IDEAS Radio 13 December 2019

Open Treasury Portal with Tunji Andrews

Aghogho Oboh: Alright!  You’re welcome to the Public Square.  And … alright … just trying to … I’m … wondering where that is coming from. …  Ok. Alright. We’re still getting that feedback … ok. Now we know where it is.  This happens to Tunji Andrew, when he’s … I even said it was Tunji Andrew here, when that was going on!  But it’s 99.3 Nigeria Info and this is Public Square. Big issues we’re talking about today. And first with IDEAS, Ayo Obe is going to be looking at the Treasury, Open Treasury Portal which was inaugurated by President Buhari earlier this week.  MDAs are supposed submit all their payments, you can also watch out for the budget performances. And there she, Ayo Obe will be speaking with Host of Money Business Economy, Tunji Andrew.

And then, that big interview you all were waiting to watch as well as listen to, happens just after that on the Public Square.  The interview with Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka. That interview has several, several talking points. I’m not going to let the cat out of the bag. Rotimi, welcome, and he will talk more about that when the time happens.  Remember, on Public Square, you can follow the conversation on Twitter @NigeriaInfoFM, @RotimiSankore @ideasradiong, @aghoghooboh, @PublicSquareNG. Any of these handles, if you’ve got questions, comments, let us know. Rotimi.

Rotimi Sankore: I think we can just say, if you want to have an idea what’s coming at 4.30 with Professor Soyinka, please visit any of the Twitter handles Aghogho has just mentioned @NigeriaInfoFM, @PublicSquareNG and @RotimiSankore and you’ll have an idea of what’s coming at half four with Professor Soyinka.  But for now, it’s IDEAS, with er … with er … … 

Ayo Obe: I don’t like that “but” Rotimi …  I don’t like that “but”.

RS: Ok, ok, ok!  I withdraw the “but”.  It’s IDEAS first! With Ayo Obe!  And Tunji Andrews.

AO: Thank you very much.  Well, I know that people will be thinking that … will be anxious to hear this … what was originally a mystery … a mystery guest that Rotimi has in the Public Square, but I want to say that we on IDEAS, we are looking at always the Integrity, the Democracy, the Ethics and the Accountability in the issues that actually may affect us in our day-to-day lives and in our relationship with the government.  And that’s why I’m so happy to have on the programme with me, Tunji Andrews. You all know him, he’s an economist. And the discussion is going to be about the Open Treasury Portal. And I think that … before we get into discussing what impact it’s going to have on Nigerians (you know, as they say: What’s that got to do with the price of fish?) We … we … Perhaps Tunji you can just in a succinct way, tell us what exactly is the Open Treasury Portal?  Who has access to it? And … can an ordinary Nigerian make use of it?

Tunji Andrews: Yes, that’s what it is right now, and it’s become open for every single Nigerian to be able to access vital expenditure data that is being published by the office of the Accountant General.  What of course it is, is that this data always existed, it’s not like we did not … the people in each silo did not know that they were generating expenditure accounts and things like that, and they obviously have people they report to, but it’s now going to be public knowledge, at least to a certain extent.  It’s not entirety … the entire thing, because there’s a lot of a lot of CBN data which we would like to be public, there’s the NNPC data we would like to be public.

AO: Aha!

TA: But yes, this is baby steps in the right direction.

AO: Well, I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the NNPC, and indeed the CBN, because I was going to say that: What exactly is it that is going to be captured in this?  Because the President talked about payments over N5 million.  

TA: Over N5 million.  Ok, so …

AO: What exactly is it that we are going to see?  That on such and such day … I don’t know … Lawyer Lagbaja was paid N20 million for recovering N500 million for AMCON – I’m just trying to think of cases where people might … 

TA: Ok, so we’ll be seeing things, we’ll be seeing things towards the likes of hopefully, and that’s the general idea, we’ll be seeing things like … Customs which of course, is still opaque, has received, in 20 … July 4 … 2020 would receive, I don’t know, maybe N500 million naira, so you can be able to track their receivables day-on-day.  The general challenge I have with the portal is that it’s … it’s still going to be slightly manual, even though it’s a portal, so it’s … 

AO: So first of all, when you say ‘portal’, it’s going to be online? 

TA: It’s going to be online.  It is online right now.

