Tony Akowe, Abuja
The House of Representatives on Thursday openly engaged in the Director-General of the Budget Office, Ben Akabueze in a brit bat over the funding of the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation and the processes f preparing the budget, with members saying the process adopted by the budget office was flawed.
The House also faulted the response of Dr. Akabueze to a letter inviting him to come and explain the “deliberate underfunding” of the Auditor General’s office, describing the wording of the letter as combative and resolved to refer the letter to the Speaker for onward transmission to the House Committee on Ethics and Privileges.
The House also resolved to investigate the claims of Dr Akabueze of a $36.1 million loan and a grant of $1.5 million available to the Auditor General’s office for their use as well as whether the money form part of budgetary allocation to the agency, when it was received and who collected the money
The House Committee on Public Accounts had invited the DG, Budget Office to respond to claims by the Auditor General of the Federation that they were being under funded and lack the required staff to carry out their constitutionally assigned function.
Addressing the lawmakers, Akabueze insisted that his office should not be held responsible for underfunding any agency of government, adding that neither the Budget Office nor the Minister of Finance has the final say on the budget.
While admitting under-funding the oAUFG, the DG said all government agencies are being underfunded as a result of inadequate resources available to government, but was quick to add that outside the normal allocation, the Auditor General also receive funding from development partners for its activities.
But this disclosure opened an avenue for a brit bat between the committee and the Auditor General office on one side and Dr. Akabueze on the other, with the DG insisting that the fund was available for the use of the Auditor General.
“If you look at the trajectory of allocations to the office of the Auditor General since 2017, I think it is fair to say that the trend had been upward. If you compare the trajectory with what obtains in other MDAs, I think it represents a significant improvement over what others have been able to get. It is no secret that we have been facing significant fiscal constraints.
“So, to allege deliberate underfunding is, to say the least not correct. It is also important to note that the Ministry of Budget and National Planning does not have the final word on the budget because it is presented at FEC and it is debated and what eventually emerged is owned by FEC and most specifically, the President who then lays it before the National Assembly. So, to hold the DG personally responsible for any amount proposed for ay agency is again a misrepresentation.”
While saying that the National Assembly is also culpable in the underfunding of government agencies, Akabueze said “I have also noted that members of the National Assembly always remind us anytime the President lays the budget that it is only a proposal and they have the power to vary what has been proposed.
“In what has been presented for the office of the Auditor General, between 2015 and 2019, on two occasions, the National Assembly has varied the executive proposal. In 2015, the amount for overhead was reduced and in 2018, the executive proposal for overhead was increased.
“So, if the allocation to the oAUGF has been inadequate over the years, then the National Assembly is also culpable. So, to level it as a personal allegation against the DG as deliberately underfunding the office of the Auditor-General does not reflect the facts.
“But I want to bring to your attention to one fact that I am not sure you are aware of. The office of the Auditor General receives substantial funding from development partners. I want to cite one of the programmes that is currently active.
The programme is called the Fiscal Governance and Institutional project and under the programme is $36.1 million of multilateral loan which is part of the national borrowing plan that is available to the office of the Auditor-General to use for its work.
“Under that programme, the office is also entitled to a grant of $1.5 million grant from the World Bank. This additional money is taken into account by the Budget Office when we propose budgetary allocation to the oAUGF.”
But a representative of the Auditor General, Bisi Fakowajo insisted that the money was not released to the agency and challenged the DG Budget Office to provide to the Committee the bank statement to show when the money was released to them.
He said “The grant quoted by the DG Budget Office are not released to the Auditor General’s office, but managed by the World Bank itself which has their own staff. So, it is not our money.
“Basically, the World Bank project is implemented on behalf of the World Bank by the oAUGF for state governments who are applying for World Bank loans. So, what the DG said is the same thing, but in another angle.
