By Yemi Itodo
In recent months, a section of the Nigerian media has been awash with reports protruding the Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Fund, TETFUND, Arc. Sonny Echono (OON), into public searchlight in a scathing and damning manner.
The reports purveyed by some faceless groups chiefly through propaganda in few online media, accused Echono of contract racketeering, undue placement of jobs, contract padding and embezzlement to the tune of trillions of Naira (in just one year in office).
Anyone who is acquainted with Echono’s antecedents would reckon that the allegations are laced with falsity. Before he was appointed the Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Fund, TETFUND, in March 2022 by the immediate past president, Muhammadu Buhari, Arc. Sonny Echono already acquired a reputation as an unblemished and accomplished technocrat.
Throughout his 35 meritorious years in the Federal Civil Service where he rose to the pinnacle as Permanent Secretary, he has never been roped in any corruption allegation or scandal. It is on record that Echono is one of the few Nigerians to have rejected tenure elongation.
Since Echono’s appointment as Executive Secretary of the Tertiary Education Fund, TETFUND, was well-deserved, given his academic accomplishments and wealth of experience as former President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Education, the blackmailers could not go their usual route of nepotism and under qualification shouts. So, they resolved to harass and intimidate the innocent man with allegations of corruption in a bid to hold him to ransom.
On May 27, 2023, a faceless group called New Nigeria Movement, in a petition published on SaharaReporters website, asked the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) to investigate Echono over “alleged employment racketeering and corruption in office.”
The group in the petition to the then “president-elect” Bola Tinubu and signed by one Abah Okorie, demanded that the Executive Secretary should “account for all funds received and how they were disbursed since his coming into the Fund.”
While these petitions have the handwriting of hired pen thugs, it is, however, important to make some clarifications for the benefit of unsuspecting members of the public.
The appointments or employments they were referring to were the appointments of 46 traditional rulers as Chancellors of Federal Universities and other tertiary institutions across the country. One of such was the appointment of Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare 11, as Chancellor Bayero University, Kano; Tor Tiv, HRM Prof. James Ayatse, as Chancellor, University Of Benin; Obi of Onitsha, HRM Ofala Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe, as Chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria; Etsu Nupe, HRM Alhaji (Dr.) Yahaya Abubakar, as Chancellor, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife; and Alake of Egbaland, HRM, Oba Aremu Gbadebo, Chancellor, Alex Ekwueme University, Ndufu-Alike, Ebonyi State; which is the custom of any government, in honouring the traditional institution and creating unity amongst many ethnic backgrounds.
Also, contrary to the group’s claim that TETFUND was “established to mobilise funds to advance scholarship at the tertiary education level,” the Fund is not responsible for sponsoring undergraduates. Rather, it is charged with supporting academicians in tertiary institutions to further their studies both within and outside.
It is obvious, from the above postulations, that the group rushed into making the allegations driven by malicious intent rather than facts or making genuine attempts at understudying the constitutional provisions or modus operandi of the Fund as contained in the Act establishing it.
Similarly, in a letter dated July 11, 2023, another group under the auspices of Lawyers United Against Corruption (LUAC), issued a five-day ultimatum to the Executive Secretary of TETFUND, Arc. Echono to resign, “over his alleged complicity in massive corruption, contract fraud, procurement racketeering and abuse of office.”
In the letter signed by one James Oladunjoye Esq., National Provost of LUAC, and published in a reputable online medium on July 16, 2023, the group claimed “Our private investigation reveals that but for your close relationship with the former Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) as well as Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) would have since arrested and commenced your prosecution for complicity in many of these unwholesome activities.”
The arrogance of the so-called lawyers was not only laughable, but ridicule of the legal profession. They gave Echono an ultimatum to resign, without even an investigation. This screams the handiwork of desperate ‘charge and bail’ lawyers driven by avarice and prejudice? or perhaps, over zealously charting the objectives of their paymasters.
Again, somewhat, a serving House of Representatives Member sponsored a motion for TETFund to be investigated from 2011 to 2022. On the 5th July 2023, the Reps subsequently passed a resolution to investigate TETFUND over N2.3tr misappropriation since 2011, even though Echono came to power as Executive Secretary barely one year ago, the probe was targeted at him.
This resolution of the House was tensely reported and widely published. It was even more viral than when the House passed the 2023 Appropriation Bill. The Reps swiftly set up an ad-hoc committee led by Hon. Oluwole Oke, to conduct an investigative hearing which the committee did within two weeks.
But Echono appeared on the 19th July 2023, and dazzled the House panel and the entire Media which had set up their camera to further report an alleged corruption. The Reps were greeted with bewilderment that, rather than embezzling the Fund’s money (as alleged), Echono said it was the Federal Government which was owing TETFUND N323bn it borrowed from the Fund.
