Empty treasuries all over

Empty treasuries all over
By Reuben Abati


"Without ridiculing anybody, I must confess that the state of the treasury I saw between Thursday and yesterday is quite frightening. I have made this known to the workers' leadership, the government is struggling to borrow the more than N700 million from banks to pay them". These are the words of the new Governor of Niger State, Babangida Aliyu. But he is not the only Governor that is complaining. In Jigawa State, the newly elected government led by Alhaji Sule Lamido has announced that his predecessor, Alhaji Saminu Turaki, left him liabilities to the tune of about N45 billion, including internal debts. In Akwa Ibom state, Godswill Akpabio has inherited a debt of over N45 billion, and according to him, an empty treasury. His words: "Not only did we meet an empty treasury, but we are talking about an indebtedness that is well over N45 billion and the banks will not wait for us."

{mosgoogle}In Plateau, the new Governor, Air Cdr. Jonah Jang is also protesting: he has inherited an empty treasury and a debt profile of over N70 billion. Ex-Deputy Governor Michael Botmang who, has been accused of amassing most of these debts as acting Governor, has been all over the media to proclaim his innocence. The new government in Enugu State has also announced that the state treasury is empty; what has been left behind is a debt of N4 billion (this is a relatively modest figure under the circumstances). In Sokoto state, the new Governor: Aliyu Wamakko has been engaged in a verbal warfare with his predecessor, Attahiru Bafarawa, over the latter's claim that he left a surplus of N13 billion in the state treasury. Wamakko insists that this is a lie, his transition committee has since found out that the former administration left-behind an empty treasury, and a debt of N5.3 billion. In Bauchi state, the story is the same, with Alhaji Isa Yuguda pointing to a debt burden of over N50 billion.

Not many Nigerians would be surprised that the state treasuries are literally empty. The existing culture of governance in Nigeria is such that a sitting Governor sees public funds as a form of personal allocation; as his own personal share of the proverbial national cake. Since the civil war, it has been standard practice for a new administration to inherit debts and an empty treasury. On the eve of their departure from office, military governors and administrators in the past carted away public funds and property. The most dramatic case being the realisation by the General Sani Abacha government that some past military administrators had in fact, cleared out the treasury within two days. New government appointees who were allocated government quarters met empty apartments; it was common practice for departing government officials to park away government furniture, including kitchen utensils and mattresses.

The new men would then apply afresh for furniture allowances, and they too would later repeat the same pattern of outright theft. Cars were not spared either. Every government official had a panel beater on stand-by, just in case, as well as extra drivers who could move government vehicles to a safe location at short notice. As a rule, new administrators did not complain, since this was a possibility for the new men too at the end of their tenure. This is the sordid tradition that civilian administrators have inherited. In the Second Republic, a Kano State Governor, the famous Barkin Zuwo kept government funds in his bedroom! "What's the problem?", he allegedly retorted. "Government money in government house, any problem with that?"

The return to democracy in 1999, in the context of the drawn-out struggle against military rule did not change these traditions of the past. Any hope that the emergent political elite would behave differently was misplaced. This is one bitter lesson that Nigerians have had to learn. Because Nigerian leaders between 1999 and 2007 did not draw the necessary line between their personal assets and public assets, the EFCC has been having a running battle with many of the ex-Governors. But one glaring fact should be noted: the complaints about empty treasuries have come largely from those states where the opposition got into power, or where the new Governor got the position in spite of the former Governor, or with the help of other Godfathers. In those states, where the departing Governor succeeded in arranging succession for his own "boy"; there has been no complaint whatsoever about debts and empty treasuries.

If anything, those anointed successors have been full of praises for their Godfathers. The most amusing example in this regard is that of Celestine Omehia, the Odili boy in Rivers State who appeared on NTA, with his Godfather by his side, to tell Nigerians: "I am the luckiest Governor in Nigeria today". But what was he expected to say? It is not impossible that the treasury is empty in other states as well, but in a situation where the former Governor is spending a Third Term in office by proxy, no one should expect any open protests. Less fortunate ex-Governors who have had to deny the suggestion by their successors that they emptied the treasury are not amused at all.

One has said that he is a victim of organised vendetta. Another ex-Governor is on record as saying that he at least left the allocation for May 2007 and the new Governor should be grateful instead of grumbling about debts. This particular ex-Governor is perhaps right. In many other states, even the allocation for May 2007, which arrived two days before the inauguration of a new government on May 29, could not be traced. One other Governor faced up to the issue and asked his successor why he was looking for money in the treasury anyway. He advised him to wait until he receives his own allocations.

