 and 2011 revealed about US$300,000 unsubstantiated expenditures relating to the Immunization System Support programmes from 2009 to 2011.
In October 2014, GAVI released its findings from a Cash Programme Audit, CPA, of US$29 million it disbursed to Nigeria between 2011 and 2013.
The CPA findings claimed that funds – running into millions of dollars – meant for the procurement of vaccines and other immunization support activities in the period under review were mismanaged.
Of the total expenditure (US$29 million) stated in the period under review, 32 percent (US$9 million) was examined in the audit of which 87 percent (US$8.1 million) was found to be questionable.
The remaining US$20 million reported expenditure for the period could not be verified, according to GAVI, because of a number of limitations that included outstanding returns from states and poor security levels in some states which could not be visited.
“The report describes systemic weaknesses regarding the operation of controls and procedures in national systems used to manage Gavi cash-based support,” GAVI said in a statement following the report.
“As a result of specific findings the Government of Nigeria has agreed to repay funds deemed to have been misused, which are quantified as US$2.2 million.”
According to the report, 40 percent of the total expenditure of US$29 million (about N4.5 billion) within the two year period was spent on procurement.
GAVI further stated that based on its preliminary findings, cash-based support to Nigeria was suspended in April 2014 and funds previously disbursed but not yet used were immediately frozen.
The audit stated that there were fundamental weaknesses in the area of procurement which included collusion between government officials and contractors.
In certain instances, it stated, assets – such as incinerators, boreholes, and medical equipment – which had been delivered and full payments made were found to be non-functional.
The audit further established that several suppliers shared the same addresses and telephone numbers and that documents of different suppliers were signed by the same people.
“However, these related suppliers submitted separate quotations/bids in order to create the appearance of competition,” the report stated.
“Multiple companies registered to one individual are used to increase the chances of obtaining contracts at inflated prices – this was observed for procurement relating to printing, motor vehicles and incinerators. Some of the suppliers could not be located at the addresses provided to the NPHCDA.
“The audit noted inflated costs of assets/goods. An example is the purchase of motor vehicles where third parties purchased Toyota cars from a licensed Toyota dealer and sold the same cars to NPHCDA at double the price.”
In the area of tax payments on goods and services, the audit stated that it could not verify whether payments were correctly made to the relevant tax authorities. But it found out that from a sample of 184 companies with which NPHCDA transacted, the registration of 97 of them with FIRS (Federal Inland Revenue Service) could not be confirmed.
“In addition, NPHCDA records indicated that they had made VAT (Value Added Tax) and WHT (Withholding Tax) payments of approximately US$950,000 to FIRS in the period 2011 and 2013; independent validation of amounts received by FIRS indicates that only approximately US$70,000 is recognized as being received by them from NPHCDA,” the audit said.
“Specific accounts are not maintained in the accounting system for VAT and WHT to record and monitor the taxes paid.
“NPHCDA did not provide a statement or receipts from FIRS confirming how much has been paid to the tax authorities and if indeed the payments were received by FIRS – it was not clear how payments to FIRS for VAT and WHT could be made on behalf of companies whose existence was questionable.”
The report called for the suspension of disbursements to NPHCDA until it put in place a prudent management of GAVI funds.
It also sought for a reimbursement of US$2.2 million from the Nigerian government being the amount it claimed Nigerian officials mismanaged.
The report also requested the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to carry out a detailed investigation of the GAVI grants disbursed to Nigeria.
Before the completion of the GAVI audit, a Joint Letter of Understanding had been signed by Nigeria’s former Health Minister, Onyebuchi Chukwu, and GAVI’s Chief Executive Officer, Seth Berkley.
In the letter, Dr. Chukwu admitted that there had been systemic weaknesses which may have led to inappropriate use of funds.
Dr. Chukwu also agreed that the Nigerian government “agrees on principle” to reimburse GAVI for any amounts identified as inappropriately used for the period under review.
At the time of the release of the GAVI report, the Civil Society Network Against Corruption, CSNAC, filed a petition to the EFCC demanding the investigation of Dr. Chukwu over the alleged mismanagement of the GAVI funds.
In a letter dated November 19, 2014, CSNAC stated that the alleged misused funds should not be refunded from Nigeria’s coffers, but rather from the individuals involved in the misappropriation.
