By Victor Agi
A popular maxim and doctrine in law states that “he who comes into equity must come with clean hands.” This loosely means that a court may deny equitable relief to a party who has violated good faith with respect to the subject of a particular claim being sought.
As a basis for the “clean hands doctrine” in the legal profession, most regulatory institutions that are empowered to provide oversight and check compliance with extant laws from entities under their watch, are therefore morally bound to epitomize standards they hope to enforce from other entities.
In section 48 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA), 2007, the government and its agencies are mandated to conduct its activities transparently. In particular, section 49 (1) stated that the federal government shall publish its audited accounts not later than six months following the end of the financial year1, with subsection 2 also requiring that the government shall “not later than 7 months following the end of each financial year, consolidate and publish in the mass media, its audited accounts for the previous year.” Despite this provision, accounts of government expenditures across MDAs continue to be shrouded in secrecy.
While not excusing the failure of the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation and by extension, the Accountant-General of the Federation which the FRA saddled with the responsibility of obtaining and publishing government’s audited reports, several MDAs continue to flout FRA provisions by failing to submit audited accounts of their yearly expenditure, with one report, the “2021 Ethics and Integrity Compliance Scorecard” by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) claiming that 137 MDAs did not submit their audited accounts to the Office of the Auditor-General of the Federation in the last three years.
In wake of the recent corruption allegation against the person and Office of the Accountant-General, the integrity of the agency remains in doubt, and hence, do not possess the moral “clean hands” to compel and wield the big stick against defaulting MDAs.
Has this been the case with the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) failure to compel political politics to submit their audited report as required by section 225 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), and the 2022 Electoral Act?
To be clear, section 225 (2 and 5) of the Constitution stipulates that every political party shall submit to the INEC a detailed annual statement and analysis of its sources of funds and other assets together with a similar statement of its expenditure in such form as the Commission may require; and 225(5) empowered the Commission to give directions to political parties regarding the books or records of financial transactions which they shall keep and, to examine all such books and records. A similar provision in the 2022 Electoral Act in section 90 (3) requires political parties to submit audited financial reports on election expenses within six months after an election has been conducted.
As the nation prepares for the 2023 general elections, conversations around the actual cost of politics and the lack of financial transparency on the part of the political parties continue to dominate the civil space. The failure of political parties to submit yearly financial reports and audited accounts six months after every election cycle as required by law, with none held accountable so far, has emboldened moneybag politicians to use personal and state resources to determine the outcomes of polls.
Although section 87 (2) of the Electoral act says that an official of the political party who contravenes subsection (1) commits an offence and is liable to fine of N1, 000,000.00 or imprisonment for a term of six months or both, the INEC has not activated this section to compel political parties to be prudent with their finances.
But the question again is whether INEC has the “clean hands” to demand equity from political parties. For instance, the cumulative budget for the Commission in the last three general elections was 444.5 billion (N139 billion in 2011 elections; N116.3 billion in 2015 elections; and N189.2 billion in 2019 elections; with the 2023 elections billed to gulp another whooping sum of N305 billion; but Nigerians, beyond the budget submission and approval, know how the Commission expends this fund.
The point therefore is that, an INEC that has failed in audit assessment credibility is not expected to enforce compliance from political parties, especially as it concerns the submission of their financial records and audited account. The Commission must live by example by first publishing audited financial statements of its expenditure after each election cycle. Until this is done, it cannot be morally justified to expect the same from political parties.
It is true that the fundamental issue of poverty, if not addressed, will continue to be weaponized by moneybag politicians; INEC and stakeholders must nevertheless activate legal measures to check the excessive and habitual use of money to determine the outcome of the elections.
The lack of fiscal transparency among MDAs, in general, is problematic. For example, a recent presentation on the nation’s fiscal outcomes for four months (Jan–April 2022) by the Office of the Minister of Finance, Budget & National Planning indicated that the country’s deficit spending shot up to N3.09 trillion in the first quarter of 2022, meaning that the government borrowed to fund the deficit, when compared to total revenue of N1.63 trillion, with debt servicing put at N1.94 trillion (about N310 billion).
Ipso facto, INEC cannot expend an additional 305 billion, exclusive of the 40 billion running annual budget to conduct the 2023 general elections, for instance, without a proper account after the elections are concluded. Nigerians deserve to know what over 2% of the nation’s annual budget of 17.126 trillion is used for in the interest of transparency and accountability as required by enabling laws.
Likewise, other government agencies must demonstrate greater fiscal prudency by publishing audited reports of expenditure, and the INEC is called upon to lead this charge in steps toward rescuing the country from imminent economic collapse as a result of fiscal recklessness.
Victor Agi is the Head, Public Affairs at the Center for Fiscal Transparency and Integrity Watch, and a Public Affairs Analyst