By Bukola Afeni
There are several benefits to be derived by the time President Muhammadu Buhari finally appends his signature to the Federal Audit Bill, passed by the National Assembly (NASS).
The Eight (8th) Senate, had in May 2018, passed a Bill for the establishment of the Federal Audit Service Commission, in line with Mr. President’s government’s anti-corruption fight.
The Bill was read the third time and passed at a plenary session presided over by then President of the Senate, Bukola Saraki. The Senate mandated its leadership to engage the executive with a view to getting Buhari to sign the bill before the end of the 8th NASS.
Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts (then), Matthew Urhoghide, while presenting his report, said: “This Bill is very important to the nation as passing it into law will form the bedrock for fighting corruption, which is one of the cardinal objectives of the President’s administration.
“It will empower the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, who has the constitutional mandate of auditing all accounts of the federation to nip corruption in the bud, ensure transparency in government transactions.”
Urhoghide added: “The Bill will address acute manpower shortage, existing in the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation and bring it in tandem with supreme audit institutions and international best practices, as obtained in other climes such as South Africa, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.”
The Audit Bill, for the records, was not new to the 8th Senate. It was first passed by the House of Representatives in April 2016 and transmitted to the Senate for concurrence. The Senate passed the Bill on Thursday, March 1, 2018. But due to disparities in the version passed by the two chambers, a conference committee was set up to reconcile areas of differences. The Bill was eventually harmonized and passed by both chambers. The harmonized copy was forwarded to Mr. President for assent on January 8, 2019.
Sadly, the Audit Bill has since become orphaned, two years after its passage by NASS. The Bill was prematurely ‘murdered’ by the refusal of Mr. President to give it his assent. The Bill, among other things, will greatly assist in blocking revenue leakages and curtail corruption, when it finally becomes a law. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) such as Connected Development (CODE), has always been in the vanguard of anti-corruption.
Specifically, CODE, in collaboration with OXFAM Novib, is galvanizing Nigerians against corruption, through its various advocacy programs, one of which is massively mobilizing citizens to support the entrenchment of an audit law. It has since kick-started an online campaign, soliciting Nigerians to sign a petition, with a view to pressuring the government into assenting to the Audit Bill.
CODE noted that the Office of the Auditor-General for the Federation plays a vital role in public financial management and anti-corruption measures, especially by ensuring compliance with financial rules and regulations and due process in public expenditure.
It, however, said that, currently, political interference and Constitutional constraints have limited the independence and functioning of the AGF. “The AGF currently lacks the oversight powers to enforce its mandate and there are no sanction measures against defaulting bodies and persons in place. This results in gross financial recklessness and public fund embezzlement that deprive the Nigerian government and people of money needed for development, in sectors such as health and education,” it added.
According to CODE, “the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation (OAGF) reported that 65 MDAs had never submitted their financial statements for audit since January 12, 2017, when he assumed office. “Furthermore, the 2017 Audit Report published by the Office of Auditor General for the Federation had defaulting MDAs rising to 265, up from the 160 defiant ones in 2016.
“The AGF report noted that as of April 2018, 109 agencies had not submitted their financial statements beyond 2013, while 76 agencies last submitted for the 2010 financial year.”
While calling on President Buhari to assent to the Audit Bill, the civil society body, said the passage of the Bill will be a major feat in the fight against corruption and would ensure that MDAs submit their yearly audited financial accounts to the Auditor General for the Federation. Hence, preventing corruption, illicit financial flows, bribery, abuse of public office/trust, money laundering and mismanagement of public funds as reported in the Malabu/Dan Etete Case.
Similarly, both the Senate and House of Representatives Public Account Committees, have insisted that the Audit Bill that was passed in the 8th Assembly, which the President did not assent, remains very sacrosanct and would be resuscitated by the 9th Assembly.
The Chairman, Public Account Committee of the Senate, Sen. Urhoghide, and his House of Representatives counterpart, Hon. Busayo Oluwole-Oke, who co-chaired a session of stakeholders on the Audit Bill, said the 9th NASS will breathe a new life into the Bill and ensure its passage again.
Both Sen. Urhoghide and Hon. Oluwole-Oke lamented that the nation’s current audit practice does not meet the global best practices and that necessary reforms that would empower and enable the office of the Auditor General of the Federation to function optimally and efficiently are imperative.
They spoke at a 3-day Stakeholders Consultative/Technical Session on the Audit Bill organized for members and staff of the Senate, House of Representatives Public Account Committees, and the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation (OAuGF) in Abuja, last October.
Head, Technical Support, Partnership to Engage, Reform, and Learn (PERL) Engaged Citizens (EC), Mr. John Mutu, who facilitated the session explained that it was aimed at finding a common solution to ensure that the Audit Bill succeeds in becoming a law.
Mutu explained that the main objective of the session is to provide a platform for the National Assembly’s Public Account Committees (NASS PACs), the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation (OAuGF) and the Presidency to reflect and review the Audit Bill, so as to identify areas of concerns that prevented the President from giving his assent to the Bill.
At the session, Urhoghide, noted: “We have to ensure proper auditing of the spending of public money. If we strengthen the office of the Auditor-General, it will block leakages and we will save a lot of money and this will also check corruption drastically”.
On his part, Oluwole-Oke said if the Bill becomes law, it would enable the Auditor General to carry out his duties very efficiently and effectively. “Unfortunately, the President withheld his assent even without giving reasons. Now the Bill is dead constitutionally. But we shall resuscitate it since our House rules give us the provision to start from where we stopped in the 8th Assembly,” he pointed out.
National Team Leader, Engaged Citizens Pillar (ECP) of DFID’s Partnership to Engage Reform and Learn (PERL), Dr. Adiya Ode, during the auspicious session, noted that having the audit law in place would strengthen the Auditor General to perform his functions well, and also send a signal to corrupt people that they would be exposed and prosecuted.
Experts and scholars in their various presentations during the technical session, equally maintained that without the audit law in place, it might be very difficult to achieve thorough auditing and that the nation’s revenue would continue to leak, particularly in the government agencies that generate revenue for the nation.
It is incontrovertible that the absence of an audit law has given rise to impunity in the use of public resources in several MDAs. This is evidenced in the limitless numbers of probes conducted on key agencies of government, which completely indicted them of malpractices of different sorts.
The absence of proper auditing in the MDAs is also responsible for the fusion of unwarranted projects in the budget of most MDAs. Projects are not subjected to either procurement, financial, or performance audits.
It is therefore incumbent on the President Buhari-led government, to activate every necessary mechanism that will bolster its anti-graft fight.
The country direly needs a robust, and well-articulated audit law that will not only guide accounting officers and other responsible parties involved in the MDAs on the standard procedures in the application of public funds but will also encourage performance in programs and budgeting in the MDAs.
That is why Mr. President must once again, diligently re-scan the Audit Bill, carefully identify grey areas in the current Bill, and then facilitate the process for quick harmonization of the perceived grey areas with NASS, before proceeding to sign the bill into law.
Having a ‘progressive-defined’ audit law in place will indeed serve as an elixir for his government’s war against corruption.