Premium Times (Abuja)

9 March 2014

Nigeria - Court Orders Okonjo-Iweala to Disclose Budget Details of National Assembly, Others

The Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to immediately make public details of all appropriations and statutory transfers in the 2014 budget, in the public interest.

The order was issued by Justice Abubakar Abdu-Kafarati in his judgment on February 25, 2014, in the legal application No. FHC/ABJ/CS/301/3013 filed by the Centre for Social Justice against the minister.

Mr. Kafarati asked the minister to release to the group and the general public, details of releases in the budget to some key government agencies, specifically, the National Assembly, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC; National Judicial Council, NJC; Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC; Universal Basic Education, UBE and National Human Rights Commission, NHRC.

Under the amended Nigerian constitution, the listed offices are considered statutory bodies, whose funding are drawn directly from government treasury, to foster their independence. Their budget details have also not been made public since 2011.

The Executive Director of Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekwere, said the group approached the court to compel the minister to respect the law and release the information pursuant under the Freedom of Information and the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Mr. Onyekwere said that following observed acts of impunity and fiscal lawlessness by government, namely the expenditure of several billions of Naira in the budget without appropriation, fraud and illegal allocation of revenues under various questionable sub-heads, it became necessary that details of such allocations be revealed to the people, who are the owners of the budget under democracy.

But, he said in spite several requests since 2013, the Minister of Finance has continuously refused to comply, accusing her of shielding from sanctions officials in charge of ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs where ghost workers have shown up on their payrolls.

"Government has always claimed it has served billions of Naira from its efforts to rid ghost workers from the system. But, we have always asked, without any response, for details from each MDA prior to and post-verification, including the numbers and names of the accounting officers, in terms of Permanent Secretary, Head of Personnel and Accounts/Payroll officers," Mr. Onyekwere said.

He said the Personnel Officers are those responsible for certifying that the payroll was consist of genuine workers, while the Accounts officers prepare the vouchers for the Permanent Secretary to signs off, before the authority to incur expenditure, AIE is raised for the final payment.

Citing the case of the Budget Office of the Federation, BOF, where it was found recently that prior to the verification, it had more than 1,000 staff on its payroll every month, only for the figure to crash to only 251 afterwards, he said the problem would be resolved if the Minister agreed to expose the perpetrators.

"All we have is a Minister of Finance who has refused to bring out the details of these scandalous findings. Yet, we talk about the commitment to fight corruption. Nigerians are entitled to know. We cannot continue to run a system where some people simply come to loot the treasury and they want everyone to clap for them to go on," Mr. Onyekwere said.

He condemned the continued appropriation of funds in the budget under Service-wide votes, noting that any allocation for any MDA that cannot be included in its approved budget was subject to misappropriation or diversion.

Mr. Onyekwere said the provision of about N118 billion as personnel cost under service-wide vote in the budget was suspicious and questionable, as this no agency or department of government called "service-wide votes" that has workers that should be catered for separately.

Other questionable appropriations under the service-wide vote include about N21 billion to INEC for "elections logistics and support", apart from about N45 billion already provided for it in the budget, as well as an additional N1.8 billion for pilgrimages.

Apart from the N150 billion appropriation for the National Assembly, he said the provision for another N100 billion under service-wide vote for constituency projects was fraudulent, as most of the projects neither follow set national vision nor government development agenda.

He frowned at the penchant for government officials to capitalize on the current insecurity in the country to manipulate the system to their selfish ends.

He drew attention to the inclusion of about N475 million and N600 million in the National Orientation Agency, NOA and the Office of the Minister of Finance, respectively, for security equipment.

Another N882.237 million is provided in the Finance Ministry's budget for rehabilitation/repairs of residential buildings.

"In God's name what has the NOA and Minister of Finance got to do with security? Does NOA need security equipment to enlighten the people on government programmes? Or does the Minister of Finance need security to prepare the budget or get it approved?

"With government monetization policy, where the perks of office of these high ranking officials should be converted to cash, whose residential buildings does the Ministry of Finance want to repair? Mr. Onyekwere said.

But, the spokesperson to the Minister, Paul Nwabuikwu, said he totally and completely disagrees with the mindset by government critics that it only engages in wastes and corruption.

Mr. Nwabuikwu did not comment on the court order on his boss. But he criticized critics of the budget for always seeing only the flaws, saying this might be as a result of ignorance or politics.

"Government is a human construct, as such can never be perfect. It can only improve. And since a budget is put together by human beings, it cannot be perfect. Let's stop this culture of negativity and look at the big picture of the budget," he said.

He said criticisms that do not include the achievements of the administration in the areas of railway rehabilitation, roads construction, privatization in the power sector, and job creations were totally incomplete.

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