Dr. Betta Edu

Shall we Kill Humanitarian Affairs Ministry or Let it Die at Infancy Like Abiku?

By Kabir Akintayo

In Yoruba mythology, Abiku is renowned or notorious for coming and going (apologies to Late John Pepper Clark). Abiku is that spirit child who allows himself or herself to be born to a particular mother without the intention of staying with the family to make them happy.

Abiku is a Yoruba word that can be translated as “predestined to death.” Abiku refers to the spirits of children who die before reaching puberty. The belief is that the spirit returns to the same mother multiple times to be reborn multiple times. It is the belief that the spirit does not ever plan to stay put in life so it is indifferent to the plight of its mother and her grief.

Ben Okri’s novel “The Famished Road” is based on the Abiku spirit. Debo Kotun’s novel titled “Abiku,” is a political satire of the Nigerian military oligarchy. Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀’s novel “Stay With Me” has a couple whose children die at infancy. And an Abiku is the central character in Tobi Ogundiran’s short story “The Many Lives of an Abiku.”

But the two most iconic literary contributions to the Abiku phenomenon were the poetic renditions of Africa’s greatest playwright, Professor Wole Soyinka, and the late JP Clark. The two evergreen poems have their differences and similarities, pros and cons and strengths and weaknesses and we will leave literacy afficionados to bother about which one is better. But there is this compelling similarity between the two poems: The cruel irony of a child who is naturally meant to bring joy to a family but who comes with the intention to bring everlasting sorrow, tears and pain.

Let us now talk about the extremely cruel irony of establishing a particular Ministry to alleviate the suffering of the masses and instead of the officials in charge to pity the people and prioritise their welfare, they turn the place to a cash cow which they continually milk for selfish gains.

Late General James Oluleye (rtd) in his memoir described his contemporary and former Nigerian Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo (rtd), as “a wily fox who does both evil and good with EQUAL celebrity.” But General Oluleye had died long before President Muhammadu Buhari established the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development on August 21, 2019. If he were alive, he would have studied the reason behind the establishment of the Ministry and the conduct of the Ministers and other officials, and probably written something like: “Officials of the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs are careless carnivores who devour anything in sight with reckless abandon and do both evil and good with UNEQUAL celebrity, dedicating 90 percent to evil and 10 percent to good.”

This is because officials of the Ministry dress like good people, paint their faces and nails and they are seen in broad daylight distributing noodles, rice, maggi, salt and cash in thousands of naira to the poor and they loot in billions of naira in the dead of the night.

Like Abiku who falls sick repeatedly before finally rotting away, since the establishment of the Ministry, it has been all about scandal upon scandal, disaster upon disaster. Despite the hundreds of billions of naira that have been voted to the Ministry since inception, there has been no positive impact on the lives of the masses. The misery ratio is the same while multidimensional poverty is just as bad if not worse.

A Huge Cash Cow

The gale of corruption in the Ministry started with Sadiya Umar-Farouq, the first Minister appointed by President Buhari. Her tenure was really scandal-ridden and she made sure accountability and transparency were not the order of the day in the way monies were distributed to the poor. She was once quoted to have said she didn’t want to reveal the full identities of her beneficiaries because they wouldn’t want to be embarrassed and be seen as wretched. She was also reported to have claimed to have spent huge sums of money for school feeding programme during COVID-19 lockdown when all schools were shut and students/pupils were at home.

She was recently detained by the Economic and Financial Crime Commission (EFCC) over an allegation of corruption in the handling of N37.1 billion social intervention funds during her tenure.

The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in September 2020, also revealed in their investigation that, there was a diversion of N2.67 billion meant for school feeding during the COVID-19 pandemic into a private account.

The allegations of corruption and diversion of public funds into an individual account by the suspended minister, Dr. Betta Edu and her subordinate, Halima Shehu, who was the National Coordinator and Chief Executive Officer of the National Social Investment Program Agency (NSIPA), has also opened deeper can of worms in the Ministry.

Ms. Edu had directed that N585 million, which was transferred from the National Social Investment office account, be transferred into a private bank account. The money was meant for disbursement to vulnerable people in Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Lagos, and Ogun states, under the federal government poverty intervention project called Grants for Vulnerable Groups.

Edu’s suspension and EFCC probe, followed widespread criticism after a leaked memo on December 20 revealed that she urged the Accountant-General of the Federation, Oluwatoyin Madein, to transfer N585m to a private account owned by one Oniyelu Bridget.

The AGF distanced herself and her office from the illegal transfer of such money into a private account, an act that violated Nigeria’s Financial Regulations 2009, which emphasises separating public and personal money in government transactions.

In another leaked memo, Edu was also seen voting monies to fly from Abuja to Lokoja, the Kogi state capital, where there is no airport.

While Halima Shehu’s suspension can be attributed to the illegal movement of N44 billion from NSIPA account to some suspicious accounts within the last four days in December 2023, EFCC was able to recover over N39 billion from some of the accounts the money was transferred to.

The nexus between corruption and the mismanagement of funds earmarked for humanitarian aid paints a grim picture. Scrutiny and investigations will however uncover other corruption cases where funds meant to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable populations in the country were diverted for personal gain, undermining the very essence of the ministry’s existence.

Rather than serving as a beacon of hope during times of need, the Ministry’s involvement in financial scandals has left affected communities without the support they desperately require. Scrapping the ministry has been proposed by stakeholders as a solution to break away from a cycle of inefficiency and restore confidence in the nation’s ability to respond effectively to emergencies.

While scrapping the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs becomes a compelling argument, the focus must shift towards re-evaluating the existing framework, adopting transparent practices and exploring alternative models that can better serve the humanitarian needs of the nation.

This can be done by merging the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry with the existing ministries or agencies with similar functions, that have performed excellently well and displayed a level of transparency and accountability.

Last Line

Like King Macbeth in Williams Shakespeare’s evergreen masterpiece, this Ministry has crossed the Rubicon and there is almost no way back to sanity or normalcy. And like Abiku, the Ministry is eager and desperate to perish at infancy as it is not interested in reaching puberty.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu may therefore wish to allow this natural course of events to take place without any interruption so that the poor can actually breathe.