Despite the indictment and consequent sack, Mr Buhari known for his anti-corruption rhetoric reappointed her.
In 2015, former President Goodluck Jonathan sacked Saratu Umar as the Chief Executive Officer of Nigeria’s Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC). The sack followed a recommendation by a ministerial panel that indicted her for several offences, including lack of administrative competence, power-play and ineptitude.
In May of that year, angry NIPC workers shut down operations to protest against the poor leadership of Mrs Umar. They demanded her immediate sack from the commission over her “gross incompetence, high-handedness, staff intimidation” and her alleged divide-and-rule policies.
At the time, Mrs Umar had only spent about one year as the executive officer of the agency but the NIPC workers said they were tired of her administration and wanted her removed.
According to a statement by the staff union chairman of NIPC, Ahamad Ghondi, “Mrs Umar violated so many provisions of the Procurement Act in awarding contracts to her cronies and had been running the commission as a private entity.” She was also accused of several misappropriations, including approving a contract of N35 million for refurnishing her office.
Worried about the agitations of the staff, Olusegun Aganga, then Nigeria’s Minister of Trade and Investment, set up an investigative panel, led by one Abdulkadir Musa, to probe the series of allegations against Mrs Umar.
A walk back to 2015 — under Jonathan
In April 2015, the Musa-led committee probed Mrs Umar, as recommended by the minister, on several offences, including “indiscriminate mass queries issued to staff; illegal termination of appointments; non-payment of overtime to deserving staff; punitive posting; not attending to files/mail timeously; operational funds”.
Mr Musa and his panel members summoned all “concerned parties” over the grievances listed against Mrs Umar and the management of the NIPC generally.
Upon her assumption of duty as the Executive Secretary of the NIPC, Mrs Umar issued a series of queries to staff for late coming and absenteeism and failure to attend a routine jogging exercise. But the committee found these queries unjustifiable because “the clocking-in and out were found to be defective.” The committee also ruled against issuing queries to staff for not attending jogging exercises, saying it was meant to be a voluntary activity.
The committee also found the sack of two NIPC directors by Mrs Umar undeserving, noting that the woman violated the regulations of the Federal Service Commission in determining the dismissal of the two officers. The investigative panellists found her guilty of serial posting of some staff cadre, suspected to be loyal to her, to zonal offices “without any specific assignment or portfolio.” Mrs Umar, the committee found, also failed to conduct promotional exams, denying deserving staff of administrative growth at the expense of the commission’s progress.
“Some of these officers neither had sitting space, tables nor chairs,” the committee stated. “The case of the current NIPC Union unit Chairman was cited as an example.”
Lack of governance structure and other matters
Again, during her administration as the executive secretary of NIPC back in 2015, the investigative panel found that Mrs Umar made unilateral decisions, having failed to carry directors of the commission along on several occasions. The committee said Mrs Umar appeared to have run the commission alone as evidenced by her “failure to convene meetings of the NIPC council where critical matters of general administrations are tabled and determined.”
“The committee observed from the testimony of directors who appeared before it and documents presented that the commission has a weak and divided management structure with the ES running with essentially only one director (acting director of finance and administration) while the other six directors were not being carried along,” the investigative panel stated.
The Musa-led panel noted that the high-handed and authoritarian management style of Mrs Umar caused rancour between her and her directors, leading to an irredeemably broken relationship between the two parties. “This has created vacuums in critical departments leading to the multiple appointments of acting directors who clearly who clearly lack capacity and experience to handle critical issues,” the committee said.
However, the committee said there generally appeared to be a deficit of trust between Mrs Umar and the directorate of the commission. Unfortunately, the panel stated, the directorate had gained the sympathies of the staff who are tired of Mrs Umar’s “authoritarian” leadership style.
“This has rendered any genuine reproaching pretty difficult,” the committee said.
Minister wades in
On 8 May 2015, following the protests and industrial actions by the NIPC staff, Mr Aganga wrote Mr Jonathan, the then-president, informing him of his decision to set up a committee to probe allegations about Mrs Umar’s administrative maladies. The minister said he personally observed that the woman’s high-handedness, administrative lapses and procedural gaps were the roots of the crisis setting the commission on fire.
Mr Aganga also noted that the issues could have been easily resolved in-house but for Mrs Umar’s lack of understanding of the Public Service Rules and regulations and knowledge of human management. He stated categorically that since Mrs Umar assumed the position, she had not exhibited appropriate or any commendable competence in dealing with the administration of the commission.
“I am, therefore, with regret, compelled to recommend that given the circumstances especially the importance of this institution in Nigeria’s drive to attract foreign investment, Your Excellency consider assigning as a new Executive Secretary, a person of suitable competence, seniority and focus befitting our national agenda,” Mr Aganga said, recommending Mrs Umar’s sack that year.
Relying on the agitations of the staff, the recommendation of the NIPC investigative committee and Mr Aganga’s submission, Mr Jonathen sacked Mrs Umar and appointed Aisha Hassan-Baba as the chief executive officer of the agency.
Interestingly, a repeat of what led to Mrs Umar’s sack by Mr Jonathan is what is happening now that Mr Buhari has reappointed her, her staff have alleged.
The second coming of “authoritarian” Saratu
Last July, seven years after the sack, the NIPC workers were stunned to hear that President Muhammadu Buhari, known for his anti-corruption rhetoric, had reappointed Mrs Umar. In her second coming, staff in the organisation say Ms Umar has become even more brazen, allegedly reenacting the abuses that typified her initial reign at NIPC.
