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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Experts say that outdated frameworks and untimely audits are hindering public accountability in Nigeria.

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Experts have called for the rejigging of the country’s public audit system and processes to curb corruption and improve accountability across government parastatals.

The call was made during a virtual session organised by PREMIUM TIMES and the UDEME project of the Centre for Journalism and Innovation (CJID), to discuss the findings of the 2020 federal audit report.

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The programme held on Friday on social media platform X (previously Twitter), was moderated by Oladehinde Olawoyin, an editor at PREMIUM TIMES.

Panelists include: Olusegun Elemo, Executive Director at the Paradigm Leadership Support Initiative (PLSI); Maria Gowon, Programme Manager at Integrity Organisation; Ayo’ Ladipo, Head of Budgit Foundation’s Tracka project and financial expert, Kalu Ajah.

Mr Elemo identified the perpetual delays in the release of the audit reports over the years as a major issue plaguing Nigeria’s public sector.

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“The 2019 audit report came out about 23 months after the end of the financial year. Now, the 2020 report came out about 36 or 37 months after the end of that financial year. So you can see the trend and how it is getting worse,” he said.

Describing the nation’s audit laws as “embarrasingly obsolete”, Mr Elemo said there was a need to sort out legal bottlenecks and the timely submission of financial accounts to curb financial irregularities.

“We have the Audit Ordinance Act of 1956, a pre-independence audit framework and that alone is not sufficient to provide the legal mandate by which that office should function,” he said. “Today, there’s no timeline stating when the Accountant General should submit the financial statement to the Auditor General, and oftentimes, we’ve had a situation where the delay actually happens from the office of the Accountant General.”

Beyond issues with audit laws, Tracka’s Ayo Ladipo ascribed most of the financial irregularities in the public sector to the lack of transparency in the budgetary and procurement processes of government establishments.

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She urged government agencies to democratize information to allow the citizens, the media and civil societies to contribute to the process. “Publish all the details of all the projects under you, the status, the payments you’ve made, the specifics of what should be done, and let the people do the tracking and give you the feedback,” she said.

Ms Ladipo said this issue led to amongst other infractions, the allocation of public projects to agencies without operational capacity or mandate to execute them, like in the case of a fashion company assigned construction projects.

“An agency is making payments for construction of buildings and so on to a fashion design agency. That means either you violated something in the procurement process or something went wrong, because there’s no way a fashion design company is equipped to take on construction contracts. But then this audit report shows how much of it is happening on a grand scale. One thing I would have liked was if the audit report was naming and shaming some of them,” she said.

To stem the tide of these infractions, Maria Gowon called for the government to adopt “technological and evidence-based interventions” as well as prioritize funding for the same, to support audit processes.

Mr Elemo supported the call, advocating for documents to be prepared in “reproducible, open data format that can allow civil society and anybody else to process the data so easily.”

The panelists stressed the need to strengthen the powers of the Auditor General beyond mere recommendations to enforcement and sanctions, starting with the enactment of the Federal Audit Bill—which had been declined assent by previous administrations—to ensure the administrative independence of the office, especially its operational and the financial autonomy.

“We published a report last year about consequence management in the public sector. Because there’s no consequence for anything, people decide to continue to do whatever they want to,” Ms Ladipo said. She noted that the situation may have caused MDAs to believe that the Auditor General’s office only gives “recommendation or ask questions, and so they [MDAs] can decide to do whatever they like or not answer or not respond [to the Auditor General’s queries].”

They also suggested the publication of the names and details of people found responsible for mismanagement and other financial irregularities, as well as interventions that will engender behavioural change in the society in addition to the improved laws and enforcement.

Organisers of the virtual session, CJID’s UDEME project said it was part of its routine engagement with citizens and other stakeholders to dissect trending accountability issues in the country, in a bid to improve public enlightenment.

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