2 April 2014

Nigeria: Waiting for the Immigration Tragedy Probe

Omololu Ogunmade writes on the huge expectations that await the Senate's probe of the March 15 stampede during the Nigerian Immigration Service recruitment exercise, resulting in the death of 20 applicants

When the public hearing organised by the Senate Committee on Interior over the March 15, 2014 recruitment exercise held for Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) ended on March 27, the audience left the venue with many rhetorical questions. The probe which was meant to be a two-day event ended in one day after the committee succeeded in taking submissions from all relevant stakeholders in the event which held between 10 am and 7pm.

Nevertheless, the event, in a way helped the audience as well as the entire nation to gain insight into the mystery behind the conduct of an aptitude test which drew the highest number of applicants for a recruitment exercise in the nation's history.

Never in the history of Nigeria had a recruitment exercise ended in such a tragic fiasco, neither had the conduct of an aptitude test in the country gained world attention as was the case with the March 15 exercise which made Nigeria a laughing stock in the comity of nations. Thus, it is doubtful if any recruitment examination had ever witnessed the invitation of as many as 50,000 applicants in the nation's history not to mention over 500,000.

This therefore accounted for the reasons the test was accompanied by wild anger in the polity in view of memories of massive crowd which filled various stadia where the test was conducted, beyond capacity and resulting in the death of 20 applicants.

Submissions at the hearing showed that while a total of 710, 110 job seekers applied for NIS jobs, 522,652 were said to have been shortlisted for the aptitude test. But worthy of note was that the hearing failed to probe deeply into the rationale behind inviting over 500,000 applicants for less than 5,000 jobs.

The hearing, however, succeeded in revealing how Dextel Technology, the consultant which handled the exercise appeared to have been driven by the quest to make huge profits out of the venture, which informed its decision to receive applications from over 700,000 and consequently shortlisting almost 523,000 despite knowing that there were less than 5,000 vacancies to fill.

Dextel which charged each applicant N1,000, realising over N710 million from a single venture within one month, however, opposed demand to fund the recruitment process. This, in the perception of the audience, spoke volume of the company's perceived desperation to explore the exercise to garner so much into its account, capitalising on the frustration of helpless job seekers.

Some would also argue that the alleged desperation was evident by Dextel's decision to extend the application process by one week, claiming a breakdown of infrastructure three times as a result of influx of applications. The hearing also revealed that lack of funds for the exercise was a major factor for its failure as there was no single budget for it.

Given its submission at the hearing, Dextel claimed to have spent N177 million as bank charges, N98 million as cost of execution and paltry N45 millionto fund the exercise, bringing all its expenditure to N320 million while it smiled away with about N400 million as profit within a month.

The public hearing witnessed all stakeholders putting the failure of the exercise at the doorstep of the Minister of Interior, Comrade Abba Moro. But the minister was quick to state that he took all decisions on the exercise in good faith.

He also said he had resolved not to be part of the blame game trailing the exercise. Instead, he told the committee that as Minister of Interior which evolved the recruitment, he had opted to accept responsibility for both its failure as well as the tragedy that accompanied the exercise.

"As the minister of interior, under whose purview this unfortunate exercise took place, I cannot abdicate my responsibility. The buck stops at my table," he said. But the perceived flaw on Moro's path at the hearing was his inability to explain the rationale behind allowing Dextel to invite 522,000 to sit for the test though he insisted that his concern was to ensure that the exercise was open to all.

Moro spoke after the Federal Character Commission (FCC), Comptroller General of (NIS), Mr. David Parradang and Board of Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prison Services, had accused him of unilaterally ordering the March 15, 2014 recruitment exercise.

Parradang had during his presentation alleged that he was sidetracked in all the processes leading to the exercise, adding that he was shocked when he learnt at a stakeholders' meeting in January that an aptitude test bordering on recruitment into NIS had been scheduled for March 15. He described it as a deliberate attempt to usurp the power of NIS to recruit level one to six officers into the Service.

"In all my years in service, nobody had ever taken away from us the power to recruit officers from level one to six," adding that there was no budget for the exercise.

The Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prison Services Act states that recruitment of level one to six officers in affected agencies, is the exclusive preserve of such agencies while recruitment of level seven officers and above is the responsibility of the Board.

While the failed exercise was aimed at recruiting officers from junior cadre to the senior cadre, that is, from level one to six and above, the FCC, Parradang and the Board- all alleged that the minister unilaterally signed agreement for the recruitment exercise with Dextel Technology without consulting them and therefore blamed the failure on this unilateral decision.

But Moro argued that claims that he sidelined the board in the process was flawed, saying as the minister of interior, the ministry was not different from the board which he chairs adding that he was not required to call the entire board in all the instances when decisions needed to be taken, adding that as the board chairman, he could take decisions on its behalf.

