By Taiwo-Hassan Adebayo
By his refusal to assent or reject a crucial audit bill passed by the country’s legislature several months ago, President Muhammadu Buhari is jeopardising measures aimed at improving financial accountability and transparency among government officials and organisations.
The president’s failure to sign the bill into law is at variance with his avowed fight against corruption.
Passed by the National Assembly in July 2018, the Federal Audit Service Bill seeks to empower the country’s auditor-general to penalise government agencies and officials who refuse to submit their financial statement for audit.
For instance, the bill empowers the auditor-general to withhold the emoluments of defaulting officials. It even recommends jail terms for erring officials.
Whilst the president’s disinterest towards the bill may be extending the lifeline enjoyed by unscrupulous officials, it is also a slap on the country’s constitution.
Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution provides for a 30-day period within which the president shall “signify that he assents or that withholds assent” to a bill.
The audit bill was sent to President Buhari in January, more than double the 30-day window within which the constitution expects Mr Buhari to either sign or decline assent.
The presidency refused to speak on Mr Buhari’s inaction over the bill, considered key to his much-vaunted anti-corruption fight.
“I don’t have information on that,” presidential spokesperson Femi Adesina said of the bill when reached for comments. “Contact Senator Ita Enang (Mr Buhari’s National Assembly aide),” he added.
Mr Enang, when contacted, did not deny that the bill had been sent to the president. He, however, said he would not comment on his principal’s inaction.
When asked why he would not be commenting, he replied: “Just because I am unable to respond.”
Senior Special Adviser to the President on National Assembly Matters, Sen. Ita Enang speaking during his appearance on the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) Forum in Abuja on Tuesday (11/9/18).
He had previously requested a day to ‘compile’ his response when first interviewed a day earlier.
Ineffective ‘supreme’ anti-corruption institution
Section 85 of 1999 Constitution empowers the office of the auditor-general of the federation to access all the books, records, returns and other documents relating to those accounts of the federation and all public offices and courts.
“The Office of the Auditor-General for the Federation (OAuGF) is the Supreme Audit Institution (SAI) and the foremost statutory accountability office of Nigeria,” stressed the incumbent auditor-general, Anthony Ayine, in a 2016 report, though turned in May 2018.
Despite being the country’s most important institution for accountability under the constitution, the auditor-general has scarcely been an effective anti-corruption body.
For years, the auditor-general’s reports have exposed cases of corrupt practices and how public officials have failed to account for public assets they are in charge of. But little or no consequences have emerged as a result of these revelations.
In its 2014 report, the auditor-general indicted the David Mark-led National Assembly for failing to account for N9.4 billion. Also, in its 2015 report, it stated that between 2013 and 2015, the police could not account for at least 44 assorted arms. Its 2016 report revealed how health officials at the Federal Medical Centre, Gusau in Zamfara State diverted N300 million meant for “health equipment”.
But despite these damning indictments, hardly has anyone been held to face further investigation and possible prosecution by the security and anti-graft agencies.
Perhaps the biggest worry of the OAuGF is the flagrant disregard of its audit queries and observations by officials. To underscore the ineffectual power of the OAuGF, government agencies are increasingly refusing to submit their financial statements to the office as required by law.
Section 85 of the constitution and the Financial Regulation 321(v) enjoins heads of government offices to submit both their financial statements and management reports to the auditor-general not later than May 31 of the following year.
Perhaps officials and government agencies are disregarding the OAuGF because they know it has no legal backbone to compel them to be accountable and transparent. The most the auditor-general can do is to report erring agencies and officials to the National Assembly.
The table below illustrates the number of offices that have failed to submit their financial statements in recent years, according to the auditor-general’s office.
Years Numbers of defaulting offices
No submission since inception 65
From the table, it appears the office continues to become less effective by the year as the number of defaulting offices continues to rise without a corresponding punishment.
“The extensive violation of statutory financial reporting obligations by parastatals is of great concern,” lamented Mr Ayine in the 2016 audit report. “I am concerned about this development, which is a major setback to our accountability process. Where accounting officers fail to respond to audit queries, the implication is that they have no explanation to offer. They should be compelled by the Public Accounts Committees to comply with the audit recommendations on such issues.”
