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Senator Urhoghide: MDAs grossly violating Appropriation Act

Senator Matthew Urhoghide represents Edo South Senatorial District on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). He is a cognate member of the Senate and has been Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts since the Eighth Assembly. In this interview with CHUKWU DAVID, he gives comprehensive overview of the Committee’s work on audit reports of over 200 MDAs, spanning 2015 and 2019


The National Assembly is currently on recess to enable its members participate in the ongoing general elections, but it has been discovered that the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, which you are the Chairman, has been sitting almost every day.


What are you pursuing; what do you intend to achieve? Let me first of all draw your attention to the Senate Standing Orders, Section 97(5) that relates to the functions of the Public Accounts Committee.


The Public Accounts Committee is a Special Committee of the Senate. And if you go and check that provision, it will tell you that the Committee can sit, not minding that the Senate is in recess. So, that is to bring it within the ambit of the law and regulations of the Senate. So, it does not preclude us from sitting even when the Senate is not sitting.


That is our provision in the Senate Standing Orders 2022 as amended. That is number one. Number two is that the scope of work expected of the Public Accounts Committee is so huge, so large; it’s so enormous. Let me give you an insight: the report that comes from the Auditor-General of the Federation as annual general reports of all the ministries, departments and agencies of government, particularly those which have been found wanting are reported upon and sent to the National Assembly, and it is this Committee that must consider that report. We have had this backlog from 1999, and we have been trying to clear them from 2015 till date.


So, we need to sit every day, apart from the fact that we have to go to plenary, for us to cover them. You can imagine a report that covers over 200 agencies. They send in different reports. We concluded 2015, sent it to the Senate and the Senate passed it. You can imagine we are covering reports of two, three years together, that is 2016, 2017 and 2018.


That is just for the audit report. There is this major probe your Committee is doing on the Service Wide Vote. What is this fund about and how far have you gone with the investigation?


Yes, this is a very critical aspect of the work presently being carried out by the Senate Public Accounts Committee. We are looking at and compiling our report on what we have found out about the disbursement of the Service Wide Vote over the years. It is one area many people are just glossing over, not knowing the full implication of the money that is voted and put aside, to say you are going to use this money for any shortfall in the course of budget execution.


That is what it is supposed to be. We now found out that the quantum of progression in terms of project execution over the time has been huge.


As at last count last year, the Service Wide Vote was N1.9 trillion. The vote is no longer a paltry sum put in a basket for budget shortfalls. And if money has to be disbursed from such a pool, there are laws, there are procedures. The agency must request it. And must show the reason why they are requesting it. It’s a shortfall; we don’t have it in our budget, so we need extra-budgetary provision.


And if it is so, what is so important that it must be given to you? So, that is the issue and we are investigating this at the moment. Again, by function of the Committee, we are equally supposed to do what is called status inquiry. Under this, we look at the revenue profile and the expenditure profile of agencies. You can imagine having 779 agencies of government.


If we have to do all of this and if we have to also do a performance audit on these agencies, to be sure that there is value for money. All these projects you are seeing including the railway projects and others, we are supposed to go and inspect them to ensure that every one Naira we spend and every one dollar that is stated in a contract is accounted for. So, you can see that what the Committee has to do is huge.


And if you start something and you don’t finish it, and after this session you go and another person comes, it will be a problem. We have a backlog of these reports up to 2019 that we have not finished, and we have to finish considering them, so that when the Tenth Senate comes, they won’t have much work piled up for them.


So, we must clear this backlog of audited reports by the Auditor-General of the Federation because it is becoming a smear to the institution of the Senate, that we bring an audit from the Auditor- General and nobody cares about it. You can see how things are done here; everybody is coming to the National Assembly for budget defence and for appropriation.


After you give the budget, the law says that six months into the new financial year, you should account for the money that is given to you before you can get another one. But in Nigeria, agencies have been getting appropriations but nobody is accounting.


So, what we are trying to do in this Committee is to stem that tide because by the time people come for budget defence, they will ask you, what is your audited financial statement for last year.


Let us see whether what you were given last year was properly utilised. Another thing, you see the Service Wide Votes we are looking at, they are supposed to be money given to MDAs to meet the little shortfalls in their budgetary provisions.


All the standing committees in the Senate are not aware of these disbursements to these agencies. So, it has been one area they get funds  to utilise and nobody asks them. This is what this Committee is doing now; we are now asking them. You got money from Service Wide Vote, yes, what did you do with it? Many of them were surprised. We are equally looking at the procedure for approving and getting the money.


