USORO AKPANUSOH is the chairman, Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly committee on appropriation and finance. A member of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) representing Esit Eket/Ibeno state constituency, in this interview with a select group of journalists in his office in Uyo, the state capital, he explained how government’s expenditure is scrutinised, the funding for the controversial lodge in Lagos owned by the state government and the fate of the Ibom multispecialty hospital, among other issues. Excerpts:
It was noticed that the committee went some extra miles to visit project sites during the process of budget defense, why was this necessary?
Yes, you know in some states of the nation, you see a governor presenting the budget today in the morning, and in the evening the budget is out. You begin to think of why that house of assembly is in a hurry to perform their functions, and which to us here, believing in leadership of the house, it is a wrong method of getting the budget out. So we don’t allow government at this level in Akwa Ibom state to just garbage in and garbage out with the budget. We really have to take out time based on the standing order of the house, which has empowered every committee to carry out its own functions. In this case it is the committee of the finance and appropriation. The same standing order has given us the power to examine the past financial status of the state and also look into the new one. So part of our responsibility before we pass the budget is for us to look at what the government was able to do in the previous year. And if you want to do that, there is no way you can just get the budget today and the next day you send it out. When we received the budget in Akwa Ibom state house of assembly, we also appeal to the governor not to be in a hurry to get the budget out. We also take time to highlight our procedures in getting the budget out back to the executives. And as a committee, we sat down and highlighted what was needed to be done. We needed to organise public briefings which we invited all the commissioners, especially the commissioner for finance, commissioner for economic development and other commissioners and heads of Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to come and appear before us, and also invite stakeholders including the press, labour leaders, labour unions, both organized ones. And when we do that, we now throw back the budget to members of the public; and even before that is done we had to send out copies from the house of assemble to members of the public because it is a public document. They will pick the document and look into it critically and also make their own analysis of the budget. When we finish at that level we now see look all the committees in the house of assembly should liaise with their ministries that are doing their oversight functions, give them like two to three weeks to do that and also make their recommendation based on their analysis. If there is any project that should be repeated from the previous year budget, and also reconcile the proposed estimate. The committee will also advise them that when their MDAS are coming to appear before the committee on appropriation, each of those committee members should always come with the heads of the MDAs to appear before the us because if any question arises in fact it is the chairman of the MDS that will even send the recommendations to us, the ones they can handle and the ones they cannot handle they will send to use but the ones they can handle they will treat it at that level. When that is done we will set out a day that we will meet with the MDAs. At that level, we will give them a template of what they should do. Part of what we normally ask them is to come with the total money released to them in the previous year’s budget and to inform the committee those important projects they have carried out in the previous year budget. And some of them at the course of preparation of this budget were unable to reconcile certain facts even to the house of assembly committee because we ask them to do a public presentation if there is any area they will love the committee to look into, in terms of adjustment and readjustment and reconciliation of the amount. That normally takes up to two or three days to finish. When that is done, we get into project monitoring that is going to construction sites and see what the government is doing based on the new proposal. Because sometimes the government can budget for instance for the house of assembly or for a particular road for instance Eket- Etinan road, you see that the project has been there since 2015, and you see that the initial take off of that project could be for example N10 billion and after 2015/2016 you still see the government budgeting N10 billion; you come to imagine whether proposing another N10 billion means that there was no money paid in the previous year budget. And in 2016 you can also see them coming with the same amount of money and even till now. Am just using that as an example. One of the importance of our going out to check is to meet with the contractors, to find out from them what amount of money they have received so far for the projects and also look at the date of completion and the extent of the job they have done already; if they said that they have received 60 percent already, that will mean that there is no reason for coming back for another N10 billion. That means that the proposed amount for that project ought to be reduced, except maybe there was some level of variation that the government has made, and even that variation, we have to check to ensure that it got the approval of the house of assembly. When we engage them at that level, if we discover that there was supposed to be a reduction in the project budgeting the committee will take note of it and will do what we call mark off section, we will use that interactive session with the contractors and the commissioners to fix an new budget for the project for the current year.
Government sometimes comes up with repeated amount yearly, have you been able to confront the executive with this observation?
