Paris Club refund and state-level accountability.

A majority of the sub-national governments in Nigeria are adrift and seem to be floating on the sea leading to a predictable destination. That destination is one of perdition for the majority of citizens. However, the drivers, being the governors and their cronies in the executive and legislative arms of government, have positioned themselves to jump out of the boat, some minutes before the final sinking, leaving the others to their fate. For most of the states, it is a state of hopelessness, insolvency, lack of accountability, transparency and value for money and where the entire state machinery brings no value proposition for development.

The recent controversy about the use of the Paris Club debt refund to states brings out the nature of governance at the state level in its true light. The controversy borders on whether the Federal Government should release the second tranche of funds due to states in the light of the unaccounted use of the first tranche released late 2016. This kind of situation creates a huge dilemma for any enlightened and knowledgeable mind, especially if one is at home to constitutionalism on a federal setting, and the rudiments of the 1999 Constitution. It is imperative to put the issues in their proper context by recalling that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 creates federal and state legislatures. The federal legislature being the Senate and House of Representatives is responsible for lawmaking, including the power of appropriation.  It also exercises oversight on designated federal executive activities. At the state level, the state House of Assembly is the legislative arm and exercises powers similar to the powers of the National Assembly in state matters. This also includes the power of appropriation and oversight.

 

The fact that the Federal Government has started refunding the states monies it over-deducted from them during the debt forgiveness negotiations should be a welcome development. It is not a grant or a benevolent disbursement by the Federal Government to the states. Rather, it is the act of giving back to the states what actually belonged to them in the first instance and was wrongly or inadvertently taken away from them by the Federal Government. Therefore, speaking in abstract legalism, the Federal Government has no power to dictate how the states should use the money so returned. The money should be subject to the appropriation and oversight of the state Houses of Assembly. So, the current federal regime that seeks to ask for an account of how the first tranche was used before disbursing the second could be legally challenged vide the provisions of the 1999 Constitution.

But legalism was enacted to serve the interest of society and its welfare and development. We live in a situation where governors are emperors and have pocketed state Houses of Assembly. None of the Assemblies is as vibrant as the Senate or House of Representatives, no matter the shortcomings of the latter. Pray, in which state can the executive budget estimates be subjected to a rational scrutiny before approval? In which state are commissioners or high ranking executive members summoned and grilled on their activities that are not in the people’s interest? Thus, a docile legislature which abdicates all constitutional powers and thereby renders the checks and balances expected in a presidential system invalid contributes nothing to the process of accountability and transparency. It is in this context that Nigerians have boldly asked governors to indicate what they used the first tranche of funds for. None of the governors has been reasonably forthcoming with explanations. Very few have provided wooly and nebulous answers which cannot fly in the face of reason and common sense.

The governors are challenged to account for the funds they have earlier received through specific expenditure heads tied to the receipts. No amount of bluffing will make this matter to fizzle out. General statements avowing prudent use of the money are not sufficient. Details, details and details are what Nigerians want. It is the height of insensitivity and wickedness to continue mismanaging money from the refund when workers and pensioners have not been paid and at a time hunger and starvation are the lots of a majority of the citizens.

The governors see themselves as owing obligations to none. Very few publish their budgets and make them available to Nigerians at little or no cost. Publication of annual audited accounts is also a luxury in most states. Unlike the Federal Government, which in these days is growing intolerant of opposition, state governors do not tolerate the least dissent. As emperors, they are ready to deploy all powers of the state to silence opposition or demands for accountability and transparency. This has left most of the states underdeveloped as some former governors and current ones have impoverished their states through conscienceless aggravated looting of the treasury.

The foregoing is further compounded by very weak civil society institutions at the state level. Very few institutions have the sustained capacity to ask questions about the use of state resources. Labour movements that used to be at the forefront of democratic demands have lost their teeth and now make muted demands which fizzle out with executive pressure. On the other hand, professional groups like the Nigerian Bar Association do not fully understand the role of the legal practitioner in a poor, backward developing society and as such, do not see a clear interventionist role in holding governments to account. The media focuses on a topic for a while and moves on in these days of “one week one trouble”. Thus, there is fragility in the civil society and it does not act together and speak with one voice. So, all the governors do is to allow discussions to roll and fizzle out whilst they continue the mismanagement.

The resolution of these challenges in the interest of the people is not far-fetched. The Federal Government is in a position and should publish the full details of all monies due to the states under this refund including what has so far been disbursed and what is outstanding and the schedule for the release of outstanding sums. Although the Federal Government is not properly positioned in law to control state finances and their expenditure, it can apply its leverage of having given states bailout packages to demand greater transparency and accountability.  Yes, there were conditions attached to the earlier bailouts. This raises the poser about states that did not access the bailout. How do we ensure that they comply? This could be resolved by other state level mechanisms.  All the actors in civil society mentioned above and others not mentioned, including religious, community and cultural leaders should come together at the state level for a movement for accountability, transparency and value for money to make targeted demands on governors and their accomplice Houses of Assembly.  They should make it clear to the governors and legislators that the reckoning day will come during the 2019 elections and those who refused to work with the people will be shown the door.

These demands must be firmly and sternly made and passed on to the governors and their acolytes. No man, woman, boy, girl or infant should be afraid to demand for the record of service from his servant. For as long as he serves, a servant can never be greater than his master. The governor is merely a servant of the people.

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