Last Friday, the Prime Minister, Pierre Damien Habumuremyi, presided over a rare meeting of all chief budget officers, cabinet ministers and other top government officials, in what was widely viewed as an extra ordinary meeting triggered by the ongoing scrutiny, in Parliament, of a previous Auditor General’s report.
For about two weeks now, government officials have been lined up by the newly established Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to explain the anomalies in the use of taxpayers’ money that are documented in 2009/2010 AG Report.
The common element in all these hearings, whether involving cabinet ministers, parastatal executives or district mayors, is that none of the officials was able to convince the committee why their respective institutions did not observe the standard tendering procedures, or why no proper records were kept.
The state treasury lost as much as Rwf9.7 billion either through open embezzlement or failure to justify costs incurred, according to the 2009/2010 AG’s Report. The report spanned a period of 18 months, including the mini-budget/half-year that sought to align the country’s fiscal year with the rest of the East African Community (EAC) partner states.
The establishment of PAC, in April, 2011, followed years of growing public frustrations with the lack of action on the annual AG reports, which risked turning the all-important Office’s work into mere formality. By all accounts, the AG office has done an incredible job, which even earned it some sort of resistance or at least indifference from certain quarters. The problem has been lack of concrete action on the AG’s reports, most of which have since been shelved, because the ‘mistakes’ were due to capacity gaps.
Since 2003, the Auditor General’s office has meticulously documented, year in year out, how public resources were either mismanaged or out rightly stolen at different levels. For instance, the 2007 AG report indicated that only three out of 125 audit reports prepared in 99 institutions, had met the minimum bookkeeping standards. Although the government has embarked on capacity building for budget managers as well as structural changes such as creation of internal tender committees, figures hardly indicate any progress. The 2009/2010 AG Report showed that more than 95 percent of 118 of the state institutions that were audited failed to come out with a clean slate!
Therefore, last week’s extraordinary meeting between the prime minister and cabinet ministers, PSs and parastatal heads, was not prompted by new findings on the use/misuse of public resources; it was instead triggered by the ongoing public PAC hearings, whose substance constitute an embarrassment to a nation with an enviable reputation for zero tolerance to corruption. In fact, Transparency International, releasing its latest Corruption Perception Index, last Thursday, announced that Rwanda had become the fourth African nation to join a club of near corruption-free states, otherwise referred to as ‘clean’ states.
The anomalies that existed in the execution of the national budget have long been in public domain, thanks largely to the efficiency and consistency of the Auditor General’s office. Indeed, the Office has informed us before that as much as Rwf4.4 billion was unaccounted for in the 2004 fiscal year; Rwf3.6 billion in 2005; Frw5.3 billion in 2006; and Rwf6.5b in 2007. However, little was done to hold those responsible accountable, if any. At least, the public was not officially informed of any serious action to that end, including possible recovery of stolen taxpayers’ money.
Nonetheless, that the government has now moved to address these recurrent irregularities is something worth applauding. That the new Prime Minister was quick to devise mechanisms to help address the problem even as Members of Parliament were discussing a not-so-new phenomenon, points to checks and balances, as well as responsive governance in the country’s leadership. It is healthy for the state to be seen to be holding itself to account, and particularly, to run its fiscal affairs in the most transparent of manners.
The communiqué that was released after the meeting was tellingly formulated in such a candid way, with government not taking to the defence, rather admitting the existence at least ‘20 mistakes’ and announcing 15 measures to help reverse the trend. The strategy looks good and I can only hope for results sooner than later.