Austin Ekwujuru: “Most Nigerian tertiary institutions don’t respond to FOI requests”

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Austin Ekwujuru is the chief executive of Basic Rights Watch, a nonprofit organisation that works in the area of budget analysis, open government, and citizens’ engagement.

Tell us about the Basic Watch Right?

Basic Rights Watch is a nonprofit organisation that works in the area of budget analysis, open government, transparency and accountability, and citizens’ engagement. We also track capital projects in rural communities, working with government actors and fellow Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to ensure the capital needs of these rural communities are addressed.

At the moment, as part of our transparency and accountability programme, we are tracking the the spending of Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TETFund) intervention funds worth 213 billion naira that was budgeted in 2016 and was meant to be spent by tertiary institutions in 2017. We have therefore been engaging both TETFund and the tertiary institutions using the Freedom of Information (FOI Act) to actually determine how the funds are being spent.

Based on our interaction with the tertiary institutions, there has been a lot of delay in releasing the funds and based on our interaction with TETFund this is so because TETFund has a policy of not approving funds for subsequent years unless funds for previous years have been judiciously spent and accounted for.

We therefore realized there are a lot of corrupt activities in the management of the funds which marred the implementation of the TETFund interventions and discovered that for some tertiary institutions, there had been a lot of misappropriation of the funds hence making TETFund withheld their funding for subsequent years; such institutions now have a lot of backlog of funds to access, some are still trying to account for their 2012 funds.

 

What are the major challenges militating against the access to TETFund intervention funds by tertiary institutions?

First, is the fact that the managements of tertiary institutions prepare budgets and send them to TETfund for approval without proper consultations with lecturers and students; there should be a bottom-up approach whereby students and lecturers work collectively to come up with their budget before it is submitted to their desk officer at TETFund.

This is because when the managements of the tertiary institutions do come up with these budgets on their own, you realize that most of the contents of the budget do not address the core challenges of the institutions. For example, there is an institution which had been acquiring entrepreneurship equipment for years and it was much later in 2016 that they realized they needed a building to house the equipment which means they had not been using the equipment they had acquired for years.

We have also discovered that some of the tertiary institutions budget more funds for travels and conferences than they budget for research, the question is: what will they be presenting at the conferences if they don’t carry out research? I therefore feel universities should be given benchmarks on what amount they cannot exceed when it comes to budgeting for specific areas.

Recently, we hosted a programme on public accountability and citizens’ engagement which was attended by students and university lecturers where we disclosed to them the amount of funds that had been accessed by their institutions from TETFund, for staff training, research and development. To our surprise, many of them were not aware of the funds accessed by their institutions because the institutions were not disclosing the information to them.

So, in a situation where tertiary institutions are not proactively disclosing information to its staff and students in the interest of transparency and accountability, the staff and students will not know about the funds that are available for them to access, and where that information is hidden corruption will naturally thrive.

Last year, we did a ranking for universities based on their proactiveness in terms of disclosing information, it turned out a lot of the universities don’t even respond to FOI request, if you write an FOI request to them they will be asking for your certificate of incorporation. By law, every citizen has the right to ask for and be provided with information by public institutions.

 

How has the lack of transparency and accountability in the management of TETFund intervention funds affected the delivery of development projects in Nigerian tertiary institutions?

To a very large extent, lack of transparency and accountability in the management of TETFund intervention funds have affected the delivery of projects in Nigerian tertiary institutions, in fact not only the tertiary institutions, accessing information from TETFund itself is a serious challenge.

Although they owe the citizens the responsibility to proactively respond to FOI requests, at the moment, you cannot get a response for a FOI request from TETFund unless it is approved by the executive secretary himself.

It shouldn’t be so since they are working for the citizens of this country and the FOI Act has mandated government agencies to proactively respond to FOI requests. This means there should be more proactiveness when it comes to disclosure of information by government agencies; it is only by so doing that transparency and accountability will be achieved and corruption be curved.

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