The authorities should get to the root of the problem and mete out appropriate sanctions

For almost two weeks, the Nigerian public was subjected to the stench coming from the health sector in the form of allegations and counter-allegations between the suspended Executive Secretary of National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), Prof. Usman Yusuf and the Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole. For an administration that claims to be fighting corruption, the revelations were very troubling. But what was even more disturbing was that nobody could bring the parties under control as they engaged in media war.

While Yusuf, who initially resisted the attempt to suspend him, eventually had to vacate office to pave way for a proper investigation on the allegations of fraud, nepotism and outright abuse of office levelled against him, the dust is yet to settle. If anything, the process and intrigues leading to his suspension and the involvement of the National Assembly has only helped to deepen the crisis. But the whole saga and the way it played out in the public has exposed the indiscipline in our public service and the lack of effective coordination within the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari where institutions work at cross-purposes. While the presidency backed Adewole, the embattled Yusuf got the support of the House of Representatives.

Unfortunately, in a bid to outwit one another, the parties introduced into the dispute polarising ethno-religious slants which tended to trivialise the seriousness of the issues. Nevertheless, this has also helped to bring to the fore the chronic corruption, impunity and ineptitude that have characterised Nigeria’s health sector over the years. And now that a measure of sanity has been restored, we hope that the panel already set up to probe the allegations against Yusuf will give him a fair hearing while the presidency must also look into the veracity of his own counter-allegations which are equally serious.

Incidentally, what triggered the chain of events was a petition dated April 21 by a group named United Youth Alliance Against Corruption (UYAAC) which made damaging allegations against Yusuf. Aside accusing him of budgeting N860 million for a questionable training programme in the 2016 appropriation bill, the group went into details on how Yusuf allegedly violated laid-down procedure by splitting contracts and raising multiple payment vouchers. With supporting documents, the group also alleged that the NHIS boss was fond of spending money without any approval from the supervising ministry.

In a defence that did not address the issues but bordered more on insubordination, Yusuf stated that by virtue of Section 47 of the NHIS Act, the minister is empowered only to give directives of a general nature to the Governing Council of the Scheme while, in the absence of the council, have the Presidential mandate to exercise its powers and functions. He added that “since the powers and functions of the Council do not include the discipline, suspension or removal of the Executive Secretary of the Scheme from office,” the action of the minister was ill-motivated and that he would not obey it.

While we want to encourage a conclusive investigation to the allegations and counter-allegations, we are nonetheless worried that such a huge distraction is coming from a critical but much-challenged sector. This is worsened by the fact that the sector is grossly underfunded. In the 2017 budget, for instance, the meagre 4.17 per cent allocation is far below the 13 per cent recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the 2001 African Union (AU) 15 per cent Abuja declaration.

Since the issues involved are that of transparency and accountability, the authorities must get to its root and mete out appropriate sanctions to whoever is found to have contravened the law. But beyond that, it is also important for the Health Minister to face the serious challenges that plague the sector.