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How Akwa Ibom State govt schemed to legalise cover-up of financial irregularities

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By Ekemini Simon

Before the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly is a bill for a law to establish the Akwa Ibom State Audit Commission, Offices of the Auditor-General for Akwa Ibom State and Auditor-General for Local Governments and for other related matters connected therewith.

This bill, which was read the first time on the floor of the House of Assembly on Tuesday, June 22, 2021, is an executive bill. The bill was read the second time the next day on Wednesday, June 23, and committed to the House of Assembly Committee  on Public Accounts to study it and report back to the House within one month.

The importance of Audit Commission Law

During the second reading, the Leader of the House Udo Akpan noted that when passed into law, the bill would align financial audit of the state with world best practices.

While noting that the auditing machineries of government should be an independent organ for effective result, he said the bill had provided duties and structures of the auditing machineries to make them operate independently.

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On his part, Chairman of Appropriations and Finance of the House Uduak Odudoh said the bill, when passed into law, would facilitate international grants to the purse of the state government.

Chairman of Public Accounts Charity Ido said the bill, when passed, would not only enhance audit performance of the Auditor-General but serve as a tool to aid the functions of the House Committee on Public Accounts.

The above points are corroborated by experts on public finance and fiscal governance who appraised the bill. For instance, a civil society organisation working on fiscal justice said it had over the years agitated for the bill.

According to the Project Officer of the organisation Mfon Gabriel, during his presentation at the public hearing for the bill, said with exception of few sections, overwhelming sections of the bill aligned with the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.

“We are pleased to observe that finally a bill for a law to establish the Akwa Ibom State Audit Commission, Offices of the Auditor-General for Akwa Ibom State and Auditor-General for Local Governments and for other matters connected therewith is laid before this hallowed assembly for enactment. It means our demand and advocacy have been heard loud and clear. We appreciate the sponsors of this bill immensely.”

On the part of Civil Liberties Organisation, Akwa Ibom State branch, “The Bill seeks to foster probity, transparency and accountability in the management of State funds through the establishment of an Audit Commission for Akwa Ibom State and strengthening of the offices of Auditors-General of the State and the Local Governments.”

Secretary of the organisation Christopher Ekpo, who made the presentation, noted that elaborate provisions were enshrined in the bill to ensure the independence and the distinct legal personality of the Office of Auditor-General.

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Yet, a thorough analysis of the bill indicates that when passed into law, it will help address perennial challenges noticed in the office of the Auditor-General.

It could be recalled that we had, in our investigative story weeks ago, reported the challenges faced by the Office of the Auditor General. We noted that in Part V of the 2019 published Auditor-General’s report, the office complained of poor staff strength, accommodation problem, and lack of training for staff.

Part of the demand stated: “The Government should, as a matter of urgency, approve the employment of more junior staff to enable the office function effectively. The State Auditor-General’s office is still confronted with accommodation problem.

“The office space of this rented building continues to be congested and inadequate for effective performance of work. Many officers do not have offices to work in, thus impacting negatively on staff morale and productivity.

“There is need for training and retraining of staff to keep itself abreast with the current changes in the Accounting Profession. It is hoped that His Excellency will approve the release of funds for this purpose in subsequent year.”

We had also reported that “analysis of the financial statements of the state shows that funding of the Auditor-General’s office nosedived under Governor Udom Emmanuel’s administration. For instance, in 2015 which was the year Governor Akpabio and Governor Emmanuel respectively served as Governor, the office received N920m as capital expenditure out of N1.9b budgeted.”

“It was a reverse when Governor Emmanuel took over fully in 2016. The financial statement for the fiscal year shows that funding for capital expenditure dropped in the office of the Auditor-General to N35m out of N1.2b budgeted. In 2018, the office received N50m while in 2019 it received N50m.”

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Experts who are conversant with the bill noted that the provisions in the bill would address these challenges. Interestingly, checks into the 2021 Appropriation Law shows that the state government has already made budgetary provisions for the commission pending its establishment.

