House of Reps’ Legislative Banditry Against Universities – By Farooq Kperogi

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I would have missed the story of the devious designs by members of the House of Representatives to extort vice chancellors, rectors, and provosts of public universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education if my Facebook friend Dr. Raji Bello hadn’t wondered aloud in a status update why Daily Trust’s February 10 story about this didn’t scandalize the nation.

Dr. Bello’s angst caused me to look for the story. Upon reading it, I was numb with revulsion by the blazing legislative banditry of the House of Representatives Committee on Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) and Other Services which, according to Daily Trust, coerced heads of “53 federal universities, 63 state universities, 38 federal polytechnics, 49 state polytechnics and many federal and state colleges of education, among other institutions” to “pay N2million to facilitate the ‘verification’ of the documents submitted to the House committee.”

The background to this alleged legislative brigandage is that in January this year, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu approved the disbursement of N683,429,268,402.64 to public higher education institutions under the TETFund scheme.

From this amount, every public university will get N1, 906,944,930.00. Every public polytechnic will get N1,165,355,235.00, and every public college of education will receive N1,398,426,282.00.

Members of the House of Representatives Committee on Tertiary Education Trust Fund, apparently, wanted a share of these billions and chose to invoke the constitution to legitimize their banditry.

Although the law that established TETFund does not require that the National Assembly approve expenditures of money disbursed by the Fund to higher education institutions, the House Committee has cleverly leveraged a clause from the 1999 Constitution that says, “No monies shall be withdrawn from any public fund of the Federation, other than the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the Federation, unless the issue of those monies has been authorised by an Act of the National Assembly” as the basis to insist that institutions get its imprimatur as a precondition for spending money approved for them.

Forget, for the moment, the fundamental misunderstanding of the constitution that this thought-process betrays. It is curious that the House Committee is instructing institutions to halt the execution of all TETFund-financed projects for no justifiable reason at all.

“You are requested to furnish the committee with the full implementation details, including but not limited to the drawings, designs and specifications for all projects procurement and services as contained in your 2024 TETFund Normal Intervention Allocation letter issued to your Institution,” the House Committee wrote to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors of Nigerian Universities (CVCNU).

This makes absolutely no sense. What purpose does this sort of “oversight” serve? How can you arbitrarily order the stoppage of approved, ongoing, time-bound projects in midstream, and then request details of the projects and the appearance of heads of the institutions where the projects are being executed as requirements for the continuation of the projects? If quality control and oversight were the motivation for this, it should have been before, not after, the fact.

In any case, as a policy, TETFund requires institutions to “present a strategic plan for at least 10 years, indicating the kind of projects the institution would like to undertake” before funds are approved for them in order “to avoid a situation where some institutions or politicians would hijack or stop the projects initiated by previous vice chancellors,” according to the Daily Trust.

The House Committee, in other words, is basically duplicating, albeit incompetently, the work that TETFund had done, and confirming the fears that informed TETFund’s 10-year strategic prequalification plans for institutions that benefit from their funds.

An accountant of a polytechnic told the Daily Trust that the House Committee’s pretense to performing oversight duties over higher ed institutions is an elaborate “racket.” He recalled a previous encounter with the House Committee, which asked his school to bring “Ghana-Must-Go” bags full of photocopied documents to a house hearing.

“I was really shocked when we arrived together with our rector,” the accountant said. “They didn’t ask us to open the bags; they just asked the rector some questions. Of course, they have been settled far ahead of time. Therefore, within the shortest time we were asked to leave.”

An unnamed vice chancellor shared a similar experience. “Besides directing us to come with ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags of photocopied documents, we have been forced to pay money in order to get a clean bill,” he said. “I am not sure they are even reading the documents.”

I am acutely aware that most people are too hungry and too filled with anxieties for how they will survive the next day to care about the extortion of our universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education by rapacious and conscienceless legislative bandits, but this culture should worry us all. The deeper we allow it to settle into a cultural subconscious, the more difficult hopes for a national rebirth become.

In urging heads of higher ed institutions to resist the House Committee, Haruna Yerima, a professor of public administration at ABU and former member of the House of Representatives who became famous for his praiseworthy and uncommonly bold anti-corruption battles against both the executives and his colleagues from 2003 to 2007, said the legislative extortion of heads of institution is the extension of a broader, older culture of out-and-out legislative brigandage that he’d witnessed.

“What the VCs, rectors and provosts are complaining of is reminiscent of the ugly past where some lawmakers demanded money to pass the budgets of some ministries and agencies or screen some presidential appointees,” he said.

This is the legislative equivalent of abduction for ransom. We need to formally recognize and acknowledge that there is now such a thing as legislative banditry. I conceptualize it as the unethical, coercive, or corrupt practices by legislative bodies or their members, which encompass extortion, demanding bribes for favorable legislation, interfering unduly in administrative matters for personal gain, or using legislative powers to intimidate or exploit others.

The term, of course, derives inspirational and epistemological provenance from the quotidian banditry that Nigerians have now become habituated to. In other words, legislative banditry is banditry conducted within or facilitated by legislative frameworks.

The alleged behavior of the House of Representatives Committee on TETFund and Other Services is classic legislative banditry. The committee members are accused of exploiting their legislative oversight powers to extort money from tertiary institutions by making unreasonable demands for documentation and payments to facilitate the approval and implementation of projects that are already approved and funded by TETFund.

This misuse of legislative authority for personal gain or to exert undue influence over public institutions should be condemned by everyone who cares about Nigeria. It should also be resisted by the heads of higher education institutions.

Higher education institutions are struggling to survive as it is. That was why when it came to light late last year that the federal government had asked universities to turn over 40 percent of all their internally generated revenue to the federal coffers, I wrote a stinging column on November 11, 2023, titled “Tinubu Wants Even Broke Universities to Fund Him.”

Fortunately, the government reversed the policy after this. It has turned out, nonetheless, that it isn’t uhuru yet. Universities escaped the jaws of executive avarice and jumped right smack dab in the middle of legislative banditry. Who will save them when they appear before pampered, overpaid, and slothful legislative bandits on February 27?

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