Accountability in states with World Bank assistance – Punch

To improve the management of public funds and create a dam against graft, the World Bank has just released $750 million to deepen the States Fiscal Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability programme. The Federal Government introduced the scheme in 2017 in partnership with the bank to benefit the 36 states.

In total, 33 states will be involved in this second phase of the programme after 24 of them had participated in the first stage. Already, a 17-member committee has been set up by the Federal Government to steer it. The Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed, said $700 million out of the money was set aside for the programme, while the balance of $50 million would be used to finance technical assistance to enable the states achieve specified “Disbursement Linked Indicators,” a necessary condition for accessing the loan.

This is a critical project, given how the public treasury is being despoiled and personalised across the states by governors, public officials and civil servants. This is confirmed in information put in the public space by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission after these officials had vacated office. Three former governors are currently in jail for abuse of office, just as three others had previously been convicted at home and abroad for a similar offence.

Routinely, contract awards do not follow due process requirements: advertisement by the Tenders’ Board, open competitive bidding, architectural and engineering designs and 15 per cent mobilisation fee. The reason for these anomalies is that governors use cronies to execute the contracts. A discovery by a commission of enquiry recently in one of the states, for instance, unfurled a N36.9 billion contract signed by a Principal Staff Secretary of a former governor, while the purported contractor never signed his own portion of the document. Yet, he was paid and, after being financially mobilised, vanished. The abuse is rampant and intolerable.

It explains why service delivery is a mirage here. Bad roads, ill-equipped schools and hospitals, padded wage bills and security votes that are unaccounted for are emblems of bad governance at all levels, especially at state and local government levels. Allocations are collected from the monthly Federation Account Allocation Committee in Abuja and shared at the whims of state chief executives.

Strategies, therefore, that would roll back these governance maladies are welcome. The integration of technology in both private and public sector financial management has proved to enhance transparency and accountability. The offices of the states’ Auditor-General, Finance Ministries, Accountant-General, Inland Revenue Service and Budget units should be digitalised. Physical contact with cash should be reduced to the barest minimum. The adoption of the Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System has proved to be an effective e-platform for weeding out “ghost” workers. Many states have adopted it but need to entrench it in their systems.

The benefits of hindsight are critical in ensuring that the SFTAS’ second phase achieves the set goals. Guidance from the 17-member steering committee should take into account the advice from the World Bank SFTAS’ leader, Yue Man Lee, who wants those implementing it to look at the “successes and learning from the first annual performance assessment of the states by the Office of the Auditor-General as the independent verification agent.”

The office of the Auditor-General in a state is crucial to putting corrupt practices in check. Section 125 (4) of the 1999 Constitution states, “The Auditor-General for the State shall have power to conduct periodic checks of all government statutory corporations, commissions, authorities, agencies, including all persons and bodies established by a law of the  House of Assembly of the State.” After 90 days of receipt of the Accountant-General’s financial statement and annual accounts of the state, he submits the report to the assembly for consideration and approval of sanctions.

However, this has not worked in Nigeria since 1999, despite frequent lamentations by the Federal AGF about federal lawmakers’ refusal to undertake this obligation. It is doubtful if the case is different in the states. Paradoxically, a state assembly is empowered in Section 128 (2) (b) of the constitution “to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it,” through oversight and investigation.

Already, the Federal Government had launched the publication of public financial information through the Open Treasury Portal last year. Every state should adopt the measure. With it, the treasury will publish payments of at least N10 million, while all the Ministries, Departments and Agencies should publish payments above N5 million. “The information to be published must include the MDA responsible, the beneficiary, the purpose and amount of each payment, accounting officers are responsible for providing answers to any questions from the public relating to transactions completed by entities under their charge,” among other imperatives.

Sadly, states do not have their own anti-graft agencies to rein in those who abuse the public treasury. There is no reason for this lapse except corruption. This is why the departure in Oyo State, where its governor, Seyi Makinde, has established such an agency is laudable. In a federation of 36 states, it is delusory to think that the EFCC alone can win the fight against the scourge. State High Courts have the constitutional authority to try criminal and graft-related cases. The SFTAS should, therefore, encourage states to exploit the scheme.

The discovery of thousands of “ghost” workers across the states and loss of billions of naira thereof, without permanent secretaries and heads of the MDAs being held to account, should stop from being an odious article of faith in governance. Governance is all about service delivery to the people, but existing deficits are embarrassingly abysmal as the assault on public treasury continues to thrive. It, therefore, behoves all citizens to bear armour against the obscene tendency.

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