AO: … and it’s only people who have access to the Internet who will be able to see.  And that, its being online, it’s not peculiar to Nigerians …

TA: No, no.  

AO: Anybody in the world can access it?

TA: Anybody can have that.  So you can have access to that data.  What I mean that it’s slightly manual is that it’s uploaded as spreadsheets or documents, so you will then go and then download those spreadsheets documents, as against if I want to look at the historical for instance, over the last 20 months how much has the … say Customs has been able to generate, it would show it the graph, as against me being able to download each day, then I format the graph myself.  Incidentally though, this is a bit of funny news, is that the framework into creating this portal was created, I was on the team that created the framework for this particular portal.

AO: Really?

TA:  Yes! It was in 2015.  We … it was … I think I can say this right?  It was paid for by the EU …

AO: Ok, that’s the European Union.

TA: The European Union … with, in collaboration with the National Bureau of Statistics who by the way is a major partner with this portal, because if you check at the bottom you’ll see the National Bureau of Statistic logo on it.  And one of the things we tried to see at that particular point is that, as at now, the body charged with gathering and publishing data publicly is the National Bureau of Statistics, anybody else cannot do it, nobody else has the power to be able to do that.  Now … 

AO: So agencies and organisations, MDAs sorry, they cannot just publish their own information?

TA: Mmmm … in context to … for their own stakeholders yes, but as for public consumption no, 

AO: Ok.

TA: So what the framework creates is some sort of a channel, that the NBS is like a funnel right?  And receives all the data from everybody and then publishes the data individually. So before now, we’ve had  the NBS published things like FAAC Allocations, power generation, date statistics, things like GDP, inflation numbers, but now it has come to the point where we can now see day-to-day expenditure as concerns the Treasury Single Account, which is fantastic.

AO: And day-to-day income into …

TA: Into the Treasury.  Money out of the Treasury Single Account is like passing through the eye of the needle as it is right now, the framework is difficult to get money out.  Getting money in is easy so what we’re going to be getting is how much we’re generating on a day to day basis so that Nigerians can pretty much see how rich or how poor we are.

AO: But, and this is the thing that I think that perhaps  … because I think that it’s one thing to be talking about Accountability and this kind of Transparency, obviously in theory, it should aid Integrity, but then, there’s also this slight suspicion that by deluging us with figures and information …

TA: Aaahh, that is where …

AO: … that we will be … that we’ll be swamped, and at the same time …  

TA: We’ll get tired

AO: … we’ll be so busy looking at the individual trees, that we won’t see the overall wood, and in particular – and still coming back to this NNPC and Central Bank matters – we won’t’ see what part of the wood we’re not able to see.

TA: Exactly.  I totally agree with this, and that’s why I said that there’s a problem with the way the data is being uploaded.  So it’s going to be uploaded as spreadsheets as against graphs. So for instance, if I’m looking at day to day information, it’s going to be a lot of work, except of course it’s my job description to actually go day on day and take data from the website, but if it is not my duty, it’s going to be a lot, a bit difficult for you to be able to pick out that kind of data.  And that’s the flaw the portal has, so what they are going to be doing is giving you in such a method that they are going to tell you Oh, the data is there …

AO: Yes.  Buried on page 529 at the footnote 12!

TA: Exactly, pretty much.

RS: In one corner of the spreadsheets …

TA: So, it’s a very difficult scenario and I think that is where we can improve on this portal for …

AO: But do we expect that those improvements will be made?  Or is it in fact, the more you look the less you’re going to see?

TA: So the way I’ve looked at the portal and the way it’s been created, it’s in such a way that … kind of like: We have done it, so you can’t say we have not done it!  It’s pretty much: We have now done this. As against you having it in easy to digest kind of data, which of course of is what the National Bureau of Statistics would do on a normal basis, so if you look at the National Bureau of Statistics Twitter handle, for instance, there are infographics that try to just take the data and just give it to you in such a way that you are easily able to understand that oh, 75% of people did this, 67% did that, but this is going to be spreadsheets.

AO: But now … yes the … that may be the Government’s intention, but we know that there are specialist organisations that will …

TA: … that will still take it.

AO: … that will take up the challenge.  And I dare say: Is the EU going to be satisfied with simply having the portal, and it not being able to be of much use to Nigerians?

