WHO STOLE THE HIV/AIDS MONEY?

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The authorities should ensure the criminals bear the full weight of the law

Nigeria has the world’s second highest number of people infected with HIV/AIDS after South Africa. The country also accounts for one-third of all deaths from malaria in Africa and is among the top 22 countries with tuberculosis patients, the second most infectious cause of death in the world. But corruption in Nigeria is posing a major challenge to curtailing these diseases which cause so many deaths and tremendous human suffering.

The Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria recently suspended payments to Nigeria over evidence that $3.8 million was stolen by some health workers and consultants. A report by the fund’s inspector general said seven government workers and three information technology consultants stole the money over a five-year period, between 2010 and 2014. It accused the National Agency for the Control of AIDS (NACA) of incompetence as it could not carry out proper audits. The missing money is 95 per cent of the amount budgeted to implement, administer and train users of a web-based reporting platform, but a fraction of the $1.4 billion of the fund has been spent fighting AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis in Nigeria — the fund’s largest recipient since 2003.

The federal government, in a swift response to yet another national embarrassment directed the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), perhaps the only anti-graft institution which still poses a strong challenge to impunity, to launch a full investigation into the allegations. Professor Isaac Adewole, Minister of Health, said President Muhammadu Buhari gave the directive as part of government’s commitment to fight corruption in the country. The president also directed the Secretary to the Government of Federation to review earlier audit reports from the office of the fund’s inspector general. Nigerians are waiting for the outcome of these investigations.

Corruption is so widespread in the country that it has turned public service into a kind of illicit but lucrative business and has denied millions of innocent people access to the most rudimentary of services. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is a Geneva-based health agency that attracts and disburses resources to prevent, treat and fight these diseases in low to medium-income countries. It acts as a financing mechanism and has a board that is responsible for setting policy, strategies, and establishing both funding criteria and budgets.

However, it is unfortunate that the efforts of this agency to improve the capacity to tackle these three killer diseases which put a substantial strain on health services in our country are being thwarted by some elements with itchy fingers. According to the report, the auditors found, among other things, discrepancies of over US$4 million between drugs ordered and delivered; US$20 million paid to suppliers without confirmation of delivery; stock-outs of eight months for critical medicines; and a total of US$7.65 million in unsupported expenditures. There were significant problems in the procurement, supply chain, financial and programme management.

The report also pointed out gaping weaknesses in the internal controls around data collection and reporting processes. “This resulted in more than 10% of errors between the data recorded at the facility level and data reported to the state coordinator and the Global Fund. The issues identified were mainly for the HIV and malaria programmes. Good practice, however, was observed on data recorded for the tuberculosis programmes,” it said.

The report is clear, detailed and explicit, thus making the work of investigators much simpler. And given the global nature of this scandal, it is one we cannot afford to sweep under the carpet. It is another badge of shame and those who inflicted it on the nation must be fished out and made to bear the full weight of the law. That is the only way to assure the international community that it is indeed no longer business as usual in Nigeria.