They all virtually have faults. If the President has delegated that responsibility to the Minister of Finance to approve, then we must see the procedure followed for its approval and disbursement. The agency which wants money from the Service Wide Vote must write to provide the reason. That is why we are saying ‘let us see your request.’ Some of them did not even request or make flimsy requests and were not directed. You will see an agency under a Ministry write to the Ministry for funds from the Service Wide Vote. Does a Ministry have power over the Service Wide Vote? It doesn’t.


The proper procedure is that you apply, it goes to the President. If the President has delegated it to the Minister of Finance, the Minister says okay, approved or not approved. If it is approved, it comes to the Ministry of Finance again where they will indicate approval and authority to make expenditure. They will send it to the Accountant-General, who releases the money.


We want to see that line of action  because it has to do with financial regulation. But what we see in this Committee from the MDAs is, did you apply? Eem eem, I can’t remember. Who gave you the approval? Maybe the Minister. Apart from a few of the agencies, I don’t see where letters are written, and those who write address their letters to the Minister.


You cannot raise AIE without approval. And when AIE is given, it should come back to the Accountant-General and the Accountant-General releases the fund. That’s what we are telling the Accountant-General, you release the fund, let us have a list of who got what. We are now telling them to come and verify and see if what is contained in the report is in agreement with what you received.


So, our work is quite a very cumbersome, laborious exercise. It is a huge sacrifice we are making to ensure that our procedures and processes are correct. This culture of taking public funds without accountability is no longer acceptable. Why are there no sanctions against the erring agencies to serve as deterrent to others; is it how it obtains in other nations across the world?


The National Assembly is usually taking the blame for all these carelessness and fraudulent handling of public funds. And when the National Assembly gets the blame, it is going to get to the Committees. People will accuse us of just sitting down there and taking our salaries and allowances without doing anything.


And another challenge here is that our decisions or resolutions are merely advisory, as they don’t carry elements of compulsion. That is why people are taking the Parliament for granted. On my part, it is just an issue of conscience, and that is why I am committed to do the job. In other climes, go to Britain, go to America, things are done differently. In the Eight Senate when I was made the Chairman of this Committee, I went to the British Parliament, I went to the American Congress. I saw the Committee on Public Accounts. I saw the Controller-General that is the Auditor- General in Britain. And I asked a question: does it happen that in Britain their agencies that are owned by the government, which collect money by way of budgeting don’t account for it? They said that it does not happen because if you collect money, you must account for it before another one is given to you.


But in Nigeria, agencies collect money for many years and they do not account. So, that is what I have seen as a misnomer



that does not happen in other climes that happen here. And if you really check all the Acts establishing all these MDAs: the law establishing Police, the Army, the CBN, the NNPC, EFCC, ICPC, all of them including the National Assembly, go and check, they are supposed to prepare their financial audits six months into the new financial year. If it were so, the financial statement, the audited report of what we did in 2022 would have been ready. But nobody is talking about it; we are still talking about the backlog. And somebody may ask me, why are you bothered about the past? If we don’t start there, it will be a problem. I made a choice to start from 2015, because I didn’t want to politicise the process. They will say that I am shielding President Goodluck Jonathan and focusing on President Muhammdu Buhari. So, I decided to take 2015 which was a transition. One was there for six months and the other one was there for six months. And the 2015 report gave me an idea of what transpired. And when the report came to the floor of the Senate, nobody could tell me that I have a partisan bias. For you to be the Chairman of the Public Accounts, you have to be in the opposition because you are expected to criticise the spending of government. So, doing this work is a huge personal sacrifice because if I have to do it when I have the time, then we won’t do anything. And if I am to face the work of the Public Accounts, I am not even supposed to attend plenary. And if I don’t attend plenary, those people who voted for me will say that am no longer doing their work for which they voted for me and sent me to the Senate. So, you must manage your time in such a way to have a balancing. It is quite a tedious thing for me but we must try as much as possible, otherwise, it’s not an easy task. I belong to seven other committees but this is just the committee where I sit down for a long time. I have 25 members on this Committee but you have seen how we are. I don’t blame them because they are also busy doing other things. It is all about displaying the elements of patriotism in us. That’s why I tell them that we are not here because we want to vilify anybody; we are here because of our passion to put things right. You can imagine, Galaxy Backbone has been doing a lot of contracts in this country. This is the first time somebody is calling them, and they have the audacity to say they are not coming or they are coming. Where they are com-


