Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been urged to use the Freedom of information (FOI) Act to engage the annual Audit Reports of the Auditor-General of the Federation (AGoF) to curtail the scale of irregularities as well as violations of the provisions of the Constitution and financial regulations.
This recommendation was contained in a paper titled Freedom of Information Act and Public Audit presented by Mr. Edetaen Ojo, Executive Director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA) at the Audit Capacity-Building Workshop organized by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) for CSOs. It took place at Top Rank Hotels Galaxy, Abuja, on August 26 and 27, 2019.
Citing the legal mandate of the Auditor-General of the Federation, Edetaen said he is required by Section 85(2) of the Constitution to audit the public accounts of the Federation and of all offices and courts of the Federation and submit his reports to the National Assembly, adding to enable the Auditor-General perform this task, the Constitution also gives him or any person authorised by him access to all the books, records, returns and other documents relating to those accounts.
He pointed out that: “The Annual Audit Reports of the Auditor-General of the Federation in general and the latest of such reports, which is the report on the Accounts of the Federation for the year ended December 31, 2016, reveals a level of rot in Nigeria’s public finance management system that is mind-boggling.
He added, Shocking as this might be, it appears that there is absolutely no consequence for those Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government as well as their officials who violate the provisions of the Constitution and financial regulations.”
Edetaen pointed out that the scale of irregularities as well as violations of the provisions of the Constitution and financial regulations as shown in the report of the Auditor-General of the Federation in his Annual Audit Report on the Accounts of the Federation for the year ended December 31, 2016, “is simply shocking. It is pervasive and cuts across hundreds of public institutions and many different sectors.”
The paper noted that shocking as it is, the situation presents a huge opportunity for civil society and media organizations to engage the public finance management system to expose corruption and force change.
He however warned that it will be very difficult for any one organization to try and engage all the public institutions all over the country with respect to which the Auditor-General of the Federation has raised issues or concerns. He therefore advised that the CSOs or media organizations seeking to engage on the issues, may decide to limit the scope of their individual engagements, depending on their capacity and resources.
Expatiating on the need to engage the Auditor General’s report, Edetaen disclosed that in his 2016 report, the Auditor-General complained that “most of the government Corporations, Companies and Commissions have not submitted their audited accounts for 2016 to me.” What is worse, he goes on to say is that: “As at April 2018, 109 Agencies have not submitted (their audited accounts) beyond 2013, 76 Agencies last submitted for the 2010 financial year while 65 Agencies have never submitted any Account since inception.”
He noted that the level of impunity in this regard is virtually total despite the Auditor-General’s statement that “The extensive violation of statutory financial reporting obligations by Parastatals is of great concern. Stringent sanctions, including withholding financial releases and sanction of the Chief Executives should be imposed on defaulting Agencies who do not render timely accounts, as provided in the Constitution and Financial Regulations.”
Edetaen, in his presentation said further that each Chamber of the National Assembly, which the Auditor-General is required to submit his reports to, is obliged to cause the reports to be considered by its committee on public accounts. He cited Section 88 of the Constitution which empowers each Chamber to initiate an investigation into any matter on which it has legislative authority in order to “expose corruption, inefficiency or waste in the execution or administration of laws within its legislative competence and in the disbursement or administration of funds appropriated by it.”
Regrettably, Edetaen observed, these processes mandated by the Constitution have become hollow rituals and are clearly not achieving their intended objectives, especially with respect to the goal of exposing corruption, inefficiency or waste in the disbursement and administration of funds appropriated by the National Assembly. It is therefore important that the media and civil society organisations step in to bring about the realization of these goals.
The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and the Annual Audit Reports of the Auditor-General of the Federation provide the media and civil society organizations with powerful tools with which to achieve this objective.
In order to be able to use the FOI Act to engage the Auditor General’s report, Edetaen also took participants through the key features of the FOI Act including who can apply for information under the FOI Act; Government or public institutions citizens can approach for information; types of information covered by the FOI Act; categories of information exempted under the Act; time-frame for responses to FOI requests; fees and costs for access; offences and sanctions; and supremacy of the FOI Act.
He also spoke on how CSOs and the media can make requests for information as well as tracking and following-up on requests.
Edetaen suggested various ways in which CSOs and the media can engage the process including deciding how they want to engage and the limits of their engagement.
He suggested that a civil society or media organization may decide to engage public institutions located in the State where the organization is based; engage public institutions located in the local government area where the organization is based; or engage public institutions within a specific sector relevant for or related to the mandate of the organisation, e.g. Health, Education, Agriculture, Security and Defence, Water, Extractives, Transportation, Construction sector, Media, etc.
Additionally, Edetaen said an organization may decide to engage public institutions that had specific expenditure that is of interest to or relevant for the organization’s work or public institutions that had budgetary allocations beyond a certain threshold.
He advised that regardless of what each organization wants to do and how it approaches its own engagement, it is very important that some coordination mechanism is put in place to ensure efficiency as well as avoid duplication, wasted efforts or a situation where different organizations are working at cross-purposes.