On the other hand, FCC, which was represented by Mr. Uche Diogu, said it was kept in the dark over the incident adding that it only heard rumour of the move to conduct the test on March 12 and immediately called a meeting on March 13 where upon its confirmation, advised against holding it as scheduled.

In the same vein, the Board Secretary, Mr. Sylvanus Tapgun, who said the board suggested the need to phase the exercise between March 15 and 19, added that it also counselled that physical exercise should be separated from the aptitude test and scheduled for March 29 in view of obvious constraints. Again, he said the minister disagreed with him, saying pronouncement on it had already been made.

"We drew the attention of the minister to the reality on the ground. We made our position clear that it might not succeed but he said we should work towards the date. We didn't have independent way of monitoring the exercise. We only relied on information from consultants."

He also disclosed how no funding was provided for the exercise because hopes that the consultants would fund it failed as it declined, saying funding was not part of its agreement with the ministry. He added that on March 13, the consultant only released N45 million out of the N201 million it was asked to release for the funding of the exercise.

Another member of the board, Mr. Mustapha Zakaria, who said the board was mandated by the Act establishing it to handle recruitment of officers from level seven and above, argued that agreement for the recruitment only took place between the minister and the consultant. "The board was not carried along. We wrote a memo to the ministry that the agreement was in breach of the Act establishing the board because it exists as a separate entity. We said it constituted infringement on functions of the board.

"We also said it was inappropriate for applicants to apply online that it was in conflict with the Act but we were not listened to. We also disagreed with the arrangement that only one officer would be sent to each state to conduct the test. We said how can only one officer be sent to conduct a test? I have been in the board for six years but things had never been done in this manner," he said.

At the end of his presentation, Parradang suggested that the service and the board should be allowed to conduct recruitment exercise whenever necessary in future, adding that only those shortlisted for such test should be invited. He also suggested that the exercise should be phased.

But representative of Dextel Technology, Theodore Maiyaki, explained that the company signed an agreement with the Ministry of Interior to handle the recruitment process through online digital quota in April 2013.

He said the company initially agreed with the ministry to charge each applicant N1,200 including bank charges, but eventually resolved to charge N1,000 after an interface with FCC. He also disclosed that during the application process which took place between September and October last year, a total of 710,110 applications were received out of which he said 522,652 were shortlisted. He admitted that the company received a letter from the board asking it to make a remittance of N201 million for the funding of the exercise.

"We didn't reply immediately but sought to meet with the board and drew attention of the board to the provision of section 228 of contract agreement that ministry would fund the exercise. We sent a letter that was dated March 7, where we reiterated that our role was restricted to digital quota. But we later agreed that since there was no provision for the exercise, the potential for rancour would heighten.

"After the engagement, we found that integrity of the exercise was critical to us. So, the board approved N45 million. The decision was taken reluctantly but patriotically - backed with a letter exonerating us from funding," he said. But Moro countered Maiyaki's claim, saying the company was expected to fund the exercise.

The minister also argued that he opted to employ the services of a private consultant with a view to frustrating prevalent racketeering and nepotism in employment process and simultaneously entrenching transparent processes in the employment process.

"On my assumption of office as minister, I took cognizance of the unprecedented challenges facing the recruitment processes, procedures and practice in the paramilitary services under the supervision of the ministry. Such experiences were characterised by incoherent procedures, favouritism, job racketeering and unequal opportunities among others and therefore needed immediate attention.

"The noble task before me was to institute measures that would ease the application procedures, enthrone an open and transparent process, allow for equal opportunities, institute a process for the engagement of qualified and deserving persons and also to ensure the reflection of federal character pursuant to applicable federal laws.

"In December 2012, the Immigration Service approached me with a waiver for the recruitment of 4,556 personnel from the office of the Head of Service of Nigeria. The conduct of that recruitment was marred by controversy and accusations of tribalism, nepotism, job racketeering and lopsidedness.

"The exercise was cancelled. The recruitment procedures into the services are as contained in the Act establishing the board and guidelines for Appointment, Promotions and Discipline for use in Civil Defence, Fire, Immigration and Prisons Services," he said.

Moro, who also blamed devil for failure of the exercise, said contrary to allegations against him that he unilaterally took decision on the exercise, a board meeting was held in May last year on the matter, adding that another one was held in January. He also said he opted for e-recruitment exercise in view of its successes when employed by Navy, Army and some other paramilitary agencies.

While the nation awaits the outcome of the probe by both chambers of the National Assembly, one clear fact from the entire crisis is that concerned parties must have learnt hard lessons though at the expense of innocent souls lost in the exercise.

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