By Ekemini Simon
Almost everything that should make the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly digitally compliant has been provided for on paper.
IN 2016, the State House of Assembly budgeted N100 million for the acquisition and installation of HP high tech multi-server audio transmitter/speakers system to link its chambers with members’ offices. These transmitters are digital wireless equipment which could enable state legislators to easily communicate between their offices and the chambers where plenary is held.
In the same year, N85 million was also set aside for the “Computerization/ Networking of Assembly Complex/ Provision of ICT BroadBand for the Complex”. Broadband in ICT stems from the word broad bandwidth. It applies to network which carries multiple channels of data (signal) ranging from moving images, sound or text.
Interestingly, the Accountant General’s Report with audited financial statements for 2016 shows that the acquisition and installation of HP High Tech Multi-Server Audio Transmitters/Speakers System to link chambers with offices received 100 percent disbursement of funds.
The report also revealed that an item tagged, “Computerization/ Networking of Assembly Complex/ Provision of ICT Broad Band for the Complex” had 40 percent performance with N34 million expended out of the N85 million budgeted.
The project was categorized under an umbrella sub-head tagged ” Computerization/ Networking of Assembly Complex/ Provision of internet services/Development of AKHA Information Park (Website).
In spite of the recorded expenditures, five years after, investigations reveal that such items do not exist. Moreover, the State Assembly does not have a functional website despite repeated calls by the civil society organisations and citizens.
Government fails to provide evidence of spending
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Clerk of the House of Assembly, Mmandu Umoren, Accountant General, Uwem Andrew-Essien, and Commissioner for Finance, Nsikan Nkan, which sought information and evidence of the said spending were not responded to.
The FOIA request to these offices specifically requested for detailed information and documents on the existence of these projects, including location of the projects at the assembly complex, receipt for purchased items, the list of bidders for the projects, the name of the suppliers/contractors, approval letters for the contracts, date of completion and inauguration of the projects as well as the state of the projects.
House members in evasive tactics
This reporter contacted the Chairman, House of Assembly Committee on House Services, Effiong Bassey. Bassey’s committee oversights facilities within the State House of Assembly but he did not respond to calls put across to his known phone line in mid – October and subsequent text and WhatsApp messages sent on October 21.
When our reporter finally caught up with him in his office on October 25, Bassey acknowledged that he had seen the request for information sent to him but forwarded it to the Chairman, House Committee on Information, Aniefiok Dennis, claiming it is his responsibility to speak on the matter.
“The Chairman, House Committee on Information, should be the one making use of those facilities. He should be the one speaking on it, he stated.”
This Newspaper reminded the House committee chairman that he oversights facilities at the premises and was better placed to give information on whether they exist or not, but he responded that they exist.
When asked to show the reporter where the facilities are as he claimed, he promised to get back to the reporter on October 27 after liaising with Hon. Dennis. Further reminders through calls, text and WhatsApp messages were not responded to as at the time of filing this report.
However, sources within the House Services Committee whose identity cannot be disclosed because of fear of victimization said the facilities do not exist.
Said one member: “We don’t have such items in the Assembly. Have you seen them yourself? Would it have even been necessary to have ICT gadgets where House members would stay in the chambers and speak to people in the offices? For what exactly? How long do we stay in plenary? Even the simplest thing as a website, the House of Assembly does not have. Is it that one we will have?”
Earlier on October 23, The Mail Newspaper had contacted the Chairman, House Committee on Information, Aniefiok Dennis who dodged questions about the location of the items that were reportedly purchased.
He said he was attending the National Conference of the Nigerian Bar Association and would get back to this reporter at his earliest convenience. He neither reached out to this reporter nor responded to calls and text message as at the time of filing this report.
Controversial N30 million spent on new Speaker’s lodge
Another questionable expenditure in the House of Assembly is the construction of Speakers’ lodge. Alongside other projects such as the construction of Deputy Speaker’s lodge and permanent resident for principal officers, the sum total of N755 million was budgeted in 2019. For the Speaker’s Lodge alone, a whopping N183 million was budgeted.
Checks into the state 2014 Appropriation Law shows that the project was conceived as a “storey building with boys’ quarters” and has appeared in subsequent budget since then. The project had a drawdown in 2019 as only N30 million was spent representing 16.4 percent of the total budgeted sum.
