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Deprecated: Function create_function() is deprecated in /home/tellng/public_html/wp-content/themes/dw-focus_1.0.6_theme/inc/widgets/dw-focus-latest-comments.php on line 100 How Fear of Job Loss Whittles Down Powers of Auditors General - TELL Magazine
In his audit report for the year 2021, Paul Oghene Aghanenu, auditor general of Delta State, made some strong indictments, querying several financial transactions of some ministries and agencies of government. He also raised issues of suspected tax evasion and non-recovery of outstanding loans from beneficiaries, even as far back as between 2009 and 2013. Aghanenu, whose nomination by Governor Ifeanyi Okowa as substantive auditor general was confirmed by the state House of Assembly July 16, 2019 after acting for some months in that position, also listed several agencies of government which accounts had not been audited for several years.
The affected agencies included the Direct Labour Agency, DLA, – eight years; Delta State Muslim Pilgrims Welfare Board – three years; Delta State University Teaching Hospital, Oghara – nine years; Capital Development Authority, Asaba – four years; and Warri, Uvwie & Environs Development Authority – three years, amongst others. In particular, the report indicted the Delta State Board of Internal Revenue, BIR, for “weak” recovery of outstanding Pay As You Earn, PAYE tax, citing an example of a Warri-based oil servicing company, Weafri Well Services Co. Ltd which failed to remit its PAYE to the tune of ₦30.6 million, covering a period of 18 months. He also spotted outstanding PAYE of ₦782, 902, 187 as of December 31, 2021. Frowning at estimation of PAYE tax by the BIR, the auditor general was in particular, discomfited by the paltry PAYE taxes recorded for some high-brow private schools. Also in the report, Aghanenu had recommended “an urgent and comprehensive evaluation” of the state’s unquoted investments to the tune of ₦15, 651, 838, 923. 60 as at December 31, 2021 which, he noted had yielded zero return on investment (ROI). An attempt by TELL to get further clarifications on some of the issues raised in the report however met a brick wall. Like ping-pong, this reporter was tossed between the office of the auditor general and the public accounts committee, PAC of the Delta State House of Assembly. When the magazine visited the Audit House office of the auditor general at Legislative Close, off DBS Road, Asaba, Aghanenu declined to entertain any questions arising from his report but directed this reporter to the PAC charged with the responsibility of reviewing the report. Why, for example, were there no sanctions for establishments which accounts had not been audited for years, and for persons defaulting in loans repayment? What steps were taken to ensure that the private sector companies paid appropriate taxes instead of estimated taxes collected as PAYE by the Board of Internal Revenue? A visibly edgy Aghanenu said he would need to get “clearance” from the speaker of the House of Assembly before he could entertain any question from the press. Lecturing the magazine on what is obtainable, he said “The process is once you have audited, you submit to the House of Assembly and you hands off. Then our report is posted on the website and you can now access it. If you have any question, direct it to the Speaker or chairman, Public Accounts Committee, PAC. If they give me authority in writing, then I can answer questions; I can speak”. Dismissively, he said “So, you go to House of Assembly. Go to public accounts committee”. Pressed further, Aghanenu let out his real fears. “The Auditor General cannot speak. The one that did it during Obasanjo, you know what happened to him. But the report is self-explanatory”. Recall that in 2003, Vincent Azie, then acting auditor-general of the Federation, was sacked by President Olusegun Obasanjo for publishing a financial report in which many government officials were indicted. Azie had in his report, indicted the presidency, federal ministries and parastatals, as well as the National Assembly. For Aghenenu therefore, fear of job loss is the beginning of wisdom.
The magazine also found out another reason Aghanenu was wary of talking to the press. It was a case of once beaten, twice shy. An earlier audit report had pitched him against the Speaker, Sheriff Oborevwori, and the House of Assembly, and he would rather not be drawn into yet another controversy. In a veiled allusion to that unpleasant experience, he said “Go to Speaker first. The last report (2019)… You know our speaker is the governorship candidate and his political opponents picked it up and were hammering on him. I am not a politician; I cannot speak to the press”. When the magazine would not back off, he exclaimed: “You want to drive me from work? They are our masters! If you like, be auditor general, be permanent secretary; the political appointees, they are our masters. They are looking for a way to say auditor general… to put rope on our neck, God forbid! Na wa o; I cannot o. I nor fit”. The apparent subservient attitude of the auditor general is against the letter and spirit of the constitution which spells out his functions. To underscore the powers of this office, the constitution, in Section 85: (6) stated that “In the exercise of his functions under this Constitution, the Auditor-General shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other authority or person”. In his audit report for 2019, the auditor general had queried recurrent expenditures to the tune of ₦406, 413,053.54, involving 83 payment vouchers, which can be termed as monies missing from some MDAs, including the Board of Internal Revenue – ₦107,740,000 (28 vouchers); Office of the SSG – ₦278,578,800.00 (16 vouchers); Ministry of Health – ₦6,500,309 (3 vouchers); Ministry of Economic Planning – ₦3,290,000 (two vouchers); and Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources – ₦5,585,800 (13 vouchers); among others. He similarly queried 40 capital payment vouchers amounting to ₦912, 806, 586. 