THE Nigerian government continues to advertise itself as arguably one of the world’s most profligate spenders. So reckless it is that it constantly raids back-up funds under various guises. The ongoing bid by the Senate to instil some order into the numerous statutory special funds is therefore long overdue, underscored by a recent report that over N1 trillion has been improperly drawn down from the funds and misapplied in the past 10 years.
Special funds are usually earmarked for specific areas of need and are intervention facilities designed to address peculiar problems that normal budgeting may not fully address. They are certainly not meant to serve as pocket money for public officials or to be “borrowed” by our fiscally reckless governments. As creations of law, they were never meant to be diverted to uses other than what was specified in the enabling laws.
But successive presidents have routinely abused and misused the special funds with no scrutiny or censure by our careless National Assembly, until now. Lawmakers should not fall back once more on their notorious penchant for barking and not biting. The constitution has placed a sacred duty on them to protect public funds and they should not continue to betray that trust as they have done this past decade.
The magnitude of the plunder is awesome. In its report, the Senate Committee on Public Accounts said it uncovered alleged abuses in the use of the Stabilisation Fund; the Natural Resources Development Account where N873 billion was allegedly diverted for unrelated projects, and in the Derivation Fund and Ecology Fund, among others. The Senate should demand a full accounting of how all the money allocated was spent.
Nigerians deserve to know how N329.86 billion of the total receipts of the Derivation and Ecology votes was utilised. As Senate President, David Mark, remarked, it would be necessary to know how the state governors had been spending disbursements from the Ecological Fund. Designed to help in mitigating ecological problems in the country, especially those exceeding the financial capacity of states and local governments, the Ecological Fund has been badly abused over the years. Joshua Dariye, a former governor of Plateau State, was once accused by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission of misusing ecological funds. Similar allegations have been levelled against other governors. The Ecological Fund Office has however insisted that it is strictly performing its mandate.
The abuse extends to the Stabilisation Fund, a mechanism used by other countries to protect the domestic economy from large in-flows of revenue (such as oil revenues) by holding government revenues steady during major commodity price fluctuations. It is used in Oman, Venezuela, Kuwait, Russia and Chile to help curb inflation, protect domestic productive sectors and prevent the economy from overheating. But here, the Senate alleges that N191.78 billion of the total SF receipts between 2002 and 2012 was abused. Abuse of the funds by the Presidency and the Finance Ministry is perpetrated largely through dubious “loans” granted to agencies that have nothing to do with the core mandates of the funds. For instance, the N16.26 billion said to have been granted to the Directorate of Pilgrims Affairs between 2003 and 2005 can by no stretch of the imagination be related to the crucial interventionist role of the SF. How does one explain the allegation that a N2 billion “loan” was given to a construction firm from the NRDA? Was the N10.9 billion “loan” to the Consolidated Revenue Fund taken from the Derivation and Ecology funds to fund the 2009 budget lawful? More appalling is the fact there is no evidence that the so-called loans were ever refunded.
It appears that the Federal Government has turned the special funds into its back-up piggy bank from where it routinely takes cash for projects already budgeted for under different sub-heads and ministries, departments and agencies and misapplied without accountability. The funds were not meant to provide a fall back for fiscally irresponsible governments such that money set aside to protect the environment, for instance, is taken under fraudulent guises to fund the repair of the Lagos-Ibadan highway for which money was already budgeted under the Ministry of Works vote.
The impunity must stop and officials who have abused the funds brought to justice. It amounts to abuse of their offices for the President and his ministers to divert special funds to other uses outside the law. The Senate should quickly act on the plan as revealed by Ahmed Lawan, Chairman of its Public Accounts Committee, to amend the Ecological Fund law to curtail the President’s discretionary powers. Curbs should also exist to stop the continued misuse of special funds. That N154. 9 billion of the ecological fund was spent on projects that were not related to the environment should no longer be tolerated. Nor should the diversion of funds from the Tertiary Education Trust Fund to fund almajirai schools be allowed any longer. TETF is to serve higher institutions, not primary education, which the Federal Government heavily subsidises.
While our past and serving presidents deserve condemnation for the misuse of N1.05 trillion allocated to special accounts in the last decade, the National Assembly is culpable too, having failed to exercise its constitutional duty of oversight to protect the taxpayer. The Senate’s scrutiny of the executive waywardness should hopefully signal a new resolve by our lawmakers to safeguard the treasury.