The approved budget shows that N85.54m is appropriated for recurrent expenditure while N65m is for capital budget, thus making a total of N150.54m. This budgetary provision excludes the appropriation made for these two offices.

This provision, according to Policy Alert ,demonstrates that government is positive that the bill will not just pass but will also get executive assent while hitting the ground running on implementation.

Be that as it may, there is an ugly side to this bill if all sections are given nod for passage.

 

The Controversial Section 31

Section 31 (2) of the bill provides: “If at any time, it appears to the State Auditor-General that any irregularities have occurred in the receipt, custody or expenditure of public monies or in the receipt, custody, issue, sale, transfer or delivery of any securities, stores or other Government property, or in the accounting of same, he shall immediately bring the matter to the notice of the Governor or the Accounting Officer of the affected Ministry or Agency and to any other officer he may deem fit.”

A thorough analysis of this section shows that Section 31, if passed into law, may somersault from force of good to bad.

For instance, to “immediately bring the matter to the notice of the Governor…” implies that the Auditor-General is under the control of the governor as he will await further instruction or directive after bringing the discovery to his attention.

This is contrary to the provisions of Section 125 (6) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, which states, “In the exercise of his functions under this Constitution, the Auditor-General for a State shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person.”

Furthermore, the position of the section which states that irregularities discovered in expenditure of public monies should be reported to the governor or ministry involved is antithetical to the provision of Section 125 (2) of the 1999 Constitution as amended which states:

“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…”

The constitution does not prescribe submission of irregularities to the governor, but the House of Assembly.

Experts on public finance and fiscal governance, who appraised the section of the bill, agreed that the provision limited the powers of the Auditor-General, caused blackout for the legislature in carrying out its oversight on public finance and was also a scheme towards legalising cover-up of financial irregularities in the state.

This position was was part of the memo presented by Project Officer of Policy Alert, Mfon Gabriel, at the public hearing for the bill held on Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Policy Alert, in its memo, queried the rationale  behind channeling discovered irregularities to the executive, instead of the legislature, as provided by law.

The organisation noted: “This gives room for cover-up and it takes the power of oversight from the State House of Assembly as provided for in Section 128 and 129 of the Nigerian Constitution as amended. If the bill scales through with this section, in fact, it is going to be against public interest.

“Policy Alert is recommending that irregularities discovered should be stated in the State Auditor-General’s report and should be submitted to the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Assembly,  then before the committee of the whole for necessary and adequate sanctions.”

Speaker Aniekan Bassey of Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly.

The plot to cover up controversial provision

 

Findings reveal that the executive schemed the section with intention to cover up government financial irregularities from the public. Recently, there have been investigative reports anchored on government financial documents which exposed corruption, among other financial irregularities, by the state government.

Our source from the Legal Drafting Unit of the Ministry of Justice, who cannot be named in this report for safety reasons, disclosed that the controversial section was designed to handle financial irregularities in-house.

“Government is now aware that the public, especially Journalists, are now interested in financial documents of the state. And recently these documents have been used for reports that have indicted the government badly. So, our department was instructed to design a clause that will limit those irregularities from going public. That is the reason you see that section.

“If the Auditor-General sees those irregularities and reports back to the ministry, it will be easy to put the house in order. And you won’t be able to find those issues in the Accountant General’s report since it can be corrected. Of course, there is no way you will find big queries in the Auditor-General’s report. Through that provision, what happens in Vegas ends in Vegas.”

When contacted, Akwa Ibom State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice Uko Udom (SAN) was evasive on the issue, claiming ignorance of the section of the bill.

“I don’t think you expect me to answer you. Number one, I don’t conduct interviews on phone. Second, I was not at the public hearing. So, I don’t know what you are talking about hence I can’t make any comment.”

When this reporter reminded him that the bill was an executive bill which originated from his office, he insisted, ” Sorry, I cannot make any comment.”

