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FINANCE MINISTRY: MIND YOUR LANGUAGE!!

October 25, 2019

By: Winstanley.R.Bankole. Johnson

The Annual Budget hearings organized by the Financial Secretary within the Ministry of Finance (MoF) are supposed to be very useful measurement tools for gauging the finance streams of the various Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). The objective is to achieve efficient and effective management of government subventions through a rigid compliance with fiscal disciplines that would guide them in curbing or curtailing wastage in their procurement plans for any ensuing year. Regrettably what I have observed in the past ten (10) years now is that the entire exercises, which on occasions have been rotated in selected district headquarter townships, now seem to have become bereft of the seriousness it deserves. The processes have slowly degenerated from the deep consultative exchanges between and among government agencies it was intended to be, to no more than a circus for a sustained molestation of some less fortunate Civil Servants by their hosts, the MoF. I say less fortunate because those in the good books of the Finance Ministry are rarely questioned to wit: State House, the Forces, the Judiciary and Parliament. Incidentally the Finance Ministry would only embarrass Parliament at their peril.  In the process, the good intentions of the World Bank to make our budget preparations as participatory as possible by allowing the common man to understand how his/her taxes are aggregated and appropriated, now seem to have been transformed into a platform to ridicule respectable Civil Servants and other unlucky MDA functionaries.

Embarrassed

Often and again the Financial Secretary or his deputies have come out as imperious over dutiful civil servants, whose only sin would appear to be their perennially supplicating status for approval of their agencies’ budgetary support, to carry out their own stream of government obligations in very much the same way staffers at the Finance Ministry are conducting theirs. In many instances the Finance Ministry has been most uncharitably condescending in their utterances.  For example, referring to the recently concluded budget hearings, one Newspaper carried a front page screamer: “DISGRACEFUL!! The Sierra Leone Airport Authority (SLAA) Embarrassed At Budget Hearing!!” And upon reading from their Page 2 to know what the SLAA could have possibly done amiss to have embarrassed themselves, the following reasons were proffered:

  • The Committee “scolded” (can you imagine?) the SLAA for haphazardly preparing their budget
  • The Committee said that the SLAA was “incompetent”. (Yes you read me right!!)
  • The SLAA did not comply with the guidelines given by the MoF in their Budget Call Circular (BCC)
  • The SLAA indicated costs in US Dollars. And it was in this last regard that the sycophancy of the Budget Call Committee (BCCom) of the MoF stank to the high heavens, as they reportedly proceeded on overdrive to further state and I quote: “Many members of the BCCom including State and Non-State actors frowned that while the government is making frantic efforts to deal with “de-dollarization” of the economy, the SLAA was trying to reverse those gains by denominating their budget in US Dollars…. Requesting the SLAA to go back to the drawing Board” – Unquote. Me ar tire seff!!

Phenomenon

Before commenting on the unnecessary hype of the BCCom of the MoF, let me first comment on the input of a “Non-State Actor” in that committee going by the name of Joseph Mambu.  Yes….Er…Um….Er……am….Emmeh….he has to come from that family genealogy (a Mambu), being the only gifted family line in this country that can always create a niche of relevance in and out of season – no matter which political colour is in government. I will call it the “Mambu phenomenon”. They are all born specialists in anything and everything under the heavens; from Medicine through Procurement, Astronomy, Navigation, Aviation and Aeronautics, Engineering (be it on Roads, Telecomms, Mechanical, Electrical and Civil), Education, Agriculture and even in Artificial Intelligence. They’re such a gifted bunch that in the last ten to fifteen years successive government would only snub that name at their peril. No one knows how they ever get to be selected to such key oversight positions, nor why unlike all other tenured appointees, those of all the  “Mambu” Civil Society Activists seem eternal. And they hardly fade away either.

My candid observation is that like many other groups of Civil Society Activism, they are trained in exploiting various lacunae is our Laws and Statutory Instruments giving leverage to CSO representations on Boards of Para-Statals. So it would seem that to sustain their relevance, they have craftily set up as many such CSOs, so that each time a vacancy arises for CSO nominations to such Boards it is they who make those nominations, ensuring only that the vacancies are evenly distributed amongst their registered CSO membership database. I should know because I had one of them in a Board I once chaired.  And successive governments not wanting to do what is right have always parleyed with them in the vain hope that those CSOs would in the course of time cover up their ineptitudes. In some countries however, if one family name keeps mutating within their CSO database such as the “Mambus” are in this county it would trigger investigations into the locations of the various offices they run, their staffers and remuneration patterns to prevent double-dipping and above all to figure out whether their Taxes, NASSIT, P.A.Y.E and other statutory obligations are current.

Incompetence

But that is another story for another day. So enough of the digression. Let’s now examine what according to that Newspaper, an outrightly arrogant Joseph Mambu representing “Non-State Actors” called Civil Society Accountability for Service Delivery (you can’t beat them when it comes to crafting all-embracing nomenclatures) spouted and I quote: “…..The SLAA presentation (to the BCCom) was embarrassing……The SLAA submitted half-baked budget proposals……..So he called on the entire leadership of the SLAA to resign………also because recently 70 passengers in a KQ in-bound flight almost perished as one of the plane’s engines got faulty…..And called on the SLAA authorities to take stringent action to monitor the various airlines” –  Unquote.

Lord Have Mercy; Christ Have Mercy!!

