Finnish airlift scandal: Senior county officials sent on compulsory leave as investigations commence

 Jonathan Bii

Uasin Gishu County Governor Jonathan Bii (right) with his deputy John Barorot during a press briefing at the county headquarters in Eldoret town.  

Photo credit: Jared Nyataya | Nation Media Group

The row over scandal-hit Finnish scholarship program took a new twist after Uasin Gishu County government suspended senior officials implicated in the scam and announced array of measures meant to salvage students facing deportation after their studies were terminated due to fee arrears.

Governor Jonathan Bii has directed senior county officials implicated in massive loss of funds meant to airlift 202 students to three Finnish Universities - Tampere, Jvaskyla and Laurea - to step aside pending investigations of the Uasin Gishu Overseas Education Trust Account by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC).

“The officials of the trust fund implicated in the loss of funds have to step aside to allow EACC investigators to carry out forensic audit and take action against those responsible for the mess,” said Mr Bii.

The ad-hoc committee of the County Assembly formed in February to investigate the scam recommended investigations on the managers of the overseas education account for forgery, abuse of office and integrity.

They include Mr Joseph Maritim, the immediate former Chief Officer in the department of Youth and Sports and Principal Trustee, Mr Joel Ruto, Director, Uasin Gishu County Education Revolving Fund and Trustee, Mr Meshack Rono-Deputy Director, Uasin Gishu County Revolving Fund and Trustee among others.

“The EACC team is already probing the program account at the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) and it will table its report and recommendation within 30 days,” said the administrator while urging parents to pay fees to facilitate smooth learning of their children in the foreign universities.

The devolved unit has put on hold further overseas education programs until proper policies are put in place.

“Apart from students who have acquired necessary documentation on similar education programs, we shall have no fresh engagements with other countries like Canada until proper policy/framework is established,” said Mr Bii.

In March 2022, then Uasin Gishu Governor Jackson Mandago signed an agreement with Northern Lights College in Canada for the scholarship program, after launching a similar program with Finnish universities and colleges that would later be hit by scandals.

The Gilbert Chepkonga-led committee has endorsed the recovery of the looted money to support some of the students who are stranded in Finnish universities.

The committee asked Chief Executive Officer of Maxglobal Group, Mr Cornelius Kiplagat whose firm acted as a link between the University of Tampere and the Uasin Gishu County Government under the program to refund Sh267,599.50 he received from the overseas account.

Although Mr Kiplagat told the committee that he was promised Sh500,000 as a token of appreciation by then Governor Mandago, it established that Maxglobal was paid 267,599.50 via a cheque no.297 dated July 5, 2022 from the Uasin Gishu Overseas Trust Account.

“The CEO Maxglobal group to refund the money paid to him out of the overseas Education Trust and any other money received as a token. The monies be deposited in the same account because it is parents’ money,” stated the report.

The committee further wants KCB to investigate and take necessary action against its staff for professional negligence by allowing the Uasin Gishu Overseas Education Trust Account to be opened without conducting diligence.

The report reveals that some trustees benefitted financially from withdrawals from the Uasin Gishu Overseas Education trust fund Account although they are not entitled to a monetary benefit.

The committee further wants the County Attorney, Stephen Lel, to step aside pending investigations for professional negligence.

“The County Attorney failed to advise the County Government in his capacity as the principal legal advisor about the program and its consequences,” said the report.

They want the Advocates’ Complaints Commission to investigate Mr Lel and recommend appropriate action taken against him.

While Tampere university issued notice to send home 111 students at the facility for defaulting paying fees, Laurea and Jvaskyla universities have given the 91 students up to the end of March to settle the fee or are kicked out of the country.

In a notice issued to Deputy Governor Eng John Barorot and Program Coordinator Meshack Ronoh, Laurea university has set tough conditions to extend the deadline for the payments of fees for some of the programs until April 15 2023.

“After discussing the matter with the board of Laurea University of Applied Sciences, Laurea will extend the payment deadline of second-semester tuition fees until March 31st, on the condition that Uasin Gishu County will enter into a written agreement with each of the students or student’s parents and that Uasin Gishu County will send a copy of each of these agreements to Laurea,” stated Jouni Koski, the President Laurea University of Applied Sciences.

It has however put on hold studies for students pursuing nursing and physiotherapy until the tuition fees for the second semester are paid, putting the devolved unit on the spot over the scholarship program.

“No teaching is arranged for these groups while they are on hold. The second semester for these groups will start after Laurea has received the tuition fees.,” said the notice adding that the information about the terminated right to study will automatically flow to the Finnish Immigration Service Migri through electronic systems, which will be followed by canceling of the residence permits.

According to the notice, Laurea university administration will only readmit the students after fees for their second semester have been paid and there is a risk they might not be allowed by Finnish authorities to enter the country.

“Should the tuition fees not be paid until March 31, 2023, and the students would lose their right to study and their residence permit, it would be better for Laurea, Uasin Gishu County, and the students themselves that the students are in Kenya and not in Finland,” added the demand notice.

The Laurea University of Applied Science turned down a request by the Uasin Gishu County Government to negotiate for an extension of the deadline to pay fees for students studying at Skill Dove and Forenom institutions arguing that they are not privy to the agreements.

“Laurea Board has explored the means and options available to find a solution, and the conditions described in this letter are non-negotiable,” said the notice.

Governor Bii has admitted that Tampere University did not agree to extend the deadline of 28th February and that they have ended the cooperation with the devolved unit.

He however disclosed that the university management is willing to continue with the program if the parents meet their obligations of paying fees.

“We have engaged with financial institutions and some are willing to offer a soft loan to parents who are willing to pay fees for their children,” disclosed Mr Bii.

He has convened a crisis executive meeting tomorrow (Thursday) to deliberate after receiving a report from the County Assembly ad hoc committee formed in February to investigate the scandal.

The administrator disclosed that the devolved array of measures to address the matter included opening Bank Sub Account on the main Trust Account at the Kenya Commercial Bank, for each cohort and with parents being signatories.

“The parents have an obligation to pay fees by March 31 2023. We have held series of meetings with universities both physical and online where we have informed them that the County offered guarantee but the parents were responsible for payment of fees,” said Mr Bii.

The program suffered a major blow after a county committee endorsed its suspension after unearthing how parents lost colossal sums of money in a Finnish airlift scandal by the devolved unit where scores of students are stranded in the foreign country.