The TSA conundrum
A NEW arrival in town, striving, in fame or notoriety, to upstage the famous but gravely dreaded NEPA, JAMB or WAEC among many other such household acronyms is the TSA.
For the uninitiated, this elegant and romantic three-letter acronym stands for Treasury Single Account, the financial contrivance that serves as the almighty bullion van that helps the Federal Government’s ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs to ferry, unhindered, all their funds in commercial banks and allied financial institutions across the country into a centralised account in the nation’s own central bank.
The purpose of this exercise, we are told, is to streamline the nation’s funds, curb leakages and, at the push of the computer button, ascertain the health of the national economy as far as liquidity is concerned. The overall objective, therefore, is to keep an eagle eye on the finances of the government.
But why should this apparently innocuous matter of moving money from commercial banks into the custody of the CBN become a subject of so much controversy? My answer, as a layman, is that it is generating so much heat and suspicion because it is a matter of cash and interests and commissions. And plenty of it, too.
What are the facts? Contrary to the impression spreading wildly across the country, the TSA is not one of those creative inventions of President Muhammadu Buhari, though some officials of this government would wish that the credit goes to his administration.
Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State, while holding one of his town hall meetings at the inception of his administration, was so excited when he discovered and later streamlined about 40 accounts held in various banks by Kaduna State government. The implication is that some of these accounts were fraudulent and needed to be cleaned up via the TSA contrivance. If other state chief executive officers look more closely into their financial operations, they would like Mungo Park in history, probably discover more.
The TSA was introduced in March this year by the Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Because the idea is to stop government agencies from operating multiple accounts that are difficult to monitor and supervise and because such multiple accounts lend themselves to corruption and other financial shenanigans in their various hues and colours, President Buhari found TSA inordinately appealing and irresistible. He fell in love with it.
But it appears now to be love at first sight. The dust he kicked off has so far refused to settle down. Without any known public notice and serious preparations, the nation woke up all of a sudden to the town crier’s announcement that all the monies accruing to the government must now be moved into a single account at the Central Bank. That was the first time many Nigerians were hearing about the TSA which has now morphed into a useful weapon in the war against corruption. May be from the government’s point of view there was no need for debate or some public enlightenment or stakeholder’s meeting. My guess is that the government was desirous of catching some thieves. Doing so did not require the services of drums and trumpets to herald the coming of TSA. That is why its implementation was not only sudden, but shrouded in secrecy. It chanced on the nation like a coup hatched in the middle of the night.
But it was an error. Because of its grave implication for the nation’s economy, government ought to have given the public and all other stakeholders some reasonably long notice before the commencement of TSA implementation. It left many government agencies groping in the dark for long. Most hit, at the initial stage, were the federal universities. Because they were caught unawares, many of their programmes were badly affected. Some had to postpone examinations. Those on holiday could not resume in time. Accreditation exercises were put on hold while some others were forced to postpone their convocation ceremonies. The new universities fared even worse. Many of them did not even have account with CBN.
All these prompted the Academic Staff Union of the Universities, ASUU, to read the riot act. If not handled with care, says the union, the TSA implementation would have harmful effect on the universities’ financial autonomy making it difficult for them to articulate short, medium and long term plans for growth and development.
Other government agencies which, by civil service tradition are to be seen but not heard, have complied but not without hiccups. Former INEC chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega spoke for INEC and by extension the others who cannot speak for themselves. He cautioned against a TSA treatment for the electoral commission. For emphasis, he said: “subjecting an electoral commission to the so-called Single Treasury Account is a recipe for disaster.”
Speaking last week in the same vein, former CBN governor, Prof. Charles Soludo added his weighty voice. He said the Nigerian economy which is in urgent need of refuelling cannot afford the luxury of TSA which ties government’s funds down at the CBN.
In all these, one would expect to hear a very unambiguous statement from the government. But so far mum is the word. The bit and pieces that one has heard so far only help to compound the confusion. An unnamed government official, who was upbeat about the success of the TSA, assured Nigerians the APC Federal Government would fund its unemployment programme from the money sourced through TSA. The 25 million unemployed youths and other indigent beneficiaries of APC largess can jump and dance because succour is around the corner. Their N5,000 monthly allowance is guaranteed. Also guaranteed, courtesy of the almighty TSA, is the school children’s feeding allowance. This gives me the impression that scooping government money from the commercial banks is a sustainable fiscal policy; not a once and for all matter whose life span is measurable in months and not years.
If you ask my view, I daresay this is like the abracadabra arithmetic used for a phantom budget forecast. The figures never add up. The impression we all got, which should be the right impression, is that the exercise will not last up to one year. If multiple accounts in commercial banks are mopped up through the instrumentality of the TSA, will the accounts sprout so quickly again, and in multiple figures, like the mushroom, after they had been successfully cleared out?
Another source of confusion is the inability of the government to define clearly and intelligently the criteria for the clean-up exercise. The initial announcement limited the TSA scope to revenue generating government agencies like the NNPC, the Customs, NPA and the maritime authorities among others. If that were the case, I dare ask, how did the exercise extend to universities that do not generate any reasonable form of revenue and which are, in any case, always cash strapped?
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, is the number one revenue earner for the government. At one time, we heard it had been exempted. At other times, we were told again it had not been exempted. Final confirmation came that NNPC had not been exempted when the CBN, playing the financial Sheriff, decided to wield its big stick and clubber erring banks that failed to remit its money from their vaults. So far, the CBN has fined three banks a total of N8.8 billion for obstinately keeping NNPC money against the directives of TSA.
As if the matter under review is not serious enough, Nigerians were treated most of last week to the theatrical tabloid sensationalism arising from the alleged contract for, and the commission paid to the company hired to help the government in its TSA operations. Hon Dino Melaye, the irrepressible senator from Kogi State, had raised an alarm on the floor of the Senate that the company given the task of moving money was paid a whopping N25 billion for the job, the amount representing one per cent of the money moved. The figure later climbed to N35 billion because more money had accrued to the government because of, or through no apparent ingenuity of the company. The Senate has promised to look into this matter using one of its numerous committees.
And what is this lucky company? The name we were given initially was Remita. But before you could make the mistake of thinking Remita was the stage name of one of the most beautiful girls heading for Miss World contest in Las Vegas, those in the know quickly called us back with a rejoinder. No. Remita was not the name of the woman next door. Contrary to speculations, it is not even the name of a company. It is the software deployed for the TSA exercise. And it is owned by System specs, the company contracted for the assignment.
Then another clarification: The commission of only one percent, we are now told, is far lower than what banks normally charge when they engage in revenue collection for the government. Now I ask: Does the money in commercial banks being moved to CBN amount to revenue collection for the government? For the answer, we will have to wait for Melaye, Saraki and Co.