Public assets in disarray –Banire, SAN

By Muiz Banire SAN

The obvious concern in recent times as far as public assets are concerned is the spate of abandoned public assets across the country.

There have been hues and cries about the waste being committed by this act. Most of the abandoned and disused assets arose out of so many issues, prominent among which are the lack of continuity in government and unavailability of fund.

As a new administration steps in, particularly where the leadership belongs to a different tendency, away from the immediate past administration it gravitates most projects embarked upon by the old administration are often abandoned and substituted with new ones initiated by the current administration.

Again, due to either budgetary constraints or lack of financial flow, coupled at times with inflation, the administration is unable to progress with the projects. Sometimes ago, the cost of the said abandoned projects across the nation was estimated to be in the sum of N230 billion.

Certainly, this is an understatement as the data used in the first instance is not credible. I am positive that by the time all the abandoned or disused assets are captured all over the country, we must be talking in trillions.

This profligacy is however not my destination in this discourse. Instead of that, I am worried about the mismanagement of extant public assets in Nigeria. Beyond my interest in the subject, two fortuitous events occurred recently that fortified my concern.

The first is the policy position of the current administration to dispose of as much as possible public assets in order to raise fund to kickstart the growth of the economy, the second is the concern expressed by the House of Representatives Committee on Public Assets on the height of mismanagement of public assets, leading to the convening of a retreat on public assets management in the country. It is in the midst of this tension that the obvious was discovered.

You wonder what this obvious is. It is poor management of public assets. Prior to delving deeper into the substance of this engagement, it is apt to appreciate the import of what constitutes public asset.

In discharging this task, it is best to borrow the definition or the description supplied by the Lagos State Public Asset Disposal Guidelines for Public Procurement, 2023 to the effect that it is composed of ‘Resources in the form of tangible and non-tangible properties (ranging from serviceable to unserviceable); ( a) created through public expenditure; ( b) acquired as a gift or through deeds; ( c ) acquired in respect of intellectual or proprietary rights; and ( d) acquired on financial instruments ( including shares, stocks, bonds, etc.’.

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From the foregoing, one can easily see how vast public assets consist. Little wonder that they seem intractable. Consequently, the very first challenge with public assets in Nigeria is the inability to account for them.

Although it was said that there is an Executive Order of 2016 that mandates the registration of all these assets, the instrument is more honoured in the breach than compliance. Till date, there is no credible inventory of what constitutes public assets in Nigeria.

The system can therefore not account for the assets of the public in the country. Little wonder that public officers feast on the assets in diverse forms; appropriation, poor deployment, bad management, undervaluation, compromised disposals etc.

I suspect that the trigger of this challenge is the mode of acquisition. We probably need a centralized procurement agency that will capture the assets. The documentation and perfection of the titles to the assets is also critical. This is another bane in the management of public assets. The evil of corruption stares us in the face in the management of the public assets.

Incompetence of the handlers of these public assets is another affliction the country is suffering. This is traceable largely to lack of governance structure in most of the entities dealing with the assets. Identifiable also in our diagnosis are the twin issues of bureaucracy and lack of continuity.

Once administration changes; or the management of the entity changes, processes come to a halt and change of modus operandi rears its ugly head. Most times, it is often cases of ‘begin again’. Furthermore, the failure to embrace technology is equally impairing the delivery capacity and impacting the efficient management of the assets.

Therefore, the starting point in any effort to sanitise the management of public assets is the creation of a register of the assets.

This will be constantly updated as the need arises, either by way of addition or subtraction. Beyond this primary challenge is the efficient use of the public assets.

Most of them are managed in a manner that it fails to attain the primary objective of the asset and its deployment. The objectives of most of the partnerships/joint ventures entered into towards efficient utilization of these public assets are never met. Notwithstanding this glaring failure, nobody cares and business as usual continues.

This problem is not unconnected with the fact that there is no uniform legal framework in the country for the management of these assets. Each entity in whose custody such assets lie, adopts the procedure suitable to its own objective or that of the public officials in charge.

The Public Procurement Act, 2007, Public Enterprises (Privatization and Commercialization) Act, 2007 and the Infrastructure Concessionary Regulatory Commission Act have not been helpful in normalizing the situation as most of the entities set up under them compromise the processes under the Acts alongside other relevant state actors. As this stand, what obtains is a fragmented regulatory framework.

