The president, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) and the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu
In this special report, SAMSON FOLARIN investigates the crisis in the Federal Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, the role played by the Minister, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, and the illegal termination of the tenures of governing boards over their refusal to dance to the tune of the minister
The Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, last Thursday inaugurated the governing boards of 12 parastatals in the ministry amidst tension and controversies.
This is because the former governing boards have yet to complete their tenure, as confirmed by even the ministry.
Investigations revealed that the minister chased away the boards for not allowing him to foist unqualified candidates as heads of their institutions.
After failed attempts by the minister to persuade the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd), to use his powers to dissolve the boards, Onu dug up a repealed military decree to achieve his aim.
By some other means, the minister got the President to sign for new boards to be inaugurated, effectively removing oppositions in the parastatals.
Onu, by his latest move, truncated an ongoing investigation started by Buhari, and the President’s directives for some boards to begin the process of selecting substantive director-generals.
He may have also flouted a directive to stop interference in the running of governing boards.
Minister Onu and the 1977 decree
Onu, in a letter to the former board chairmen and their members in August 2021, stated that their tenure of office expired.
The minister, while citing Section 11(1) of the National Science and Technology Development Agency Decree No 5 of 1977 and Section 9 (3, 4 and 5) of the Research Institutes (Establishment etc) Order 1977 dated September 29, 1977, stated that the boards had three years to serve.
The board chairmen, however, rejected the letter, reminding Onu that the section he cited was “outdated” and had long been overtaken by a circular from the Secretary to the Government Federation dated April 18, 1985.
The circular stated, “The period of appointment of the chairman and members of the boards of Federal Government statutory corporations and government-owned companies shall be four years in the first instance.
“Please bring the contents of this circular to the attention of all the parastatals and government-owned companies under the supervision of your ministry/department for strict compliance, and the adjustment of the terms and conditions of the persons concerned.”
Both boards of the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) and the Projects Development Institute (PRODA) also queried why Onu would dissolve them without any authority from the President, who alone had such powers.
Despite the opposition, Onu on Thursday, October 14, inaugurated new boards in Abuja.
This time, he said the President gave the nod to bring in the new governing boards.
The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has 17 parastatals, which are under the supervision of both the minister, Onu, and Minister of State, Mohammed Abdullahi.
The 12 parastatals whose boards were changed include the National Board for Technology Incubation (NBTI), The Nigerian Institute of Science Laboratory Technology (NISLT), Nigerian Institute for Trypanosomiasis and Onchocerciasis (NITR), National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), National Centre For Technology Management (NACETEM), Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA), Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute (NBBRI) and National Institute of Leather Science and Technology (NILEST), Zaria.
Others are the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology (NARICT), Zaria, Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), Abuja; Project Development Institute (PRODA), Enugu; and the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO).
The seven unaffected parastatals are the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN), National Office For Technology Acquisition And Promotion (NOTAP), Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Abuja; Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), Abuja; National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure (NASENI), Abuja.
Around the time the governing boards of these agencies were inaugurated, other ministries also launched their governing boards, as approved by the President.
Findings shows that the tenure of office of the board members and their chairmen is not expressly stated in their appointment letters, as the parastatals have laws indicating the tenure of office of the boards.
However, most parastatals in the ministry are guided by the SGF circular of 1985, which prescribes a term of four years for chairmen and their members.
Some also refer to the Nigerian Research Institutes Act Cap. N132, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2002, which gives research institutes council five years.
SGF, Buhari’s directives on PRODA, FIIRO, NITR
Amidst the leadership crisis in PRODA, the agency wrote a letter to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha, on July 6, 2021 to ask if its term subsisted and if it could go ahead with promotional exams for senior staff.
The SGF communicated its decision on that question to the ministry.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, Edet Akpan, in a letter dated July 15, 2021, and addressed to the Overseeing Director/CEO of PRODA, said the board could carry on with its job.
“I am directed to refer to the attached letters from the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation Ref. SGF.6/S.19/T/20 dated July 6, 2021, clarifying that the governing board of PRODA is still active and subsisting. Kindly bring the contents of the letter to all concerned, please,” Akpan stated.
Meanwhile, around this time, some of the governing boards had been sending petitions to the President and the SGF, lamenting the minister’s interference in their functions.
In September 2021, Buhari, in a memo by his Chief of Staff, Ibrahim Gambo, directed Onu to allow the FIIRO governing board to operate freely.
The President also asked the board to go ahead with the process of selecting a substantive director-general.
Still in September, the President responded to a letter titled, ‘Undue interference bordering on wrongful and unlawful intimidation, oppression and harassment of the governing council of the Nigerian Institute of Trypanosomiasis and Ochocerciasus Research (NITR) and the ignoble role of the honourable Minister of Science and Technology in perpetuating Dr Augustine Chinyere Igweh as the Director-General of the institute after due retirement on May 17, 2019.’
Buhari, in the letter, directed Onu to stop interfering in administrative procedures which were within the mandate of the NITR Governing Council.
Like FIIRO, the President also asked the board to begin the process of choosing a substantive DG.
Stakeholders wondered that if the SGF asked the PRODA board to continue its work in July when it had spent three years and four months in office, and the FIIRO and NITR boards in September got the President’s nod to choose a new DG, why did the minister in August dissolve the boards based on a three-year tenure expiration.
No fire without smoke
Onu has had running battles with several of the agencies, especially over the choice of director-generals.
For FIIRO, the governing board came in collision with Onu in May 2019 when the tenure of the former director-general of the agency, Prof. Gloria Elemo, ended.
