A clearer focus and better oversight are needed to win the trust of the people
Increasingly, there are mounting instances of tardiness on issues of transparency and accountability in public office and institutions of government. This becomes even more troubling when the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF) that is ordinarily responsible for ensuring a proper accounting system in all departments of government also finds it difficult to keep to good standards. Recently, the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, relying on the Auditor General of Nigeria’s report, queried the AGF, Idris Ahmed, for failure to disclose details of N57.6 billion federal government grants. The money was given to states and foreign governments, public and privately-owned companies, academic institutions and international agencies since 2017. While Idris reportedly promised to make the list of the beneficiaries available in March, 2019, he is yet to do so. This is the same Idris who within 24 hours last year commenced the implementation of the controversial Finance Act 2020 Value Added Tax (VAT). The non-disclosure of details of federal government grants and contributions, according to the Senate audit report, “will cast doubt on the authenticity and actual usage of such grants and contributions.”
Unfortunately, such allegations of financial infractions have become so rife that many Nigerians hardly care anymore. Many government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are riddled with financial wrongdoings as they breach accounting procedures with impunity. Indeed, the 2017 report of the Office of Auditor-General of the Federation on which strength the Senate raised the recent query cited several sharp practices ranging from irregular expenditures to failure to surrender surplus revenues to the treasury, all running into billions of naira. There were also details of unauthorised deductions from money due to the federation account by revenue collecting agencies, irregularities in payment and expenditure, irregularities in contract award and execution.
Even the Ministry of Justice is involved in overriding the necessary provisions in the law as it was accused of disbursing billions of naira without following due process. Perhaps more frustrating, previously identified lapses have not been adequately addressed leading to a situation of repeated violations. For instance, the executive summary of the report noted that 160 agencies defaulted in submission of audited accounts for 2016. But the number of defaulting agencies increased to 265 in 2017 while 11 agencies have never bothered to submit any financial statements since inception. Yet they have continued to receive appropriations from the National Assembly. So we ask: will the present query make any difference? Will it curb the recklessness on constant display in every arm of government?
That may be difficult because of the worrying trend. The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) chairman, Bolaji Owasanoye, said recently that there was budget manipulation by most MDAs which resulted in their receiving both appropriation and releases beyond their actual needs. In 2019, for instance, ICPC reviewed 208 agencies funded from the federal treasury and discovered N31.8bn personnel cost surpluses for 2017 and 2018, and misapplication of N19.8bn and N9.2bn from personnel cost and capital fund respectively. “This implies”, according to the ICPC, “that if we had covered the entire civil service structure of all MDAs the figures would be staggering”.
In the last few years the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (NEITI) has been canvassing the need for more openness in the oil and gas sector, the main revenue earner for the economy. Even with all the so-called reforms, the NNPC is a habitual offender because it is still largely opaque in its operations. But if the office of the Accountant General of the Federation (AGF)cannot be transparent in its dealings, how can it hold to account individuals and groups who are undermining the system?
As unfortunate as it may seem, what the senate report has done is to further reinforce the perception that many of our critical agencies and institutions are so well-heeled in unwholesome practices. That is not good enough for an administration that came to power with a pledge to instill accountability and transparency in the public arena.
If the office of the Accountant General of the Federation cannot be transparent in its dealings, how can it hold to account individuals and groups who are undermining the system?