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Fred Ezeh, Abuja
In a few months, the Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund), Dr. Abdullahi Bichi Baffa, will be two years in office. In this interview, he highlights his achievements and challenges.
You will be two years in office in August; how is the journey so far?
It has been a fruitful and rewarding. When I heard about my appointment in 2016, it dawned on me that a weighty responsibility had come and I must justify the appointment. I knew that I must see to the fulfillment of the promises of President Muhammadu Buhari, particularly the repositioning of Nigeria’s tertiary education system. I was also obliged to fulfill the objectives of TETFund, which focused on the provision of quality higher education to Nigerians, in line with the strategic goals of the government.
What remarkable difference has been recorded so far in the operations of TETFund?
It is the fight against corruption and impunity, which obviously took different dimensions in the past two years of stay in TETFund. We came down hard on fraud, incompetence and insincerity that hitherto characterised the operations of TETFund. However, we are happy that our stakeholders are also impressed with what we have achieved within the short period. Their judgements are clear and unambiguous for all to see. The bottom line is that the culture of corruption, impunity is dead as far as the operation of TETFund is concerned.
Specifically, what rots did you meet in TETFund?
When I came into TETFund, the house could be best described as upside down. I met an agency that ought to intervene in specific areas regarding investment, but otherwise was the case. For instance, the Annual Direct Disbursement (ADD) for 2015 was 20 per cent of the total allocation for that year, while special intervention, which is discretionary, was 80 per cent. That is a recipe for corruption, impunity and fraud. The first thing I did was to suspend all projects registered under special intervention. We allowed all such projects under 2014 and 2015, for which money had been disbursed already to continue. Other discretionary allocations for which TETFund made no financial commitment were cancelled. That saved use N78 billion. We ploughed the recovered money into year 2016 allocation, and we were able to pursue the completion of those special interventions that were approved.
What is the secret of the success you achieved within this short time?
It was made possible through the support we got from government, our staff and other stakeholders. We had records of fraudulent activities being perpetrated in the past by contractors. In one of our meetings with the heads of institutions, we asked them to engage law enforcement agencies to recover finances fraudulently collected by contractors. For instance, there were cases where contractors collected first tranche payment and disappeared. Some moved to site, started work briefly and suddenly disappeared. Some did not do up to half of the project and they claimed they had finished and wanted payment. There were also cases where items in the bill of quantities were not what was supplied. We identified all these cases, and we were able to resolve all of them. Contractors had hitherto approached us and demanded payment for jobs. I always refered them to institutions, with a reminder that TETFund does not deal directly with contractors but with beneficiary institutions.
What about interventions, are they corruption-free?
In fact, that is another area where we met a real mess. There is a TETFund scholarship called the Academic Staff Training and Development (AST&D). It is part of the capacity-building intervention for scholars in tertiary institutions. It is an opportunity for them to pursue master’s degree and Ph.D at home and abroad. But we realised that some institutions implemented the scholarship guidelines in the breach. The same was the case with Conference Attendance. The institutions made several deductions before paying the benefitting scholars. The worst was that some scholars spent the money on something else instead of the main purpose. All these were obviously fueled by apparent violation of the directives of TETFund, which mandated institutions to pay the scholars their living costs on annual basis and pay tuition to the training institutions.
What punishment do you recommend for such scholars or the institutions?
They would not go unpunished. We conducted scholarship audit recently and realised that, in some beneficiary institutions, scholars complied with the rules, while some others violated the rules outrightly. We realised that the violations were either committed by the beneficiary institutions or the scholars. As punitive measures, we have withheld the money of some of the institutions until we have sufficient evidence that funds paid to the scholars were being recovered.
What measures do you have to correct this systematic error?
We have strengthened our system in a way that it will be impossible for anyone to commit fraud unnoticed. For instance, we pay tuition fees directly to the training institutions on annual basis, while the institutions pay the scholars living cost. We have also realised that not all countries have the quality university system to train our scholars. Consequently, we have shortlisted countries and universities that are eligible to train our scholars. We intend to raise the global ranking of Nigerian universities and we cannot do that with low-quality scholars. If we continue to send our scholars to ‘mushroom’ universities abroad, then we would not achieve our goal. It is impossible for someone trained in countries with weaker learning culture to raise our educational standards. So, we insist that no country on this planet will invest huge financial resources in training lecturers and not be interested in where the lecturers get the education.
Are there areas of focus in studies and research?
Yes, and that is why we are interested in the training institutions. These scholars are expected to return and head straight to the classrooms to either teach, supervise or partake in research works. So, we would have to send them to the best of institutions in the world, where there are excellent facilities and friendly atmosphere to develop their capacities, so they would come back and make our higher education system better.
What specific projects are to your credit in TETFund?
We have had remarkable success in TETFund in the past two years. This was as a result of tremendous support we enjoyed from the President and education ministers. I am particularly glad that we were able to tackle corruption and impunity in TETFund. All these were as a result of weak operational guidelines. But we have reviewed the guidelines and it has yielded the desired results. Another area of success was the Project Proposal Defense. It enabled institutions to defend their project proposal before a panel of TETFund managers. We did this to ensure that the allocations complied with the mandate of TETFund. We want to be sure that what the beneficiary institutions proposed to spend is in line with their strategic plans. PPD has solved the problem of back and forth movement that hitherto delayed submission of proposals by institutions. It has helped to address the quality, size and aesthetics of projects we are supporting. We have insisted that we would no longer accept any matchbox structure or any other ugly structures in our tertiary education institutions.
What other successes have you recorded ?
We introduced access clinic, which helped institutions significantly to know their outstanding balance from what was allocated to them. It also helped us to appreciate their challenges and address some of them. We agreed on the timelines, and most of institutions complied, and access to the funds has improved significantly arising from the conduct of the access clinic. We also embarked on sensitisation seminars and workshops to get responses from beneficiaries and stakeholders as regards their challenges and other opportunities.
What do you find most exciting working with this government and your most challenges?
I love the fact that nobody from the top would ask you to do the wrong thing. Nobody would ask you to do what is against the established rules. Superior officers put caveat in their requests: “if your law permits, if your regulations would allow it”. So nobody would want to ask you to do anything outside the provisions of the law. It is encouraging. Never in the history of Nigeria did we have a government that has so many saboteurs. There are so many saboteurs trying as much as they could to stop the success of the government and it is very challenging.