Mr Udom Emmanuel, Governor Akwa Ibom State.
By Abasifreke Effiong
At a workshop in data journalism I attended in August 2022, organised by BudgIT – a leading civic organisation that provides data for social advocacy using technology – with support from OXFAM Nigeria, participants who were drawn from different media organisations across the country were asked to share their experiences on access to government data. All the participants except those from Akwa Ibom State reported that accessing basic public document as the budget was still very difficult in their States. Participants from Rivers State said even as journalists, they have not seen the State budget.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) working on open governance reforms have noted that revenue-rich sub-nationals in Nigeria especially the oil-rich Niger Delta States are resisting fiscal reforms which might compel them to open their books to the public, despite the tremendous manifest and latent benefits of such openness. “Many state governments in the Niger Delta are running very opaque systems”, Mr Harry Udoh, Chairman, Akwa Ibom State Civil Society Forum, said recently at an alliance building workshop on Open Government Partnership for civil society and media organisations in the Niger Delta. The workshop was held in Uyo.
Within the Niger Delta, Akwa Ibom State has made very audacious fiscal reforms which have remarkably opened up the government to citizens’ participation and rave up transparency and accountability in government. The State is pulling the envelopes off what used to be government’s secrets and bringing them online for her citizens to see. From starting an e-budget in 2017, Governor Udom Emmanuel, has taken on institutional reforms in revenue administration, budget and public account reporting, procurement, economic planning, debt management and audit.
The e-budget has made it possible for everyone to view, read, download and print the State appropriation law online. From there, the government proceeded to publish its quarterly budget performance report, annual report, audited financial statements and lately, the State’s Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP). Now, citizens, journalists and CSOs have access to flip the pages of the State’s account records and scrutinize them. This has given impetus to investigative journalists, CSOs and community-based development actors to track budget line items by ministries, departments and agencies across the State. Such exercise is not easy in many other States in Nigeria. The 2023 budget of the State is already online, (www.aksbudgetoffice.org.ng.), so is its budget performance report for the preceding fiscal year. The Office of the Accountant General has also published the State financial statement up-to-date.
Akwa Ibom’s great rising in fiscal reforms can be attributable to Governor Emmanuel’s personal commitment to accountability and transparency, consistent demand and advocacy for open governance by leading CSOs in the State particularly Policy Alert and the media, and the World Bank assisted performance-based States’ Fiscal Transparency Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) programme. The SFTAS programme is a U.S$1.5 billion grant of the federal government of Nigeria supported by the World Bank aimed at strengthening fiscal governance at the State level. The programme tasked State governments to undertake legal and institutional reforms to enhance their fiscal sustainability with the objectives to batten accountability and transparency, increase public revenue, rationalise public expenditure, improve public financial management and sustainable debt management. These tasks were incentivised in Dollars.
Akwa Ibom State government has opened up citizens’ participation in its budget. Citizens take part in at least four stages in the budget process. The Forum of Civil Society Organisations in the State says citizen groups including clusters of persons with disabilities (PWDs) are now allowed to make contributions into “key service delivery sectors – education, health and WASH” via the “citizens’ budget”; even though it’s not all their contributions that get the pass. At the stage of legislation, citizens are allowed to participate and make contributions at public hearing held by the House of Assembly. They are also given opportunity to participate in budget breakdown sessions by the Ministry of Finance, after the budget is passed. CSOs and the media collaborate to monitor the implementation.
From opening up participation, the State has professionalised its public procurement process for transparency, efficiency, competition, integrity, due process and value for money. It has enacted a public procurement law which can be cited as Akwa Ibom State Procurement Law (2019), set up a Bureau of Public Procurement as well as the Public Procurement Board. The State had won about U.S$7.5 million under the SFTAS programme for fulfilling all the performance-linked indicators and meeting the downline items (DLIs) in its public procurement process.
There is a steady growth in internally generated revenue since 2017. Its IGR collection rose from N18.73 billion in 2015 to an all-time high of N35.5 billion in 2019. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the State met a 20 percent basic IGR growth target necessary to receive U.S$1million grant under the SFTAS programme. The growth is largely due to reforms in tax administration, particularly the enactment of the Akwa Ibom State Revenue Administration Law (2016), amended 2020. The Law gives autonomy to the Akwa Ibom State Internal Revenue Service (AKIRS) and allows the Governor to appoint tax professionals from outside the civil service to man the Board. AKIRS Board led by Mr Okon Okon, a chartered tax administrator and economist, has fully automated road taxes, and introduced e-payment platforms, thus blocking leakages and making tax payment more convenient. Okon said the assent to the revenue administration law by Governor Emmanuel is the fulcrum of the positive turnaround in IGR. He noted that there is significant improvement in voluntary compliance by taxpayers, an indication of confidence and trust in the integrity of the collection process and value for taxpayers’ money.
The enactment of the Akwa Ibom Fiscal Responsibility Law 2020, is also part of the reforms of the Emmanuel-led administration. Every funds accrued to the State must be spent responsibly, methodically and transparently. The Law establishes the State Fiscal Responsibility Board and the Fiscal Responsibility Council, provides guidelines on medium term economic planning, public expenditure, borrowing, debt and debt management. For fiscal transparency, the Law in Section 48 prescribes voluntary disclosure of information by all MDAs and local governments, and forbids withholding of information from the public. Section 48 (2) says “…all MDAs and local governments shall maintain different internet web portals where all their information including fiscal and financial reports, the approved budget, budget performance report, MDA performance report … shall be published”. 48 (5) grants the public including journalists access to information. It states “No official secret law, rule or practice shall operate or be invoked or relied upon by any person to deny, limit or in any way negatively affect the exercise of the right to information conferred by this law or the Freedom of Information Act upon any person, group, person, institution, body or agency.”
A Law to establish the Akwa Ibom State Audit Service Commission has also been enacted. The Law establishes the Offices of the State Auditor General and that of local government; and grants them independence and autonomy in the performance of their functions. Section 48 (1)(b) gives the Auditor General powers to access banking information of any person in the discharge of his functions and duties. “The Auditor General may examine or audit the account of any person held at any bank if (he) has reason to believe that the money held in such an account are public funds which had been fraudulently or wrongly paid into such account.”
The United States Consul General in Nigeria, Mr Will Stevens, has lauded the outstanding fiscal transparency of the Emmanuel-led administration in Akwa Ibom State. Mr Stevens said, “Akwa Ibom State is one of the first partners in Africa that has improved on fiscal transparency. The State leads all other States in Nigeria in creating its public finance plan.”
Civil society and media organisations have also praised Governor Emmanuel, for these reforms. “When it comes to fiscal reforms, I think we should give kudos to Akwa Ibom State. The Udom Emmanuel administration has done so much in that direction…”, Mr Tijah Bolton-Akpan, Executive Director of Policy Alert, a frontline NGO working on fiscal governance and environmental justice in the Niger Delta, said at an alliance building workshop on Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Uyo. However, CSOs are mounting pressure on the State government to also sign on to the OGP.
Governor Emmanuel’s commitment to fiscal reforms is remarkable. The reforms have further empowered citizens and accountability actors to be more actively involved in following their money, insisting on due process, demanding transparency, accountability, and fiscal probity from the government; this has kept the government in check while helping it win public trust needed for civic engagements and responsibilities.