In an environment of institutional weakening and increasing impunity by heads of too many federal and regional agencies, it should be refreshing for members of the public to see exceptions to the rule. The Office of the Federal Auditor-General and successive chiefs of this office stand taller than few in this category.
It should also give a rare sense of reassurance to members of the public that Gemechu Dubiso, auditor-general, is following in the footsteps of Lemma Argaw, in having the courage to expose what ails the public finance management, or its failings thereof. The latter, a veteran of the accounting world, was known for holding his ground when challenged by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, for exposing regional states on their budget unaccountability.
In the world of public finance management, transparency and accountability resonate further than the parliamentary floors where courageous public service men and women, such as Lemma and Gemechu, address the nation’s legislators. There is no nation on Earth that does not need to prioritise resources allocation for their scarcity. That is when legislators, sitting in a legitimate parliament, vote on budget bills.
It is very encouraging to see the commitment displayed consistently by the Revolutionary Democrats in power in Ethiopia in legislating annual budget bills without failure. Although in the exception, there are countries, such as Eritrea, with leaders who consider the importance of budget declaration rather as a luxury.
True to their culture, ministers of the EPRDF-led government tabled a budget bill last week to an all EPRDF and ally dominated parliament. Yet to be voted on, the budget bill for the next Ethiopian fiscal year comprises a 320 billion Br earmark, of which more than 28 billion Br and 17 billion Br, respectively, are planned to be mobilized from external loans, and assistance from development partners.
A week earlier though, Auditor-General Gemechu stunned the nation with his revelation of 20 billion Br remaining unaccounted for from the nation’s book by close to 158 federal agencies. Constituting no less than 10pc of the entire budget of the last fiscal year, the number of federal agencies which have overused the budget, made unnecessary expenditures, slept on unaccounted and undocumented expenses and did not collect the required revenues is alarmingly on the rise.
Gemechu’s report to Parliament provides a troubling evidence that the federal budget management system and the discipline of public spending practices are getting reckless year after year. Audit gaps are doubling from previous years. What alarms most is that the trend shows agencies which spent taxpayers’ money inappropriately are not being held accountable. Neither are they able to come up with a sound way of managing their respective budgets to reduce the ever-widening gap.
Misappropriated budgets and unaccounted spendings are not features of a particular country. For instance, the US Army has 8.5 trillion dollars of expenditure remaining unaccounted for since 1996, while its neighbour, Canada, had 3.1 billion dollars missing after budget was allocated for the nation’s fight against terrorism. Next door, Kenya’s Auditor-General had shocked his country reporting two years ago on the unaccounted spending of 4.8 billion dollars by Kenyatta’s government.
The issue is not so much about the possibility or existence of misappropriations, unaccountability or outright corruption by those entrusted to see that the business of the public is undertaken in proper and legitimate manners. It should rather be about the political will and determination by a government in charge to hold those responsible accountable and ensure the holes in the national treasury are not left uncovered. Here is where the Revolutionary Democrats have failed the test year on year.
Ironically, this has not been for the lack of efforts to reform the public finance management system. There has always been some sort of reform undertakings at the Ministry of Finance. It runs from changing the single entry accounting practice to double entry and refocusing the budget from an input to output based flagship and highly financed decentralised financial program (by the US, Ireland and the Netherlands) launched in 1996. Public finance reform was, in fact, one of the five programs under the civil service reform agenda of the EPRDFites since their coming to political power in the early 1990s.
In the admission of the very experts who had taken up the challenge, these reforms were carried out under a situation of a country which is one of the poorest in the world and recovering from decades of civil wars, not to mention the bloody wars with Eritrea and in Somalia. Although large both in size and population, it is also conducted in a nation geographically isolated from access to the sea and with very limited public infrastructure as well as inadequate human capital.
Whatever limited resources there is, there are frequent occasions where recurrent droughts put painful stress on the national budget, whose allocation priorities and disbursement is determined by a power with arguably a weak political legitimacy.
Here lies where the structural crises of unaccountability surfaces.
The safeguards for checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution are undermined by a political expediency to the partisan interests of the incumbent. The legislative body from whom the executive comes does not reflect the diversity of opinion and interests in the voting public.
The constitutional safeguards have been made irrelevant due to the hegemonic aspiration of the ruling party, which controls 100pc of the seats in Parliament, in alliances with its affiliates in the peripheral states. Not even the one seat that is meant to serve as a precursor to occupy Parliament’s standing committee for public accounts, exclusively reserved for an opposition Member of Parliament, was spared.
The absence of competitive politics in the electoral battle, thus the complete hegemony of the EPRDFites of both the legislative and executive branches of the state, has led to the emergence of ministers who act with impunity. For all the failures in accountability, if not embezzlements, of managing public funds throughout their reign, those accounted are disappointingly rare breeds.
Indeed, it is not for the shortage of legal frameworks that institutions are negligent and their officials corrupt. It is rather because there is no electoral threat to their political power nor incentive to please the electorate attached to their longevity in office. Whether in the administration of public finance or the broader matter in governance, the culture of corruption has engulfed the country. It seems that those from the government have reached the level where they could not master the confidence to make someone in their midst accountable as many of them may not be far away from it.
Hence, it has been very convenient for them to take administrative and political measures instead. Evidently, this trend has exacerbated the sense of impunity in many of the public institutions.
It is not without a cost to the nation though.
For a small economy such as Ethiopia, a waste of a tenth of its budget is significantly higher as it impacts it seriously. It may be possible to ask the government to make further investigations based on the recent report by Auditor-General Gemechu and send a strong signal, for the public deserves to know who is responsible for embezzling its money. It cannot shoulder the economic burden of its consequences.
However, without giving a lasting solution for the grand problem of accountability and autonomous functions of institutions in this country, and the prevailing order of the rule of law, talking much on the symptoms would not help that far. Next year will have Parliamentarians see the same theatre in grand disclosures.
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