ing from, can they try it in their countries? They cannot try it. For me, once the report gets back to the Senate and the Senate adopts it, if it gets back to the Executive and they don’t do anything about it, then my conscience is clear that I have done my work. But one day somehow, this report will see the light of day, and the people concerned will certainly regret their action. This is the opportunity they have and I think the Committee is very magnanimous. Once they explain and there is sincerity, our duty here is not to victimise anybody. The whole idea is really to correct them and tell them this is how it is supposed to be. From what we saw among those appearing before the Public Accounts Committee, many of them don’t know that you have to raise the voucher before payment. What they do instead is the other way round; they make payment before raising the voucher, which is a violation of financial regulations. And there are supposed to be consequences and repercussions for such actions. There is this perception by Nigerians that the National Assembly doesn’t carry out effective oversight on the MDAs, and this is one of the reasons you have a backlog of unaudited financial reports of these establishments. What is your take on this? When you talk of Parliament, you are talking as if parliamentarians are not Nigerians. Nigerians are Nigerians. Like I keep saying and I say it without fear of contradiction, the problem in Nigeria is the “Nigerianess” in us. Whether you are from the North, South, East or West, whether you are in military uniform or mufti, you are a Nigerian; it’s the same attitude. Like I just told you, to do oversight, it’s not something you do like you are in the Police Force, which you do every day. The people you are going to oversight must be ready to be oversighted. Just like you see them here, we try to use the press to invite them. If not for the publication in the media a few days ago, these people will not come. People have been calling me and texting me and asking me is it is true that the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy took N13.9 billion and cannot account for it? But I don’t respond to such phone conversations. I am not answerable to the media people, I am answerable to the Senate. But that is true. I wrote to the man heading the Galaxy Backbone and he said that he would come but he did not come. He was called innumerable times and the man was not picking his call. What is the man doing? He is running away. Galaxy Backbone has been invited in connection with N14.7 billion on their own. This one we are saying N13.9 billion has to do with the Ministry giving them the contract. Galaxy Backbone is supposed to be an extension of the Ministry of Communications. They are the ones doing these fibre optics and all the things that they are doing in communication. But is it why they should not answer? They have to come and answer. So, I can tell you too that it is not just the oversight. Again, what is the problem we really have with financial statements, with audited statements; why is it that it is just now that the 2019 audited accounts of MDAs are coming to us? Is that the Problem of parliament too? We have not received 2020, which is four years ago. We have not received 2021 and 2022


The provision of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Section 85(2&3), says that financial statement that should be raised has to be raised by the Accountant-General and submitted to the Auditor-General, who shall within 90 days send it to the National Assembly, and the National Assembly will send it to the Committee on Public Accounts. So, it starts from the Accountant- General’s Office. The Accountant-General is supposed to prepare the financial statement of the Federation Account. It is what they report upon from the different agencies that they bring to us. Since that report doesn’t come, why are you blaming the National Assembly? And there is nothing that compels the Accountant-General to prepare the financial statement. That’s why we want to do the Constitutional amendment, so that three months into the New Year, he has prepared the financial statement and sent it to the Auditor-General. Also, the Auditor- General will within three months prepare his own and send it to the National Assembly. And the National Assembly within three months to make sure that they consider that report. It is when we have strict provisions that we can see the work done. Everybody prepares, so that every year, before we go into budgeting, we have finished considering what we have done in the previous year. We have a budget of N20 trillion now for 2023 fiscal year; N20 trillion should be audited before we get to next year, so that we know exactly how much was spent and how much was not spent. When we are doing this borrowing, was the money well utilised? If the one we borrowed last year was well utilised from the audited reports, then we know, and if there were leakages, it’s through audit that we know all these things, and it helps to check systemic corruption. But when the Office of the Auditor-General is not well funded, what can they do? You have a budget of N62 million for capital, that’s an office that is designed to fail, whereas you go and give EFCC billions of Naira to go and catch thieves. You give it to ICPC to go and catch thieves. Why don’t you stop it while the thing is developing. You are awarding a rail contract of S$6 billion, $10 billion to go from Maiduguri to Kano, somebody should be there to check. By the time you release $1 billion, you should check whether it has been used. In every performance, there should be value for money before you release another one. But you will wait for $6 billion to be used; maybe half of it is taken away before you start writing EFCC. Why do we wait for corruption to be fully consummated before you now ask law enforcement agencies to go and pursue them? If the Office of Auditor-General is working, it is supposed to do a performance audit. It is supposed to go and check whether there is value for money. ICPC is now the one running up and down, taking the function of the Office of Auditor-General. Most of us have been sitting here but you don’t see the big spenders like NNPC, NPA, Ministry of Transportation here. They are spending billions of dollars. Do you see their reports? So, there are compromises along the way but the ones that come, their reports don’t come early. When the


