By Emma Ujah, Abuja Bureau Chief
Barely two years into his assumption of office as the Registrar/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Examinations Council (NECO), Prof. Promise Okpala, a professor of Science Evaluation, is in the eyes of the storm.Â Forces that have held NECO hostage since inception appear uncomfortable with him.
Through the instrumentality of a petitionÂ by a non-existent staff of NECO, Mr Clement Obinna Innocent to the Federal Ministry of Education and security agencies, including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) the anti-Okpala forces want him out.Â But in this interview, the Registrar said the allegations were false and that he would continue to act right in the interests of NECO staff, examinations candidates, the nationâ€™s educational sector and for the overall good of the nation.
What was the NECO you inherited from yourÂ predecessor?
Though my appointment was with effect from 10th April, 2007, I did not take-over effectively until about the end of April as I had to properly disengage from my former work place â€“ University of Ibadan.
The NECO I Inherited was an organisation which was facing various challenges in carrying out its mandate of conducting the examinations for which it was established.Â The organisation I inherited was one that was run by a clique where freedom of speech was a luxury; where a staff would be denied his rights without good reason(s) nor any explanation, whatsoever.
It was a place where staff welfare was not given the deserved attention and where merit and professionalism were not considered in almost all facets of administration and management.
Rather loyalty to the clique was a major yardstick for benefits in terms of promotions, participation in assignments.Â For an academic coming from the Premier university, the University of Ibadan, where raising minds to question issues around and where freedom of speech is taken for granted, I must tell you that some of the things I met, on my assumption of office surprised me.
What major Changes has your administration effected since then?
By the grace of God, I have brought into NECO, a lot of changes that are verifiable.Â For instance, the general welfare of staff has been uplifted in terms of prompt payment of salaries which is on or before the 24th of every month, as well as, payment of 100% allowances for all assignments (whether exam related or not).Â In NECO today, you donâ€™t need to be the friend of anybody in management to get what belongs to you.
My administration has brought about payment of hazard allowances to staff through an arrangement with an Insurance Company.Â There is preferential treatment of staff and I can tell you that the staff-management relationship, has been very robust.
In NECO, today, the administration has encouraged staff participation in development and enrichment programmes both locally and internationally.Â It is pertinent to state that attendance at such programmes has been with due consideration for geo-political zonal representation and many more staff have benefited.Â We Organised capacity building workshops internally for subject officers in preparation for the development of Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) Syllabuses.
Until my assumption of office, the morale of staff was at the ebb due to stagnation.Â My administration conducted the first-ever promotion exercise that was acclaimed by all staff and petition free.Â This was also the first time promotion took cognisance of all ingredients of a promotion exercise in terms of examination, APER scores and interview, for the Directorate cadre.
One area which I particularly want to point out is the fact that I met a backlog of un-issued certificates of between 2002 â€“ 2006.Â Can you imagine that candidates wrote NECO exams and for four to five years, there were not issued their certificates?Â We Produced and distributed to NECO State Offices in February 2008, the backlog of SSCE and JSCE certificates from 2002 to 2006 for onward distribution to schools, at no extra cost to candidates or their schools.
We successfully conducted leak-proof examination in 2008 and released the results of the 2008 SSCE (internal) within 63 days â€“ that was the first time results of a major exam were released within so short a period; we reduced examination malpractice through effective monitoring of the conduct of all NECO examinations.
How have you tackled payroll abuse and procurement corruption in NECO, as these two areas often prove avenues for corruption in government establishments?
NECO has in place procedures that must be followed in the process of salaries payment.Â Firstly, the Department of Corporate Support Services (Administration Department as called in other organisation/establishments) is responsible for ensuring that the nominal roll of the Council is regularly updated.Â It is also responsible for salary variations of staff.Â After doing thus, the Salaries Unit of the Finance and Accounts Department computes the salaries of every staff and prepare the salary schedule which the Director, Finance and Accounts vets before forwarding the document to the Computer Unit.
The computer unit has the staff disposition.Â Every staff is captured and this was done to check any form of fraud or corruption in payroll abuse.Â The computer Unit then prepare the Bank Payment Schedule which is returned to the Salaries Unit for cross-checking and mistakes noticed are corrected for Computer Unit to reprint and again returned to them for another cross-checking.
After this, the salaries Unit forwards the Bank Payment Schedule to the Director, Finance and Accounts to again cross-check before recommending same to the Registrar/Chief Executive for his approval.
On procurement, the Council follows all procurement due process as laid down by the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP), for the award of contracts.Â The procedures are that we must advertisement the job(s), Pre-qualify firms that meet the criteria, hold pre-bid meeting at which pre-qualified contractors are properly briefed about the projects.Â After this, bid /contract documents are issued.