A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and a follow-up reminder to the Clerk of the House of Assembly Mmandu Umoren, Accountant General Uwem Andrew-Essien, and Commissioner Ministry of Finance Nsikan Nkan which sought information and evidence of the spending on the project were not responded to.
Chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations and Finance, Uduak Odudoh, whose committee has oversight powers on the finance ministry, said the classification of the project may have been mistaken. He said what may have been intended is renovation of the existing lodge of the Speaker.
“I think the problem there is that of mistaken classification. I am aware that the current Speaker’s Lodge was furnished when he took over in 2019.”
Odudoh’s claim is puzzling. In the audited report of 2019, there is a clear line item for the furnishing of the speaker’s residence currently in use with N6 million. No amount was recorded as spent. Besides, the current Speakers’ Lodge is a bungalow not a storey building as described in the budget.
When contacted, the Speaker, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, Aniekan Bassey, gave indication to what the project actually is and its proposed location. He said the governor had informed him that he is going to build a new Speakers’ Lodge which will accommodate other principal officers, hence he believes the N30 Million has been used for the project.
When asked about the exact location of the project, the Speaker said he was informed that the project would be cited beside the Council of Chiefs Complex at Barracks Road, Uyo. The said axis is a Government Reserved Area (GRA) where the Government House, State High Court, Prison and Secretariat for Traditional Rulers are located.
When The Mail Newspaper visited the location, there was no indication of commencement of the project two years after disbursement of fund. The entire landscape remains undeveloped.
Interestingly, the project has even assumed a different dimension according to the 2021 budget. Checks showed that the project has now been re-christened as “Construction of Assembly Village” with a budget of N120 million. In the breakdown, N50 million was budgeted for design while N70 million went to construction. These line items, especially “design,” raise questions as to what the N30 million in 2019 was spent on when the project was not yet designed.
Web of secrecy, evasiveness within government
The State Assembly Clerk, Accountant General and Commissioner of Finance were all evasive in presenting evidence of spending though their respective offices acknowledged receipt of the FOIA requests which were accompanied by reminders.
The Freedom of Information Act 2011 was passed by the National Assembly on May 24, 2011, and assented to by former President Goodluck Jonathan on May 28, 2011. The FOI Act supersedes the Official Secrets Act (OSA) which most government officials latch on to evade providing necessary information to the public.
“Public servants are custodians of a public trust on behalf of a population who have a right to know what they do,” a section of the FOIA states.
However, in Akwa Ibom, many public officials still refuse to disclose details of their activities or offices as required by the FOI Act. The Act mandates public officials and even private entities of public interest to reply to public-interest requests in seven days.
Besides the FOIA request, our reporter visited the Clerk’s office on October 14 and 25 requesting for an interview on the matter. On both occasions, the Clerk through her staff declined a session on the pretext of being indisposed.
Similarly, The Mail Newspaper on October 20 paid a visit to the Accountant General, Uwem Andrew-Essien, to get clarification on the matter. After two hours wait, the Accountant General through his Information Officer informed this newspaper that he too was indisposed. Yet, the same thing was not said to other persons who were in the waiting room and had gone in at different times to see him.
Our reporter finally met Mr. Andrew-Essien at the 2022 budget presentation by the state governor at the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly on October 25 and requested for an interview. He told our reporter to reach him on phone the next day. Yet, calls put through to him the next day and text and WhatsApp messages requesting information and evidence on the expenditure, were not responded to.
In the same vein, when The Mail Newspaper contacted the finance commissioner, Nsikan Nkan, in his office on October 20, he claimed not to have seen the FOIA request sent on October 14.
Nkan requested The Mail Newspaper to pen down the details of the information requested. This was done immediately and handed over personally to him. Nkan promised to give feedback the next day but didn’t. Calls put across by The Mail Newspaper for reminders were ignored and not responded to.
On October 26, this reporter reached out again through text message reminding the commissioner of the request for spending evidence. Through a text message, he repeated that he was yet to see the FOIA request sent to his office. A WhatsApp message containing the said FOIA request and reminder was shared with him immediately.
In response, in a dramatic twist of event, Mr Nkan queried the reporter’s effrontery for requesting for information about contracts and government spending from him. He warned our reporter against directing further request and questions to him.