Nigerian officials’ fury
When GAVI released its final report in late October 2014, it sparked anger among Nigerian health officials who accused the organization of unilaterally arriving at conclusions without giving them a chance for a reconciliatory exercise.
While noting the shortcomings and recommendations from the CPA, Nigeria’s implementing agencies insisted that the sum of US$233,000 remained unaccounted for as at June 30, 2014, and not the US$8.2 million claimed by GAVI in its May report or the US$2.2 million in the published report.
An angry Dr. Chukwu said his ministry’s zero tolerance for corruption was the reason he signed the joint agreement with GAVI, which committed both sides to transparency and integrity in transactions.
“That was also why in principle he signed the joint statement,” Dan Nwomeh, who was Special Assistant to the former minister at the time, said one month after the final audit report was released.
“That if at the end of the review of the audit including the responses of Nigeria and there are areas where funds may not have been spent in accordance with the Memorandum of Understanding with GAVI, those funds would be refunded by Nigeria (that is, the NPHCDA).
“In fact, at the time the joint statement was signed, GAVI never informed the former minister that they had about 2 million dollars they were still querying.”
In addition to its petition to the EFCC, CSNAC had also followed up with a similar letter to the Nigerian government demanding explanations over the conduct of its officials in what it described as an “international embarrassment”.
In its response to CSNAC, the Nigerian government stated that it “strongly objected” to GAVI’s final report and accused the donor of “unilateral conclusion and publication”.
“The Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) and the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA) stands by its earlier response to the initial CPA Report issued by GAVI in May 2014,” the Nigerian government stated.
“The FMOH and NPHCDA strongly objected to GAVI’s final report which it released and published without carrying out a post audit reconciliation exercise (a standard audit practice); and without incorporating the Government of Nigeria response to the CPA as agreed withGAVI.”
According to the government, a significant downward revision of the ‘unaccounted sum’ of US$8.2 million in the audit’s initial report (in May) to US$2.2 million in the final report raised questions on the basis of the reduction without a reconciliatory process.
The government said that it became obvious from the GAVI report that any document not placed before the CPA Team was deemed ‘non-existent’.
It also said the CPA Team did not make any specific request for additional information and refused to engage senior management to seek clarifications on specific issues.
“In the CPA report, it was noted that there was no evidence for the transfer of N44.5 million to UNICEF, whereas no senior management staff in the Finance and Accounts Department was contacted for this document. UNICEF has since confirmed (in writing) receipt of the said funds,” the government said.
“The CPA Team performed field visits without informing the Federal Ministry of Health or NPHCDA of the locations and gave no feedback on return. Government of Nigeria provided evidence to show that the team in some instances visited wrong locations and interviewed wrong persons.
“The report claimed that incinerators were not delivered whereas all were delivered at the time of the CPA.
“In its final report, GAVI maintained that only $70,000 (about N11 million) was remitted to Internal Revenue body. FIRS has since confirmed in writing that over N237 million was received by it on the GAVI Alliance funded projects.”
The Nigerian government further stated that GAVI refused to conduct reconciliatory exercise following its response to the audit, turned down invitations for joint site visits for verification, and therefore had no basis to demand for a refund.
The government also stated that it went ahead to contact the Corporate Affairs Commission, FIRS, UNICEF, EFCC, and other agencies mentioned in the GAVI report.
“Contrary to GAVI’s allegation of NPHCDA engaging companies without appropriate registration, the Corporate Affairs Commission through a letter dated Wednesday, 25th June, 2014, in response to a request for the verification and confirmation of status of the companies by the NPHCDA, listed the names of those companies as duly registered with the Commission,” the Nigerian government said.
“The Federal Inland Revenue controverted GAVI’s assertion of failure to remit taxes vide a letter dated November 6, 2014, confirming the agency paid due taxes, even beyond GAVI quoted amount, as at when due.”
The federal government also stated that the Kaduna State Primary Health Care Agency and Bauchi State Primary Health Care Development Agency in letters dated 10th October, 2013, and 26th June, 2013, respectively wrote to confirm the receipt of 7,140,278 units of vaccination cards in Kaduna and 1,105,300 units of Non Polio SIAs Vaccination cards in Bauchi.
These were contrary to claims in the GAVI report that those cards were neither produced nor delivered by the NPHCDA.
The Nigerian government also said that no petition, oral or written, had been submitted at the EFCC contrary to claims in the GAVI report that an official report had been lodged.
“Contrary to claims of failure to disburse fund by GAVI, UNICEF also wrote via its New York office to confirm receipt of funds from the NPHCDA as reported by the agency.”
Following the responses by the Nigerian government, CSNAC led other civil society organizations to carry out an independent investigation into some of the claims made in GAVI’s final report.
Olanrewaju Suraju, CSNAC’s Chairman, said his organization solicited, free of charge, the support of civil society partners domiciled in states where NPHCDA claimed they had executed its incinerator projects.
“Responses were received from some committed and reliable networking partners and their officers were dispatched as field investigators who visited sites to verify the status of projects, and presented the findings from their sites visits,” said Mr. Suraju.
“CSNAC received support from CSOs and individuals who volunteered and assisted with visiting locations of incinerators constructed by the NPHCDA across the northern states of Nigeria.”
Civil society investigators visited 13 incinerator sites in seven northern states, including the Federal Capital Territory.
In Kano, for instance, the five sites visited – in Gwale, Municipal, Dambatta, Bichi, and Wudil – showed all the incinerators had been completed.
However, the incinerators at Numan in Adamawa State, and Wukari in Taraba State had not been built, according to the private investigators.
In November last year, CSNAC opened communication with GAVI’s Geneva office with a view to compare notes and share information regarding the report.
“We got no positive response,” Mr. Suraju said.
“We then reached out to GAVI’s American office via telephone in December and got a promise of an official response by January 2015.
“On January 8, 2015, CSNAC received a response from GAVI saying it had no further information to give on the issue beyond what it published on its website.”
Mr. Suraju said that it was unacceptable for any foreign organization to hide under Nigeria’s perceived corrupt status to level corruption charges against its government without providing verifiable evidence to support their claims.
“We are seriously concerned by GAVI’s adamant and uncooperative posture in spite of the apparent weight of evidence provided by the NPHCDA in the Nigerian government’s comprehensive response with attached documentations, the site visitations by CSNAC; confirmation of receipt of funds by UNICEF, tax remittances to FIRS, and authenticity of agencies by the CAC,” said Mr. Suraju.
“In the extant case, since the Government of Nigeria has refuted GAVI’s claims and provided documentary and other evidence which contradict GAVI’s claims, it is therefore surprising that GAVI has held on to its position as shown by the GAVI Management’s repeated utterances that ‘there was no significant change in their position.’
“GAVI needs to respond to charges by the Government of Nigeria that ‘many of the actions of the CPA team were not in tandem with expected level of professionalism; and may have been premeditated on a mindset”.
‘No case of fraud’
In the midst of the dispute between the NPHCDA and GAVI, the Nigerian government, led by Ms. Okonjo-Iweala still went ahead to refund the alleged misused funds of US$2.2 million to the organization.
On August 11, the EFCC responded to CSNAC’s petition over the alleged mismanagement of the GAVI funds stating that no prima facie case of fraud, diversion of funds, or other crimes had been established in relation to the project.
“Our investigation confirmed that the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) paid all due taxes to the Federal Inland Revenue Service. The NPHCDA also paid required funds to UNICEF in 2012 for meningitis vaccine campaign (MENAFRIVAC),” the EFCC said in its response signed by Olaolu Adegbite, on behalf of the Executive Chairman.
“All contracts under the project were duly executed while the provisions of the Nigerian financial regulations for the public service were duly followed in the disbursement of duty tour allowances and other incidental expenses for the staff.”
The anti-graft agency stated that the findings of GAVI’s initial audit report was based on an unfounded suspicion of fraud and called for the ongoing reconciliation between the organisation and the NPHCDA to be concluded.
“We believe that the GAVI report underscores the effect of negative media coverage of events on our national reputation,” the EFCC stated.
“It is unfortunate that some reputable foreign organizations continue to perceive most Nigerians as corrupt and fraudulent in spite of contrary evidence.”
But despite the EFCC report, GAVI stuck to its claims. Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala believed the donor agency despite protests by a government she served.
She brushed aside the concerns and proceeded to refund $2.2million to the organisation, even without clearance from the health ministry.
Few months later, GAVI named her the chairperson of its board.