A former acting Director-General of the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi, Lagos, Mr Chima Igwe, may have defrauded government of millions of naira and committed perjury before his recent ouster by the institute’s governing board.
Igwe named a university in Benin Republic, Universite d’Abomey Calavi, as where he earned a PhD not long ago.
The Anambra State indigene was removed not too long ago after he was indicted in a report by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission.
The ICPC, in the report issued by its spokesperson, Rasheedat Okoduwa, said Igwe lived a lie for 18 years by claiming to have a PhD.
She noted that he had yet to finish the academic degree based on the agency’s investigations.
But the anti-graft’s report was a result of several complaints by civil society groups and investigations by our correspondent.
In September 2019, the ICPC cleared Igwe, saying he duly obtained the degree.
The report had been sent to the Ministry of Science and Technology, which was also forwarded to the FIIRO board.
The ministry was reported to have asked that Igwe be confirmed as the substantive DG of FIIRO until further investigations by our correspondent led to more revelations.
The ICPC withdrew the clearance of Igwe, saying it was misled by a sister agency whose information it relied on in the first instance to clear Igwe.
The case was reopened as FIIRO workers started a protest to demand the suspension of the 57-year-old based on extant public service rules.
More than three weeks after the protests, including arrests and brutalisation of the workers by the police, the ICPC released its second report which indicted Igwe.
Subsequent on the latest report, Igwe was removed and replaced with a former Director of Production, Analytical and Laboratory Management, Dr Agnes Asagbra.
According to FIIRO law, a PhD is required for promotion from principal research officer to chief research officer.
The two positions that follow– deputy director and director – also require a minimum of a PhD with certain number of academic publications.
How it all started
Indeed, an advert placed by FIIRO in The PUNCH of November 11, 2009, invited applications for the position of Director, Chemical Fibre and Environmental Technology and Director, Project Development and Design.
The vacancy, signed by the then Director-General, Dr Oluwole Olatunji, specifically required a minimum academic qualification of a doctoral degree for both positions.
Findings by our correspondent revealed that Igwe became a chief research officer in 2004 and was promoted to a deputy director in 2007.
He applied for the advertised position in 2009 and became the Director of Chemical Fibre and Environmental Technology in 2010.
He was reported to be close to a former director-general of the institute. Igwe was appointed as acting DG on May 13, 2019.
Without a PhD as required by law, Igwe for over 15 years (2004-2020) earned undeserved salaries, thereby defrauding the government.
The 57-year-old might have also committed perjury by swearing at an Abuja High Court that he had obtained a doctorate.
He got an affidavit from the court after pressure was mounted on him by the institute governing board to produce his certificate.
The affidavit, obtained by Sunday PUNCH and dated June 14, 2019, was signed by the Commissioner for Oath, Isyaku Umar.
“I enrolled as a student of Universite Nationale Du Benin (now Universite D’Abomey-Calavi, Benin Republic, in 1998/1999 session with matriculation number 3007500. That I completed my PhD programme and graduated in 2000/2001 session.
“That upon the completion of my PhD programme, I was issued with a PhD attestation to confirm my PhD programme completion.
“That I have through a letter dated 23/05/2019 and duly submitted and acknowledged by the university on 24/05/2019 submitted an application for the issuance of my original PhD certificate and a copy of my application to the university is attached to this affidavit.
“It is beyond my responsibility and control to determine how long it will take the university to process and issue me with the PhD certificate,” the affidavit, which had Igwe’s photo, read.
The FIIRO’s case
Igwe had been using an attestation letter authored by his retired supervisor, Prof. Mansour Moudachirou, since 2002.
The letter, written in French with the heading, ‘Attestation’, and translated into English, stated that Igwe completed his programme and should be accorded full rights.
A former Vice-Chancellor of Caleb University, Prof. Ayodeji Olukoju, said such a document had no weight, saying it was fraudulent.
“A supervisor has a right to write such a letter if he is the founder, vice-chancellor, senate, dean of postgraduate school of a university all rolled into one.
“It is not done; it is absolutely impossible and that is why the university system is structured to operate on the basis of a committee even at the level of a department, faculty, the senate and even council. That letter has no weight in law and in the academia; it is absolutely useless. It is of no value and it is fraudulent.
“It will mean that the supervisor is usurping the powers of the college of postgraduate study because it is until a result has passed through senate, that the result is valid. The senate is the final academic body that approves all results and until that is done, that result is not valid,” he added.
Although Moudachirou had since denied that the letter was proof of graduation, it is not clear how Igwe used the document for 18 years without check.
Two former director-generals of the institute were blamed for the fraud.
The administrative managers during the period were also accused of not doing due diligence in the assessments of Igwe.
The varsity’s responses
Universite d’Abomey-Calavi is the main public varsity in Benin Republic. It was established in 1970 and presently has 19 institutions and six campuses.
Igwe claimed he completed PhD in Chemistry from the varsity in 2001.
However, the university attempted responses to enquiries from Sunday PUNCH and the ICPC on the status of Igwe.
Since July 30, 2019, our correspondent had forwarded enquiries on the matter of Igwe’s PhD to the varsity’s email and social media platforms, including contacting the Embassy of Benin Republic in Nigeria without any result.
Several telephone communications with the Benin Ambassador, Paulette Yekpe, did not yield fruits, as she promised to respond after connecting with the university through the Ministry of Education.
When the response did not come, our correspondent visited Abomey Calavi in August 2019 where he discovered Igwe had yet to finish his studies.
After verbal, social media exchanges with principal officers of the school, who also confirmed this, this reporter requested an official letter on Igwe’s status.
Our correspondent sent the first letter to an email designated by the Director of Postgraduate School, Prof. Joel Tossa, on October 1, 2019.
When the letter was not replied to, the reporter reached out to him on WhatsApp. Despite granting an informal interview via the medium, he did not respond.
Our correspondent employed the services of a French expert, who spoke to him on the telephone. He clarified that he had been asked to stop communicating with the reporter through WhatsApp.
The expert, a lecturer at a private university in Nigeria, said Tossa demanded that another letter be written on the letterhead of PUNCH and sent to the varsity.
The letter was drafted and sent via email on November 6, 2019.
After about one month without any response, our correspondent asked the expert to speak with Tossa for update.
After their interaction, our correspondent was advised to send the letter by hand to the vice-chancellor of the university.
The reporter again contracted another French speaker based in Benin Republic, who assisted in translating the letter to French; it was addressed to the vice-chancellor.
After a few days, the agent in Benin Republic said the vice-chancellor’s office had received and acknowledged the letter.
He, however, noted that the VC instructed that another letter be written and addressed to Tossa, who was the right person to respond.
This was done and sent through the agent, who delivered it by hand at the director’s office. The letter was not acknowledged.
After a long wait without any response, our correspondent chatted with Tossa and wondered why he had refused to reply to the letter.
Replying in French, he said, “The file is being handled by the university’s academic affairs department. They will respond to you.” Several months after, there was no response.
Our correspondent’s agent in Benin Republic said from his interaction with the varsity officers he could deduce that they were afraid to issue the official letter on Igwe’s status.
“The position of the director of the school of postgraduate is no longer by election as they used to do it. It is now by appointment and the ministry of education will be involved,” the agent said.
The Minister of Higher Education in Benin Republic, Prof. Eleanor Yayi, is said to be Igwe’s second supervisor.
The ICPC had cleared Igwe in August 2019 based on information it said it got from a sister agency.
But the agency’s second report in February 2020 stated that Igwe had not completed PhD. The ICPC said Abomey-Calavi was ambiguous.
The anti-graft agency said the varsity’s letter to the Nigerian Mission indicated that Igwe completed the programme, but needed to “publicly defend his doctoral thesis and the institution was giving him a chance to re-register and update his research results in the current 2019-2020 academic year,” the statement added.
Our correspondent obtained a ‘document’ which the ICPC’s Chairman, Prof. Bolaji Owasanoye, sent to the Ministry of Science and Technology, Dr Ogbonnaya Onu, on the matter.
“The minister is invited to note that the ambivalent letter from the University in Benin Republic largely accounts for the seeming confusion as to the exact status of Mr Chima Igwe,” he said.
Owasanye, however, noted that since the school, despite the confusion, stated that Igwe had yet to defend his PhD thesis and had been asked to re-register, it was “an indication that all the necessary conditions were yet to be completed.”
Our correspondent also obtained the official communication from the school to the Nigerian Ambassador in Benin Republic.
The letter, authored by the Deputy Director of the Pure and Applied Sciences Doctorate School, Prof. Valentine Wotto, indicated that Igwe had written to the school to finish the programme.
“The process is ongoing and Mr Igwe will be able to defend his PhD thesis in Organic Chemistry and Chemistry of Natural Sciences at the Abomey-Calavi in February 2020,” the letter said.
Sunday PUNCH gathered that the FIIRO board had already set up a committee to decide what action to take on Igwe’s case.
A credible source said the committee would examine how Igwe rose in the system without the prerequisite qualification, adding that the credentials of other officers might also be examined.
But another source said a soft landing was being proposed by the governing board for Igwe, which included resignation.
“They ought to have suspended him by now. But it appears like they are buying him time,” he said.
A Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Mr Jiti Ogunye, said Igwe should be prosecuted.
He said, “Under the ICPC Act, there are sections of the law that are applicable to the criminal conduct that has been established, which will be readily available for his prosecution and in particular relating to the sworn affidavit, which is a false declaration. That is perjury: swearing falsely under oath, which is also a criminal offence.
“Again, under the criminal code law, he obtained money by false pretence. He had been collecting salaries based on the certificate he claimed he had, which he never had.
“If the ICPC did an investigation, the next level is for them to move to the level of prosecution. It is instructive that they did an investigation, so they must be interested in taking the case to a logical conclusion, which is prosecution.
“The body is not expected to just investigate for the fun of it or for the purpose of shedding light on a matter or for the records. It is not a truth and reconciliation committee, it is an investigation-prosecution body.”
A former President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Malachy Ugwummandu, described the case as an issue of misrepresentation which should not only be investigated but also prosecuted.
The lawyer said it was the only way to establish deterrents in the system.
Ugwummandu said, “And there should be a consequential order. We have had instances in the past where judges directed that such people who ought not to be in certain position should refund because it is like obtaining money by false pretence.
“You were employed and being paid salary under the pretence that you have a certain qualification. If it is found out that you don’t have the qualification on the basis of which you were being graded and paid the salary, then the natural consequence is for you to refund. If you cannot, then you serve it in prison terms.”