By EZE ONYEKPERE
Is it possible to campaign against corruption without entrenching transparency and accountability in the conduct of government business? Should an office charged with auditing government accounts and finances conduct and conclude audits and hide the results in a dark corner and refuse to interact with citizens? Who pays the Auditor-General of the Federation and to whom should he be responsible and accountable? These and many more questions are begging for answers.
We have a situation in Nigeria where the audit function has been reduced to a mere perfunctory exercise where the Auditor-General of the Federation or a state writes reports which are sent to the Public Accounts Committees. The first report from the Auditor-General and the second from the PACs gather dust on the shelves without any action on them. It is even doubtful whether the National Assembly had the presence of mind to consider and adopt the reports of the PACs over the years as the reports of either the Senate or the House of Representatives. A committee report cannot be considered the report of the whole House until it is considered and adopted. This defeats the purpose and essence of auditing.
A couple of weeks ago, I sent a straightforward letter to the office of the Auditor-General for the Federation requesting copies of the audit reports from 2010 to 2014. The answer I got last week was very surprising. The Auditor-General referred me to Section 85(5) of the 1999 Constitution to the effect that the Auditor-General shall, within 90 days of receipt of the Accountant-General’s Financial Statement, submit his reports under this section to each House of the National Assembly and each House shall cause the reports to be considered by a committee of the House of the National Assembly responsible for Public Accounts. Further, he referred to Section 85(2) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), which states that the Public Accounts of the Federation and of all offices and courts of the federation shall be audited by the Auditor-General who shall submit his reports to the National Assembly. And for that purpose, the Auditor-General or any person authorised by him in that behalf shall have access to all the books, records, returns and other documents relating to those accounts. Finally, he stated that in line with Section 85 of the Constitution, the Auditor-General for the Federation can only submit his reports to the National Assembly. He advised that I may therefore consider rechannelling my request to the National Assembly who has the constitutional mandate to receive the report.
Implicit in this response is an assumption that the office of the Auditor-General owes the citizen no responsibility and his job starts and ends with submitting the report to the legislature. This is clearly a misreading and misunderstanding of constitutional provisions. Where in the constitution was it stated that the report of the Auditor-General is a secret document? What purpose would be achieved by making such a document secret? What purpose would secrecy achieve? Is there anything classified in an audit report? How can the office, the maker of a document be referring Nigerians to a mere recipient of the original document? The report is a public document and should be available to all Nigerians who desire a copy in this day and age of freedom of information. The documents should be available in hard copy and in electronic form on the website and portal of the Auditor-General’s office.
The mindset of the Auditor-General’s office is not in tandem with spirit of our times and the reality of our day. Apparently, the office is either not moved by the Freedom of Information Act or the openness that change should bring. This is a mindset that encourages and hides the corrupt and those who breach the Financial Regulations which the office is meant to expose in the first place. Nigerians had expected a vibrant cooperation between the office of the Auditor-General and the pillars of integrity including the anti-corruption agencies, the media and civil society. The anti-corruption agencies should have found prima facie cases and leads established in the report of the Auditor-General and follow up with requisite investigation and possible eventual prosecution.
The expectation is that the work of the Auditor-General would trigger action from the anti-corruption agencies particularly the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission. Persons who have been found by audit reports to have mismanaged, diverted, misappropriated or stolen federal funds against the provisions of the law should be prosecuted by the EFCC or the ICPC. The Bureau of Public Procurement can also take action relating to sanctions under the Public Procurement Act for offences disclosed from audit reports. And the same can be expected from the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal. An audit regime in tandem with the change agenda and extant constitutional rules should request the anti-corruption agencies to give account of actions taken in furtherance of audit reports because it appears that the Auditor-General’s office and the anti-corruption agencies work in parallel lines.
The media is constitutionally (s.22 of the 1999 Constitution) charged to uphold the responsibility and accountability of government to the people. Thus, the radio, television, newspapers, magazines and other media can be partners in progress with the office of the Auditor-General by helping to disseminate audit reports, follow-up on audit findings to let the public know whether corrective action has been taken and generally to let the public know of public office holders who are running afoul of extant legal and financial provisions. Public officers and politicians do not generally like to be mentioned negatively in media reports. As such, a strong collaboration between the Auditor-General and the media may serve as deterrence to financial misdemeanours, even if it is for the purpose “of naming and shaming”. It is not enough for the auditor to merely audit; the Auditor-General has to design a communication strategy and plan to engage the media and thereby facilitate the work of his office. Also, the civil society would have the opportunity of engaging in advocacy for reforms and change around the findings of the Auditor-General. But lo and behold, the Auditor-General of the Federation thinks it is working for mere atavism, for the sake of churning out reports and putting them on the shelf, so that the reports are ends in themselves. We should have reached a stage when Nigerians will be looking forward to the release of federal and state audit reports as the dates will be made known and publicised by the offices.
In conclusion, there is the need for the Auditor-General to change his mindset and the mindset of his office. There is need for collaboration among the “pillars of integrity”. You do not light a lamp and hide it under the bushel. The beautiful audit work can no longer be hidden. We must make use of it to change society. Let that non-collaborative mindset change today, not tomorrow.