…accuse FAAN of receiving COVID-19 intervention fund from two sources

•vow to recover misappropriated COVID-19 allocation from erring MDAs

•summon ex-Aviation Permanent Secretary, DFA

The House of Representatives at the weekend foiled a plot to convert the N50 billion bailout facility given by the Federal Government to airlines to an intervention fund.

The move was frustrated by the House Committee on Public Accounts, chaired by Hon Bamidele Salam during the resumed investigative hearing into the motion on the alleged misappropriation of multi-billion naira COVID-19 intervention fund by various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) since 2020.

Worried by the development, the Committee resolved to invite the immediate past Permanent Secretary and Director of Finance of the Federal Ministry of Aviation to appear before it on Wednesday, 24th January 2024.

The resolution was passed sequel to a compelling need to get convincing explanations for the utilisation of the sum of N5 billion disbursed to the Ministry in 2020 to cushion the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to some of the documents seen by Nigerian Tribune, 58 airlines and service providers benefited from the N4 billion COVID-19 intervention fund for the period under review.

The lawmakers during the review of the accounts on the utilisation of the COVID-19 intervention fund also queried the sum of N70.7 million given to the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) through the Federal Ministry of Aviation, aside from the multi-million naira paid and accessed directly from Federal Government to the Institution.

Trouble started when the incumbent Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Aviation and Aerospace Development, Dr. Emmanuel Meribole explained that the N50 billion was used to provide bailout facilities to airlines and other service providers companies during the COVID-19 period to pay salaries and overhead costs.

According to a copy of the letter dated 21st June 2020 issued by the Ministry and presented to the Committee, the Permanent Secretary demanded for urgent release of the sum of N24 billion to enable the Airlines to pay four months’ salaries and overhead costs out of the N50 billion with minimum interest rate.

Worried by the development, Hon. Salam and other lawmakers who insisted that the bailout fund must be paid back into the Federation Account, asked whether the airlines are dashing out free tickets to customers.

They maintained that all the beneficiaries of the COVID-19 intervention fund including homes, schools and other businesses have started repaying the fund to the government’s coffers, hence the N50 billion given to airlines can’t be an exemption.

The Permanent Secretary stimulated the wrath of the committee when he emphasised that the money disbursed to the airline operators and aviation fuel marketers was a grant and no expectation was in view as to its recovery even as the originating memo to that effect was showing that it was a loan facility.

Other areas that were questioned included paying money into individual accounts on behalf of associations; award of contracts without compliance with guidelines laid down by extant laws and regulations; award of contracts to companies without capacity; and payment of N153 million to a member of the COVID-19 monitoring team of the ministry, amongst others.

Meanwhile, the Auditor-General of the Federation report also queried some transactions by the ministry under the same subject matter in the sum of N100 million and another N196 million which were spent in circumstances that were not transparent.

“We can’t be running a country as if we are running a social club of one area. So, they have an association that is not registered? That doesn’t have a bank account? To even bring it down to that level to write and say pay to so and so, and you go ahead and authorise that payment?

“I doubt if this can be supported under any condition. An association registered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) supposedly does not even have a corporate account to which you can pay. And they will write a letter on one piece of paper and tell you, (a government ministry), to pay into and you will pay. Not one naira, N196 million and so on and so forth,” Salam said.

Failure to provide convincing responses on all the infractions notices in the presentation before the committee, Hon Dauda Nyampa stated that most of the issues will not be resolved until the mentioned stakeholders are invited to state their side of the story.

“We are more concerned about the money issued to those people that we have seen in their letters that are said to be loans. We are also worried about the economy of this country and how to generate revenue.

“I want to suggest that all these people that took this money as loans should be invited to tell us if they received the money or their names were just used to collect the money and it is somehow unaccountable. I move that we invite them. That is my position Mr. Chairman.

“Having read the submission by the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry that N4 billion was issued to different stakeholders in the aviation industry and we want to investigate what is the level of utilisation of the money, I want to move a motion to invite the beneficiaries to see compliance and transparency on the N4 billion. I so move Mr Chairman,” Nyampa emphasised.

While ruling on the motion, Salam ruled that Dr Meribole should liaise with the former Permanent Secretary and Director of Finance who were office holders when the transactions took place and ensure the provision of the full details of the beneficiaries, the detailed expenditure framework.

The lawmakers also uncovered a series of unexplainable transactions such as N100 million paid by the Federal Government in favour of the Car Hire Association on the 29th December 2020 to a private account.

An additional sum of N196 million and N233.330 million was also discovered to have been paid in favour of the Association of Nigerian Travel Agencies and Aviation Fuel Marketers Association on the 31st of December 2020 into a private account.

Piqued by the flagrant disregard of extant financial regulations, the lawmakers observed that the Federal Ministry of Aviation cannot justify the rationale behind the payment of public funds into individual private accounts.

The lawmakers also directed the Permanent Secretary to explain the rationale and utilisation of the N120 million paid into the private account of one of the Directors in the Ministry that chaired the monitoring of the disbursement of the COVID-19 intervention fund during the pandemic period.

According to the available record presented to the Committee on Public Accounts through the office of the Auditor General of the Federation, Mr. Naibi who was reported to be the Director of Air Transport Management collected N20 million for six geopolitical zones during the period under review.

To this end, the lawmakers resolved to invite all the beneficiaries of the funds with a view to ensuring prudent accountability of their stewardship at the next hearing.

He is to also ensure their appearance before the committee unfailingly on Wednesday, 24th January 2024.

Nigerian Tribune