A recent appointment of new directors by the Federal Internal Revenue Service was done in violation of public service rules, a review by PREMIUM TIMES has shown.
The tax agency under its new chairman, Mohammed Nami, recruited four directors in March, but the positions were not advertised as required by federal rules to allow qualified Nigerians to compete. They also violated an internal regulation of the FIRS that would have seen qualified in-house staff take the posts.
The exercise also ignored a controversial 2016 presidential directive that suspended the tenure limit policy of two terms of four years for directors and permanent secretaries in the federal public service.
Mr Nami was appointed by President Muhammadu Buhari to the post in December 2019. He took over from Tunde Fowler whose first term got mired in a controversy over the amount of tax money the agency generated. A dissatisfied presidency said the FIRS had not collected as much tax as in the past, a criticism Mr Fowler said failed to consider the economic peculiarities of his tenure.
Mr Nami said in a recent interview that he met an agency that had virtually collapsed he had to start “rebuilding from scratch.” To rebuild, Mr Nami implemented organisation-wide redeployments and hired new hands “to strengthen its capacity to deliver its mandate”. But in doing so, he brushed aside provisions of the public service rules and the FIRS’ internal guidelines on hiring to senior positions.
The new chairman began the reorganisation shortly after taking office by unlawfully recruiting four officials who would later become directors and placing them as deputy directors on contract. In March, he retired eight directors and also gave four of those retired new appointments as contract staff. The four contract staff brought in from outside the agency were later confirmed directors within months even when their positions were not advertised.
The rule says those positions should have been filled by qualified FIRS staff, in this case, existing deputy directors. Where there are no qualified in-house personnel –PREMIUM TIMES understands FIRS has several qualified deputy directors — then the agency is required by law to advertise the positions. Mr Nami did not do so.
The chairman told staff via a March 24 memo that the decision to retire all directors who had been in that cadre for eight and above years, and to hire new ones, was taken by the FIRS Board at an emergency meeting of March 20.
The retired directors who were given new contracts are Asheikh Maidugu, appointed coordinating director and head, executive chairman’s group; Chiaka Okoye appointed group lead, digital support group; Auta Mohammed Bello, appointed special assistant, administration to the executive chairman; and and Kolawole Okunola, named special assistant to the executive chairman, information & communications. Those allowed to go are Kemi Odusanya, Victor Ekundayo, Emmanuel Obeta and Gbolaga Oshiga.
The newly-hired directors are Ahmed Musa (head, finance & accounts department); Abdullahi Isma’ila (head, communication & liaison department), Aisha Hamza Mohammed (head, office of executive chairman department), and Ahmed Ndanusa (head, internal affairs & efficiency department). Mr Ndanusa is a former director-general and later chairman of the Board of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
The coordinating directors are Asheikh Maidugu (executive chairman’s group); Olufemi Oladeji Oluwaniyi (tax operations group); Innocent Chinyere Ohagwa (general services group), and Ezra Usman Zubairu (enforcement support group). The new group leads are Faosat Oguniyi (compliance support group) and Chiaka Okoye (digital support group). Mustapha Ndaijiwo was named the new special assistant (technical) to the executive chairman. Several dozens of staff were also redeployed across all segments of the organisation.
Violating the rules
Mr Nami said the decisions were guided by the FIRS Human Resource Policies and Processes (HRPP) handbook as an autonomous public entity, and cited paragraph 10.1(a)(iii) of the handbook, which deals with FIRS staff exit policy and compulsory retirement.
But the Public Service Rule 02102 says appointments to senior government posts shall be made into available vacancies after due advertisement in the national dailies.
Also, Section 2.22 (1) of the HRPP says: “Contract appointment shall only be made where the required skills and competence are not available within the Service.”
“If there are no person(s) with the relevant experience, qualification, competence and skill from within the system to be appointed, the vacant positions must be advertised in the national newspapers for at least six weeks, if it is an external recruitment,” it adds.
There is no evidence the FIRS advertised for the vacant positions of the four directors before they were appointed.
One of the new directors and now head of communications at the agency, Mr Isma’ila, told PREMIUM TIMES he and the other three directors were contract staff prior to their appointments and were duly employed based on due process and approval of the FIRS board.
“Their appointments followed due process and are in line with the extant laws of the Service,” he said in a response to PREMIUM TIMES enquiries seeking his clarifications on the issues. He did not explain why the positions were not made public as required by law.
In reality, Mr Isma’ila’s employment is an example of how Mr Nami circumvented due process and in some cases recruited his loyalists to senior positions.