“Let me tell you, I don’t like that nonsense you wrote to me. Listen to me carefully. If you are an investigator, don’t you know how they offer contracts in government? Don’t you know Accountant General’s office to ask for information? Why did you send that kind of nonsense text to me? Don’t try it again. Don’t ever try that nonsense again, otherwise I will let you know who I am. Do I issue contracts in Akwa Ibom State? Am I Accountant General that keeps record? What kind of nonsense is that? You don’t know the process of carrying out investigation since you are an investigator?”
It was gathered, however, through competent sources that some of the funds retired without evidence of spending were Greek gifts to the assembly members by the executive for allowing some requests sail through legislative approvals.
“There are times the governor would need the legislature to do some things for him like some controversial approvals. Money would always pass under the bridge for that to be done. Those funds do not pass-through official channels and they must be retired through subheads”, a senior civil servant in the finance ministry who cannot be named in this report for security concerns said.
According to the source, “Such funds from the backdoor are the oil that lubricates the relationship between the executive and legislature. You do not expect the executive to retire the fund through his office. He must do it through that of the people who enjoyed the money. It is only that those funds were not properly retired, that is why you can trace them that easily”.
Akwa Ibom State bedeviled by weak accountability mechanism
The Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly have been found wanting in their oversight on government expenditures. Section 128 of the 1999 constitution as amended confers the House of Assembly with powers to oversight on government spending.
The Chairman, House of Assembly Committee on Appropriations and Finance in the 6th Assembly, Usoro Akpanusoh and his counterpart in the 7th Assembly, Uduak Odudoh, whose committee has oversight powers on the Ministry of Finance, said their committee cannot take full responsibility for how government funds are spent.
“Our duty is basically to work on the passage of budget. After that, each member who is a member of different committees plays the oversight function as it relates to the ministry in their purview”, Akpanusoh noted.
Odudoh on his part added, “Admittedly, we are the committee on finance. But that does not mean we do not have various committees in the House which also oversight. However, if you have where you feel are grey areas, write to the committee and we will look at it”.
Furthermore, section 125 (2) of the 1999 Constitution as amended gives the Auditor-General of the State the responsibility to conduct preliminary oversight after government expenditures are presented by the Accountant General. The section states that: “The public accounts of a State and of all offices and courts of the State shall be audited by the Auditor-General for the State who shall submit his reports to the House of Assembly of the State concerned…”
When the Mail Newspaper through FOIA request enquired why the Office of the State Auditor General failed to record the highlighted financial irregularities in its reports, the State Auditor General in its response dated October 26, 2021 appeared reserved.
The Mail Newspaper precisely requested supporting evidence presented to the State Auditor General’s Office for auditing on the execution of the projects. The news medium also requested to know why the non-execution of these projects escaped queries in the Auditor General’s report for the fiscal years under consideration.
In a response signed by the Deputy Director (Audit) Isaiah Ntekim for the State Auditor General, he noted ” You are advised to request for information from the relevant MDA under the Freedom of Information Act 2011 as the said evidence/documents are with them.”
CSO calls on accountability actors to be interested in highlighted financial irregularities
Policy Alert, a Civil Society Organisation (CSO) working on fiscal governance called on the media, civil society organisations among other accountability actors to show more interest and get to the root of the questionable spending.
In an interview with this newspaper, the Executive Director of Policy Alert, Tijah Bolton-Akpan, said it is of serious concern that the House of Assembly, which is an accountability institution, is caught in the web of questionable spending.
He said that it is possible that the executive could have pushed funds to the legislature informally and later seek budget lines for cover-ups or the executive had disbursed the funds and then use the House of Assembly to retire them.
Bolton-Akpan added, “Whichever way, this will be a very serious affront on the legislature and integrity of public finance system of the state. It is something that really needs to be investigated to the later.
“This has become a serious cause for concern and shows why we have not had any firm oversight by the legislative arm of government. When things like this happen, it should be the legislature asking questions.
“But when within the legislature you get this kind of budgetary infractions, where is the moral authority for them to question the executive? Drawing down funds without utilizing it for the purpose they were earmarked is criminal and something that should not be taken likely.”
Bolton-Akpan recommends the House of Assembly to activate its internal mechanism of holding itself to account to earn public confidence.
This is the concluding part of a two-part series on how corrupt government officials in Akwa Ibom State diverted millions of naira of public funds through the State House of Assembly.
* This investigation is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting *