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Civil servants at Nigeria's federal ministry of health have been taken in for questioning by the country's leading law enforcement agency amid allegations of corruption over misused health funds.

As part of a crackdown on financial mismanagement, Nigerian president Umaru Yar'Adua ordered the health department, along with other ministries, to return unspent money from the 2007 budget to the federal treasury. Previously, the norm — according to one ministry source — was to use the unspent money as a 'Christmas bonus'.

But according to The Daily Trust newspaper, staff at the health ministry headquarters in the capital of Abuja are accused of drawing up and widely circulating a document dividing up a total of 300 million Nigerian Naira (US$2.5 million) in late 2007, and transferring the amounts into their personal accounts.

The agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), launched the investigation following a tip-off from a disgruntled staff member who felt her bonus was less than had been agreed. A number of other ministries are now apparently under investigation for similar practices.

According to ThisDay newspaper, the EFCC questioned the department's permanent secretary Simon Ogamdi — a former dean of health sciences at Ebonyi University in Nigeria — as the document reportedly said he would receive 40 million Naira. Directorial-level staff were to receive 3.5 million Naira each, with amounts decreasing with employee ranking.

Adenike Grange, Nigeria's minister of health and a former director of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), was reportedly arrested by the EFCC last month (February 29). Grange issued a statement last week (3 March) saying this was not the case, but the EFCC confirmed that she had been called in for questioning.

A ministry spokesperson told the press there is no evidence that the health minister was aware of the practice or received anything. Oswald Shodeinde, special assistant to the minister, told SciDev.Net that Grange, who was appointed in 2007, is continuing with her duties.

Shodeinde told SciDev.Net that the health minister has initiated an investigation into the allegations to determine the nature, scope and persons involved in order to forestall future occurrences.

President of the West African Bar Association, Femi Falana, said civil society had to intervene in such cases because the government had planned to shut down the EFCC — the most visible anti-corruption agency in the country.

"The reality is that the Yar'Adua government does not have the capacity to tackle the rot left behind by [former president Olusegun Obasanjo's] administration because it is basically an offshoot of that administration."

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