The Accountant General of the Federation, Ahmed Idris, recently addressed journalists, including PREMIUM TIMES Business Editor, Bassey Udo, on the activities of his office in 2019, particularly the reforms to curb corruption in the system.
He also spoke on why the Transparency Portal launched last year has not taken off as expected.
PT: Last December, the Federal Government launched the transparency portal as part of the reforms against corruption. Under this arrangement, ministries, departments, and agencies (MDAs) were directed to submit daily, monthly, quarterly and annual treasury/financial reports. How is the compliance so far?
IDRIS: There is government policy. We have rolled out a portal to actualize the policy. Part of the problem is the sensitization of the public and capacity building for the officials that will handle the system. This is because the transparency portal is completely new and the operators at the MDAs will require to be trained. That is in the pipeline.
We are giving them a maximum of four months to update their skills. Not only that. We will call them and sit with them on the portal for them to ask questions on what should be done and the way they should be handling the reporting from their respective MDAs.
The fact that the president launched the policy does not mean that it is completely available for the public as was conceived.
We ae now trying to upload information to the portal. Some information are historical. They will need to be put in the system. Before that is done, the Financial Officers and those who will be managing the system from the MDAs will need to be trained. The public needs to be sensitized on what they should be expecting. All these are being rolled out now.
PT: Why was the launching of the Transparency Portal not suspended till everything about the operating system has been set up so that the government will not be facing the situation it is currently grappling with?
IDRIS: Well, we came to a point where we were inundated by end of year activities, including closure of accounts of the MDAs. We had to suspend or put on hold a lot of things, because the closure of government accounts must take precedence at a specific time and period of the year.
Most of our staff are now coming back from doing that. We needed to close the accounts for the year as the normal end of year activities. Reports need to be prepared. Some of these activities involved foreign missions. So, certain activities must give way for other pressing ones that must be done within a specific time and season, to take place.
Therefore, the fact that the portal has been launched does not mean that we are 100 per cent available to the public immediately. But, the portal is active. There are some useful information there. Every week one checks the portal, there is always an improvement in terms of what is available and what we were given. That is how we will populate the portal.
Talking about whether all these should not have come before the launching of the portal, what I have to say is that you cannot jump the gun.
In government, you don’t begin to implement a policy unless there is an approval. Even the treasury single account (TSA), when we started, that was why the government had problems. There was some resistance. But, eventually, we are now there. Likewise the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS). That is why we are having problems. Some are real problems because of resistance. Some because you cannot jump the gun to implement it. A budget cannot be implemented unless the National Assembly passes it and Mr President signs it into law.
For instance, there was a decision to increase the value-added tax (VAT) rate from January 1, 2020. There was a debate on it by the National Assembly. Members of the public were sensitized and informed. But, nobody could start deducting that 7.5 per cent unless the president signs it into law. On Monday (January 13), that was done. (Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, has since clarified that the implementation of the new VAT rate will commence on February 1).
Immediately after that, a payment was brought to me for approval. The approval was last year in December, but the actual payment was not done. When I cross-checked the payment, the VAT rate was 5 per cent. I said no, I cannot approve it. If I am to finalize the payment now that the new VAT rate has been signed into law, it must be 7.5 per cent. The 5 per cent rate has been overtaken by event.
PT: But the payment was approved in December?
IDRIS: Yes, the payment was approved in December. But, the actual payment is made this year. So, a couple of similar payments, which for one reason or the other could not be made last year and moved this year, would suffer 7.5 per cent, because of that is the law as of today.
So, when I stopped it, I asked them to go back and recharge 7.5 per cent. That is that person’s luck, or is it bad luck? But, the law has to be obeyed. Nobody can implement any policy unless he has the instrument to do so, whether administrative or legal. Otherwise, I can be queried for not following the law.
The beneficiary of the service pays for VAT, which must be charged at the point of payment. There is no contention about that. All capital payments above N250 million for all agencies are paid. When I want to pay, that is when I see whether the calculation of VAT, withholding tax are correct. If they are correct, I will check whether they are deducted. It is one thing to deduct. It’s another thing to deduct the correct rate.
When the guidelines were not launched, nobody knew how it would look like. The draft was submitted to the government, which could have changed a lot of things. So, if we started to implement the policy based on our perception, it would have been done wrongly. That is why it is good to always wait until a policy is approved. Otherwise, you are jumping the gun, and the gun can finish you.
PT: 2019 is gone. You have closed the accounts for the year. Can we have an idea how much of the funds have returned to the government by the MDAs at the end of the year?
IDRIS: Well, I do not have the figures at the top of my head. But, I can refer you to my directors who are responsible for that. We are still in the field. Some are putting their reports together. It’s not like switching on or off the switch.
We have a system called GIFMIS (Government Integrated Financial Management Information System). We can easily see how much the balances of the accounts of all those MDAs on GIFMIS are. Those agencies which are not on GIFMIS, we need to go physically to meet them and make some verifications to ascertain how much they have at the end of the year.
