The Ebonyi State Government paid N400 million of its COVID-19 funds to public officials for personal estate development in breach of its law and international guidelines, a PREMIUM TIMES review of an audit report shows.
The money was among those appropriated by the Ebonyi State House of Assembly in August 2020 for the state’s COVID-19 expenditure in the 2020 Revised Budget.
According to records obtained from the ‘Ebonyi State Government Audited COVID-19 Monthly Budget Execution Report’, the funds were, however, paid to the officials of the executive, judiciary, and legislative arms of government.
The misuse of funds in Ebonyi reinforces fears in the anti-corruption and development circle about limited accountability in the use of COVID-19 response funds by governments.
Details of the financial transaction show that the money was paid to public officials either to start the development of their lands or to build houses.
About 50 per cent or N200 million of the funds, were paid as COVID-19 ‘soft loans’ to public office holders in the executive arm of government to ‘start development of their lands.’
Members of the legislative arm of government were given N100 million as COVID-19 ‘soft loan’ to start the development of their houses.
Public office holders of the judiciary arm of government also received their share, N100 million, to ‘start developing their houses,’ according to the audit report.
Records of financial transactions of the Ebonyi State Government for August 2020 show that all payments were approved 100 per cent.
Source of Funds
Ebonyi is governed by David Umahi who recently lost his presidential bid at the primary of Nigeria’s ruling party, APC.
Despite the audit report, Mr Umahi’s government says it did no wrong with the transactions.
The Ebonyi State Accountant-General, Carlton Nwankwo, under whose office the payments were authorised, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that a large part of the budgeted receipts is the “state government funds that were set aside for Covid-19 management and Covid-19 recovery.”
He, however, said the housing loan to public office holders was not released from contributions or COVID-19 grants. Rather, the funds were from the coffers of the Ebonyi State Government, he said.
The accountant general said the decision to grant officials the loan was “what a section of stakeholders identified as their immediate need.”
“It is important to note that out of the actual receipts realized as of month-end August 2020, 97 per cent was from Ebonyi State Government Funds, while only 3 per cent were funds contributed by CACOVID, individuals, Federal government and private sectors,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in an email response.
Meanwhile, the guidelines of the global health body, WHO, are that “all COVID-19 transactions must certify that payment will only be used to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19.”
Similarly, the Ebonyi State CoronaVirus and Other Dangerous Infections Diseases Law also provides that “expenditures incurred and funds are spent for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programmes.”
While the financial regulation tries to prevent funds diversion and ensure accountability, the Ebonyi State Government did the opposite by diverting the funds into the accounts of a few public officials.
But, Mr Nwankwo maintained that the COVID-19 fund, given to public officials as a house loan, was viewed as a “vehicle that would add to economic activities and the Covid-19 recovery programme in Ebonyi State.”
The Covid-19 Pandemic
When the COVID-19 spread in 2020, restrictions put in place to control the spread of the virus caused severe socio-economic difficulties for people around the world, especially in a country like Nigeria where a large size of the population is already in the poverty trap and many have to go out daily to scrape together some money for survival.
It was at that time that the Ebonyi State Government engaged the citizenry through different mediums to establish the challenges occasioned by Covid-19 and how best the effect on our economy can be mitigated, Mr Nwankwo said.
“The State through the SFTAS programme was able to revise its budget to accommodate amendments that were necessary considering the outcome of Citizen’s/Stakeholders’ engagements,” the accountant general added. “It also made policies that included tax rebates, tax holidays, and other forms of palliatives concerning the outcome of the engagement meetings.”
A civic advocacy group, Budgit, had released a report saying the state of accountability around COVID-19 funds in the states across Nigeria was poor. It said this, partly, stems from the fact that most state governments were able to get away with the mismanagement of the funds as the government provided no legislation to punish offenders.
The organisation said most of the COVID-19 resources were converted to private use and some for political purposes.
Since 2020, Ebonyi has reported about 2,064 COVID-19 cases and 32 deaths from the virus.
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