Also, a source from the House of Assembly, who cannot be named in this report for safety reasons, disclosed that when there were controversial issues in a bill, most times accelerated hearing would be used as a cover to make the bill sail through and foreclose public scrutiny.

The source, who is a lawmaker, added: “When accelerated hearing is given like the way it is done in this bill, you have to know that there is something behind it. Another thing we do to save the bill from strict public scrutiny is the kind of organisations we invite for public hearing and most importantly the time period we allow people have access to the bill before hearing.

“When we delay your access to the bill before public hearing, there is a strong likelihood that you won’t have time to scrutinise it well, hence your contributions during public hearing will be limited. Make your findings about the time the bill was given to the civil society organisations and those invited. That will make you understand the motive behind some sections of the bill.”

The revelation by the lawmaker is partly public knowledge. The bill was read the first time at plenary on Tuesday, June 22, 2021. The bill was read for the second time the next day, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. Public hearing for the bill held the following day, Thursday, June 24, 2021. The house has ordered Public Account Committee to study the bill and report back to it within one month.

 

CSOs kick

During the public hearing, Policy Alert observed that, unlike other times, it was neither invited nor given a copy of the bill for contributions at public hearing.

Gabriel noted: “We must observe that we only got information informally about today’s public hearing yesterday evening, and had a copy of the proposed bill only this morning, which is suggestive that a stakeholder like Policy Alert that is a champion for reforms around public finance management in this state is deliberately schemed out of a very important legislation like this. This has affected the robust input we would have made in this bill if we had sufficient time to engage and interrogate the document.”

The same concern is expressed by another civil society organisation, Akwa Ibom Human Rights Community. Although its officials attended the public hearing, they could not present their memo.  When contacted, Coordinator of the Organisation Clifford Thomas complained that delay in access to the bill impeded the organisation’s contribution.

“They gave me that bill about 12 hours to the public hearing. That hampered my contribution. But I’m doing a memo that I’ll send to the committee. When the House intends to hold a public hearing, the bill should be given at least a week to the public hearing so that people could make contributions and could study the bill.

“If you don’t give the bill on time, it implies that you don’t need contributions and you just want to fulfill all righteousness. But if they need contributions, it would be given at most a week to the date of the public hearing. Even when we were there, we were not given opportunity to talk. They came up with excuses that there is no time. What is the essence of the public hearing if you don’t want to give the Public the time to talk?”

When contacted, the Chairman of Civil Liberties Organisation Franklyn Isong complained over the shortness of time for the consideration of the bill.

He said, “We received the bill a day to the public hearing. But because of the importance of the bill, we didn’t allow the shortness of time to discourage us from making contributions. Going forward, because of the importance of public hearing, there is a need to always give notice on time and a copy of the bill attached to the notice at least a week before public hearing.”

 

House of Assembly Reacts

At the Public hearing, the Speaker of the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly Aniekan Bassey claimed that transferring the discovered irregularities to the concerned ministries involved and the governor would not lead to cover-up.

Represented by the Deputy Speaker Felicia Bassey, the House helmsman noted, “When it finally comes to Public Accounts, people are meant to answer and properly dealt with. So, don’t think he covers anything. We are here to do the last clearing and people have gone in for it.”

When the reporter  contacted the Chairman of the Public Account Committee Charity Ido, whose committee the bill is before, she did not respond to calls and a text message sent to her known phone line.

However, when reporter reached out to the Chairman of the House of Assembly Committee on Information Aniefiok Dennis, he said that the House would take into consideration the concerns raised during public hearing.

“The essence of public hearing is to get inputs from the public. The genuine concerns raised and inputs made during the public hearing are highly appreciated and would be considered during the third reading. This Assembly cannot take the inputs of the public for granted.”

Commenting on the controversial speed given in the consideration of the bill, the House Committee on Information Chairman noted, “That bill is simply domesticated. There is no need to delay it unnecessarily. If we do not give accelerated hearing to bills, people will complain. If we give, people still complain. So, we are taking every step rightly. What matters is giving the state a good and acceptable bill. We are on course on that.”

 

 

 

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