Mr Isma’ila was completing a doctorate programme at the Ahmadu Bello University when Mr Nami was appointed chairman of the tax body. Without the FIRS advertising the positions or implementing competitive recruitment processes, Mr Isma’ila was brought on board to the FIRS communication unit as a contract staff at the level of a deputy director. The incumbent head of communications, Wahab Gbadamosi, was at the time a deputy director.
Within four months, Mr Isma’ila was made full staff and promoted as director and made head of communications, while Mr Gbadamosi was posted out to the FIRS training institute.
Onyema Omenuwa, the principal counsel of an Abuja-based law firm, Okwubedo-Utchi Chambers, insisted the appointment of the four new directors were in disregard for due process.
“FIRS does not exist in a vacuum, as it is a creation of statute. Being so, the law setting it up always provides for the extent of its powers. Otherwise, it will be acting ultra vires its powers,” he said.
“One, theirs were external appointments, strictly speaking, because they were contract staff. Does it mean qualified persons don’t exist internally to take up the appointments, in accordance with Public Service Rules?
“Yet, if no qualified personnel exist, due process would still have been flouted by non-advertisement of the vacancies. What has played out is arbitrary exercise of appointment power by the FIRS. There should be sustained strident condemnation of it,” Mr Omenua said.
In making room for the new hires, staff and lawyers accuse Mr Nami of also ignoring a presidential directive that suspended the tenure limit policy of two terms of four years for directors and permanent secretaries in the federal public service. The policy was to enable qualified public servants to rise to the peak of their careers.
President Muhammadu Buhari implemented the directive via letter No. SH/COS/100/A/1462 of June 17, 2016, and on June 20, 2016, then Head of Service of the Federation, Winifred Oyo-Ita, issued memo No. HCSF/428//S.1//139 to inform heads of federal ministries, departments and agencies of the development.
The decision was widely criticised at the time, yet was not changed.
The FIRS argues that it is not covered by the directive as it is not civil service organisation.
“The fact of the matter is that the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) is not a part of the Civil Service, even though it is a Public Service,” Mr Isma’ila told PREMIUM TIMES, insisting FIRS Board was not in breach of either the Public Service Rule or any law for that matter, including the HRPP, in retiring the affected directors.
“It (FIRS) operates like its sister organizations, like the NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation), CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria), CAC (Corporate Affairs Commission), etc. The Act establishing it gives it autonomy to hire and fire.”
Mr Is’maila said the retirement of the directors was based on paragraph 10.1(a)(iii) of the FIRS’ HRPP staff handbook, which deals with FIRS staff exit policy and compulsory retirement.
Section 10.1a (ii) of the HRPP pegs the compulsory retirement age for all grades in the Service at 60 years or 35 years of pensionable service, whichever is earlier. Also, Section 10.1a (iii) adds that “… a Director shall compulsorily retire upon serving eight years on the post.”
As prescribed, the retired directors had been on that cadre for eight years. Yet, lawyers say a presidential directive was enough to suspend that requirement, and regardless of its controversial nature, it ought to be obeyed.
Also, while the FIRS denies being covered by such directives, Section 1.8.2 of the HRPP says: “All extant circulars, directives, notices, orders and other documents amending, giving further details and/or explanations to the provisions of this policy document (HRPP) hereto shall form part of the HRPP and shall equally be binding.”
An Abuja-based legal practitioner, George Ukaegbu, who is also the managing partner, Ukaegbu Ukaegbu & Co., said “As long as a Federal Establishments circular of general application to all Federal Government workers does not exempt the FIRS, it is bound by it, despite having distinct rules of engagement. If the circular wanted to exempt the FIRS, its content would have said so.
“The circular by the Head of Service of the Federation on the tenure policy suspension was expressly copied to the FIRS. So, any action taken contrary to that subsisting circular is illegal,” Mr Ukaegbu said.
The lead director, Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekpere, said by virtue of the provisions of the HRPP above, the FIRS Board may have misled itself to believe it was on solid legal grounds to take the decision to retire the affected directors.
“When that directive suspending the tenure policy in the Federal Service was given by the president, well-meaning Nigerians condemned it. To the best of my knowledge, unpopular as it was, I am not aware it has been reversed yet. To that extent, the FIRS Board’s decision was illegal,” Mr Onyekpere noted.
The FIRS spokesperson, Mr Isma’ila, however, put forward another argument, saying the retirement of the directors was “in the public interest, to create vacancies for the existing staff in the Service who have remained stagnated.”
The decision to have their replacements from outside the agency contradicts that claim, some staff of the agency said.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to remove a comment attributed to Elijah Okebukola.