reports come early, we will be able to do what we are supposed to do.
Like the 2019 audit report, which is the last financial audit report I have, I want to finish it, so that by the time we are closing the Ninth session, I know that there is no audit report that came to the National Assembly that was not considered by my Committee of the Public Accounts of the Senate. I want to finish all of them. And this report on the Service Wide Vote, I want to put it across to the Senate, so that it is an area that will attract attention.
The way they disbursed money from the Service Wide Vote caught my attention. In one year, it was supposed to be N751 billion, and now it is N1.9 trillion. There is something about it. Most of the agencies are no longer depending on their budgetary provisions. They go behind now to go and start applying for Service Wide Vote.
If for instance, the Committee on Army is not aware that after preparing their budget, they went behind to apply to the President and the President gave them N20 billion, the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Ali Ndume, will not know that the Army collected extra N20 billion.
Most of the Standing Committees do not know that the agencies they superintend go to get such money. So, I want to bring it now as a report to the Senate. These are the lapses of disbursement of the Service Wide Vote. You can imagine spending N1.9 trillion, if half of it went for capital projects, in every capital spending government is expecting at least 13 point something percent. We are talking about revenue. We are borrowing because we don’t have sufficient revenue. That’s why one of the Ministers said that the problem of Nigeria is not about spending but about revenue. That’s why we are insisting since you spent this amount as capital, what about the tax component, did the government get it?
If I see anyone who did not pay tax as required by law, I will hold the person because they are still the ones complaining. We are in this mess of a budget deficit because there is a shortfall in our revenue profile. And these agencies are supposed to bring the money. If these people that are supposed to be here are not here, are they qualified to be heads? They are not qualified to be heads. When we tell them to come here they think it’s a joke.
We write all manner of letters asking them to appear but they don’t come. This is the fourth letter I am signing asking each of them to come but they keep pretending and denying that they did not see our letter. And you can see the way I talk to them. They don’t have respect for the institution of the Senate and not just this Committee. It’s their attitude. These are elites. When they introduce themselves, you hear ‘I am Dr. this;’ they have Phd. So, they are not illiterates. So, when you are looking at the Parliament, you forget that there are so many things involved. The attitude of our people is a problem.
With this level of abuse of the Service Wide Vote by the MDAs, will you advocate that it should be scrapped?
I just believe that the intention of the Service Wide Vote is already defeated; the objective is defeated because the amount of money budgeted for the Service Wide Vote is too huge and it’s seemingly limitless because if you budgeted $1 billion, at the end of the day you end up spending $3 billion to $4 billion. So, these are violations of the Appropriation Act. Why would you spend money that was not budgeted? It’s a violation of Sections 80, 81 of the Constitution which state that no Kobo should be spent from the Consolidated Revenue Fund without appropriation from the National Assembly. So, these are extra-budgetary spending. How much did you take from the Service Wide Vote and how much did you spend? As I told you, how did we arrive at the progression from N700 billion to N1.9 trillion.
Does it mean that the Service Wide Vote is not a statutory provision?
It is supposed to be because it is backed by law, which is the Appropriation Act. We put it there. That’s why we keep asking, this figure you are budgeting as Service Wide Vote, is it for capital or for recurrent? Let us see the extent to which they have adhered to it because the way you spend the capital is not the way you spend the recurrent. So, that’s why we need to know what it is used for. In recurrent you might not be expecting revenue but in capital you are expecting revenue. But some of them, when they come here, they try to turn it the other way round. They don’t even know whether it is capital or recurrent.
You remember to spend government money but you don’t remember to collect tax on behalf of the government. If you collect tax, the only proof you can give us is the acknowledgement from the FIRS, that the tax was collected. Many of them, when they come here what you will hear ‘is oh! I didn’t remember.’ You will not remember. By the time they leave here, they go and see how they can manipulate some documents and bring them to us. When they want to drop it with the Committee Secretariat, I say no, I want to use my eyes and see so that I can sift the original from the fake because I know the difference. So, that’s where we are.

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