In a move to shore up the government’s dwindling revenue, the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning indicated recently that it had begun moves to recover the N450 billion unremitted operating surpluses from Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). This was contained in the budget call circular to MDAs signed by the Finance Minister, Mrs Zainab Ahmed. While stating that the Federal Government would no longer tolerate excuses for non-remittance, the circular reiterated the warning to public office-holders to refrain from flying first class, just as it indicated that the government had activated its efficiency unit to prune down the bogus procurement spending of MDAs. The circular also stated that President Muhammadu Buhari had banned the distribution of souvenirs at events and would move some government offices to properties forfeited to the government by looters. In addition, the MDAs were warned to desist from the practice of specifying the models and brands of assets they propose to acquire in the budget.
To say the least, the latest statement by the Federal Government is self-indicting. It is absurd that an administration which came to power promising a radical departure from the old ways date failed to institutionalise transparency and accountability in the management of public funds, five years on. Pray, how were the MDAs able to perpetrate what essentially amounts to fraud with all the mechanisms that the government claims to have put in place?What have the supervisory bodies been doing? Or are they unaware of the situation in the MDAs?
It is absurd for the Federal Government to indicate that fraud has taken place under its watch, without indicating the steps taken not only to recover the money but to bring the perpetrators to book. In case the government has not grasped the point, what it should have told Nigerians was the measures already taken to ensure that the offenders in the current case account for their crimes. As things stand, there is no guarantee that the affected MDAs would not perpetrate the same crime in the next budget cycle. For instance, details of the proposed 2021 budget show that the aggregate expenditure is made up of statutory transfers of N481.41 billion, debt service of N3.124 trillion, sinking fund of N220 billion, recurrent (non-debt) expenditure of N5.746 trillion and capital expenditure (exclusive of capital in Statutory Transfers) of N3.086 trillion. In essence, the affected agencies will get fresh funds when they are yet to account for the ones they collected previously.
In September last year, as the executive arm of government was proposing the 2020 budget, we urged it and the National Assembly to reflect on the report by the Auditor General of the Federation, Mr. Anthony Ayine, lamenting the gross violation of statutory financial reporting obligations by government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and the presidency. In that report, Ayine had indicated that most of the government corporations, companies and commissions had not submitted their audited accounts for 2016 to him. Only 51 audited financial statements for 2016, and 149 for 2015, had been submitted to his office as of December 27, 2017, despite the provision of Financial Regulation 3210(v) which enjoins these bodies to submit both audited accounts and management report to him not later than May 31 of the following year of account. As of April 2018, 109 agencies had not submitted reports beyond 2013; 76 agencies last submitted for the 2010 financial year, while 65 agencies had not submitted any account since inception.
As Nigerians would recall, a breakdown of the report showed clearly that government agencies had been increasingly more reckless with public finance, with 323 agencies failing to submit reports in 2016, as against 148 in 2014 and 215 in 2015. As a matter of fact, the State House, Office of the Chief of Staff to the President, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and 62 other MDAs topped the list of government offices with outstanding personal advances estimated at N4.87 billion as of December 31, 2016. The report further detailed unremitted deductions worth more than N3.79 billion involving over 40 agencies, including the presidency, EFCC and the National Assembly. For instance, N13.96 billion reported as salaries and wages in the EFCC’s consolidated financial statement were not captured in its trial balance submitted for reconciliation. The EFCC was listed as one of the agencies with “doubtful cash balance” of over N315 million. Others on the list included the House of Representatives (N291.68 million) and Lagos University Teaching Hospital (N343.7 million).
The Muhammadu Buhari-led administration must brush off its customary lethargy and ensure that the unremitted funds get into the government’s coffers. It should also unmask the erring officials and treat them in accordance with the rules. On its part, the National Assembly has a bounden duty to ensure that MDAs with unremitted surpluses get no allocation in the 2021 budget until they have rectified the anomaly.