By Modupe Gbadeyanka
Lagos State Governor, Mr Akinwunmi Ambode, has come under sharp criticisms over a report by an online newspaper, Premium Times, alleging that his administration has not been transparent with taxes of residents.
Those who reacted to the piece said they find it hard to believe that the state government force residents of the state to pay their taxes and threaten to punish them if they fail to comply, but government do not see mandatory to explain how the funds were used.
“In Nigeria, govt compels you to pay up ur taxes, yet cannot be transparent as to how these monies are spent! Absolute nonsense!” a commenter said on Twitter.
Below is the report by Premium Times.
There were smiles on the faces of Governor Akinwunmi Ambode and the two men who sat on both sides inside the Lagos House, Ikeja, as cameras’ clicked while the governor signed the Lagos State government’s N813 billion Appropriation Bill for 2017 into Law.
Flanked by Akinyemi Ashade, the Commissioner for Finance, and Rotimi Olowo, the Chairman House Committee on Appropriation, Mr Ambode said his administration was committed to prudent financial management and would ensure proper fiscal discipline in the implementation of the Appropriation Law.
The budget, the biggest ever by the Lagos State government since its creation, was made up of N507.816 billion earmarked for capital expenditure and N305.182 billion set aside for recurrent expenditure, an aggregate ration of 62:38.
But a breakdown of the budget figures has been kept away from the cameras as well as the public, a marked departure from previous years where even a summary of expenditures and earnings were uploaded on the government’s official website.
“They (Lagos State government) are very tricky about it,” Stanley Achonu, Operations Lead at BudgIT, a civic organisation that helps Nigerians better understand government’s annual budgets.
“What they publish is the summary of the budget, you know, what went to what ministry, it doesn’t include details of the budget.”
For the 2017 fiscal year, both the summary and the detailed breakdown – which had never been publicly disclosed – of the budget is missing on the budget website of the Lagos State government.
Months of efforts to get a clarification from Steve Ayorinde, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy, yielded no results as he neither answered phone calls nor replied text messages.
A silent government
While providing a sectoral breakdown of the state’s 2017 budget last January, Mr Ashade said roads and infrastructure would get N141.692 billion, almost 20 percent of the total budget.
Between February and July, Governor Ambode commissioned over a dozen infrastructural projects, including the Abule Egba and Ajah Fly Overs; the Aboru-Abesan Link Bridge; and the Ojodu Berger Pedestrian Bridge, Lay By, Slip Road and Segregated Bus Park.
Others include the Omotayo Banwo/Kola Iyamolere Street in Ogudu, Kosofe local council; the Admiralty/Freedom Road in Lekki; the pedestrian bridge in Ojota; and a walkway in Jakande, Lekki.
In August, PREMIUM TIMES submitted two requests to the Lagos State government – an official letter requesting information and a Freedom of Information request – seeking the cost of some of these projects, including that of the 20 patrol vehicles procured for the Rapid Response Squad of the Lagos State Police Command.
Although the state government acknowledged receipt of the two letters, there have been no responses two months after.
A similar FOI request months earlier asking for the cost of some projects undertaken by the state’s water corporation was also acknowledged but the information was not provided.
A Subnational Transparency Report published this year by BudgIT listed Lagos State among 16 states in Nigeria without a detailed public budget.
Sectoral allocations in the budget of Lagos State
On March 27, the state government held a “world press conference” where it rolled out activities lined up for the last 50 days of the Lagos@50 celebration – musical concerts, boat regatta, jazz and film festivals, comedy show and the governor’s banquet among dozens of other events – to commemorate the state’s 50th anniversary.
The state government did not also respond to PREMIUM TIMES enquiries about how much was spent on the year-long event.
But in an interview with Punch newspapers last May, Mr Ayorinde, responding to a question on how much the Lagos@50 celebration cost the state government said they received “more than N1 billion” in support from “sponsors.”