Readers if you have been looking for a classic case of a square peg in a round hole you’ve just found one in the Joseph Mambu under reference. What in tarnation has anyone in a National Budget appraisal process examining strictly financials, procurement plans and  cash-flows got to do with a faulty aircraft engine of some six months ago that he failed to have raised up with the Minister of Transport and Aviation or direct with SLAA authorities instead? On what authority and audacity was he calling for the leadership of an entire Para-Statal put together in the wisdom of H.E President Bio to resign, as well as to have had the temerity to describe whatever sub-standard budget presentation they could have made “Half-Baked”? To have even insinuated threats and insults like that to dutiful respondents invited to assist government enforce fiscal discipline clearly depicts Joseph Mambu’s incompetence and ineligibility to have ever sat on that  panel even as an ordinary spectator.

One shouldn’t even rule out the possibility that the reason why as a “Non-State Actor” Joseph Mambu sounded so intimidating was the typical CSO groundwork-paving, to create the impression that it was through his singular effort that their budget was grudgingly approved, which means that once he gets away with those antics, his next step will be to be calling the Chairpersons and Senior Management Teams at the SLAA for freebies – bribes inclusive.  What makes the recent Budget Call hearing odious was the fact that apart from those international observers in attendance, the entire proceedings received wide international coverage as well, and our other international partners viewing it must have had a good laugh at us.

Molestations

But I attribute all of this to the unfortunate situation we always find ourselves in this country, where at every change of political dispensation virtually every head of our MDAs is new on the job, or has never worked in a corporate  environment prior to their recruitment – let alone in a senior position. Every such new Head of MDAs are deemed to have been offered their jobs as a favour, not on account of merit and their expertise to perform. Furthermore and most importantly perhaps, public Budget Call Hearings to me are a mere concerted and covert attempts by the MoF, together with the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) and the National Commission for Privatization (NCP) to ring-fence the annual budgets of all MDAs at source, so that they can be able to effectively micro-manage such portfolios throughout the ensuing year. How else could anyone explain how and why Heads of MDAs would be subjecting themselves to such annual pilgrimages of molestations lavishly organized by the Finance Ministry, knowing full well that even at the times of their hearings this fourth quarter, subventions for their second quarter had not been received in full?

It is by the concerted and covert manipulations of that unholy triumvirate (MoF, NPPA and NCP) that the Loot Machines of most African counties are oiled. By their concerted manipulations of various MDA budgets – often under direct oversights by the powers that be, fat-cat contracts are systemically structured out either for reimbursing selected contractors for their expense to bring political parties into power (not all of them are interested in performing accountable office roles)  or for arranging huge kickbacks to finance future political parties campaign funds, all to the detriment of developing effective and efficient social services delivery particularly within our health and education sectors. Non-compliant MDA Board Chairpersons and Executives are easily replaced or have their Boards dissolved overnight. All those reminders they (MoF, NPPA and NCP) keep sending to MDAs about the need for them to submit their Annual Procurement Plans for approval and strict observance of “Price Norms Formula” (in a country that doesn’t even manufacture toothpicks) failing which their “NO Objection Certificates” will be withheld are bogus hogwash. They are mere threats intended to keep the MDAs in check. Come to think of it, why do the MoF, NPPA and NCP have to be breathing over the necks of MDAs throughout the year, when by law each MDA is supposed to have on seat Specialist Procurement Officers trained and certified many times over by the very NPPA?

But the question must be asked: what are the incentives that are making Civil Servants so tame in front of annual BCCs even in their tribulations of induced poverty and public molestation? Pundits have come to view this annual Budget Hearing processes a conspicuous charade of insincerity by successive government functionaries, to create a feel-good attitude both ways. A sort of:  “Don’t worry Guys …..Just bear the molestations and all will be ok”.   For example, the threat by the Deputy Financial Secretary to withhold subventions from the Sierra Leone State Lottery Ltd if they failed to clear their liabilities with the National Revenue Authority (NRA) and The National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT) was a mere ruse. He doesn’t have the authority to starve any MDA out of existence without prior reference or consultations with both the NPPA and the NCP to follow the due processes. Ideally he should have simply referred his observations to those creditor institutions and instead urged them to apply due processes for full settlements of their debts through their respective Acts. So there again that hype was an unnecessary gallery stunt.

In serious corporate environments, no managing Director or Supervisor  – no matter how senior – would dare to do that to even a Clerk and not run the risk of being fired overnight. And I think it would be good for staffers at the Financial Secretary’s office begin to borrow a leaf from that practice of recognizing that no matter how high one’s position is, every other employee ought to be respected because there is dignity in labour. No matter the circumstances, there is no Civil Service Code that allows for public humiliation of subordinates.

I shall close with a few recommendations for the BCC going forward-:

  1. Unless they have been well groomed on how not to exceed their remit, Non-State Actors should remain what they are: Non-State Actors. They are to be seen and not heard. They are not appendages of government and should not be questioning Civil Servants publicly. At worst they should be channeling their observations through the Chair. We made the same mistake during the parliamentary investigations into the alleged misuse of the Ebola Funds, when Parliamentarians transformed the exercise into criminal proceedings, by cross-examining witnesses and even imposing fines, all of which have still not been fully paid up to date.
  2. The BCCom to include ceilings (plus or minus 20%) for each MDA in their future Budget Call Circular guidelines, and a failure to comply with which should qualify their presentations for outright rejection, instead of decrying and molesting them publicly for breaches, as if the subventions they seek will be coming from the family estate of the Finance Minister.
  3. The BCCom to always note that but for the Grace of God those appearing before them are as respectable in their private lives as all of them on their Committee and so should in future be very mindful of their temperament and utterances.

           In short BCCom: Mind Your Language!!