The Governor of Akwa Ibom State, Mr. Udom Emmanuel has said that the questionable expenses tagged, “Government Special Development Project” which was identified in Akwa Ibom State Accountant General’s annual report and audited statements for 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019 were used for contingencies.
An investigation by The Mail Newspaper which was supported by MacArthur Foundation and The ICIR, revealed that the office of the Governor spent N10 billion on this item in the four fiscal years under review.
Effort to get the state government to provide evidence on how the money for the project was spent was unsuccessful. The Freedom of Information (FOI) request to them, which was greeted with silence, specifically requested for detailed information and documents on titles and locations of project called, “government special development project”, the list of bidders for the project, the name of the contractors and approval letters for the contracts.
However, the state governor, Mr Udom Emmanuel while responding to questions about the project from journalists during a media chat held on Friday, June 11,2021, said certain developmental projects that may escape being captured in the budget are executed under government special development project.
“There are certain developmental projects that we may not have been able to capture. Budget is just an estimate. For example, when we did the budget for 2020, sometimes in September 2019, even the greatest worldwide prophets did not know there will be Covid-19. Lo and behold, in 2020, we had Covid-19. If in your budget, you did not have such provisions, what will you do?
” I hope you know that as a Governor, I am not allowed to spend even a naira that is not approved by the House of Assembly. So the special project is to take care of those sets of contingencies.”
The governor further claimed that the government special development project serves as an alibi against increased cost in case of increased exchange rate.
“When we were doing the budget, we assumed that the exchange rate will be N381 but in export market today, you can’t even get it at N507. How do I wriggle out of that? The only way is to use the alibi that the House of Assembly has given to me; saying: Your Excellency, there could be some special things you need to do during this time, use this”.
While claiming that evidence of the spending is available, he added “Those things are properly retired. This is one government that if we can’t give account of what was spent, it is poor documentation. Not that one naira is missing anywhere.
“It is not the name that matters, it is saving lives. Even if you check American Budget, it is there. If those things are not special, what would it be?
However, the governor’s claim that government special development project serve as an alibi against increased cost in case of any increased exchange rate is misleading. Checks into the budgets and financial statements of the state revealed that there is a budgetary provision and spending for this exigency.
Captured as “Margin of Increased Cost/Emergency” under the budget office, in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020, the audited financial statement of the state shows that this item alone gulped N51.4 billion so far.
Again, Governor Emmanuel’s defense that his administration is open to give evidence of the said expenditure is questionable. This newspaper through FOIA request to his office, ministry of finance, and Accountant General’s office had asked for detailed information and documents on titles and locations of project called, “government special development project”, the list of bidders for the project, the name of the contractors and approval letters for the contracts. This was not responded to. A reminder sent at the expiration of the 7 working days provided for in the FOI Act was not also acceded to till date.
Also, the Governor’s position that the House of Assembly approved the item so that it could be used for contingencies is rather puzzling. In our earlier report[U1] , the House of Assembly had expressed ignorance over the controversial project.
The Chairman, House Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs, Mr. Ifiok Udoh, whose Committee has oversight on activities of government house; the Chairman of the State House of Assembly Committee on Appropriations and Finance, Mr. Uduak Odudoh, whose committee has oversight powers on the Ministry of Finance; the Chairman, Committee on Appropriations and Finance during the 6th Assembly (June 2015 through June 2019), Mr. Usoro Akpanusoh; and the Chairman of the Public Account Committee, Mrs. Charity Ido could not give insight to what the project actually is.
We reported that the Chairman, House of Assembly Committee on Appropriation and Finance, Mr. Uduak Odudoh had promised that on resumption of plenary, the House through the clerk would issue a letter inviting appropriate government office to shed light on the project.
Besides, the governor’s defense that funds for Government Special Development Project was used to address the exigency of Covid-19 has been found to be erroneous. This newspaper had earlier reported that the world was yet to be plunged by Covid-19 during the fiscal years under the consideration of the investigation[U2] . Even then, in 2020, State House of Assembly reviewed the budget to accommodate inconveniences caused by Covid-19. Checks into the revised 2020 approved budget showed that about N3 billion was budgeted for capital expenditures on Covid-19 response under the Ministry of Health alone.
Furthermore, the argument that the item can be used for emergencies has also been found to be incorrect. In our earlier report, we had noted that checks into the budgets and financial statements of the state revealed that there are numerous budgetary provisions and spending in the deputy governor’s office still on emergencies. For instance, some of the multi-million naira items provided for emergencies in the deputy governor’s office in 2019 are purchase of equipment for emergency; security arrangement to crisis areas in the three senatorial districts; provision of cash/relief materials/ medication to victims of emergency cases in Eket senatorial district; research study on boundary crisis and emergency/disaster issues; post crisis management; intervention to pre-crisis situations; and disaster emergency warning signal dissemination among others.
Experts on public finance and fiscal governance who appraised the item insist that the item is strange to principle of budgeting and cannot be said to represent provisions for exigencies. In the report, a professor of finance at the Federal University, Otuoke, Bayelsa State, Prof Emmanuel Bush, stressed that budgeting in public sector is guided by the mnemonic; R-PEACE.
He explained that R is for Regularity, P-Publicity, E-Exclusiveness, A-Adequacy, C-Comprehensiveness, and E-Estimates. Bush, offering explanation in context of the project noted that exclusiveness implies that items in the budget are not supposed to be ambiguous or confusing rather items have to be specific.
He pointed out that instead of using cryptic item on the pretext of addressing emergencies, the law allows the government to make specific provision for emergencies in the budget.
“…That’s fraudulent. That’s misappropriation. That’s a criminal offense. How can you use money on something that was not budgeted? That’s misapplication of fund. We have misappropriation and misapplication of fund. Both are impeachable offenses,” he said.