95 found to be “irregular”. Notable amongst these were ₦303,095,270.00 for purchase of official vehicles for members of the state House of Assembly on July 16, 2019 without audit certificate and receipts; ₦60 million allegedly spent August 30, 2019 during the hosting of the 62nd National Council on Health without receipts of items bought and hotel used; ₦57,367,893.4 on construction of Sargin Erhievwiets Street, Jesse, October 4, 2019 by MD Shardstone without work certificate” and ₦48,950,000 spent on purchase of gift items by the Clerk, Delta State House of Assembly on October 4, 2019, as well as furnishing of press centre with ₦37,591,597 on November 28, 2019. Aghanenu had also noted that a total of 10,567 numbers of capital expenditure payment vouchers were presented by the Accountant-General’s office for the audit exercise for the period ended December 31, 2019 with a total value of ₦138,140,558,769.19, though actual capital expenditure was ₦143,362,319,610.18 putting the difference at ₦5,221,760,841.00 unproduced payment vouchers. He was also alarmed that the state operated through the office of the accountant general, 282 bank accounts, some active, many inactive, which he considered too many for the state’s operation and recommended “drastic reduction” in the number “in line with the requirement of the Treasury Single Account (TSA)”. Consequent upon this report, Oborevwori, and the Clerk of the House, Lyna Ochulor, came under fire for being unable to account for ₦392, 473, 867.00. But curiously, after a technical session by the PAC, with the Clerk, and the auditor general, Emeka Elekeokwuri, chairman, PAC, in a statement, claimed that “the Auditor-General and the Committee cleared and discharged the issues raised”. How these queries were cleared neither the auditor general nor the PAC was ready to speak to. At the secretariat of the PAC in the House of Assembly complex, it was another kettle of fish. The chairman was not available, but Alex Joe, secretary of the committee, spoke to the magazine guardedly. He referred the magazine back to the auditor general. First, Joe established the fact that the report was not yet the document of the House because it had not yet conducted public hearing on it whereby MDAs and other stakeholders would be invited to know what actually transpired before a final resolution by the House would be adopted. According to him, “If we have implemented the report, that would have been the House’s report; then I would direct you to go and meet the clerk. But this is not the House’s report; this is AG’s report. It is his report and the report is a public document. It’s on the website. He is the one you will ask. Is he not the one that prepared the report? He produced the report; he signed the report. He’s now asking you to come and meet me or the chairman. I have the audit report of 2021. I am doing a review on the report. I am trying to understand what he’s saying in that report, so I cannot tell you what I don’t know. He knows what he has reported. “I am trying to review to see whether there is an issue in the report. It’s not enough for him to tell you that the report is in the House; except when my report is out, I can now tell you oh, this is how I have reviewed it and the House has adopted the recommendations. Then at that point, I can now say okay we can discuss it; my own report, not his own report. We have reviewed the one for 2020, but it has not been adopted”. What this means in effect is that for three years, audit reports for the state – 2020, 2021 and 2022 – have not received the required attention from the state legislature. A source blamed this on a combination of incompetent leadership and political reasons. Aghanenu has every reason to recoil from media scrutiny. His counterparts in some parts of the country had gotten their fingers burnt in the process. One of them was the Kwara State auditor general, Adeyeye O. Samuel. Adeyeye was sacked in January 2022 by the governor, Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq following his indictment of 67 ministries, departments, and agencies in his 2019 audit report only for him to confirm later that only 13 MDAs actually had audit queries. He was accused of misleading the government and the public. The report had ignited controversy following searchlight beamed on it by a civil society organization, CSO, in the state, Elite Network for Sustainable Development, ENetSuD. The governor relied on Section 127 of the 1999 Constitution, to sack Adeyeye as a public officer. Even the court of law could not save his career. At a recent two-day workshop on “Audit Reporting Training for journalists in Benin, Edo State by FrontFoot Media Initiative, in association with the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism, and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Sonala Olumhense, veteran journalist and seasoned columnist, in accentuating the awesome powers of auditors-general, posited that once appointed, “he can remain in office until he retires or dies. That makes him a powerful, independent institution, and servant of the constitution…In fact, state governors should be afraid of them; the House of Assembly should be afraid of them”. Ironically, in the case of Aghanenu, rather than the dog wagging its tail, the scenario is that of the tail wagging the dog. In his own perspective, Chukwuemeka Joe-Nsika, a Fellow of the Institute of Management Consultants, underscores the expected synergy between the media and auditors-general in the 36 states, which he said is critical in ensuring accountability of public officers in the control and management of public funds. According to Joe-Nsika, “Journalists and state auditors-general should follow the dictates of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to do proper audit reporting. While the auditors-general will report their findings to the state Houses of Assembly, the media will comply with Section 22 of Chapter 2 to ensure that citizens get the information they need”. Unfortunately, such information has not been forthcoming from the office of the auditor general of Delta State for an obvious reason. He’s afraid of being sacked. Godswill Ndidi Omenagor, a chartered accountant and auditor, said it’s an institutional problem. Omenagor told the magazine in an interview that while the normal thing is that the job of the auditor general is independent, “but it’s the institution that is our problem. We build strong men instead of strong institutions”. Rationalising Aghanenu’s behavior, Omenagor said because they were nominated and appointed by somebody, “in a way, they would still want to protect the image of their supposed employer”. He believed that with strong institutions, “irrespective of who appoints you, it does not stop you from carrying out your legitimate responsibility. So the fear is oh, tomorrow, they may ask me to go. This is one of the challenges of this office”.