TA: Ok, so I … this is the question that I ask myself then, and when … because being a Nigerian, and then you’re being charged to do something for Nigeria, and you’re being paid by a foreign entity.  In fact, as a matter of fact, it was … the money was paid in foreign currency, so it was a bit weird, and I started asking myself the question: What is their skin in the game? Why are they concerned about how we gather data amongst ourselves?

AO: What does the EU have to gain from Nigeria’s having that kind of transparency?

TA: Exactly, you know?  And I couldn’t really answer the question.  But what we did, what we tried to do as much as possible was to try and see … first of all, what we did was eliminate duplication of entries, because there were a lot of MDAs that were  taking the same data together, and what we tried to do was try to make it such simple formats to deliver. But again, here’s the problem, and I saw that that was going to be a problem in the future: most MDAs do not have  people who are specialists in turning data into infographics. So, there was also the question of: Are you going to hire an external body to do that? Is that going to be added cost? And I couldn’t say how we’re going to get to that point.

AO: Well I mean if MDAs are not going to do it, we know that we have – notwithstanding the possible sword of Damocles hanging over them – that there are NGOs that … 

TA: That are ready to take it up.

AO: … are particularly determined to look into this, and I wonder whether they might be able to develop that kind of … 

TA: Oh, so the NGOs exist, so I can tell you, BudgIT for instance, and there was a time when I was able to facilitate a relationship between the NBS and BudgIT to turn their data into infographics, and then somebody else went on to do it later on.  So yes, there are institutions that do that specifically, and I’m hoping that those NGOs will be able to take up this challenge, and then publish it as a side note for Nigerians to be able to consume. But what is important to note is that the information is out there.  Now we can now make a bit better use of what the information is.

RS: There’s an important question Tunji: What’s the criteria for choosing the ceiling for the amount that is the ceiling?

TA: Ok, so …  Oh, I don’t know!

RS: I mean, is it that N10 million is too little, too much?

TA: Ok, so I think, one of the things I also think, is that is probably the threshold for the higher, what do you call it … more … because you know in the Civil Service there’s a limit, there’s maybe one signature, another limit, maybe three signatures.  So I think that’s like a threshold for … multiple signatures for them to take it in, so it’s possible that is it.

RS: So knowing the amount of corruption in the MDAs, if they decide to start sliding it at 9.999 …  

TA: Ok!  Ok, now you’re going somewhere!

RS: … and they don’t get to N10 million, all the money can vanish and we’ll have no clue?

AO: But then it would become clear that the money has vanished.

TA: Well, not exactly.

RS: Well, because it won’t be on the portal.

AO: No, no, what I’m saying is that the amount going in, that would show …

TA: Well, here’s the thing right?  So this is what we also found out when we were doing the work, because we had to visit a few of these MDAs.  So we realised that some of them have external accounts apart from the accounts that belong to …

AO: This is actually what I keep … what I’m trying to get at.  How much is …

TA: Yes, we found that out, and what we did then was that

RS: Once they realise their oga signs with the d…

TA: Exactly.  So at the end of the day, there’s a remittance from that account to the  proper account, which of … and they say it’s for easy administration, so that they can be able to keep an eye on who paid within their own purview.

AO: But it’s difficult.  And I think that … and this again is where, I mean I’ve come … I’ve mentioned the NNPC, but I could say, and I’m speaking because as a lawyer, I have done cases for AMCON.  Now, supposing somebody is being chased for the money that they owe, and they pay it, does AMCON now have to pay it into this, so that it goes through the portal, and when AMCON is either paying the …

TA: So AMCON is a very tricky scenario.  So AMCON …

AO: Oh, then let me choose an…  I mean I’m happy to talk about it, but …

TA: AMCON for instance,  AMCON goes … AMCON is holding a lot of money, but it’s being kept alive by the Central Bank.  So if AMCON receives money, I’m not sure it will go to the Treasury Single Account, for the basis that they have direct debits to the Central Bank.  There’s a hole that we’ve all decided to pretend doesn’t exist.

AO: This is … so the point then is that, I’m beginning to feel that it’s very nice, and there will certainly be some things that will be exposed … 

TA: Yeah, but there’s a lot more to go.

AO: … by the Open Treasury Portal, but it does seem as though there will still be a lot that is hidden.  And the danger is that Nigerians will be under the illusion that they have the same transparency …

TA: Ok, so, I can say this right?  One of the things we also decided then to do by the framework we created, because there’s supposed to be some sort of …  I think it’s called something “Backbone”? The Federal Government’s internet connectivity something …  

AO: Bad bone?

