The Petroleum Equalisation Fund (PEF) has sponsored four lawyers to the International Bar Association's conference in Seoul, South Korea, in direct contravention of reiterated government's ban on such trips.
With dwindling revenue, the federal government placed an embargo on foreign trips in 2015.
The government said only essential trips would be allowed which would have to be sanctioned by the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.
In 2016 the Buhari administration further reinforced the decision in a fresh circular which affirmed the decision initially taken at the end of the Jonathan administration. The government directed all chief executives to ensure strict compliance with the embargo.
But PEF did not secure nor apply for necessary clearance from the Head of the Civil Service, as required, before sponsoring a lawyer and three others from the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Petroleum Resources to attend the conference, PREMIUM TIMES investigation revealed.
Official documents sighted by a PREMIUM TIMES reporter show that PEF's Executive Secretary, Ahmed Bobboi, approved proposals by Ministry of Petroleum Resources and PEF officials to sponsor four government lawyers to the event held from September 22nd to 27th 2019.
Two of the legal officers are staff of the Federal Ministry of Justice, while the other two belong to the petroleum ministry and the PEF.
A senior PEF insider puts the total cost of the sponsorship at about N11 million.
PREMIUM TIMES is unable to independently confirm the figure as PEF officials have refused to respond to enquiries on this story.
How it happened
Documents seen by PREMIUM TIMES show that the idea of the foreign trip was first broached by the Ministry of Petroleum Resources which wrote to the PEF requesting for sponsorship of one its lawyers and two others from the Justice ministry.
The ministry's letter, dated August 21, 2019, was received the next day at the PEF headquarters.
The ministry's letter signed by director Legal Services, Saidu Diri, on behalf of the permanent secretary named the beneficiaries of the trip.
They are Abimbola Ajileye, an assistant chief state counsel; Rafia Abubakar, Principal State Counsel; and Aishatu Kaltungo, Senior State Counsel.
Mr Diri wrote that that the IBA conference would be "anchored on Oil & Gas, with emphasis on Africa's Oil and Gas sector" arguing that the lawyer's participation was for "enriching their knowledge on these issues".
Justifying the choice of the participants, Mr Diri wrote: "The officer from the Ministry of Petroleum as part of her schedule, drafts Legal Agreements/Memorandum of Understanding in ammeters relating to the Oil and Gas industry while the officers from the Ministry of Justice as officers in the chambers of the Attorney General of the Federation, undertake overriding reviews on any legal matter as it affects the Oil and Gas Industry."
Curiously, PEF's boss, Mr Bobboi, minuted on the letter the same day it was received, directing the head of legal of the organisation, Adamu Laido, to "speak" with him on the matter.
Insiders say the despatch with which the matter was handled suggests that there were prior behind-the-scene discussions among top officials involved.
The following Monday, after he might have discussed with his boss as instructed, Mr Laido raised a memo addressed to Mr Bobboi regurgitating the content of the petroleum ministry's proposal.
Mr Laido failed to caution his boss about the illegality of the proposed sponsorship.
Instead, he moved on to nominate one other lawyer from the organisation, Hadiza Babakano to also "benefit from the conference".
The legal head prayed for the executive secretary to "direct Admin & Personnel to compute and process the Conference fees, estcorde (sic) and air ticket for the four (4) officers".
On receiving the memo, Mr Bobboi directed General Manager (Administration & Personnel), to process and "treat urgently".
It fell on Kelechi Nwaozuzu, Head, Office Services, who was supervising the department in the absence of his boss who was on leave, to give administrative directive for the process to be sealed.
"H (MPD) Pls note ES directives in 'A' and process urgently," Mr Nwaozuzu directed Talha Kidaji, Head, Manpower Planning & Development, in an August 27 memo.
All the processes were completed within a day.
Disregard for government's directive
The sponsorship runs contrary to explicit government directives to halt sponsorship of foreign trips whether on courses, business or meetings.
It is also unclear if PEF, as a government agency, has the mandate of sponsoring staff other than its own to courses or any other foreign trip.
On January 22, 2015, the then Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Danladi Kifasi, released a circular announcing embargo on foreign trips for all public servants.
Mr Kifasi attributed the decision to the fall in oil prices and a decline in the government's earning.
The circular noted that the government was only ready to allow persons whose foreign trips "would be wholly sponsored by third parties".
A further circular was released on February 27, 2015 announcing constitution of an inter-ministerial committee to review requests for foreign training, asking ministries, departments and agencies to ensure "strict compliance" with the subsisting directive.
Aligning with the decision of her predecessor, the new Head of Service under the Buhari administration, issued another circular reiterating government's stance on foreign trips.
"MDAs are to ensure that all international trips, which must be essential and strategic to their mandates, embarked upon by their officials are approved by the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation.
"For the avoidance of doubt, it is necessary to reiterate that the provision of this Circular is extant and compliance is mandatory," Mrs Oyo-Ita, wrote in the circular dated July, 12, 2016.
PREMIUM TIMES gathered that the position of the federal government on the matter remains the same.
Apart from Mr Bobboi, who approved the illicit deal, it is unclear whether the decision to flout presidential directive was done with ministerial approval from the two ministries involved.
It remains unanswered whether the improper action of Mr Bobboi had the blessings of PEF Board Chairman, Musa Talle, a director at the petroleum ministry or of the PEF Board.
A major question also exists for the Ministry of Petroleum which appears to be a broker, linking the Ministry of Justice with the PEF.
The Ministry of Justice, which ought to be the chief custodian of the country's laws, was also found wanting in tipping its staff to be sponsored for a trip inappropriately.
The various officials who processed the papers helped perfected the inappropriate conduct and also failed in their duty to call the attention of the executive secretary to the misnomer.
Comments on this story from the PEF management was not forthcoming as at press time.
A spokesperson for the agency, Seiyifa Osanebi, who invited our reporter over to the office when a call was placed to her, promised to get back to PREMIUM TIMES after taking copious note of the issues raised.
Over 24 hours after this reporter visited the PEF offices, the spokesperson failed to respond to the three questions posed to her.
Responding to a reminder sent to her Wednesday afternoon, Ms Osanebi replied; "I am on it please".