“Before the sponsors came, what Lagos did was to give seed money so that things could move. But from sponsors alone, we have raised more than N1bn which is not just going into celebration,” Mr Ayorinde said.
He did not provide details as to how much was the ‘seed money,’ who the sponsors were, and how the funds were disbursed.
Lanre Arogundade, Chairman of the International Press Centre, said the lack of access to public information in Lagos State is a concern for citizens and called for the issue to address urgently.
“Lagos is supposed to be the centre of excellence in everything but when the budget is not easily accessible, that’s worrisome,” Mr Arogundade said.
“We can only talk of high rate of transparency when FOI requests are responded to, when information are made readily available.”
In July, the Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) in conjunction with BudgIT wrote to the state’s procurement agency over the unavailability of public procurement journal to the public.
In a correspondence seen by PREMIUM TIMES, the agency said the governor had just inaugurated its governing board and had just requested to set a threshold for what it would consider as “major contracts.”
It further stated that the agency was working towards a holistic upgrade of its website in order to make it more interactive and advanced in line with international best practices.
“Upon completion of the said upgrade which we hope will be accommodated in the 2018 budget, the agency website will be better positioned to supply adequate responses to enquiries from stakeholders,” the agency stated in its response dated 11th July 2017.
Adetokunbo Mumuni, Executive Director at SERAP, said while his organisation had not had a “serious interaction” with the present government, it had had little success with Mr Ambode’s predecessor, Babatunde Fashola.
In December 2013, SERAP wrote to the Lagos State government requesting information and documents on spendings in public schools, following a $90 million World Bank loan, between 2009 and 2013.
The government did not respond.
In suit FHC/L/CS/57/2014 filed before a Lagos Division of the Federal High Court, SERAP urged the court to declare that by virtue of the provisions of Section 4(a) of the Freedom of Information Act, 2011, the governor is under a binding obligation to provide it with the information requested.
In its counter affidavit, the Lagos State government, represented by then Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Ade Ipaye, argued that the Freedom of Information Act was a federal legislation and, as a result, not binding on states.
“The public records of Lagos State government are generated and kept by various ministries, departments, agencies and personnel of the state government in execution of their functions and responsibility in the service of the state,” Mr Ipaye, who is now Chief of Staff to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, said.
“Such state government agencies and personnel are statutorily created or regulated by laws of the state House of Assembly and the handling of public of public records has serious security implications which are routinely handled by rules established by the state government.”
The court ruled in favour of Lagos State government.
“We’d sought information about the state of primary schools and what they have done; they refused, they insisted that the FOI must be domesticated,” Mr. Mumuni told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We reacted that that shouldn’t be and gave reasons why it shouldn’t be domesticated before such information is made available to us.
“We went to court but we lost. We are still appealing the case.”
In 2014, another division of the federal high court, in Enugu, ruled that the Freedom of Information Act is applicable in all states of the federation.
Hitting a brick wall
This year, Mr Arogundade’s IPC – in collaboration with BudgIT – sought to get a copy of the 2017 Lagos State government budget.
They hit a brick wall.
“I think it’s something worrisome and the issue needs to be taken up… because more can still be done by the government,” Mr Arogundade said.
Last February, a PREMIUM TIMES reporter seeking the Lagos State government’s response to claims by traders at the rebuilt Tejuosho Market in Yaba, was given the run-around by government officials.
First, the market officials directed the reporter to the Public Relations Officer at the state’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry at the Alausa secretariat, where an official redirected him to Lagos State Market Board.
At the Lagos State Market Board at the Old Secretariat in Ikeja GRA, a senior government official who declined to respond to questions directed the reporter back to Alausa, to the LGA Unit of state’s Ministry of Local Government Affairs, where he was referred to the Public Relations Officer.
Bisi Olufuwa, the ministry’s PRO, said she would direct the questions to her boss, the permanent secretary of the ministry.
“I am just seeing this (and you, too) for the first time and I promise to fix a session where you will meet my boss and discuss these issues,” said Ms Olufuwa.
The session was never fixed.
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