For an anti-corruption activist, Suraj Olanrewaju, the current system is exacerbated by the weakness of the media and the civil society to act on the reports of the auditor-general.
“What you find is that the ultimate culprit in the whole mismanagement of the resources of the country is the National Assembly which fails in respect of its oversight responsibilities,” said Mr Olanrewaju.
The Federal Audit Service Bill seeks to correct these inadequacies.
For instance, the Federal Audit Service Bill, alongside the constitutionally-granted authority of “unrestricted access” to the books of agencies, gives the auditor-general’s office the power to stop the emoluments and allowances of officials who “fail or refuse to reply to audit queries within 30 days and for as long as the person(s) fail(s) to comply.”
Similarly, the bill also empowers the auditor-general to summon “a person to give evidence orally or in writing” in the course of “discharging or performing his duties.” And where a person so summoned fails to appear without a reasonable excuse, the “auditor-general may issue a warrant to the police for his arrest.”
The bill further gives the auditor-general the authority to conduct audit inspection of non-statutory bodies and international institutions to the extent of Nigeria’s financial contributions to these organisations. This provision, if the bill is assented to by the president, would compel such bodies as the Nigeria Football Federation, which receive part of their funding from the public treasury, to open their books and be accountable in line with the country’s finance-handling system – at least to the extent of the funds they receive from the government.
The bill also stipulates that the failure to turn in financial statement of the federation by June 30 of the following year or that of the ministries, departments, and agencies within 90 days of the end of a financial, affected officials “shall be personally liable to a fine of not less than N500 thousand or two-year imprisonment or both.”
The bill gives the auditor-general the authority to refer cases of fraud to the police for further investigation and possible prosecution
Perhaps, the most significant difference the bill seeks to make is spelling out consequences for breaching the law thereby creating deterrence against non-compliance.
A civil society leader, Idayat Hassan of the Centre for Democracy Development, underscored this point in an email response to PREMIUM TIMES.
“The passage of the audit bill is the most important development that can happen in the Buhari’ administration fight against corruption,” said Ms Hassan in an email to PREMIUM TIMES. “It does not only capacitate the government to monitor MDAs’ spendings but reduces the leakages in the governance structure.”
Idayat Hassan, Director Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD)
She continued, “Presently, the auditor general’s office work but the MDAs often fail to submit reports and even the Public Account Committees (of the National Assembly) fail to review and sanction erring MDAs.”
If the bill becomes law, Nigeria could get to evolve institutional measures to check public organisations, such as the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporations, which operate opaquely.
In the 2016 auditor-general’s report, the NNPC was said to have failed to provide information on “how and where the asset values of investments in joint ventures on behalf of the Federation are determined and reported.” This was different from not providing “necessary details” of domestic crude lifting sales.
Mr Ayine, in his 2016 report, said his office “is also eagerly awaiting the passage of the Federal Audit Service Bill into law. The need for an Audit Law has been apparent for several years,” he said.
“This situation is worrisome,” he continued, “and puts Nigeria far behind many other African countries in terms of its commitment to accountability and transparency in public finances.”
He made these remarks in May 2018, at the time he submitted the 2016 report, the most recent, to the National Assembly. By that time, both arms of the National Assembly had passed the bill and were only requiring harmonisation. But while the bill has scaled all legislative hurdles and been with the presidency for several months, it is yet to be considered for assent by Mr Buhari; neither has he rejected it or given room for the bill to be reviewed.
Mr Olanrewaju said, “it is left for the National Assembly to take appropriate steps,” for instance, considering a veto since the president is now exceeding statutory time allowance within which he is to act on a bill passed by the National Assembly.
The spokesperson for the House of Representatives, Abdurazaq Namdas, did not comment when contacted. He also did not respond to further call and text.
However, apart from strengthening the independence of the auditor-general’s office, the bill also seeks to establish the federal audit service commission, thereby creating a new bureaucracy.
PREMIUM TIMES learn that the presidency may not be favourably disposed to signing the bill into law because of the independence and powers sought for the office of the auditor-general.
“The president should not use the excuse of new bureaucracies to be created by the passage of the bill but focus on the defects the bill seeks to cure,” said Ms Hassan. “The auditor-general’s office needs independence to work and cannot continue to function as an MDA,” she said.