If an MDA issues a mandate of say N500,000 against the balance of say N5 million in their accounts. One might see N5million in the account and assume that to be the end of year balance, one may be mistaken.
So, one must sit down with the MDA to reconcile all payments in transit that has not hit the account yet, and take the net balance. That is fairness.
The role of the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation is not only to the Federal Government but also to the entire federation. And the word federation means we have a responsibility that stretches to the states and local governments. The media remains the vehicle of dissemination of information to enlighten the public and propagate the reforms the office is driving on behalf of the government.
The TSA is one of those reforms. The International Public Sector Accounting Standard (IPSAS) implementation is another. LPPIS is the other. Of recent, there is the transparency portal that the Federal Government asked us to set up, which you asked about earlier.
Policies of government are policies of the government. But, somebody somewhere initiated the process. The idea of the transparency portal came from an individual who sold it to the government. If the government finds it good, it is perfected and implemented by the government. That is when it becomes government policy.
We do all these to achieve transparency and accountability, to assist government key into some of these internationally recognized best practices, like the open the government, which the government has also embraced.
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Nobody can be open without being transparent. One cannot be transparent without being accountable. In all these the principles of stewardship is entrenched to a very large extent on all workers in the government offices, agencies, ministries, parastatals and so on. These are the stewards. The public has a duty and responsibility to be informed and enlightened about what is going on, particularly where the management of resources or public funds are being spent. That is what the government is trying to do with most of these reform initiatives.
The objective is to be transparent, open, accountable, and to ensure the public is aware of what is going on with funds and resources being managed or kept on their behalf, reminding everyone that this is the treasury of the nation. What this means is that resources come in and out for one programme or another.
For the Transparency Portal, there is no better institution to achieve that than the treasury. And the idea of the policy began in the office of the Accountant General. We told the government that if we are to fight corruption, one way to do it is to be open to the public. Let everybody see what is going on. This is the first step. Then the next step is to give people the latitude and environment to ask questions where they do not seem to understand what is going on.
And the government, under the present administration, bought the idea. We got the approval of the Executive Council of the Federation. Here we are with the website: www.opentreasury.gov.ng. We can use our smartphone to access it and see what the different ministries are doing.
It has the guidelines that tell us about the responsibilities of the Accountant General’s office, the Permanent Secretaries as well as Finance and Accounts Directors in the ministries, departments and agencies. It also shows the format of their reporting and what is expected of them monthly, quarterly, weekly and daily.
However, what I can say about the portal is that it has not fully taken off. The government is still uploading data because there is a timeframe from where we want to start. Ministries are expected to play a role in the process.
All these are steps in the right direction. For the government to do this means it means well, because whoever says: Come and see what I am doing, in terms of the revenue and the expenditure, means the government is serious in fighting corruption.
It is not just for (Ibrahim) Magu (the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC), to be arresting people and take them to court. We should also prepare the ground to prevent corruption from happening. That is the first step.
It is not all about jailing people. This is the last thing. That somebody is being prosecuted means an offence was committed. We should not make the ground conducive for somebody to commit corruption and think that is what the government is doing. We are responsible for the Nigerian people. We must be ready to give an account of our stewardship.
PT: Those seem to be the kind of situations captured in the 2017 report of the Auditor General of the Federation. Have you been able to reconcile those records and answer the audit queries over huge sums approved for MDAs, which were not accounted for?
IDRIS: Sometimes I get amazed by some of these allegations in the media. When I asked my colleague (the Auditor General of the Federation) whether some of these reports were truly coming from his office, he says, in some cases, he is also hearing some of these figures for the first time. I have not seen the report. Maybe he submitted it to the National Assembly.
PT: Is the Auditor General denying that the reports, for instance, the latest 2017 Audit Report, is not coming from him or his office?
IDRIS: Well, I am not to say. But, if there is an audit query against an MDA, or even my office to answer, the Auditor General of the Federation is responsible to go these agencies to reconcile them. Of course, most of these reports come from the staff in his office. I am not an Auditor. I am an accountant. He is responsible for audit functions of the government.
If by virtue of his office’s responsibility his staff, who are resident in almost all the agencies, issue a query that is not answered properly, and it finally finds its way into the financial statements of the Federal Government, the responsibility to answer that query is on the neck of the accounting officer of the agency. I don’t think the law of God or the law of man will allow one committing a sin and the repercussion goes to another person. So, it is the same in audit.
When we see audit queries, being the accountants who prepare the accounts of all the agencies and consolidate them into one general purpose financial statement, we assist the National Assembly before it goes to the Public Accounts eventually.
Our role at that point as the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation is to explain the attempts we made to make the agency to respond to these queries. Unfortunately, up to the financial statements were prepared, the agencies could not respond.
So, our role is simple, like we are involved in a case, and at the same time, we are witnesses, because we prepare the accounts and we know the defects. We also answer our own query specific to the Auditor General of the Federation. So, everybody is responsible for his own query.
I am not saying there are no audit queries. But, some of these audit queries, what we see, particularly on social media, do not have any basis.