INQUIRY: How Ebonyi gave N400m in COVID-19 funds to officials to build houses

The Ebonyi State Government disbursed N400 million of its COVID-19 funds to public officials for personal property development in violation of its law and international guidelines, according to a PREMIUM TIMES review of an audit report.

The money was among those allocated by the Ebonyi State Legislative Assembly in August 2020 for state expenditures related to COVID-19 in the revised 2020 budget.

According to documents obtained from the “Ebonyi State Government Audited Monthly COVID-19 Budget Execution Report,” the funds were, however, disbursed to officials in the executive, judiciary and legislative branches of government.

The misuse of funds at Ebonyi heightens fears in the anti-corruption and development circle about limited liability in the use of COVID-19 response funds by governments.

Transaction details

Details of the financial transaction show that the money was given to officials either to start developing their land or to build houses.

About 50%, or N200 million, of the funds were disbursed as COVID-19 “concessional loans” to government executive public office holders to “commence development of their lands”.

Members of the legislative arm of government have received N100 million as a COVID-19 “soft loan” to begin development of their homes.

Public office holders in the judicial branch of government also received their share, 100 million naira, to “start developing their homes”, according to the audit report.

Ebonyi State Government financial transaction records for August 2020 show that all payments were 100% approved.

Source of funds

Ebonyi is governed by David Umahi who recently lost his bid for the presidency in the primary of Nigeria’s ruling party, the APC.

Despite the audit report, Mr. Umahi’s government says it did nothing wrong with the transactions.

Ebonyi State Accountant General Carlton Nwankwo, under whose office the payments were authorised, confirmed to PREMIUM TIMES that much of the budgeted revenue is “state government funds that were set aside for Covid-19 management and Covid-19 recovery.”

He said, however, that the housing loan to public office holders was not exempt from COVID-19 contributions or grants. Rather, the funds came from Ebonyi State government coffers, he said.

The Accountant General said the decision to grant the loan to civil servants was “what a portion of the stakeholders identified as their immediate need”.

“It is important to note that of the actual revenue earned as of the end of August 2020, 97% came from funds from the Ebonyi State Government, while only 3% was from funds contributed by CACOVID, individuals, the federal government and private sectors,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in an email response.

Meanwhile, guidelines from global health body WHO state that “all COVID-19 transactions must certify that the payment will only be used to prevent, prepare for and respond to COVID-19.”

Similarly, the Ebonyi State Coronavirus and Other Dangerous Infectious Diseases Act also provides that “expenses incurred and funds shall be expended for COVID-19 response and recovery programs.”

While financial regulations attempt to prevent embezzlement and ensure accountability, the Ebonyi State government has done the opposite by diverting funds to the accounts of a few government officials.

But, Mr Nwankwo maintained that the COVID-19 fund, given to civil servants in the form of a housing loan, was seen as a “vehicle that would add to the economic activities and Covid-19 recovery program in Ebonyi State. “.

The Covid-19 pandemic

When COVID-19 spread in 2020, the restrictions put in place to control the spread of the virus caused severe socio-economic hardship for people around the world, especially in a country like Nigeria where a large part of the population is already in the poverty trap and many have to go out every day to earn money to survive.

It was then that the Ebonyi State government engaged citizens through various means to establish the challenges brought about by Covid-19 and the best way to mitigate the effect on our economy, said Mr Nwankwo.

“The State, through the SFTAS program, was able to revise its budget to reflect changes that were necessary given the outcome of citizen/stakeholder engagements,” the Accountant General added. “He also developed policies providing for tax refunds, tax exemptions and other forms of palliatives regarding the outcome of engagement meetings.”

A civic advocacy group, Budgethad published a report saying the state of accountability around COVID-19 funds in the states of Nigeria was poor. He said this partly stems from the fact that most state governments have been able to get away with the mismanagement of funds, as the government has not provided any legislation to punish offenders.

The organization said most COVID-19 resources have been converted to private use and some to political purposes.

Since 2020, Ebonyi has reported around 2,064 cases of COVID-19 and 32 deaths from the virus.

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