Contractors are given time to submit same which are properly evaluated by our officials in collaborations with consultants before recommendations are made.
It is after this that the report of In-house professionals would be submitted to the Procurement Planning Committee.Â Procurement Planning Committee peruses and recommends to the Departmental Tenders Board, NECO Tenders Board approves
contracts and issues certificate of â€œNo objectionâ€ for contracts that fall within their approval threshold. Contracts that fall outside the approval threshold of NECO Tenders Board are referred to higher authorities as prescribed in the Act. With the above procedures in place, the issue of procurement corruption is checked.
There were recent media reports of a petition against you by one Mr.Â Clement Obinna Innocent, alleging fraud of about N5 billion against you.Â What is you take on this?
Let me start by stating that Mr. Clement Obinna Innocent is not a staff of the National Examinations Council (NECO) as no staff of the Council goes by that name.Â The staff disposition of the Council is there for anybody to see and verify.
The accusation of fraud to the tune of five billion (N5 billion) naira is in its entirety false, misleading and a calculated attempt to cause mischief.
The fact is that there has never been any fraud in NECO since I assumed duty.Â This is because the Councilâ€™s accounts are audited annually by the Auditor Generalâ€™s Office and if there had been any fraud, this would have been published.
The auditor Generalâ€™s Office is there for anyone to go and verify.
Yes, some Directors were quizzed by the EFCC.Â They said it had to do with allegation that bothered on Innocentâ€™s accusation.Â I regard it as purely routine perhaps to hear from the Directors what they may know regarding the accusations.
Besides, you were also accused of filling NECO with candidates from the South East against the principles of Federal Character?
In the said petition, I was accused of employing 400 staff in 2007.Â This again is completely false.Â The staff structure of NECO in terms of geopolitical representation is there for everybody to see.Â The staff disposition of 2007 is not a hidden thing.
I have two tables here to staff distribution in NECO and you can see that there is nothing in that allegation. It is clear from both tables that the North Central has the highest number of staff.
Next to North Central is South-West followed by the South-East, the South-South, North-West and North-East in that order. The question then is â€œHow did I fill the organisation with candidates from the South-East?â€
One key allegation against, sir, is that you have been taking bank loans to run NECO
Thank you for raising this matter.Â The issue of taking bank loans started as far back as year 2000.Â Let me give you details of bank loans taken since 2000 to run NECO.
But why do you have toÂ take bank loans when we all know that NECO and WAEC make huge sums of money from examination fees yearly?
It is not true that we make huge money from examinations fees.Â In fact, let me tell you that the money we realise from examination fees is far lower than what we spend to conduct the exams.Â That is why NECO had to borrow money to run the exams.Â Let me go back to your earlier question on the loans.
In 2000, NECO to N174 million; 2001, 500 million; 2002, 450 million; 2003, 300 million; 2004, 350 million; 2005, 300 million; 2006, 300 million; 2007, 750 million. By implication, borrowing from Commercial Banks to finance its examination has become part of the financial options of the Council.
In 2007, the Council took a loan of N750 million.Â The defunct Governing Board of NECO gave approval for the loan to be taken.Â It is important to point out here that the loan was not taken for the sake of taking a loan.
The defunct Governing Board of NECO in its meeting of august 8, 2006, approved the award of contract for the printing of NECO Certificates for years 2002 â€“ 2006 through internally generated revenue.Â The printing of these certificates for 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 cost N240 million
In August 2007, the defunct Governing Board approved and directed that the Council should increase its payment to examiners by 40% without a corresponding increase in either government subvention or registration fee.
Also, the Council began the implementation of the new Federal Government Duty Tour Allowances by July, 2007.
This increased payment of Duty Tour by almost 250%.Â For instance, staff on Hatiss 7 and 8 who were on N2,500 per night were put on N8,750.
In summary, the approval to print the backlog of certificates for years 2002 â€“ 2006,Â increase in examinersâ€™ remuneration by 40%,Â increase in Duty TourÂ Allowance, as well as, the payment of supervisors and invigilators for the 2006 Nov/Dec SSCE substantially increased the expenditure of the Council; hence the need to take the loan.Â However, the said loan has since been repaid.
Prof. Perhaps you may also explain why you awarded contract to your brother to establish Internet Cafes in every NECO Office throughout the nation, as alleged by the petitioner.
I never awarded any contract to my brother to establish internet cafes in every NECO office throughout the nation as alleged by the petitioner.Â It is pertinent to state here that NECO does not have or operate internet cafes in any of its offices.Â This can be verified.
Furthermore, candidates (school based, i.e. internal and external) could be sampled during NECO registration periods to ascertain where they go to for their on-line registration.
I believe those behind the said petition are purely out for mischief.Â There can be no other way to explain why anyone would write a petition against a Chief Executive Officer and everything there is fasle?