UNSPENT FUND: FED. MINISTRIES ON LAST MINUTE SPENDING SPREE TO BEAT YAR’ADUA’s DEADLINE

Nigeria’s president, Umar Musa Yar’Adua may have placed excessive premium on the integrity of the federal ministries, government departmental and agencies to feel secured enough to inform the national assembly of part financing its budget deficit in 2009 through unspent funds taken back from federal ministries, departments and agencies.

FORTUNE&CLASS Weekly discreet investigations in Abuja, have, however, shown that the president and very senior officials in federal government ministries and agencies may be working at cross purposes.

“Even before the coming of the Yar’Adua’s administration, it has been made mandatory during the Obasanjo’s presidency for federal ministries and departmental agencies to rule off their accounts by the 15th of December.” A source in the federal ministry of finance informed. “The idea is that after the rule off, no expenditure aside salaries and allowances are allowed until the succeeding budgetary allocation are effected.” The finance ministry source added.

This year end account rule off had turned a mere paper directive until the assumption of office of President Yar’Adua who seemed to decide to make capital of the directive he had inherited from the Obasanjo administration, the seriousness of the administration in this regard was orchestrated when the erstwhile ministers in the federal ministry of health were forced to resign and prosecuted in court on account of an alleged N300million unspent fund in 2007.

FORTUNE&CLASS Weekly cross checks in Abuja, however, revealed that the frontal measures taken against the sacked ministers of health might have hardened the resolve of strategically placed civil servants that had become annual beneficiaries of unspent funds already in the kitty of the ministries.

An insider in the federal ministry of information and communication told this magazine last week that the officials in the account and audit units of the ministry have been busy over the last three weeks as they feverishly dish out contracts and supplies notes so as to eat up a large percentage of what is left of the unspent fund.

“The president thinks he can beat us to the game but we are better at it,” the source boasted. “Civil servants are smarter in these matters, is it not about filling out the appropriate vouchers and back dating them where necessary? In fact, we know how to settle the officials from the ministry of finance that usually come to supervise the account rule off.”

Another source, in an aside with this magazine explained that the cornering of unspent fund in federal ministries and parastatals is limited to very senior officials and staff members in the account and audit department. In the light of the seriousness of the present administration and the oversight function of members of the National Assembly, the source confided that these senior officials agree among themselves on a predetermined amount of unspent fund they will return to the government as unspent fund and also find the appropriate way to dispense with the percentage of unspent fund they have decided to corner.

Several civil servants also spoke of the federal government renewed efforts at ensuring accountability in service like directing that henceforth, any civil servant that was to proceed on a conference; seminar or any form of out station official duty would have the conference or seminar fee paid directly to the accounts of the facilitating body. This is contrary to the tradition where participant (s) from the ministry is/are given conference or seminar participating in cash. A curious angle to seminar or conference participation in the traditional sense is that some conference or seminar fees are inflated that after cash payment to the participating civil servant, such would just cream off the difference an pocket it while another may collect the participating fee and out of station allowance and altogether abandon the conference or seminar.

Beside, overnight and out of station allowances are now paid direct to the account of recipient civil servant than collection by cash as part of the new accountability regime.

Some of the civil servants FORTUNE&CLASS Weekly interacted with said these measures have been eroded with the opening of multiple accounts. Asserting the fact that it may be near impossible for the federal government to arrest the trend of frantically spending off unspent fund in a ministry within a short period, Mr. Nathaniel Cole, a forensic accounting expert and anti fraud specialist said that the model of conventional auditing that the government depends on to stop the diversion of unspent fund into private pockets shows that government is not serious about tracking unspent fund:

“I don’t think government is serious about this. It is obvious that the officials that are going to audit the ministries are interested parties so there is no way they can objectively audit the account to ascertain how unspent fund would have been tampered with. What government needs at such time like this is the service of forensic accountants, because, in truth, a certain aspect of civil servants efforts to corner the unspent fund has to do with some criminality in the area of filling vouchers and back dating them. Only forensic accountants can handle such case. For forensic accountant, it is easy to pinpoint the exact culprits in the account manipulation.” Cole said.

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FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT CASTIGATES FEDERAL INLAND REVENUE SERVICES FOR PROTECTING OIL COMPANIES

Issues in appropriate auditing process and accountability have, over the years become a constant source of worries and had, often led to cases of finger pointing by Federal Government agencies responsible for regulating the oil and gas sector and the mostly multinational oil producing companies in the country.

The contentious issue had always revolved around the huge discrepancies between amount that up stream oil companies say they paid and what the government says it actually received.

Financial experts and officials of the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative had, since 2004 continued to dismiss the measure of transparency and accounting standards as generally poor.

But a United States of America based Nigerian forensic accountant has accused the Federal Inland Revenue Services of shielding the influential multinational oil companies from the investigative probing of forensic accounting. The Federal Inland Revenue Services is the primary government agency responsible for assessing tax and other revenue due to the government from oil and gas exploration and production activities of shielding.

Mr. Nat Cole, the Forensic Accountant observed that he had been aware of a flourishing practice of under reporting of revenue due to the Federal Government from the multinational oil companies in Nigeria and had approached the Chair person of the FIRS to approve for him, at no cost to the government, the responsibility of auditing the oil companies on the auditing model of forensic accounting’. Cole said.

“The Federal Government and other stakeholders in the oil and gas sector have always been suspicious of figures declared by multinational companies in the now vexed joint venture arrangement with the government in oil exploration and production. In fact, the Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative had, in an audit covering the period 1999 to 2004, uncovered huge discrepancies in the figures returned to the government by the oil companies and the figures that are, actually, due to the government.

“As a veteran forensic accountant with more than 28 years auditing the oil and gas sector in the United States and other countries in Europe, I had volunteered my services to the FIRS to audit the books of the oil companies without charges to the Federal Government. I told the Chairman of the FIRS, Mrs. Omoigui Ifueko-Okauru of the limitations of the conventional auditing style to get the actual status of revenue accruable to Nigerians through payment to the government by the oil companies.

“The fact is that by deploying the forensic model of auditing one would be avoiding the what you see is what you get model of auditing. The fact is that with the auditing, you can only work within and by the figures the companies present to you. You won’t be able to ask questions beyond the figures presented. But with forensic accounting and auditing procedure you apply investigative techniques and that will uncover more facts that can be authenticated.

“But the FIRS seems not be to be bothered about what I all of us believe are the wrong things the oil companies are doing as they deliberately act to short change us. I offered my service and I think it is the responsibility of the FIRS management, if they are really serious about getting the right picture of what is happening in the oil and gas sector, to approve the forensic auditing of the companies in the sector.

“But I fear that the FIRS may not be willing to do this because it might be protecting the oil companies from what I can’t really understand. Well, the truth is that the oil giants have become so influential in government that they seem to do things at will and get away with these inappropriate things. It won’t be until we muster enough courage to confront them that the nation would be able to get what is rightfully its, from the oil giants.” Nat explained.