April 23, 2013

Transparency takes new meaning in Bayelsa

BY Samuel Oyadongha

Governor Serikae Dickson’s monthly briefings on the state of the finances of Bayelsa State is an unusual sign of hope for those inclined towards transparency.

When Governor Seriake Dickson promised at his inauguration on February 14, 2012 to give a monthly account of the administration’s income and expenditure many believed it was cheap talk.

However, when he not too long later forwarded a bill to the State House of Assembly to make it an impeachable offence not to give the account, many began to take him even more seriously.

Indeed under the law passed by the Bayelsa State House of Assembly last year the failure by the governor to render the account of the state’s finances in two months is an impeachable offence.

Indeed, for the first time in the history of the state, Bayelsans are told the state’s monthly income and expenditure at monthly briefings styled as Transparency Briefing.

Transparency briefing
Dickson, whose election was seen as a coronation by his opponents due to the alleged influence of President Goodluck Jonathan in ensuring his smooth ride to the ‘Creek Haven’ has surprised those who believed he was an imposition and does not have the quality to pull the state out of the woods.

Fondly called the ‘Countryman Governor’, his zero tolerance campaign on corruption and decision to entrench due process in the use of public funds has not only earned him the sobriquet “super glue” but also earned him popular confidence.

The civil society organisations have been impressed by his cautious and purposeful approach to governance and have lauded what they term the most pragmatic innovations in governance culture of the state which is pursuant to the promises made by the governor during his electioneering campaign to initiate the Bayelsa State Income and Expenditure Transparency Bill along with the Bayelsa State Fiscal Responsibility (Amendment) Bill.

*Gov Seriake Dickson

*Gov Seriake Dickson

The Bayelsa State Income and Expenditure Transparency Bill 2012 and the Bayelsa State Fiscal Responsibility (Amendment) Bill 2012, according to Governor Dickson, was intended to entrench transparency and accountability in the business of governance and also place at the doorstep of the people, the right to inquire about any aspect of the government of the day.

Transparency Bill
The governor also directed that with the passage of the Transparency Bill into Law, the eight council chairmen should like the state government, render account of their stewardship, including the state of finance of their local government areas, to the people.

The immediate past Secretary of Civil Liberties Organisation in Bayelsa State, Comrade Alagoa Morris, one of the most outspoken and respected human rights/environmental activists in the state, who though is critical of some of the governor’s policies has lauded Dickson for making public the state monthly income and expenditure.

Also others have argued that the governor’s much vaunted war against sleaze is nothing but a smokescreen to curry popular support insisting that in spite of the media hype about his acclaimed anti graft crusade no single official linked to the rot in the state civil service had been convicted to serve as deterrent to other corrupt officials.

According to this school of thought, government should not only ensure the prosecution and conviction of all indicted officers but also ensure the forfeiture of their ill-gotten wealth to the state.

Though some of the bold progressive decisions and pronouncements of the administration have caused pain to the civil servants such as the new tax regime but they have been patient with the administration reform which they believe would help the state to develop.

Interestingly, the new tax regime has brought about sharp increase in the state IGR from a paltry N50m to N300m.

Dickson, who also noted that the “Local Government Amendment Law 2012” was to streamline the administration of the local government system, said no political appointee is expected to be a signatory to any council account.

Govt spending
Also conscious of the implication of the bloated wage bill the government took concrete steps to address this malady blamed for stifling development in the state by evolving measures aimed at drastically cutting down on the wage bill said to be second to that of Lagos State in spite of Bayelsa’s sparse population.

The move by the present administration so far has led to a drastic reduction of the wage bill from the initial N5.4bn to N3.7bn. Even then, the verification process to ascertain and weed out ghost workers from the civil service is on going and it is believed that at the end of the exercise, the wage bill will be further scaled down to make available funds for capital projects.

The present administration has also taken the bold initiative to institutionalize the culture of savings in government with the opening of two separate strategic bank accounts. The first is the Bayelsa State Strategic Development Project Account.

The second account is the Bayelsa State Strategic Reserve and Savings Account. As the name implies, this account according to the state governor is an interest yielding account dedicated to providing savings for the raining day, a form of stabilization for the state’s economy in the event of any unforeseen shock.

The Bayelsa State Compulsory Savings Bill 2012 (already passed by the State House of Assembly), makes it mandatory for the state to make savings in this account. By the provision of the proposed bill, funds in the account cannot be accessed by anybody, except for specific purposes and only with 2/3rd approval of the State House of Assembly.

There is also the proposed State Reserves Funds Management Council to be composed of persons of proven integrity, which will advise government on the utilization of this fund.

It was against this backdrop of the administration’s desire to enforce fiscal discipline in governance that Governor Dickson last Friday announced that the state would no longer fund the Africa Movies Academy Awards (AMAA).

The state government annual hosting of AMAA, a private initiative, which premiered in Bayelsa in 2005 had been criticized as drain on the resources.

According to him, the state Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) had increased from N50 million to N1 billion monthly.

Dismissing the alleged imposition of stringent taxes on civil servants, the governor said, “we didn’t impose any tax on civil servants. We only applied the Personal Income Tax Act as approved and implemented by the federal government.

According to him, government is currently making efforts to address the ghost workers syndrome in the state civil service.

The governor, however, assured Bayelsans that his administration would spend the tax revenues on developmental projects.