A recent Daily Trust exposé highlighted the activities of the government's Ecological Fund Office. The agency, by convention, coordinates all issues relating to management of ecological fund, a statutory facility to which 3 percent of the nation's total oil earnings is paid and disbursed to tackle ecological problems in the country. The figure amounts to over 4 billion naira every month.
The operations of Nigeria's Ecological Fund Office (EFO) have been a controversial one, especially in recent times. Headed by a permanent secretary, the EFO is supposed to identify ecological problems of the various regions of the country and apply resources of the Fund to manage them. Of recent, there have been complaints that the Fund's resources were not being used by beneficiaries to address ecological issues, such as land erosion, desertification and degradation due to resource exploitation, like crude oil and tin mining.
There have also been suggestions that political considerations, rather than actual environmental factors, have been the deciding parameters in choosing which regions should benefit from such resources. The latter appears to have been borne by the Trust's in-depth investigation of the issue.
According to the findings, President Jonathan's hometown, Otuoke in Bayelsa State, got ecological fund projects worth 5 billion naira for 2011, far more than nine other northern states considered to be facing serious ecological problems during the period combined. The second biggest beneficiary is Kaduna, home state of the vice president, Alhaji Mohammed Namadi Sambo.
Of particular significance is the fact that ecologically devastated states like Yobe, Borno, Katsina, Jigawa, among others, did not benefit from a single project. Lagos State, which only recently suffered a huge and deadly surge of the Atlantic Ocean, was left out too. The Ecological Fund Office, according to the report, explained that states left out in 2011 had benefitted in earlier considerations.
That 'explanation' ignores the fact that ecological problems should be managed on a continuous basis to be sustainable. Political choice do a play a part in determining what level of funding to provide, but certainly not completely choke off funding for ongoing projects in many states.
Last year, the House of Representatives Committee on the Environment accused the EFO of blatantly ignoring stipulated rules in the award of contracts totalling 11.5 billion naira in the south of the country. Despite a two-week ultimatum to the EFO head, a permanent secretary, to provide data to disprove the committee's allegation, nothing came out of it. In July this year, the committee said it uncovered fraud of 2.060 billion naira in payments to 38 contractors and 14 consultants in respect of a programme to develop tree nurseries and produce seedlings to cover the 36 states. Most of the projects were either abandoned or had below 15 completion rate although all the contract sums had been paid and scheduled completion dates missed, the committee found.
Reports of abuses and anomalies in the utilisation of ecological funds were so persistent that in April, the Senate also got involved in the matter. It issued a directive to the EFO, which is under the Presidency, to submit details accruals into and disbursements of the fund.
The move followed reports suggesting that a large portion of the fund could have been misappropriated. There has been a longstanding perception that proceeds of the EFO have become something of a slush fund from which disbursements are made, on the instruction of political heads, to matters unrelated to the mandate of the EFO.
The current administration has shown itself in many ways that it is certainly not averse to portraying the picture that the president does not suffer any moral guilt in the government diverting disproportionate amount of resources to the president's home town. This predilection to lopsidedness as a measure of government policy does not augur for the polity.
The EFO on the other hand has defended its record, noting that the nineteen erosion control projects it said were flagged off last year underscored that point. It also said the 42.9 million naira Kashimbilla dam project in Taraba State was an important intervention project that was progressing satisfactorily.
It can be seen however that there is absence of accountability in the management and disbursements of the EFO resources. Part of the problem is structural. Why should the EFO be under the Presidency when its activities are related to the work of the Ministry of the Environment, for instance? The bigger problem is the total lack of transparency in what informs the EFO to determine which parts of the country should be considered in the allocation of resources to address ecological challenges.
Bringing accountability and transparency to the operations of the EFO and the managements of the ecological funds is crucial, and would require the involvement of a representative voice in its affairs. Legislators of ecologically challenged communities, from the local government councillors to the members of the state House of Assembly to those in the National Assembly need to constitute themselves into a powerful bloc to demand that there should be equity in the decision making process pertaining to EFO activities.
The current practice, in which the Presidency dictates on the basis of political consideration more than every other criterion that ignores the ecological facts on the ground, is not proper; it should be corrected. Civil society organisations genuinely involved in identifying and calling attention to ecological problems should also lend their voice. A new legal framework of the EFO to transform it into a more accountable organ should be introduced.
For instance, a regulation requiring the EFO, or any organ that might replace it, to make periodic and audited report to the National Assembly, should be included in the amendment to the operations of the EFO.
The EFO's National Committee on Ecological Problems (NCEP) should have its membership drawn from as diverse as the country's ecological fault lines permit. It should also be able to do its work professionally, without the heavy political influence that currently limits its input in addressing the real ecological issues facing the different regions of the country.