The board, in a letter to the minister after perusing the files of officers in the parastatal, recommended that the most senior officer in the agency, Chima Igwe, should not be appointed as acting head due to the controversies surrounding his doctorate.
As of then, the degree had become a subject of an investigation by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission.
The minister, however, jettisoned the board’s recommendation and instructed that Igwe lead the agency.
After a series of investigations revealed that the minister’s candidate was parading a phantom degree and was indicted by the ICPC, the board removed him from the position.
He was also demoted by the Alhaji Ibrahim Gwarzo-led board.
Igwe, under the heat of intense investigations, returned to Universite d’Abomey-Calavi University, Benin Republic, and completed his studies, which he abandoned 18 years ago.
He was subsequently awarded a PhD in 2020.
Onu then wrote to Gwarzo and demanded that the official should be reinstated as acting DG, a request that was rejected by the board.
For the board, Igwe ought to face prosecution for collecting salaries for 18 years without requisite qualifications.
The minister then summoned the board chairman to Abuja for a meeting; the discussion reportedly became heated as both parties exchanged words.
Several traditional rulers were sent to the chairman to return Igwe to the position, but Gwarzo refused and insisted that Igwe should be prosecuted.
The refusal of the board to do the minister’s bidding was trailed by allegations of financial misappropriation, which were investigated and found false.
At this point, Onu began moves to dissolve the FIIRO board.
The board chairman claimed in December 2020 that the minister made at least 10 attempts to dissolve the board, which failed.
The Head of Service was later asked to set up a committee to investigate the crisis in FIIRO, as the report of the investigation was sent to the President.
While this was on, the minister declined the board’s request to begin the process of choosing a substantive director-general, as he stated that the President was still considering his request to confirm Igwe as the “substantive DG” of the agency.
The President shattered the minister’s hope when he affirmed the demotion of the officer and ordered his prosecution by the ICPC.
A similar situation played out at the NITR, where the director-general, Dr Augustine Igweh, was due for retirement in May 2019, but remained in the system.
The President, in a letter to Onu in September 2021, approved the board’s decision to retire Igweh and directed the Head of Service to take disciplinary actions against him for using the police to take over management of the institute.
Buhari also asked the Inspector General of Police to investigate the role of the police in the crisis.
For PRODA, the board conducted an investigation that indicted the then director-general of the agency, who was suspended.
The recommendation was approved by the SGF and forwarded to the President, who then ordered an independent panel to look into the issues.
The PRODA Chairman, Daniel Onjeh, said the board became a principal witness in the case.
“It was barely a year after our inauguration that we discovered the problems of corruption and theft, involving even some National Assembly members, and we suspended the DG after we established a prima facie case against him.
“Thank God for the steadfastness of the SGF, who looked into our recommendation of suspension and forwarded same to Mr President, who then approved it.
“However, the battle against corruption in PRODA was won and lost. We won the battle, but the minister has cost us to lose the war. Mr President set up an independent probe panel, which has been investigating the suspended DG and the board was the one that recommended the suspension and has been involved in the matter. So, how can a minister say he dissolved the board when the presidential panel attending to the affairs of the agency is still meeting?” he queried.
The minister, in his letter of expiration of tenure to the boards, did not say specifically if he got presidential approval.
He only cited a decree as the basis of the action.
However, in his announcement of the inauguration of the new boards, Onu stated that the President approved the change of guards.
The PRODA chairman, who is the leader of a forum of the 12 removed chairmen, said he believed the minister went through the backdoor, adding that the SGF could not have been aware.
According to him, the minister had first attempted to dissolve the PRODA board and had written to the members individually, but was told such a decision was the prerogative of the President.
“We replied him and copied the SGF because we know it is the office of the SGF that handles board-related matters. The SGF, in responding to our letter, made it clear to the minister that he lacked such powers and by trying to do that, he is usurping the powers of Mr President.
“Upon realising that he has hit the brickwall with the SGF, he found his way to the President, apparently misinforming him that the tenure of the board has elapsed and requested permission to reconstitute the board.
“As we speak, the minister has single-handedly nominated board members from the street to serve Nigeria, when that power solely belongs to Mr President.
“The process and channel he followed were wrong because there is a circular that all appointments should go through a channel, but he did not follow it. What he has done is to kill all voices of dissent in the agency so that he can take total charge,” he added.
The FIIRO chairman, Gwarzo, said he believed that Buhari was misled.
“Because what is happening is in contravention of the letters from the President to FIIRO and other boards; it means something somewhere is fundamentally wrong and I believe that the SGF is not happy, because it is like the minister is usurping his powers.
“Even if there is an approval, it is the SGF that should convey it. Then, the only role that will be played by the minister is to inaugurate the new boards as a representative of the President. The problem with Onu is that he mistook supervision for domination, and he is undermining the government entirely.
“We don’t know how he actually got the President to approve him constituting the new boards. By the way he operates, he would have shown the approval of the President. But this time, he did not show any approval. If he had shown us, we would not have argued,” he said.
An official, who did not want to be identified, said the minister might have taken advantage of the SGF’s engagement as the Chairman of the Presidential Steering Committee on COVID-19.
“He used a tactic to deceive Mr President to sign something for him without Mr President knowing what he was signing for.
“But we have alerted the SGF and the Chief of Staff to the President of their communication with us that our tenure subsists, and they promised to look into them. My surprise is that everybody keeps saying they don’t know what is happening, even those that should know. The minister is doing this solo.
“Those before us used four years. We were sworn in in March 2018 and that means by March 2021, that is three years. From March to now is five months, so is that a bonus? If it is supposed to be three years, then we ought to have gone by March 2021. That means he increased our term by extra months. This is a very serious issue,” the official added.