[From Chris Eze, Yenagoa]
The just-released 2019 Annual Performance Assessment (APA report of the states of the federation carried out by the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation may have exposed the under belly of the much-touted transparency initiative of the Bayelsa State Government.
The report contained the grants given to eligible states under the States’ Fiscal Transparency Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) programme where a whopping sum of N123. 348 billion was shared to the 36 states, excluding Imo, Rivers, Bayelsa and Zamfara states.
According to the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed, in a statement issued by the Ministry’s Director of Press and Public Relations, Mr. Hassan Dodo, the four states were excluded in the sharing for their inability to meet the 2019 eligibility criteria which required states to publish online approved annual budgets and audited financial statements within a specific time frame.
Mrs. Ahmed emphasized that SFTAS programme was “principally meant to strengthen fiscal management at the state level so as to ensure effective mobilization and utilization of financial resources to the benefit of their citizens in a transparent, accountable and sustainable manner, thereby reducing fiscal risks and encouraging a common set of fiscally responsible behaviours”.
Interestingly, Sokoto State received the highest amount of N6.612 billion in the sharing, while Kano State got the lowest amount of N1.710 billion.
The question by many observers in Bayelsa is what happened to the state’s much touted transparency initiative which is even backed by a law compelling the government to make known the income and expenditure profile of the state at least once in three months.
The law also stipulates that failure to hold the Transparency Briefing within the time frame constitutes an impeachable offence against the sitting Governor.
Why would a state that prides itself as the champion of transparency be missing or fail to measure up in such assessment? Does it imply that all the Transparency Briefings being conducted by the state government is a mere smokescreen, or a veneer to divert attention?
That Bayelsa lost out in the grant where the least benefitting state got as much as one billion naira should be a source of worry to Bayelsans given what that huge sum of could have been deployed to in the state.
Some observers have argued that one billion naira is enough to provide potable water to Yenagoa metropolis, or even fix the internal roads in the state capital that are in terrible state.
Taking a look at Bayelsa’s stance on transparency and its failure to stand tall in the comity of states when it mattered most, Project Officer, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria, (ERA/FoEN), Comrade Alagoa Morris described as painful the exclusion of Bayelsa in such largesse, even when the state prides itself as the champion of transparency.
He said: “Actually I don’t know what criteria were used in the exercise which ended up excluding Bayelsa State from the largesse. Be that as it may; some stakeholders in Bayelsa State had observed long ago that the transparency posture sailing in the state has not been transparent enough; it still has some level of Opaque disposition denying the mainstream Civil Society/NGOs access to the venue to ask questions.
“Besides, the fact that the Bayelsa Non-governmental Organizations Forum (BANGOF) has dragged the state government to Court in connection with revenue receipts and expenditures of the state speaks volumes.
“This action of BANGOF is another eloquent testimony to the fact that the state government has not been transparent enough in terms of revenue receipts and expenditures. In that regard, I am not surprised that the state lost out; though painful”.
Alagoa recalled that during the Chief Timipre Sylva administration, the state government, in partnership with the Revenue Watch Institute, came up with the Bayelsa Income and Expenditure Transparency Initiative (BIETI).
“But, it did not get to anywhere. So when the Dickson led Restoration government came on board with the Procurement Law and Monthly Transparency Briefings; some Bayelsans applauded the gesture with the hope that government business would be done in more transparent and accountable manner. Unfortunately, that was another smokescreen; the more you look the less you see”.
Comrade Keme Opia, Acting Chairman, Bayelsa Non Governmental Forum, (BANGOF), a coalition of civil society organizations in Bayelsa agrees with Alagoa.
He reaffirmed that the Forum is still in court with the state government over the failure of the government to keep its records on income and expenditures open for public scrutiny.
“For the past 2-4 years, Bayelsa State budget has been in the dark.
“For that same period of time, the official website of the state has also been abandoned, which is supposed to be free for public access.
“So there’s nothing transparent in the so-called Transparency Briefings carried out here in Bayelsa State”, he maintained.
For Comrade David West, member Civil Liberties Organization, (CLO), Bayelsa chapter, he pooh-poohed the state government’s rhetoric on transparency. “As far as I am concerned, I have always asked, how transparent is the Transparency Briefing? That has always been my question”.
He argued that from denying people access to the venue of the Transparency Briefings is a pointer that the things they do there are not clean.
“Even for you to attend the Transparency Briefing there is always a restriction to that effect. People are restricted. Sometimes you hear strictly on invitation. And the places where they hold these Transparency Briefings are not places where people can easily access to attend these Transparency Briefings to ask pertinent questions on how they arrive at the figures and numbers they are giving to us. So looking at it as a scam, one may not be far from the truth. Or one’s allusions may not be wrong.
“So in my own opinion, like I have always maintained before, how transparent is the Transparency Briefings? In most cases what the Commissioner or the Special Adviser on Treasury and Accounts, it is what the government of the day wants them to say that they will present to the public. So for me, I am not satisfied with the Transparency Briefings that they do.
“In most cases, we the citizens do not know how to confirm if the figures are corresponding. All you hear is just the news that the state disbursed or received one billion from the Federal Allocation and at the end of the day, they have spent like this. They are not giving us the documents to that effect. So it calls for worry and it calls for questioning. And my question remains, how transparent is the Transparency Briefings?”
“Now you look at it, the state did not measure up in the assessment of all the Transparency Briefings they have been giving to us.
“So I expect to hear from the Commissioner for Finance, to explain to the people of Bayelsa State what is happening and why the state did not measure up in the assessment”.
In its reaction, the state government denied the reports about its inability to benefit from the disbursed grants from the Federal government.
A statement issued by the Commissioner for Information, Orientation and Strategy, Hon. Ayiba Duba in Yenagoa reads in part: “The attention of Bayelsa State Government has been drawn to a widely published news story that Bayelsa State did not benefit from the N123.348,000,000 Billion recently disbursed to thirty-two states under the Federal Government‘s States Fiscal Transparency Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) Program for Result because the state did not meet the eligibility criteria.
“The claim could not have been the truth because Bayelsa did not participate in the selection process.
“It is an open secret that Bayelsa was in transition for the larger part of 2019. The administration assumed office in February, 2020 and the budget was not passed until March long after the SFTAS condition for benefiting in the funds had expired. It is therefore impossible to have published the budget online in January.
“However, the 2021 budget was passed in compliance with the SFTAS.”
The statement further assured Bayelsans that the Prosperity Administration of Senator Douye Diri is committed to fiscal transparency and accountability.