The Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Senator Ahmed Lawan (ANPP, Yobe North), in this interview with Sunday Trust, says, among other things, most ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) have no capacity for budget implementation. Excerpts:
As the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, would you say the management of public funds has been in the best interest of taxpayers?
Essentially, the idea of governance is to ensure and guarantee the welfare and security of people, and every government will always wish to use its resources to ensure it achieves that objective. Since independence, one cannot contradict the fact that we have not achieved significantly what we ordinarily should have been achieved. There are so many wastages in government, people embezzle and misapply funds, and we have not been able to control those leakages or even punish the culprits. In spite of this, we still have been able to achieve some goals that have made Nigeria better than what it was in the 60's.
But at the bottom-line, we have not been able to manage the public funds properly for the betterment of our people and the country. I hope and pray that as we continue to move on, we are able to improve our application of resources for making Nigeria a better place and for providing every Nigerian the opportunity and the environment to actualize his/her dreams and potentials.
In line with Section 85 (5) of the 1999 Constitution, the Auditor-General of the Federation is obliged to submit his report to the National Assembly within 90 days of the receipt of the Accountant-General's financial statement. To what extent has your committee scrutinized the report and what have been the findings so far?
The Accountant-General of the Federation is supposed to submit his financial statements to the Auditor-General normally around September for the Auditor-General to work on them. There have been some so much difficulty in submitting those financial statements by the Accountant-General, but I believe there is an improvement. But for a long time, the office of the Accountant-General has not been submitting the financial statements on time. That also affected the submission time of the annual report of the Auditor-General to the National Assembly. We have made progress in this respect because the 2010 auditor general's report was submitted last year and I believe that we will receive that of the 2011 at a faster time.
But a close scrutiny of the Auditor-General's report by your committee could have helped to expose and probably stop non-remittance to the treasury, of unspent funds by the various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs)...
If for whatever reasons at the end of the financial year, some ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are to return monies to the treasury, we must ensure that such funds are reflected in the subsequent budget because they are unspent funds and must be part of sources of our funding of the budget of the succeeding year. As legislators, we must know whether these monies have truly been paid back to the treasury, and they should be reflected as part of the funding source for the budget of the succeeding year.
But let me say that I don't pray for that kind of situation because if the situation arises that funds have to be paid back to the treasury, it means the budget has not been implemented fully, and that could be either due to lack of capacity, structural deficiencies in the processing of contracts and all that. In any case, all these are not good stories to tell and they tell very negatively on the performance of government's delivery of services to Nigerians and development of Nigeria as a country. It happened, for example, in 2008 when about N400 billion was returned to the treasury. That was a bad thing because N400 billion worth of projects should have been executed across the country.
Aren't the several cases of unspent funds confirming the perceived over-budgeting for MDAs? And how best do you think we can curb this, especially with its consequent high tendencies for frauds?
I don't know if any MDA receives more than its needs, but what I know is that many agencies or most of them have no capacity to implement the budget they get and that is very unfortunate. Until we are able to do the following things simultaneously, we may not achieve what we intend or hope to achieve. That is to say that you don't only budget to a ministry and ask it to implement it. You must ensure that those who will implement it are appropriately trained; they have the background, the capacity and the integrity to implement what you want them to do. But in a situation where you just put the monies in a ministry which does not have the requisite skilled people to do the work, then there would be no work.
So, I believe there is need to continuously train and retrain people in the civil service and the bureaucracy to ensure that they are up to the task so that even if you don't give them enough, they can still achieve something reasonable and significant with whatever you give them. But if you give them more than what they want, if they don't have the capacity and the integrity to do the right thing, they would fall by the side, they would squander the money and you would not see value for the money at the end of the day.
What does the Senate intend to do about the misuse of some public accounts recently uncovered by your committee?
I would not like to pre-empt what the Senate would do, but let me tell you what the Senate Committee on Public Accounts intends to do. We have just finished with the hearing on the ecological funds accounts on October 2 where the Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Finance came to explain the receipts and the expenditures on that account. We observed so many discrepancies and many disbursements for non-ecological expenditures which we frowned at.
We intend to submit to the Senate what we have seen in the ecological funds just like in the natural resources development funds account in which there were disbursements that were really in disagreement with the purpose of setting up the account. The natural resources development account is essentially set up to provide funds for diversifying the Nigerian economy.
That is to say that you search funds in the areas of solid mineral resources and agriculture to some extent and other aspects of our natural resources. But to our dismay and utter disappointment and shock, disbursements were made from that account for reasons other than the development of the mineral resources of the country. It is a shame because for a very long time, Nigeria has been clamouring for diversification of the economy and Nigerians want to see a situation where we would have a very stable source of income and move away from a very monolithic and very non-strategic source of foreign earnings especially from oil with all its attendant repercussion of the volatility of oil price in the international market.
Ordinarily, one would have thought that those officers and civil servants who were entrusted with the operation and management of these accounts would apply the funds properly. Now, we have discovered mismanagement and misapplication in these accounts, and even in the stabilization funds account. After a hearing, we discovered that the stabilization funds account which is meant to stabilize the economy has also been so much abused. There were so many disbursements that have nothing to do with the stabilization of the economy.
All these will be presented to the Senate for an appropriate action, but the Senate Committee on Public Accounts also intends to suggest to the Senate by way of bill to regulate the operations and managements of these three accounts particularly. For each account, we intend to present a bill to the Senate, for consideration to clearly set up structures for the disbursement and the management of the accounts and spell out penalties for any misapplication of these funds. That will be very helpful to Nigerians because it would make the resources to be better applied.
For instance, almost N400 billion has gone into the ecological funds account over the last 10 years, but much of it was just wasted on non-ecological things. This is a serious loss to Nigeria and we should not take it without getting people to account for it. So, we will present the bills requesting the Senate to provide laws and regulations to guide the operation of these accounts and clearly spell out the purposes for the release of funds from any of these accounts and how the money will be spent. In fact, we intend to make the penalties stiff so that it would serve as deterrent to anybody who wants to circumvent the regulations.
Some state governors have blamed their inability to contain flood and erosion to lack of access to the ecological funds. Is their excuse tenable?
I would rather say that many states that receive ecological funds misapply them. Some states would apply for ecological funds and when they are given, they would just go and buy cars or build roads. That is not the purpose of the ecological funds. So it is not only about giving the states the funds, it is about the states applying the funds properly. When we eventually present our report to the Senate, we will make it impossible for any officer or elected person to utilize such funds partially or unfairly. We intend to ensure that every state would have some funds, but it is important to say that states with serious ecological problems must have structures that would ensure that when the funds are released to deal with such ecological problems, the funds go through these structures to warrant the implementation of the projects because we had so many stories of ecological funds particularly abused by states.