Touched At Last

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•Hitherto untouchable ex-NHIS scribe finally gets the boot

For over two years, he bestrode the terrain of one of Nigeria’s most critical health institutions, the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), like an untouchable emperor. We refer to none other than Professor Usman Yusuf, who was finally sacked from office as Executive Secretary of the NHIS by President Muhammadu Buhari, this week. Although it had been long overdue, the President’s action in terminating Yusuf’s appointment after his indictment for sundry offenses is commendable. It is at least better late than never. The sacked executive secretary was one of the worst cases of impunity and arrogance by some public officers widely perceived as exploiting their close relationship with influential members of the Buhari presidency to abuse their offices.

In June 2017, Professor Yusuf was suspended from office by the former Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, following the findings of an intra-ministerial panel, which found him guilty of several infractions, including alleged gross misconduct, nepotism, financial recklessness and embezzlement of public funds estimated at over N919 million. The former NHIS scribe, however, refused to recognize the authority of the minister, acting through the Governing Council of the NHIS, to exercise any such disciplinary action over him.

To the consternation of Nigerians, rather than being punished for this act of gross insubordination to constituted authority, Yusuf was reinstated to the office by the presidency in February 2018, through a letter from the Chief of Staff to the President, Alhaji Abba Kyari. Curiously, the letter of reinstatement made no reference to the serious indictment against Yusuf but only urged him to “work harmoniously with the minister”.

Of course, it was only natural that having succeeded in undermining the authority of the minister and, indeed, publicly humiliating him as it were, there was no way any meaningful supervisory authority could be exercised over the NHIS as long as the recalcitrant Yusuf remained its chief executive.

It was thus not surprising that Yusuf continued with his hubris and disdain for supervisory authority, culminating in his being suspended from office by the Governing Council of the NHIS for the second time in October 2018. The action of the governing council was reportedly informed by petitions from various stakeholders accusing the erstwhile executive secretary of divisive management style, incitement of staff against the governing council, the militarization of the scheme’s premises, ignoring professional advice by top management staff and unlawful appropriation of NHIS property, among others.

Again, Professor Yusuf ignored the decision of the governing council and gained forcible access into his office under heavy security cover until he was asked to proceed on administrative leave by President Buhari on November 5, 2018, pending the outcome of a seven-man investigation panel set up by the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) to probe the various allegations against him. The panel, which submitted its report to the SGF in December 2018, also indicted Yusuf and recommended the termination of his appointment.

It is unfortunate that it has taken the presidency over seven months to act on this recommendation as it is unlikely that the interim management of the NHIS would have been able to take any concrete productive action for as long as the crisis festered. Beyond the termination of his appointment, the government must not hesitate to speedily charge Yusuf to court to prove his innocence as regards the grave allegations of financial malfeasance against him, or face requisite sanctions.

We hope that this action by President Buhari will mark the beginning of his administration’s demonstration to Nigerians that it will tolerate no sacred cows after all on matters of ethics, discipline, and competence in the public service. We call on Yusuf’s replacement as Executive Secretary of the NHIS, Professor Mohammed Sambo, to act fast to restore the necessary discipline, order, and harmony without which the scheme cannot fulfill its mandate.

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