TA: There’s one … there’s something called … I think … something that’s a ‘Backbone’.  Broad … I can’t remember what it was called, but there’s this internet, the Federal Government’s own Intranet of sorts, that connects all MDAs together.  So the general idea is that those … the data spools into there, and in such a way that the computer then separates the data that comes in, and then publishes those ones that are deemed publishable and then … keeps the top secret ones.  But what we did was that it was supposed … the ones that were publishable were going to be in such a way that could be used to be able to track anything, so it would show loopholes if this isn’t coming in.

AO: Ah ha, this is the point!  So that your 9.999

TA: By the way, shout out to Dr. Okafor who led the team, former Deputy Director at the Central Bank, amazing man, beautiful as his mind was …  he was literally on fire! But what we, it was such a way, that the framework was in such a way that you could not hide anything any more. You know, you could not.  It would tell that Ok, there’s a hole here. We don’t know what the hole is about, but there’s a hole there. You know? But this … 

RS: Is it for instance, that JAMB was remitting …

TA: Boom!

RS: … very little one year, then next year it was N2bn?

TA: Exactly.  Now that’s one half of the story.  The other half of the story again, is that our … but this is just about what’s going into the Treasury Single Account.  What we also wanted to do, was what goes out back to that agency, because what most agencies have, is that the agency will declare that “Hey, we made N1 trillion!”  What they will not tell you is that they spent N1.2 trillion getting in that N1 trillion, so they were actually at the end of the day in a deficit to the Federal Government.  So those were the things that we wanted to show.

AO: But is this Open Treasury Portal going to show that?

TA: No.

AO: Ok.  Can I also ask, I mean, I know that my time is coming to an end, but I mean, this was launched with a lot of fanfare and …  a great deal of, … but I just wonder, does that mean that we are pioneering in this, or …

TA: Oh no, no, 

AO: You mean that other countries …

TA: … Not at all, in fact we’re so behind on it!

AO: Oh, we’re late to the party?

TA: We’re late.  That’s probably why the EU paid for it in the first place!  They were like: You guys don’t have it? Alright, we’ll pay for it.  So, so well, yes. It should be a standard practice in any country that generates data, and that means any country basically.  There should be a standard practice of … publishing existing data, and the National Bureau of Statistics and the Central Bank do it in silos, but this is a first step in to making all those things, expenditure more public, and we appreciate it, but we are saying we can do more.

AO: Well, I mean I think in the end, it’s a bit like … You remember the Access to Information legislation, it exposed for a lot of these MDAs, the fact that they themselves don’t even know what they are doing, let alone what their colleagues and their neighbours are doing, so sometimes …

TA: Can I give a quick example?  

AO: Yes.

TA: O my God, this will blow everybody’s mind!  So we went to the … I know and I can say it out …  We went to the Ministry of Power, Ministry of Power, yeah?  And we got there and we realised that oh, … so I’m asking: So, you know, I was curious, I was like: So do we have data on past power generation?  And this lady says: Yes, we do, we get it every day from the TCN. So I’m like: Oh, why don’t we have it? And she’s like: Ok, it’s on the website.  So we check the website and we see the number for yesterday on the website, on one small corner of it. So I was like: But that’s just yesterday’s data.  And she said Yes. So today, we’ll clean yesterday’s data and put today’s data. 

AO: Clean …?

TA: I’m serious!  I was flabbergasted!  I was blown away! I was blown away!   Actually, it was after that day that we now liaise with the National Bureau of Statistics and they now started getting to publish periodic power generation data.  But if we had not done this, you’d probably would not … you’d just know yesterday’s data now.

AO: I think that this is actually the point, so that even though we can see that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done on this …

TA: To be done.  We’ve come a long way.

AO: … that in terms of Accountability, it’s not a day job, and we have to just keep on slogging.  So I want to thank you very much Tunji Andrews, for coming on to IDEAS.

RS: Please join Tunji every morning at nine, weekdays for the Money Business Economy Show.

TA: We try to do things like this.

AO: Thank you very much.

TA: Thank you for having me.

AgO: Ok, so let’s take a quick break and we’ll be back with some more.

RS: And when we’re back, with the big interview that everyone’s been waiting for.