The Executive Secretary denied the allegations of mismanaging the funds, amongst other sundry baseless allegations, noting that the federal government borrowed N371.3 billion from the agency but has only refunded N48 billion so far.
“To date, total borrowing is over N371 billion. But the total repayment to this date is about N48 billion. Last year N12.8 billion was given to us; this year, another 12.89 billion was given to us. They are just paying. God knows how long this will take to defray the principal amount,” Echono said.
However, the Committee’s Chairman, Rep. Oke, while reacting to the comments by Arc. Echono, said the committee was not out to witch-hunt anyone but rather to get to the root of the matter.
But it is commendable that Echono responded promptly to the House Committee’s invitation despite the short time frame and did not feign sickness to snub the invitation nor orchestrate any drama to avoid being probed as we have witnessed in recent years. His action is a pointer to a man without skeletons in his cupboard.
Then in a twist of fate, the same group of lawyers who have been sponsoring malicious publications on some sections of media to malign Arc. Sonny Echono, came out last week to apologise to the TETFund boss, saying that they were misled. This is akin to the military’s ‘tactical manoeuvring’.
In a letter of apology addressed to Echono, the group said their findings revealed that the TETFund boss “is an accomplished technocrat who has recorded tremendous achievements within a short period of steering the ship of the Fund”, adding that “his stewardship exemplifies transparency and excellence”. They conceded to the fact that, in their acrobatic dexterity, they really generated smoke where there was no fire and pleaded his forgiveness.
The letter reads in part: “We, therefore wish to sincerely apologise through this medium for any embarrassment, emotional trauma, and mental stress our misguided position may have caused you. Rather than generate smoke where there is no fire, LUAC has chosen to support and collaborate with TETFund under your leadership in any possible way to ensure that it delivers the core mandate of using funding alongside project management for the revitalisation, restoration, and consolidation of tertiary education in Nigeria.”
Despite their apology, I would like to use this medium to call on the Department of State Security (DSS), to investigate the activities of the illegal group called Lawyers United Against Corruption (LUAC). The House of Representatives’ Committee too, should not limit its investigation on the activities of TETFUND, based on the sponsored motion which led to the hearings; the Lawmakers owe Nigerians the duty to thoroughly investigate the source of the petitions which have thus far, culminated into the motion on the floor of the House, with the view of saving many dedicated public servants from the hands of merchants of blackmail and distractions.
The LUAC only apologised probably, since they saw that they could not blackmail Arc. Echono into negotiating with them with money or contracts. Only God knows how many Heads of agencies they may have defamed in the past that has led to their removal. Not forgetting that some Heads of Agencies, out of fear of scandals, may have succumbed to the proposals of groups like LUAC.
The security agencies should probe and prosecute those notorious in suffocating and armtwisting innocent public servants, most especially the LUAC, who would not allow them breath; to serve as deterrence to other serial blackmailing rings whose duty is to soil the names of public officials who have refused to give in to their demands for ransom. Also, this would instill confidence in law-abiding public officials who are being bullied by such groups.
Despite the blackmails, Nigerians and stakeholders in the education sector continue to pour encomiums on Echono. Recently, the Executive Governor of Zamfara State, HE Dauda Lawal paid a courtesy visit to the Tetfund boss after Jummat service on Friday, July 28, 2023.
Echono has been able to achieve so much in barely one year in office despite all the distractions from headless blackmailers sponsored by disgruntled elements. His one-year performance scorecard shows that he is one of the best Executive Secretaries of the Fund.
Under his leadership, the Fund in December 14, 2022, unveiled a group of 71 academics (broken into teams), and selected across the nation’s tertiary institutions to undertake research in various fields under TETFAIR (TETFund Alliance for Innovative Research). TETFAIR is set to confront some of Nigeria’s educational challenges head-on, with home-grown innovations, ventures, job creation and would spur a constant stream of foreign exchange earnings in the near future.
Moreso, TETFund recently commenced the “Employability Benchmarking Programme” in Nigeria’s tertiary institutions in active collaboration with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and other partners, as a way of tackling the composite challenges of unemployment (33%); youth unemployment (42.5 %) and youth underemployment (21%), as lately put out by the National Bureau of Statistics.
Echono has been able to achieve these and more under one year. He, therefore, deserves the support of every well-meaning Nigerian to transform the country’s tertiary education system.
Moving forward, Nigerians would be wise enough to identify any malicious allegations against the Executive Secretary of TETFund and continue to support him to succeed for the overall good of our tertiary educational institutions.
(Itodo, Chairman of National Assembly New Media can be reached via email@example.com)