Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, has ordered an investigation into a senior civil servant linked to missing funds meant to avert famine in the north-east of the country.
Mr Buhari, who pledged to fight widespread corruption when he won elections two years ago, suspended David Babachir Lawal, his cabinet secretary, pending the outcome of the probe into allegations that he had broken the law in awarding contracts under the Presidential Initiative on the North East.
The initiative was established by Mr Buhari to co-ordinate the government’s response to the humanitarian crisis but legislators claim the body was used as a vehicle to divert the funds.
A committee led by Yemi Osinbajo, the vice-president, will conduct the investigation and report to Mr Buhari within two weeks, the president’s office said on Wednesday. Mr Lawal could not be reached for comment.
“So much money has been made available by government with very little to show for it,” concluded a report by Nigeria’s upper house of parliament last year. The report also described the procurement process for aid supplies as “vague and corrupt”.
At a Senate hearing in December, the committee was unable to account for the equivalent of $7.9m in funds, according to local news reports at the time. Donor governments have also voiced their concerns to the Buhari administration that the committee was misusing the funds.
The probe comes as the United Nations warns that 5.1m people face starvation in north-east Nigeria. About 450,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition, according to the UN.
On Mr Buhari’s watch, Boko Haram, the Islamist insurgency group, has been pushed off the territory it had seized. But as more areas have opened up for aid groups, the scale and severity of the famine have become more evident.
Security concerns are still preventing the UN and aid groups from accessing remote areas where they fear a famine may already be underway. Most people from the region are farmers who have been unable to plant crops for several years because they were chased from their homes by militants. Rather than drought or floods, conflict has pushed Nigeria’s north-east to the brink of famine.
Aid workers and UN officials working in Nigeria say that of the four countries the UN has classified as being on the brink of famine, Nigeria is the least well-funded.
This is in part, they say, because there is a perception that the Nigerian government has the ability to address the crisis, unlike the authorities in Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia. The UN has asked for $1bn to respond to the crisis this year alone, but just 15 per cent of funds have been pledged.
At a summit in Oslo in February, the government acknowledged that it needed far more assistance from international donors to avert a famine, but focus on the crisis inside the Buhari administration has since drifted. One Nigerian official working on the response said: “We have fallen into some sort of complacency.”