“The DG Budget Office should bring a statement of account of where and when such money was released to the Auditor General and not agreement”
In his ruling, Chairman of the Committee, Hon. Wole Oke (PDP, Osun) said “we’ve listened to the Director-General, Budget office of the federation. We have availed him a copy of the need of the Auditor General of the federation to enable him to carry out his responsibility.
“This committee is of the firm opinion that the office of the auditor general is grossly underfunded. The DG has told this committee that there’s a sum of 36.1 million dollars available for the auditor general to utilize.
“The representative of the Auditor General has countered that assertion of the DG Budget office. So our ruling is that the Auditor General and DG, Budget Office should please avail this committee, with the details of concessional loans taken for the utilization of the office of the auditor general of the federation and the agreement.
“We also need evidence of budgetary allocation based on that loan in the budget. We’ve asked the clerk to get across, write accountant general of the Federation to demand record of releases if the 36.1 million dollars and grant of 1.5 million dollars have been so released to the auditor general of the federation.
“Similarly the DG has equally informed us, that the waiver given to the auditor general of the federation elapsed, January this year. Sir the auditor general cannot work without personnel manpower. So please kindly invite the Head of Service of the Federation and then the Chairman of Federal Character Commission, so that we discuss this matter.
“We’re in support of President Buhari to wage war against corruption; the 9th Assembly is on the same page with President Muhammadu Buhari to wage war against corruption. And the only body in law that’s very critical and important is the office of the auditor general of the federation and so we have to give that office all the support it needs to work and so we also need your support in this area. So when we invite these agencies we table this matter particularly as it affects personnel needs”.
Oke however sought to know whether the approval of the Budget Office was one of the basic requirements before any agency of government can hire personnel, but the DG was caught short by Oke when he attempted to offer explanation.
The DG said “Mr Chairman there’s a circular issued by the SGF, on procedures for recruitment” but Oke thundered “wait, we’re aware of the circular, I asked you a question, my question is this, that approval from your office is a prerequisite requirement to granting approval for agencies to hire personnel yes or no? Simple”
Not willing to give up without a fight, Akabueze said “No I cannot answer yes or no. I must be allowed to explain myself. There is a process; the approval from my office is the last leg in the process. But before my office issues an approval, you have to produce the other approvals.
“The waiver from the head of service and the valid waiver from federal character commission, those are part the documents you submit to the budget office for consideration, I’m saying that those documents are not before us, because they are not available, so we cannot act”.
Speaking on the letter from the DG Budget Office, Oke said “A situation where we have to consider the 2014 report in 2020 is not good at all. So, if the Auditor General approached the parliament and lay their problems in the open, what is our sin for asking the DG Budget Office to come for an explanation?
“We also wrote the Minister of Finance on the same issue and you are telling us that both of you done have the final say on the issue. You also submitted that the parliament is also guilty of this offence. On the one hand, the Executive often complain of the parliament tampering with their budget and some people have taken us to court.
“I am one of those who believe that we should not cease the economic management of this country and that is why you see the kind of synergy you see between the Executive and the parliament.
“I am of the belief that there should be pre-budget meeting when the budget is being prepared so that it can easily sail through so that the President can have firm control of the economy after taking the opinion of lawmakers and other stakeholders on the economy.
“I don’t think we have committed a crime by addressing the concerns of the Auditor General to your office. The tone of your letter is very combative and harsh. We are very experienced people here and didn’t join the parliament yesterday.
“Aside from financial audit, we demanded a project performance audit from them and their submission is that they don’t have enough resources to do that. If an agency of government bring their account here and it balances, that does not mean that the project was executed or that it was necessary. We should work in synergy.”
Members of the committee who were not convinced with the explanation of the DG sought to know whether the budgeting process being adopted by the Budget Office was not flawed but however failed to allow him ample time to respond to questions.
Members insisted that the Public Procurement Act must form part of the laws that should be relied upon in preparing an annual budget as procurement forms part of the budgeting process, an assertion that Akabueze refuted, saying “you cannot procure what has not been budgeted for.”