A few months after her re-emergence, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) said it classified the NIPC as a “high corruption risk institution”.
Hardly had Mrs Umar spent six months as a returning head of the NIPC that staffers of the institution started grumbling over her alleged abusive management of workers and official duties. In December last year, a memo from all directors of the commission raised an alarm to draw her attention to pressing matters concerning the growth of NIPC which had been abandoned.
Since she returned to office in July 2022, Mrs Umar was said to have failed to treat files submitted to her, a lethargic attitude towards her duties hampering the growth of the commission, according to the memo.
“This delay, sometimes running into months, is having a likely unintended consequence on the commission,” the memo read in part.
In another part of the memo, the directors said Mrs Umar has failed to convey management meetings to discuss salient issues affecting the institution. They said her lack of commitment “constitutes a big gap in the general administration of the commission as directors are not aware of happenings and are not given chances to contribute meaningfully to any activity of the commission.”
Also, since she came back to power, Mrs Umar was said to have refused to consider pioneer status applications in the past year. She had ignored any memo on the subject matter against the directive of the Minister of Trade and Investment. Meanwhile, the pioneer status incentive (PSI) is a tax holiday granting qualifying industries and products relief from payment of corporate income tax for an initial period of three years, insiders told PREMIUM TIMES.
“Considering the importance of the PSI incentive in providing succour to investors operating within the challenges of the Nigerian landscape, it is concerning that only one meeting has been held,” the memo stated. “Even at that, no application was considered.”
Stealing through the back door
On 10 January, Uchenna Okonkwo, the chairman of the Anti-Corruption and Transparency Unit (ACTU) of the investment agency, wrote a petition against Ms Umar over issues bothering on corrupt financial transactions and violations of both the Public Procurement Act and the Financial Regulations of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
In December 2022, alleged fraudulent transactions running into millions were made under the watch of the NIPC’s head, according to a copy of the petition that PREMIUM TIMES obtained. She was also accused of making mischievous appointments in the agency, including re-engaging one Mutawalli Kukawa as a “Technical Support”, after retiring from NIPC as a Deputy Director.
For instance, on 21 December 21 2022, the petitioner alleged, another sum of five million naira was paid to the personal account of one Yusuf Mustapha as a resource person in an event insiders said was never held.
“This payment was in contravention and violation of Extant Financial Regulation, Federal Treasury Circular on E-payment and Public Procurement Act which caps the amount payable to any public officer for procuring goods and services not to exceed N200, 000,” Mr Okonwo added.
He alleged that payments to Mr Mustapha’s account, whose tenure as chairman of the Staff Union expired in July 2022, were approved because of his relationship with Mrs Umar. “She also added to his nomenclature the designation of Project Accountant II to make it look like a special project knowing fully well he is not an Accountant and therefore cannot be designated as an Accountant,” Mr Okonkwo added.
Then, another sum of five million naira was paid to one Wange Dia, a Deputy Director in the General Service Department of the NIPC, according to classified records reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES, including payment receipts. The fund, the documents revealed, was to settle members of the press for an event yet to occur in clear breach of the above-stated financial regulation and procurement acts.
“Payment for honorarium can only be made to the supposed resource persons who – in this case – do not exist,” a staff of the NIPC, who asked not to be named for fear of victimisation, told PREMIUM TIMES. “The total sum of 1om for honorarium is fraudulent; the event has not occurred. And the only one of such events had no resource person.”
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Power play and the indiscriminate sack of staff
In November 2022, a help-seeking petition against Mrs Umar was written to the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investments. In the petition, a number of NIPC senior workers accused Mrs Umar of unlawful sack and unprofessional redeployment of staff members and violating laws of the agency and public service.
On 22 November 2022, Emeka Offor, a senior director of the commission, was “maliciously sacked” by Mrs Umar, a development some insiders said caused controversies in the institution. They insisted that the termination of Mr Offor’s appointment by Mrs Umar was done without getting approval from the head of the civil service of the federation.
PREMIUM TIMES has reviewed a number of petitions against Mrs Umar over alleged high-handedness towards directors or staff members she considered not loyal to her. In one instance, in a petition addressed to Nigeria’s labour ministry, a group of NIPC directors complained they were denied their promotions in favour of Mrs Umar’s loyalists in the commission.
“The last promotion exams conducted in the commission was in 2020,” a part of the petition read. “In 2021, a substantial number of us became due for promotion but because of some internal wranglings within the commission, our exams did not hold.”
They also accused her of physical abuse.
“This threat of physical assault and threat to life is the climax of the Executive Secretary’s threat to sack staff, actual punitive postings and general harassment, insults and maltreatment of directors and staff of the commission,” the petition, addressed to the State Security Service (SSS), reads in parts.
Mrs Umar did not honour requests placed via texts for her comment. She also did not answers calls to interview her by phone. Femi Adesina, Mr Buhari’s spokesman, has not responded to our inquiries on why his principal reappointed a woman sacked by his predecessor.
NIPC: The story of a controversial govt agency
But then, NIPC appears to be a government agency with many controversies around leadership and administration. Before the re-emergence of Ms Umar in 2022, for example, the staff of the commission had staged protests against the administration of Yewande Sadiku, NIPC’s former Executive Secretary, demanding her removal over allegations of corruption. The crisis lingered till the end of Ms Sadiku’s tenure as the head of the commission after which she was cleared of all allegations by Nigeria’s anti-graft agencies.
Mrs Umar’s return has refuelled the crisis facing the commission.