A Freedom of Information response issued by Nigeria’s House of Representatives on how it spent N1 billion taxpayers’ funds it received for the conduct of the constitution review is fuelling another round of suspicions of fraud.
The House reacted to an FOI request by a Nigerian youth group demanding a detailed financial statement of the constitution review process.
The FOI request had four demands: requesting to know the actual budget for the constitution review, amount spent so far, and a financial statement of the amount spent so far. The request also included a publication of the voting records of the lawmakers on the constitution review.
In its response, the House admitted receiving N1 billion for the job, but said it had only spent N750 million, leaving a balance of N250million.
But the Reps’ response to the third question demanding a financial statement of the amount spent so far is what is fuelling suspicions of fraud, cover up and deception.
“We requested a financial statement, but what we got, we don’t even know what to call it,” Samson Itodo, the coordinator of the requesting group – Youth Alliance on Constitution Reform – said.
Rather than issue a document showing credits and debits, the House only pointed to general activities it spent funds on, without stating any figures or amounts.
For instance, as part of its financial statement, the clerk of the House of Reps Constitution Review Committee, Chinedu Akubuweze, who signed the response, said the House of Reps Constitution Review Committee “has conducted a variety of activities and expenditure covering the following: Peoples’ Public Sessions in 360 Federal Constituencies and other public hearings and engagement.”
He also said the committee spent monies on retreats, seminars, transportation, accommodation, data collation and analysis, and so on; but could not provide the details of the finances of each item, the crux of a financial statement.
Nigerian lawmakers have recently been under pressure to publicise their accounts following years of spending public funds without publishing financial statements. A recent publication by The Economist magazine rated Nigerian lawmakers as the highest paid in the world.
The National Assembly, since climbing on to Nigeria’s priority first-line-charge institution (getting funds independently and directly from the federation account, just like the judiciary and executive) has kept details of its budget and expenditure secret.
The National Assembly approves its own expenditure with no known government agency auditing its accounts since it was put on the first line charge.
The actual official amount each lawmaker receives as perks is also shrouded in secrecy. A recent transparency protest by young Nigerians only succeeded in obtaining an obsolete payslip of the senators, containing only information on pay approved by a government agency that stipulates pay packages for public office holders.
The protest followed suspicions that the lawmakers secretly earn more, since their public earnings cannot support their lifestyles.
The House of Reps Constitution Review Committee is headed by its Deputy speaker, Emeka Ihedioha, placing him directly in charge of the utilisation of the N750 million credited to the committee. His office also could not offer an explanation.
An official of the deputy speaker’s office said it was unfair for PREMIUM TIMES to ask his boss if the committee keeps financial records.
“Ask Mr. Akubueze – the Clerk of the committee,” Oke Opia, the spokesperson for Mr. Ihedioha said.
Mr. Akubueze signed the FOI response that established the committee’s inability to explain how it spent the N750 million it received for the constitution review.
Mr. Ihedioha was unreachable on his private lines.
Not smart, covering up, not accountable
Young activists have criticised the House of Reps for not acting transparent enough in its response to the FOI request.
“When I saw first saw it – the financial statement – I laughed,” Olumide Samuel, who also participated in the recent transparency protest, said.
“Do they think we are dumb?” he asked. “How can this be a financial statement? They are possibly playing games with us.”
His sentiments are echoed across the young Nigerian activists’ community. Majority of young activists who spoke to PREMIUM TIMES believe that the House simply disregarded their intelligence by offering such “final statement.”
Others believe the House of Representatives does not have records of its expenditure of the constitution review funds.
“They seem to arbitrarily spend cash and no one oversights them,” Mr. Itodo said. “They possibly do not have records, or maybe they do not just want to be accountable to the public.”
The youth group plans to use the court to compel the lawmakers to compile and publish details of its expenditure of the N1 billion constitution review funds.