July 16, 2024

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Nigeria: Treasury Looting and Questions Over Tinubu’s Anti-Graft Drive

6 min read

Mr President, a clear-headed anti-corruption drive would not have condoned the mess in Nigerian Customs that led the EFCC to detain seven of its officials after N12 billion suspected bribe was traced to them.

Every financial audit report of units of the federal government unfolds an overwhelming corpus of the reckless abuse of the public treasury that evokes benumbing feelings and the question of whether anyone is in charge of the country’s affairs. The latest revulsion is encapsulated in the Auditor-General of the Federation’s report that indicted 28 ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) for spending N13.95 trillion illegally, or without authorisation, in gross violation of extant financial regulations.

The fiscal anomaly of the MDAs, which has just been released, covered 2020, and it came on the heels of a similar bizarre report, which revealed the “unsubstantiated decline” of a staggering $8 billion from the Foreign Reserves under the custody of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and failure of the apex bank to account for recovered funds from looters since 2015, up to the same period.

These sordid accounts are proof of a weak regulatory framework, inadequate oversight and vacuity of accountability in governance that led to the massive growth of corruption. Though the audit period predates the Bola Tinubu presidency, it is now its remit to clean the Augean Stables.

For context, the N13.95 trillion illegal expenditure by the MDAs arose from over-drawn accounts, meaning that they had negative balance sheets in stark violation of due process, as espoused in the Financial Regulation Act 2009. This states that “No government bank account shall be overdrawn, or any temporary advance obtained from a bank. In the event of an account being overdrawn, the officer responsible shall be made to refund any bank charges incurred thereon.” Instructively, N10.59 trillion was the approved federal budget for 2020 by the National Assembly. This was later slashed by N320 billion, guided by economic realities imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The implication of this spending binge was that the country operated two budgets in 2020 – the official and the illegal one, bringing the total federal expenditure to N24.54 trillion. This was a period of a global downward spiral in economic activities attendant upon the lockdowns. The bank charges and interests to be paid on these over-drafts are elephantine, let alone the principal that equally needs to be repaid. This explains how Nigeria is being crippled by avoidable debts, which did not give any value for money.

With the Auditor General of the Federation (AuGF) Shaakaa Chirac’s audit report, it is therefore not difficult to fathom why a staggering N2.67 billion was purportedly spent on school feeding when pupils were in their parents’ homes during the total national lockdown. Interestingly, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), under Bolaji Owasanoye, said the N2.67 billion was diverted and had been traced to a private account.

It is obvious that the resort to overdrafts is one clever device by the MDAs to negate the extant Treasury Single Account (TSA) system, fashioned out to track public revenues. This is brigandage, and a well-orchestrated sabotage, driven by corruption in high places. The framers of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, made provisions for extra-funding of the MDAs in the event of any shortfall in their expenditure in any given year through a Supplementary Appropriation Bill. To subvert this legal channel means there is more to it than meets the eye. The perpetrators of this mind-boggling abuse must be brought to book as it is the only way to strengthen public institutions.

The systemic fiscal mess, which the Tinubu administration inherited, cannot be addressed by blowing hot and cold on issues of corruption, as seems to be the case. As he rightly observed recently, during a Fraud Risk Assessment Project workshop for MDAs, organised by the EFCC, “We cannot be focused on growth and development and at the same time offer any breathing space to corrupt practices. No nation grows without breaking the fangs of corruption.” PREMIUM TIMES couldn’t agree more with this!

However, a government impervious to graft cannot be pussy-footing on the monumental acts of corruption that have become emblematic of the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry, where the EFCC proclaimed to have recovered N30 billion diverted to private accounts through a lien it imposed on those vessels of graft. A total of N37 billion was reportedly fleeced by some former public officers in that ministry. Why the EFCC is hesitant in initiating prosecution of culprits, despite its recoveries that could be evidential in the cases, beggars’ belief.

All eyes are, therefore, on Tinubu to see if he will overlook the evils of the immediate past political actors, or even those more remote, for political exigency. Suspension of public officials from office for alleged financial malfeasance, and hoping the misdeeds will peter out in the public consciousness is deceptive and deprecatory. An anti-graft machine that revs for altruistic goals must bring all errant officials in that ministry, both current and former, to book, to serve as a deterrent to others. As Dr Kingsley Moghalu, a former deputy governor of the CBN advocated in a recent public lecture, “We must knock the heads of criminals in this country,” regardless of how important they are, to fix our national mess.

Paradoxically, the National Assembly, which the constitution vests powers in to protect the treasury, indeed, is the most culpable in abusing it with its negligence of oversight. The AuGF’s annual reports, sent to it for consideration and government’s remedial actions, continuously rot away. It is an abuse of office that AuGF Samuel Nkura repeatedly cried out in respect of the 2007 to 2011 reports to the legislature, which were ignored for five years. And his successor, Anthony Ayine, expressed the same disappointment in 2019. As treasury predators observe this legislative inertia, and the absence of a national resolve to see the theft of public funds as cancer that must be excised, they operate with glee and impunity.

Consequently, Tinubu’s much-vaunted anti-graft programme, as an integral element of his Renewed Hope Agenda, is under scrutiny. It doesn’t resonate just yet; not with his aloofness in fighting the oil thieves, underscored by his silence over the recovery of the $17 billion worth of stolen crude by some oil majors between 2011 and 2014, under President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. The immediate past Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, admitted it before the parliament and vowed to recover it. As he failed, it is over to Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), his successor, to do the needful. If that hefty amount of forex is recovered, it could put the country’s foreign reserves on the cusp of an even keel.

The EFCC has flaunted the recovery of N70.5 billion in three months, between October 2023 and January 2024, to prove its vigour, alongside 747 convictions to boot, mostly of cybercrime perpetrators. But the big masquerades are missing: the fuel subsidy thieves and the politically exposed suspects. The commission’s leadership must crack the N772 billion fraud cases of 13 former governors, which have been on hiatus since 2007. Some of these actors are now serving in the Presidency and Senate.

This is improper in jurisdictions where integrity and public morality matter. Enough public outrage is imperative for a paradigm shift here. For being mentioned in the famous Panama Papers, of global figures with offshore secret accounts, the Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, resigned from office in 2016. Public indignation worked in that instance.

Treasury looters are the nouveau rich, who serve as perverse role models to our youths, who now despise the dignity of labour and hard work, and are more inclined to criminalities, including cybercrime and kidnapping, to measure up in the society.

Mr President, a clear-headed anti-corruption drive would not have condoned the mess in Nigerian Customs that led the EFCC to detain seven of its officials after N12 billion suspected bribe was traced to them late last year. One official alone had N9 billion in his account. They are back to their duty posts; an augury of a messier trajectory. This is antithetical to good governance and national redemption.

By Premium Times.

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