The attitude of elected representatives to public funds is that scandalous. In 2003, some in-coming Governors had to instruct banks to stop paying out cheques issued at the eleventh hour by the departing administration. The effect, this time around, is that in many of the states, the hands of the new administrations have been tied with debts and liabilities. This explains why across the country, one month into the life of a new government not much is happening anywhere in the states. The new Governors are all looking forward to the allocation for June 2007 before they can start governing. What this further exposes is the over-dependent nature of the states in Nigeria. They have not yet developed into centres of productive activity; they are for the most part rent-collection centres, forever relying on the monthly Manna from Abuja. This raises not only a crisis of federalism, but also the poor quality of governance in the states.

In the states that are heavily-indebted, the new Governors may have nothing to show when they mark their 100 days in office. The Niger State Governor, Dr. Babangida Aliyu, has in fact been honest enough to tell the public not to expect any miracle from his government for the next six months. But what created this situation? The greed of the ex-administrators does not explain everything. The roots of the problem should also be traced to the failure of the Accountants-General and Auditors-General in the states and the complete abdication of responsibility by the State Houses of Assembly.

To loot a state treasury is easy, in a situation where the Governor is considered an Executive Governor (a position that is unknown to the 1999 Constitution!), where he is also the state party leader whose word cannot be questioned, and where everyone from Accountant-General to Auditor, to Speaker of the House of Assembly are his political subjects. Financial records can only be kept as His Excellency dictates. And who would dare probe state accounts and risk losing party nomination in the next elections? The banks, already fingered as culprits by the Jigawa Governor are also often too willing to help a state Governor hide public funds in private accounts under fictitious names. To make matters worse, what is called handing-over ceremony between an outgoing Governor and the in-coming one is a charade. The former usually does not render any account. Some outgoing- Governors submitted to their successors, a description of the geography of the state and no more!

The new Governors who are complaining about empty treasuries should go beyond the politics of it. They should force the issue by setting up probe panels to take a second look at the state's financial status, and where necessary, the Accountant-General and the Auditor-General should be made to provide information and respond to queries. Public sector accountants and auditors are the main facilitators of corruption in government. Whoever is found to have been negligent should be reported to both the EFCC and the Disciplinary Committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN)

A proper audit of government property should also be conducted. The new government should look for missing vehicles, curtains in guest houses, cutlery and so on. Even a car that is left behind should be checked. In the past, certain officials removed the engines of brand new cars, and replaced the new engines with used ones. The stolen engines found their ways into the departing official's personal vehicles. To merely raise an alarm, and leave the matter at that level would only confirm the position of the ex-Governors who have dismissed the allegation of empty treasuries as mere red-herring. The public would like to know the truth. Sule Lamido of Jigawa who has been most voluble in complaining about an empty treasury and the notorious role of the banks has also now reportedly declared that he does not intend to conduct any probe because he does not intend to witch-hunt anybody. What is his problem? He should have kept quiet then if he didn't mean to "witch-hunt" anybody.

Secondly, the complaint about empty treasury should not be an early justification for non-performance. By announcing that the Niger State treasury is empty and that he should be left alone for six months, Governor Babangida Aliyu may think he has created a perfect alibi for his government. He would have to come up with a stronger alibi, please. Thirdly, in an attempt to raise funds, the complaining state Governors should not shift the burden to the people by introducing new taxes. That would be double jeopardy. It was the people's money that was misappropriated in the first place.

Interestingly, the Governors have all taken their case to the Presidency. They want some money from the Excess Crude Account to be shared so the cash-strapped states can get going. An agitated President Yar'Adua told them that the era of "empty treasury is over." His words: "If what I have been hearing from some states is correct, it would seem some of you may spend the next four years managing debt. Such a situation is unacceptable. This must be the last time we will experience this empty treasury phenomenon. What some of you are now experiencing must not happen again" Sir, it is so easy to blow hot air!

The difference between the states where the opposition is in power, and the states where anointed successors are in charge, can only lead to one consequence: in the future, every out-going Governor would work, tooth and nail to leave his own boy behind, to cover up, and to forestall any likely embarrassment. Those who took this option are today enjoying the status of Godfathers in the states they once ruled. Those who did not or who failed, are busy defending their integrity. In Abuja, President Umar Yar'Adua is fast earning the reputation of a "Baba Go Slow". But no one would dare link this to an empty Federal Government treasury. The Godfather syndrome in Nigerian politics has come to stay, it seems.