On Monday, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization announced that Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has been appointed Chair of its 28-member Board.
Ms. Okonjo-Iweala will be succeeding Dagfinn Høybråten as Chair of the US$12 billion multilateral international public private partnership committed to saving the lives of children and protecting people’s health by improving access to immunization in developing countries, including Nigeria.
The former minister’s appointment came months after she spearheaded a controversial decision to pay US$2.2 million to the Geneva-based organization, being a refund for funds allegedly mismanaged by Nigerian health officials.
The refund was made despite protests by officials of the health ministry that all GAVI grants had been judiciously used.
Hours after her appointment was announced, online whistle blowing site, Sahara Reporters tweeted that Ms. Okonjo-Iweala got the position from an organization with whom Nigeria did business under her watch and “paid GAVI $2.2m shortly before she left”.
But in a swift response, Paul Nwabuikwu, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala’s media aide described the tweet as “lies.”
“GAVI was paid back according to MOU because grant was misused. NOI (Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala) handed case to EFCC before she left.”
However, several documents reviewed by PREMIUM TIMES showed that despite a robust defence on how the GAVI funds was spent, Ms. Okonjo-Iweala indeed went ahead to authorize the refund.
Allegations of graft
Last year, GAVI alleged that Nigerian officials mismanaged cash grants allocated to the country through the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency between 2011 and 2013.
But the Nigerian health officials fought back, accusing GAVI of manipulating events to suit their narrative and deliberately turning a blind eye to its explanations on how the funds were spent before publishing their final audit report.
Civil society organisations who had undertaken independent investigations into the allegations, after they were made public last year, say their efforts to reconcile their findings with GAVI’s audit report met a brick wall from the organization.
A PREMIUM TIMES e-mail to GAVI, since May 26, seeking explanations for their alleged refusal to entertain explanations from Nigerian officials or organisations over the report remains unacknowledged and unreplied.
Between 2002 and 2014, the Nigerian government, through the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, received vaccine and cash-based support from GAVI Alliance to the tune of over US$100 million.
While US$165 million was disbursed for vaccines, US$143.5 million was for cash support through a number of mechanisms, including Health Systems Strengthening, Immunization System Support, operations costs for vaccine campaigns (Measles, Meningitis, and Yellow Fever), and Vaccine Introduction Grants.
Previous audits by GAVI had raised concerns about how Nigerian officials utilize disbursed funds.
For instance, a four-year audit between 2008 and 2011 revealed about US$300,000 unsubstantiated expenditures relating to the Immunization System Support programmes from 2009 to 2011.
In October 2014, GAVI released its findings from a Cash Programme Audit, CPA, of US$29 million it disbursed to Nigeria between 2011 and 2013.
The CPA findings claimed that funds – running into millions of dollars – meant for the procurement of vaccines and other immunization support activities in the period under review were mismanaged.
Of the total expenditure (US$29 million) stated in the period under review, 32 percent (US$9 million) was examined in the audit of which 87 percent (US$8.1 million) was found to be questionable.
The remaining US$20 million reported expenditure for the period could not be verified, according to GAVI, because of a number of limitations that included outstanding returns from states and poor security levels in some states which could not be visited.
“The report describes systemic weaknesses regarding the operation of controls and procedures in national systems used to manage Gavi cash-based support,” GAVI said in a statement following the report.
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