Audits – Completing the Accountability and Transparency cycle
By Stanley Achonu
“Audits are like an onion. You keep peeling away the different levels until you get to that level where you know what happened.”
Renowned criminal justice professor Brian Payne might as well have been talking about Nigeria’s Lagos State when he penned these words.
Sometime last year, Premium Times Newspaper exclusively obtained a copy of the 2012 Audit report of Local Government and Local Council Development Areas in Lagos State. Unfortunately, the Lagos Audit report highlights countless examples of arbitrariness, disregard for process, authority and civil service rules. A few excerpts:
- In Iba Local Council Development Area (LCDA), “Audit examination of expenditure revealed that the allowance for the Executive Chairman was overpaid by 2,000,000 naira (10,047 USD) during the period under review [January 1 to December 31, 2012] .”
- In Agbado Oke-Odo LCDA, 11,444,919 naira (57,497 USD) was advanced to various staff of the Local Council, since 2010, and deductions were not made from salaries of beneficiaries.”
- Then there is Badagry West LCDA, which “had so many queries relating to no accounting record for all funds accessed by it.”
While one decries the fact that the report was only released (or leaked) two fiscal years later, it’s still noteworthy that this may be the first time we are getting a glimpse into the finances of any local government area (LGA) in Nigeria since our country returned to democratic rule in 1999. It is serendipitous that the audit allows a peek into the accounts of the councils that make up one of Nigeria’s richest states, in terms of revenue.
Media Covers only Tip of the Iceberg
I recently met a senior official of the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation (OAuGF), who said he laughs when corruption scandals make newspaper headlines. According to him, auditors encounter and uncover far more looting than what is reported in the press. He emphasized that a strengthened audit process is crucial to Nigeria’s anti-corruption drive as it can can enable enforcement of processes and laws by agencies such as the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Nigerian Police.
The Lagos Audit Report shows as much–from one local council to the other, auditors queried financial statements, revenue leakages, processes followed, as well as the quality of decision making and sustainability. Unfortunately for Lagosians, most of the auditor’s queries were ignored because those indicted had institutional backing or because the erring officials are no longer in office. The public remains none the wiser.
The silence over the irregularities unearthed by the Lagos Audit Report begs a lot of questions at the local level and above. One can only imagine what would be unearthed at the federal level where no audit report has been published since 1999. The primary challenge is the law governing audits in Nigeria. Rooted in Section 85 and 86 of the 1999 constitution, the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation is mandated to audit public accounts of the Federation and of all offices and courts of the Federation. The constitution then mandates that audited reports be submitted to the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly for deliberation and approval. It is at this point that everything goes dark.
Inaction by National Assembly
Why does a government that readily publishes revenue and budget details find it difficult to maintain fiscal responsibility and put out audit reports? Are there any reports of audited Federal Government (FG) accounts anywhere? Have the National Assembly approved the publication of any audit report of FG accounts since 1999? If so, who did auditors submit these audit reports to? Is the public entitled to the content of such audit reports of FG accounts? Is there a law prohibiting its publication and wider circulation to the same masses who pay the taxes that fund the FG?
Often, the National Assembly only gets to deliberation stage months and years after indicted officials have left office. In the event that any of these officials are still hanging around prominently in the corridors of power, they hardly lose sleep. Some principal players in the Lagos Audit Report are enjoying re-election or higher roles in government.
As part of the AccessNigeria program, BudgIT has begun highlighting the importance of audits to Nigerians. At the national level, we made several visits to the OAuGF which yielded no result. While we were initially stonewalled, we persisted and sought to build a relationship with Auditor General’s office. They invited us to discuss our report on the 2012 Flood Relief Fund (conducted under another project), where they pledged to investigate the Fund and improve their engagement with us.
For maximum results, BudgIT is coupling our dialogue and collaborative advocacy efforts with traditional tools such as submitting a request under the Freedom Of Information (FOI) law. When we made an FOI request to the Auditor General of the Federation for audit reports of FG accounts for 2009-2012 fiscal years, we were directed to the National Assembly. We received a vagues response to our follow-up request to the National Assembly Committees on Public Accounts; they have so far avoided giving the audit report to us. Perhaps they are concerned that we would place it in the public domain for added scrutiny.
At the moment, the National Assembly is debating a bill that will enact a separate audit law in Nigeria. We believe now is the right time to empower the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation to be truly independent and to allow enforcement authority.
It has been quite a process to have national budgets made public in Nigeria, and advocacy efforts continue for States and Local Councils to do same. Audits are the next battleground in the fight for a corruption-free Nigeria. Sticking with the audits-as-onion analogy, it’s time Nigeria wielded the knife and started peeling those layers to unearth the rot in our public coffers. Hopefully, more unscrupulous members of the ruling class will end up in tears, just like anyone else who’s ever been at the receiving end of an onion.
Stanley Achonu is the Operations Lead at BudgIT and manages the ‘Accountable Governance in Justice and Security’ project, also known as AccessNigeria and AccessSierraLeone on behalf of BudgIT.