This lacuna accounts for the irregularities and improprieties evident in the management of public assets. Inevitably, therefore, the country needs to urgently institutionalize an effective legal framework.

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Such legal framework must however not be bereft of ethical content which must be the driving force. With a proper legal framework, we might be able to resist political interference with the management of public assets and the incompetent administration of the assets.

To this end, I commend the House Committee on Public Assets for pulling the trigger in this regard by convening the retreat targeted at urgently addressing this gap. My appeal is that this process be expedited before all the assets are filtered away.

Closely knitted to this issue is the singularization of the platform that will be responsible largely for the management of the public assets.

As at now, multiple agencies and entities are involved in the process depending on the origin and custody of the public assets. For instance, as the Central Bank is dealing with public assets, the anti-corruption agencies such as EFCC and ICPC are also dealing with public assets.

While Asset Management Company of Nigeria, AMCON, is busy doing the same, the military and para-military outfits, including the police, are superintending on public assets also. National Electricity Liability Management Company is not left out of the joy and merry also.

The list certainly is endless. The impression is that the Ministry of Finance Incorporated is responsible for the management of these public assets but this assumption is not only erroneous but fallacious. The company can only manage public assets directly vested in it. It must be noted that the company is like an investment arm of the federal government.

The number of public assets in the custody of the company is negligible relative to the volume of public assets in vogue.

Thus, there is need for the creation or adoption of a single entity that will be responsible for the management of all the public assets, and possible harmonization of all the laws dealing with the management of public assets. This will enable uniform process, template and approach to the management of public assets in the country.

I sincerely believe that it will equally reduce the degree of corruption associated with the management of public assets presently. Just as we have several entities purportedly managing these public assets, so do we have multiple legislations dealing with the intended management of the assets.

The Constitution is there, the Central Bank Act, the EFCC Act, The Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Act, The Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria Act, the Petroleum Industry Act, the Minerals and Mining Act, the water Resources Act etc. The list again is endless, evincing the fragmented legal framework for the management of public assets in Nigeria.

While most of these legislations set out to ensure due process, they substantially lack ethical component. Ethical standards represent our commitment to fairness, transparency and responsibility.

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Upholding these standards is crucial in building trust amongst our citizens and international partners, particularly in the course of managing these public assets. Our legislative reforms must therefore integrate ethical principles explicitly.

This includes establishing clear guidelines for conflict of interest, promoting transparency in decision-making processes, and ensuring accountability at all levels of public asset management.

The import of the above is that the mechanism and the legal framework must guarantee not only transparency, it must provide for the elimination of conflict of interest on the part of the officials. The law must ensure accountability while promoting integrity and honesty in the management process.

Stewardship and loyalty must also be the watchwords of the superintending officials.
Of vital importance must also be prudent and diligent management of public assets mechanism. Due to the perception that pubic assets are nobody’s assets, recklessness reigns most

times in the management of them. Apart from misappropriation of the assets by the officials, a lot of the assets deteriorates and withers off. When all the above are enshrined in the legal frameworks, we must not overlook the area of recruiting competent hands to manage the assets.

Putting round pegs in round holes must be sacred. This must be complimented by continuous capacity building. The hope and expectation will then be that these competent officials will ensure adherence to the laws and regulations and the simplification of the management process.

Again, by the time technology is adopted, political interference and corruption in the management of the public assets will be brought to the barest minimum. Finally, in this regard, the role of the civil society organizations must not be under-estimated and discounted. They will act as the watchdogs of the processes.

The imperatives of addressing all the issues raised above lies in the imbibing and encouraging of innovative ideas towards improving the efficient management of public assets in order to boost the country’s economy.

A country with depressed economy like Nigeria needs reinflation of the economy through efficient assets management. In sum, the task of integrating robust legal frameworks with stringent ethical standards in public asset management is not only essential but foundational to the progress and integrity of the country.

How we manage our public assets reflects our collective values and our commitment to the future of Nigeria. Together we can build a legacy of integrity in the management of public assets and avoid undue dissipation of our resources.

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