The trouble started on January 9, 2018, when a brown envelope containing $5,000 was allegedly handed over to a staff member of the Hausa section of the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington DC by a member of the entourage of a Nigerian governor who was granted an interview.
The money was shared among all the Hausa service staff on duty at that time, a common practice in West Africa where underpaid journalists receive envelopes filled with cash at press briefings and while performing their duties to augment their low salaries.
But, at the VOA, receiving such gifts and money in excess of $20 violate Federal laws and regulations which attract criminal penalties if found guilty.
This was the exact suspicion of the US government-funded international broadcast service which fired or proposed to terminate more than half the members of its Hausa language service following an investigation.
The director of the news organisation, Amanda Bennett, had sent an email to staff on October 4, 2018, saying the measure was as a result of “allegations of improper conduct by members of the service, which involved accepting improper payments from an official in the coverage area.”
The VOA and Nigerian embassy failed to comment further on the firing and suspensions thereby not disclosing the affected staff and circumstances that led to the decision after the lengthy investigation.
However, local Nigerian media published the names of those implicated who include Sahabu Imam Aliyu, Jummai Ali, Ladan Ayawa, Ibrahim Jarmai, Abdoulaziz Adili Toro, Ibrahim Alfa Ahmed, among others.
According to local media Daily Trust, the governor in question was the Katsina State Governor Aminu Masari who was the only one in that position from Nigeria to have visited the VOA at the time.
The governor’s spokesperson, Abdu Labaran, denied that any member of the governor’s delegation had given money to the VOA staff during the visit.
The news media also alleged that the information was disclosed to the VOA by the head of Hausa Service, Leo Ken, who was on leave in Nigeria at the time of the incident.
The whistleblower was himself sacked and replaced by the former Hausa Service head, Fred Cooper, who will serve as acting head until the selection of a permanent replacement.
The in-depth investigation revealed that Leo Ken was allegedly involved in illegal financial activities including “padding of the rent fee of the Abuja office, illegal deductions of salaries of part-time staff, payments of ghost stringers, among others,” reports the Daily Trust.
The VOA says it has launched a separate investigation to determine if any coverage was improperly influenced. “If any such influence is discovered, we will deal with it promptly and transparently,” says Amanda Bennett.
The Hausa Service which broadcasts to some 20 million people weekly, principally in Nigeria but also in Niger, Ghana, Chad and Cameroon, is now left with only 11 permanent government employees and contractors to produce 16 hours of radio and 30 minutes of television every week.
Africa Division director Negussie Mengesha said the agency intends will maintain its current programming schedule with the help of part-time contributors in Africa while they move quickly to replace the terminated employees.
Meanwhile, Bennett commended “the leadership of the Africa Division who immediately and wholeheartedly backed the investigations and cooperated fully with these painful decisions. They, like all of us, are committed to the highest standards of ethical behavior and will not tolerate any infractions.”