Last year, a friend of mine who works at an international financial institution pointed me to the reason various state governments in Nigeria have failed to access grants and secure a lasting development partnership. “We have so many grant opportunities available,” he said, “but the conditions appear like a huge sacrifice for them.” He was in Nigeria along with a team to meet with various government officials, and discuss the eligibility criteria for the financing and partnership programmes rolled out by the organization, but the visit left him utterly confused. He couldn’t understand the reluctance to open up government processes and allow for an independent audit of public accounts.
My friend, however, didn’t immediately get the dilemma before the politicians. As tempting as the “free” dollars intending donors were offering was, opening up the government’s financial records for public assessment is an invitation to intense scrutiny and barrage of questions for which intelligent answers, from those in charge, may not be available. So, these state governments, specifically those who operate off the book, settle for the convenient options of dodging such partnerships to squander federal allocations which come with minimal or no supervision at all. Strangely, the most ambitious of them still apply for such grants despite their poor credentials, having been misled by well-paid consultants and, thus, end up with a ton of rejections and updated application guidelines from the donor organizations.
In January, when Sokoto state emerged as the topmost beneficiary of the World Bank-assisted States Fiscal Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) programme, it instigated conversations in public policy circles. It came to many policy analysts with some shock. No one seemed to know what reforms were going in the state to warrant topping such an important index. Sokoto state received N6.612 billion through the Ministry of Finance, topping the list, with the Kano state, which has the most number of people in the country, attracting N1.710 billion, which was the lowest grant. The logic of this distribution of N123.34 billion performance-based grant to eligible states may elude onlookers, but it’s based on the extent to which the states opened up their book and adhered to measurable transparency tools.
Having surpassed states with a larger revenue base and population, Sokoto state’s SFTAS story made news headlines and drew the curiosity of Nigerians who must’ve had enough of the secrecy with which bureaucracy functions in Nigeria. This is even more so because the state has been mostly quiet in the news, and so its emergence at the top of the index caught the Nigerian public, especially those with no keen interest in government beyond Abuja, unaware.
However, SFTAS, as designed in the collaboration between Nigeria and the World Bank, is adopted to “strengthen the fiscal transparency, accountability and sustainability in participating Nigerian states”. But qualifying for this grant isn’t just based on accountability alone, applying states are expected to present verifiable records of their revenue mobilization, public procurement procedures, and debt sustainability. I was personally intrigued by how the state, which scored a lowly 2/5 in 2019, strove to achieve 14/15 in 2020. I had to read up and ask questions to properly understand how a state considered as the heart of the conservative system would overtake “modern” Nigerian states in a race like this one.
I’ve remembered that at the onset of Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal’s second tenure, he busted a salary-racketeering cartel and announced the state would, thenceforth, save about N500 million monthly from erasing ghost-workers. Two years down that line, with the automation of payment and revenue-collection platforms by the government, it’s unsurprising that the state’s fiscal reforms paid off, and had become an example of the open government for states in search of development grants.
When, late last year, Sokoto featured in my private conversation with Seun Onigbinde, the co-founder of BudgIT, a civic organization that breaks down government spendings, he observed that “Sokoto has been doing well on our index.” With an automated financial management information system that allows for real-time reporting of government inflows and outflows, the state has made easy any intending foreign or external partner’s efforts to verify its expenditures.
Sometime in January, at a roundtable discussion tagged “Fiscal Transparency Accountability and Sustainability of Nigerian States” by the Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies (CIAPS), the Sokoto state model was projected for praise and emulation. Urging states to prioritize revenue generation and fiscal transparency, the participating public finance experts asked other states to “learn from Sokoto State that was able to lead the table of performing states”. Rotimi Olarewaju, profiled as a financial analyst in the report, “noted that Sokoto state must be praised and used as an example for other States since it is showing others that winning the World Bank performance-based grant is possible.”
Along with his team, Sokoto state’s hardworking Commissioner of Finance, Abdussamad Dasuki, has demonstrated the practicality of fiscal responsibility in a system with largely frail institutions of governance and attendant corruption. Like a typical Nigerian state, Sokoto has been a haven of ghost-workers and has a minimal revenue base to drive a jamboree among the politicians. But, despite these glaring disadvantages, the state still opened its books to subject its spendings and earnings to public examination.
Beyond this search for a template, an open government stirs up the interest and participation of even the politically apathetic in policymaking. The Freedom of Information (FOI) Act exists to drive these practices, but that’s not activated the response required to sustain transparency. The choice to treat governments as secret organizations is a culture that has kept money in the pockets of too many politicians and public servants, and the fiscal reform measures demonstrated by the Sokoto government is a template worthy of emulation. One that all state governments would do well to replicate.
In a democracy, transparency should be given, not a favour to be negotiated. The point must be driven in the minds of those in public office that being accountable to those who entrusted one in the office should be seen as part of the job, not some extra cost, on the part of officeholders. It’s commendable now that the SFTA project is helping us underscore the importance of this element of democracy.
Kakanda is an Abuja-based public affairs analyst.