The drama at the National Health Insurance Scheme signposts an unsavoury politics and power struggle in one of Nigeria’s critical institutions, writes Olaseni Durojaiye
The drama that played out at the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) a couple of weeks ago has again brought to the fore some of the system failures that have come to characterise governance in the country. It was, perhaps, the reason many observers described the development as a case of some animals being more equal than the others.
Notably, it has betrayed a lack of decisiveness to deal with matters of state in a timely manner. As one analyst puts it, it is unthinkable that the matter is yet unresolved over a year after it first gained national attention.
The latest round of crisis at the NHIS, observers argued was avoidable. They are of the view that the nation would have been saved the ugly spectacle that broke out on Monday if the administration had followed through with due process as preached by officials of the administration. Besides, some other analysts opined that it is another manifestation of the lack of political will to deal with issues dispassionately.
Observers traced the current crisis to last year July 2017, when Minister of Health, Prof. Isaac Adewole, suspended the Executive Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of the NHIS, Prof. Usman Yusuf.
According to TheCable, an online newspaper, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who was acting president at the time, had directed Adewole to probe Yusuf.
TheCable also reported at the time that, “In a letter dated July 10, 2017, Ade Ipaye, the chief of staff to the acting president, acknowledged receipt of two petitions against Yusuf, dated April 21, 2017, from Solomon Agbo and May 12, 2017, from Dr. Tunde Ladele”.
Ipaye wrote, “His Excellency, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, Acting President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, is in receipt of the referred two petitions, in which allegations of fraud and abuse of office were levied against the Executive Secretary of NHIS, Professor Yusuf Usman; and has directed that the petitions be forwarded to you for inquiry and necessary action”.
THISDAY findings indicated that the investigative panel set up by the minister found Yusuf culpable of some infractions bordering on nepotism and theft of public funds.
Before this experience, the House of Representatives had directed the minister to recall Yusuf, according to the online medium. And President Muhammadu Buhari, upon resumption from his medical trip abroad, upturned the suspension and reinstated Yusuf.
However, on October 18, the Council of the NHIS again suspended the Executive Secretary. Media reports indicated that before the latest suspension, the council had issued a couple of queries to Yusuf, but he failed to respond to any, fuelling the thinking in some quarters that Yusuf had the backing of some powerful forces within the administration, who were egging him on.
Although there were those who also felt that Yusuf might actually be up against some inherent interests, who would rather the status quo remained for as long as it served their interest, this, many others maintained could not invalidate the fact that his disposition was too poor for a man in his position.
In justifying his decision to ignore the suspension and resume work, the embattled executive secretary in an interview on BBC Hausa Service, said “The governing board has no right to suspend me as the executive secretary,” in response to a question.”
He further disclosed that “I have notified them in a written document that they lack the constitutional rights to suspend or even block me from entering my office,” adding that “From where I came from if you say someone is a thief, you have to prove that. But since I came on board, I have been going through unnecessary accusations of fraud.”
Not surprising, Yusuf returned to office under heavy security cover. While the staff of the NHIS tried to prevent him from entering, security agents overpowered them and he accessed his office while the staff resorted to down tool. The ugly spectacle that played out has however forced some questions to the fore.
Who does the executive secretary of the NHIS report to? Does the scheme’s council or the Minister of Health, Dr, Isaac Adewole, have the powers to suspend Yusuf or not? On whose orders were the police contingent that provided cover for Yusuf to resume after the alleged suspension? Is a thorough and unbiased probe of the allegations against the Yusuf possible with him still in office as the Chief Executive Officer of the scheme?
Speaking to THISDAY, Dr. Kolade Adams of the Department of political science, Lagos State University (LASU), noted that what is happening at the NHIS is a classic case of “system failure,” adding: “It is obvious that some powerful forces are behind the ES; you could tell that from the security cover he had when he went to resume.”