Very well, that is why when we see some of the items we don’t even need to consult the government, we know that it is wrong, so we just take it out of the budget or sometimes we just put a zero allocation there. For instance there was a project they did called e-governance, which was like N160 million in the budget. In the course of our oversight, I invited the contractor to come here with the letter of award. And in the current year I saw that government has also proposed N360 million for it, so I called the commissioner for science and technology to come and explain why the contract that was awarded at a cost of N150 million and was proposed for N160 million in the previous year, why he should it come up with another N450 million. If you check the report you will see that I had to reduce it to the balance of the previous year budget that is N10 million, in case there was any logistics that they needed to do. I said you don’t have to come back with that amount of money again for that subject matter. I don’t need to inform the governor that I have taken that decision. The ones that we know for instance projects that have to do with private / public partnership, sometimes the government would want to do some preliminary arrangement; assuming they proposed maybe like N1 billion and I will ask a question: why do you need up to one billion naira for only preliminary arrangement? Let’s have an engagement with the private partner to know what actually is the arrangement for him to accommodate the government interest? Maybe sometimes it is dependent on compensation. And if you have a large span of land, you don’t need to pay money for the building, you only need to pay money for maybe crops for compensation to those people so you don’t need that much amount of money. So when we look at it, we give it back to them to reduce it even to the lowest minimum possible before we could collect it for consideration. It is very tedious; you know we have up to 60 or 70 MDAs and we have to sit down and look at those projects, especially because these are totally capital projects, the recurring expenditures is something like salaries, allowances, so you may not really have to examine much but even at that you have to give it to the head of service to furnish us with the salary structures so that we can look at the recurrent to know how much they have been proposed for. If they are saying that we are paying about N 6.7 billion salaries, that means that our budget outline should flow on that recurrent structures along that line. So instead of you are paying like N6, 7, 8 million, you bring about N30 million that means that there is something wrong. So we look at it very well and also make our own recommendations.
One of the projects visited was the Akwa Ibom lodge in Lagos; it was a controversial project, how relevant is that project and why did your committee approve money for it?
If you followed us to Lagos, you would agree with me that government needs that structure, because the one we have is as old as Nigeria itself. That area in Ikeja is so flooded and it has turned to a commercial area, and if you see that property by yourself you will even advise government not to enter there. In fact that place has been occupied by miscreants because of the status of the structure. One reason is that when you are talking about industrialization, government cannot build industries, it is private partners that can come and build industries for them to be able to run; and most times these private partners are not from here. You can agree with me that now we have security challenges, and before you can embark on a journey you have to know what is the security situation in that area? Every state government in Nigeria owns a lodge in Lagos just as they own a lodge in Abuja, why is it so? One of the reasons is that it is a place where government can host their guest whether they are outside or within the country. If for instance you want to have a meeting with some groups of people in Lagos, the cost of coming to Uyo might be more expensive than that of one person going to meet them in Lagos, so government is also looking at reducing the amount of money spent. Why we even went back to Lagos lodge is that sometimes last year some people went out with some placards that Akwa Ibom people protested that government should not have used N10 billion to construct the Lagos lodge; you are aware. And that was a wrong information. I even had to come up with a press release, saying that N10 billion was not the amount for the Lagos lodge, rather it was the total amount of money during supplementary budget for a particular MDAs. Not only for Lagos lodge. It was a sum a total, and prominent among the projects for that supplementary budget was the Lagos lodge. We now said look, to prevent the event of people running down government, even at the expense of the committee on appropriation, we had to go to Lagos. Why do we go to lagos? To see actually what the government is doing, because the executive did not come out with any statement about the size of the project. When we got to Lagos, we went to the old site and asked question: why do we build this one? They said the government of Akwa Ibom state under the leadership of Godswill Akpabio acquired that land many years ago and people started encroaching on that land, and it is possible for anybody to take over that land from the government of Akwa nIbom state because the governor will not be able to go there every day to check whether the land is still there or not. And at the same time in order to remove that perception that we needed N10 billion to build that lodge, when we had our interface with the contractor. I asked him how much was the project, the contractor said that it was N2.1 billion. And you can see the project by yourself, a duplex building with offices, guest houses, swimming pool, and even the boys’ quarters for staff. We also carried out our own personal investigation, trying to get our own evaluation of the project; and including furnishing of the house. If you look at the cost of building materials now in Nigeria, comparing with the magnitude of that project that we saw, there was no way we could not have appropriated money for that project to be done. And also know that only N1.2 billion was appropriated for the project as at the time people were saying that it was N10 billion. It is only this year that we have appropriated more because the project is about N2.1 billion, so we have appropriated another one billion naira for the completion of the project. Government could to have paid the contractor because there was no money appropriated for. One thing I can assure you is that I have also been carrying out my own independent investigation concerning who is the governor of the state, and I have noticed that he has a financial knowledge of ‘if you do this that will be wrong and if you do that that will also be right.’ One is that I checked the implementation of all the MDAs and I have not seen one that has been implemented that was not appropriated for in the budget.
