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Who works for whom: Understanding the contract between government and Nigerians

By Tabia Princewill

THE average Nigerian believes he or she is lucky to be alive, having escaped the myriad dangers and injustices that kill his or her countrymen on a daily basis, which encourages the grateful attitude towards public officials, no matter how little gets done.

A recent response by the Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, to a suit filed by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, SERAP, seeking “an order directing and/or compelling the government to publish details of spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refunds allegedly diverted and mismanaged by 35 states” points to the misunderstanding on the subject of who works for whom and who is owed respect.

Justice Muslim Hassan gave a ruling stating that it was necessary for the government “to come and tell us how they spent our money,” is a simple and direct way of putting it. Sadly, the masses to whom the Freedom of Information fight ultimately belongs have not yet taken ownership of these questions and realised their true role as stakeholders of the Nigerian project.

With so many states still owing salaries (some up to 40 months, one can only imagine how their employees cope and survive under such stress) the question of what exactly was done with the Paris Club Loan refunds can no longer be ignored, if we are serious about finding out why year in year out, the condition of the masses seemingly remains the same and some areas of Nigeria seem stagnant, with little development to justify the budgets voted and spent by states.

Ultimate employer

The Accountant General’s response insinuates that government in Nigeria, across all levels, is a clique which protects itself from scrutiny, one which believes it doesn’t need to explain itself to Nigerians, despite the voter being its ultimate employer.

Nigerians are yet to fully realise that government exists to serve them and not the opposite.

The Accountant General said: “the relationship between the Accountant General and the states is professional and confidential. It is a fiduciary one akin to that between a bank and its customer and allied professionals.

On that score, a record of the spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refunds by the 35 states is exempted from publication, assuming the Federal Government has the information sought by SERAP.”

First of all, the analogy is faulty. There is no equivalent of “doctor/patient confidentiality” because all parties work for the Nigerian people whose freedoms supersede them all.

The idea that the record of such huge spending with little benefits to the masses should remain secret is the cornerstone of our lack of progress in Nigeria.

Mr. Idris went on to say “the Accountant General does not have custody or possession of the information or record relating to the spending of N388.304 billion London Paris Club Loan refunds by 35 states which the government gave them.

The Accountant General did not release the funds to the states. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Accountant General argues that assuming we have the information sought, the government is not obliged to comply with the request.”

Is it possible that the office of the Accountant General does not have records of what the funds were used for? Were no questions asked before the funds were disbursed, no dialogues held?

Officials in this administration, led by a President whose chief goal has been to fight corruption, have embarrassed him one time too many. The Accountant General also said, “states have exclusive control over their revenue and expenditure and the Accountant General of the Federation cannot demand obligatorily from any tier of government including the 35 states information how they have spent the Paris Club refunds.”

If this is the practice in Nigeria, it runs contrary to the synergy between states and federating unity observable in other climes. In France, the “cour des comptes”, the highest audit institution in the country works in partnership with its local representative bodies to ensure satisfactory budget implementation and can be queried by the executive, legislative arms of government or the public. In the United States, there are a plethora of freely accessible government websites which explain and justify spending of taxpayers’ money.

In America, the largest amounts of Federal funding or assistance provided to individual states is spent on welfare, education and roads, areas which one might argue are the cornerstone of the modern state. In these key areas, “mandatory programmes” dictated by the Federal House (called Congress in America) ensure that all states must spend a certain percentage of their budgets on certain uniform goals. These spending laws are difficult to change, therefore protecting the people from predatory politicians; in fact, it would be political suicide to abrogate spending on the people.

The situation in Nigeria is clearly not comparable but we as citizens’ have not invested enough time or energy in questioning the status quo. SERAP’s response was straight to the point: “there must be transparency and accountability in the spending of the refunds, in line with the principle of Open Government Partnership, OGP, to which Nigeria is a signatory. In addition, section 15(5) of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) provides that the state shall abolish corrupt practices and abuse of power.

Citizens must be able to assess the performance of government, and this depends on access to a record about the spending of the refunds by the 35 states. The Accountant General cannot, therefore, say he is unaware of the spending of the refunds by the states.

Public interest in disclosure

Otherwise, this would mean that the Accountant General is lacking in his duty as Chief Accounting Officer of the Federation.

The Accountant General has a duty under section 2(2) of the Freedom of Information Act to keep and maintain records, and to proactively disclose information without SERAP even requesting it.

A basic principle behind the FOI Act is that the burden of proof falls on the body asked for information, in this case, the Accountant General, and not the person asking for it. The person making the request does not have to explain their actions.

The Accountant General owes no duty of confidence to the 35 states but rather to the entire citizens of Nigeria. Disclosure will not constitute an actionable breach of confidence if there is a public interest in disclosure which outweighs the public interest in keeping the information confidential.”

There you have it. Will Nigerians allow this too to be “died down” and therefore continue to accept poverty and underdevelopment as our lot in life?

 

Abdulrasheed Maina

THE former Chairman of the Pension Reform Task Team wrote a letter to the Senate President in 2015 stating that the Senate Committee investigating pension fraud actually favoured “pension thieves”. Maina claimed his team saved the country about N1.6 trillion. He also detailed how no less than 46 individuals and firms linked to them were arrested for embezzling pension funds and pointed to a “N256 billion monthly leakage to be blocked urgently”.

The question is, did he write to the President at the time, Goodluck Jonathan? Was the then Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala aware? Both positions are crucial to the “flow” or release of funds belonging to the government and it is interesting to note that neither has been called to detail what they know about such affairs including Dasuki gate.

Without any official statement from government, rumours are rife and a gradual loss of confidence is underway, helping spread the narrative that the war against corruption is being lost, to the joy of treasury looters.

 

Accounts without BVN

BANKS are reportedly attempting to contravene the court order allowing the Federal Government to claim funds in accounts not linked to Bank Verification Numbers, BVN.

They should be fined by the Central Bank. How is it possible to open accounts without BVN and why do so if not because the owners of the accounts might have fraudulently acquired the funds and don’t want to be known?

 

Tabia Princewill is a strategic communications consultant and public policy analyst. She is also the co-host and executive producer of a talk show, WALK THE TALK which airs on Channels TV.


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Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.