A Nigerian court Wednesday will examine the bail request of the jailed daughter of former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Ogun State Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello is chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee. She was put behind bars Tuesday on embezzlement charges after turning herself in to authorities in the capital Abuja after more than a month in hiding. Obasanjo-Bello is accused of taking about 85-thousand dollars in unspent funds of a two-and-a-half million dollar government health budget. The probe includes two other former health ministers and nine other officials, who have all declared their innocence. Country representative Auwal Rafsanjani of the anti-corruption group Transparency International says that current leadership is putting the Obasanjo administration under increasing scrutiny.
“The former minister of health, in collaboration with some bureaucrats in the ministry of health, collaborated with the committee on health, of which Iyabo Obasanjo has been the chairperson, to collect some of this money to share it and they claim that the money, they want to use it for going for training, which actually contradicted even the autonomy of the legislators, because each committee is supposed to be autonomous, and they did not deny that they collected this money from the ministry,” he explained.
With the high-profile arrest of a senator and former president’s daughter in the health probe, the Transparency International representative said Nigerians are pleased that President Obasanjo’s successor, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, has facilitated the government’s ability to uncover cases of diversion of funds that have prevented citizens from receiving essential public services.
“This is the ministry that is lacking sufficient resources. In the hospitals, there are no drugs. There are no qualified doctors. All sorts of problems are there. But they did not use the money to address those problems. But rather, they collected that money to share it and loot it,” he said.
Nigeria’s health ministry investigation is only one of several government probes of official wrongdoing, including the National Assembly’s recent hearings into alleged abuse of energy appropriations intended to eliminate nationwide blackouts and local community shortages of electricity. Former President Obasanjo remains a central figure in that probe, but Rafsanjani notes that Obasanjo has been unwilling to testify before legislators to explain his role in the scandal.
“The former president has been accused separately by many Nigerians, not only in the probe of the power sector, but on various issues like the petroleum sector, which he actually presided over for the past eight years. A lot of people have been calling for proof in some of these other scandals that he has been involved in. But unfortunately, when he was invited to testify before the National Assembly, he refused to honor the invitation because he knows that a lot of Nigerians would actually condemn him during the hearing. So he had to stay away,” said Rafsanjani.
Tuesday’s arrest of Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello is very big news, according to Rafsanjani, because she has not been seen in public since early last month, when she was scheduled in court to face charges by the country’s investigative arm, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). He says the public continues to sense that Senator Obasanjo-Bello gained her senate seat through electoral manipulation, and he notes there is widespread suspicion of her involvement in what he calls her father’s questionable petroleum sector deals.
“A lot of Nigerians are very happy that this lady has been arrested because President Obasanjo used his influence to actually rig the election in her favor and make life difficult for her opponents during the election. Also, a lot of corruption stories, not only on the health issue, but also in the oil business are also an issue that some people would be into because her father was the chief minister of petroleum. Through her father, she was involved in all sorts of deals on petroleum,” said Rafsanjani.
Obasanjo-Bello has pleaded innocent to Tuesday’s charges, but under Nigerian law, unlike governors and national executives, legislators are not immune from prosecution.