During the course of your inspection of the previous year’s projects, and cross checking what was proposed for the projects , I want to believe you discovered some discrepancies on some projects that were repeated, and some money was save as you were able to cut down on some repeated projects. How much has the committee been able to save for the state so far?
You know sometimes it is not the money that they spent but the proposal, because it is only one or two that got up to 60 or 70 percent of the total proposed estimate. Now when we sat at the committee of the appropriation defense, well others have earlier came up with so much of requests for augmentation, in fact the judiciary came up with N4 billion augmentation to service liabilities; And they wrote to us. Other MDAs also did. The new ministry of manpower labor headed by Ibanga Akpabio also did; we had to remove votes from the head of service domiciled there so that we can give it to the new ministry. We would have saved almost like N30 billion, this N30 billion may not be saved for the purposes of being re-proposed in the new year budget. What we do is that for those areas that people came up with requests for augmentation, instead of bringing additional to the budget size, we save and augment it internally. Like in terms of ministry of works, we have saved at least N15 billion, then we augment it with other areas that needed to be augmented for; the ministries, the MDAs and all of that. Why we are doing so is that if we did not do that, if we bring additional N30 billion to add to the budget size, we would have had almost N750 billion proposed for 2018, so we saved and augment it. What we do is that during public hearing, a lot of people complained about social sectors which includes the education, health, and in fact inter- ministerial is also part of social sector because it provides infrastructures to social sectors like rehabilitation of schools and health facilities. I can remember that we added 4 billion naira to education, another 4 billion naira to health, another 4 billion naira to inter- ministerial, and other areas, I may not be able to mention here because it is all documented. We did that because we based our decision in the public opinion, that government needs to pay the newly recruited nurses, they need to pay bursary against the backdrop that it has not being doing that in the past years. Even though we have a free and compulsory education in the state it is not at the university level. So the government still needs to provide assistance to our students at the university level.
About that hospital, we just learnt recently that equipment worth half a billion naira had been carted away, I don’t know if your committee can do anything about it.
I wrote to the commissioner for health, to send to us the memoranda that was entered with Cadiocare management team, and the list of items that was handed over to him. It might not be under my committee; I am going to make a report, send it to the appropriate committee of the house which is committee for health. The document has just been sent to me. I have also written to Cadiocare management to come to this office with the list of those items they took over from the state government and the list of the ones they handed over to the state government when their business could not continue. They should also give us their oral statement of the matter, and they replied to me that they are willing to come, and that they will send those lists to us as soon as possible. We have our procedures, we are not going to use any stick to beat anyone to bring us documents; by the time we write our second letter we will find out any reasons why they are delaying and if they refuse to come, then we will take it to the floor of the house of assembly for the house to issue a subpoena. And the house of assembly can issue a subpoena for arrest of anybody; even if you are abroad we can send an interpol for your arrest and send to Akwa Ibom to answer for your errors. I may not be able to conclude specifically that items worth that sum was carted away by Cadiocare until when we hear from both sides, then we will be able to say this is our position. So we will carry out our investigation and come out with recommendations. If there were some items they took away we will recommend that they should bring them back and if they cannot, then we will sum it up and say this is how much you are owing us, the government has a way of retrieving money from them if they still want to be in business.