Interestingly, President Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Public Affairs, Mallam Garba Shehu announced that the presidency was already looking into the matter. Shehu disclosed so in an interview on national television during the week.
Reacting to questions thrown at him, the presidential aide said “Did the board follow due process in suspending this gentleman? There are opinions that said `no they haven’t’.
“Again we all have to do the right thing all of the times. I don’t deny the fact that there is a lot of work to do – (the crisis) is complicated by the fact that the whole thing about the NHIS has been ‘ethnicised’ and politicised. Even a political party was issuing a statement on matters that are unknown to it.
“I’ll tell you one thing, as we speak now, you know that no matter whatever mistakes this gentleman may have made, and that is to be proven, because I don’t have the records to say yes or no, he has launched a major reform in that institution, which had blocked access to public resources.
“Money from the NHIS is not money belonging to the government, it is money taken from your salary, from my salary. If we have been enlisted, we are supposed to get treatments when we fall ill, then you should ask the question in 13 years of the NHIS how many Nigerians have received the treatments.”
However, in what some analysts described as a continuation of the power play, the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, (SGF), Mr. Boss Mustapha, stated that no governing board of a federal agency or parastatal has the power to remove the executive secretary appointed by the president. He however clarified that the board may “however articulate infractions, investigate wrong doing and make recommendations to government through the supervisory ministry,” Mustapha further clarified. Mustapha had made the clarification at an induction programme for governing board members of federal parastatal, universities and medical colleges.
But in a swift reaction, Eyenatu explained that the governing council resolved to suspend Yusuf because it had received several petitions against the NHIS boss. She said, “We consulted and got the approval of the Minister of Health before this suspension.”
Mustapha’s perspective would turn out uninformed as it contrasts the letters of the laws that established the NHIS even as legal experts and analysts fault his statement.
Interestingly, a cursory look at the Acts establishing the Scheme indicated that the council had the powers to “suspend” the Executive Secretary as well as any member of the Council.
Under the sub-head “Cessation of membership” the Acts states that (I) A member of the Council shall cease to hold office if- (a)He becomes of unsound mind, or (b) he becomes bankrupt or makes a compromise with his creditors, or (c) he is convicted of a felony or of any offence involving dishonesty, or (d) he is guilty of serious misconduct in relation to his duties.
(2)A member of the Council may be removed from office by the President on the recommendation of the Minister if he is satisfied that it is not in the interest of the Scheme or the interest of the public that the member should continue in office.
Meanwhile speaking with THISDAY, a Lagos-based constitutional lawyer, Barrister Kabir Akingbolu, explained that,“The council has the powers to take the decision to suspend the Executive Secretary. What we’re talking about here is powers of suspension can be a precursor to removal, but removal can only happen if the president accent to the recommendation of the council for removal.
Speaking further, he explained that “It is against the law of natural justice for him to be in office while he is being investigated or probed; he could tamper with material evidence. But again, you ask yourself, is he above the law?”
The presidency’s intervention in the matter further showed the SGF’s position as described above. Presidency directed that Yusuf should proceed on administrative leave and constituted a panel to look into all the allegations against him, which was the route that many expected the SGF to toe in the first place.
Continuing his usual head strong manner, and making the matter messier, Yusuf sued the Minister of Health, Adewole, Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami and the board of the NHIS challenging his suspension few days after the directive from the presidency.
Generally, analysts insist it is not difficult to discern what is at play is politics and power struggle within the administration, yet wondered if there is something that the presidency is not telling Nigerians on the matter involving Yusuf. As much as he has savoured too much privilege, it is important to also hear him out especially that there is a swirling belief now that he is being persecuted because he is taming the corrupt elements at NHIS.
There must be a balance in x-raying the matter and it is the balance that will reveal the truth.
Even then, his most ardent backers were mortified at the move to challenge the directive that he proceeds on administrative leave leading many, including Akingbolu to wonder if he were above the laws of the land. Others wondered what he was hiding and do not want unravel so much that he wants to remain in office at all cost.