Senator Suleiman Adokwe (PDP, Nasarawa South) is the chairman, Senate Committee on Information and National Orientation. In this interview with OWEDE AGBAJILEKE, he speaks on Nigeria’s 57th Independence anniversary, restructuring of the country, 2017 budget, constitution amendment, rising insecurity in the Federal Capital Territory, among others. Excerpts:
Nigeria marks 57 years of its Independence today. Is there any reason to celebrate, considering the myriads of challenges facing the country?
Yes, of course. The first reason is that you don’t have any colonialist ruling you. You have your destiny in your hands to shape your life. Even if we are doing nothing, when Independence anniversary comes it reminds us that we are free and independent and we ought to do better than we are doing. It also gives people opportunity to reflect on what various governments and people given the responsibility to move this country to the next level have done and so on and so forth. And much of the disenchantment whenever Independence anniversary comes is as a result of people reflecting upon so many wasted opportunities. But that is not to say we have remained stationary. There are lots of gains that had been made. But the problem is, is it commensurate with all the resources that we have generated? If we had invested them wisely should we be where we are today? That is really what pains the average Nigerian. And the answer certainly is no. Because we could have done better with our resources the way we have moved. And it’s a sad commentary that after 57 years we still cannot solve the problems of energy. Power supply has consistently remained below 4,000 megawatts, sometimes going as low as 1,500 megawatts, which is something that can supply small towns in other jurisdictions. It’s worrisome. And year in, year out you try to get to the bottom of some of these problems and the level of corruption and conspiracy in the country will not even allow you to dig into what went wrong.
When the National Assembly attempted to probe the monies expended in the power industry, even the then President Yar’Adua corrected us to say what we were probing was much more than that. While we were talking about $10 billion, he was talking about $16 billion. And no sooner had the probe started than one or two members got themselves locked up. They just trumped up some charges and got them locked up and that was the last we heard of such probes. And when we were talking about corruption in the oil industry, it got to a point that Diezani Alison-Madueke, former minister of petroleum resources, brazenly refused to come to the National Assembly.
Today, we see all sorts and manners of revelations that are mind-boggling. Even as we are talking today, there are already signs of corruption going on. When the National Assembly wants to point it out, the “change people” are sacrosanct, you can’t touch them. Some of the crooks have run into the government and are hiding successfully there. If they don’t like your face, they will just grab you and put you in jail. These are some of the things that will not allow us make progress because every regime has its sacred cows. But everything that we say today, tomorrow another regime will take it up if this regime will not prosecute. And that is why year in, year out, regime after regime, wastages continue to pile up. And then we cannot move. That is why anytime we come to Independence celebration, everybody is complaining. But I have faith, I believe that things will get better. And Nigerians are getting more and more enlightened. They are beginning to question the authority and ask the people to account for certain things. There are protests like ‘Our Mumu Don Do’. Those things are wake-up calls. And I’m sure one day we will wake up and we will not be able to step in the streets because the people will take over the streets. I have faith that things will change one way or the other.
The National Assembly will forward the resolutions of the constitution amendment exercise to the 36 State Houses of Assembly this week. What will the 8th National Assembly do differently to ensure that this exercise does not fail just like the previous one?
It is not completely true to say it failed last time because the constitutional processes of amendment were completed, except for the executive to sign. And it became a controversial issue to do so. But at the end of the day, the Houses of Assembly did their job. There were returns from the State Houses of Assembly based on what the Seventh National Assembly concluded on. It was at the point of the president signing that there were lots of controversies. So, it was stalled. But on our part everything was concluded. And this time around the National Assembly has concluded its part and will send the result of the amendment to the State Houses of Assembly as required. And once that is done, we are hopeful that the president will also give his assent. There’s nothing to do differently; everybody has his role to play. The major contentions are in the areas of local governments, where we have consistently provided for independence of the local government including elections, hoping that elections into the local government councils will be ensured to take place and that INEC will conduct those elections. It has remained elusive because of the vested interests of state governors who have refused to let local governments go. It would appear it is their milking cow.
What is the National Assembly doing to ensure local government autonomy considering the governors’ vested interests?
The National Assembly has made sure that the general public is aware of the importance of local governments’ independence. And there is a greater awareness today than there was in the past two amendment exercises. Believe me, any State Assembly that wants to go differently is going to face the wrath of the general public because the local government system has never been so stifled as it has been in the last four to five years. Virtually every state has killed the local government system. Either the elections are not taking place or only caretaker committees are running the local governments. And in some states, including Nasarawa, my own state, even the salaries of the local government staff are centrally paid in the State Ministry of Local Government. The Finance Departments of the various local governments have been killed, and so the staff just collect their salaries from their bank accounts and the Finance Departments do not process any payments. The local governments have to go and beg the governor for N1 million if they have a special request. That was not the intendment of the constitution.
This week, the finance minister and her counterpart in Budget and National Planning are expected to brief the Senate on the level of performance of the 2017 budget. Are lawmakers not worried about the feelings of the people that budget performance has become a vicious cycle without an impact on the lives of the people?
Of course, we are worried. That is why the Senate President made those comments in his opening remarks at resumption from our annual recess. The vicious cycle, for me, even starts from when budgets are laid. They are usually laid very late and the National Assembly will be blackmailed by saying, ‘We have laid the budget and you are not dealing with it’. And they don’t want the National Assembly to scrutinise the budget in details. You lay the budget at the tail end of the year – sometimes in December when we are getting ready to go for Christmas recess. In most cases, they want us to suspend our recess and set us against the public that we are the ones delaying the budget. But we will take our time, go for recess and come back.
In most advanced jurisdictions, for instance, in the United States of America, the budget of 2018 has been laid since March 2017. So they have nine months to deal with the budget. But now, nobody has an idea of when the president will lay his budget. That is the beginning of the vicious cycle; it is delayed and by the time we pass it, it may get into half of the next year. And they will take another three months to do implementation. But if the executive is committed to implementing the budget, you know that from experience give and take there can be no variation of more than 10 to 20 percent. And you have been accumulating revenue anyway. So, once the budget is passed you should be able to release the revenue you have accumulated, because by law you can only expend the equivalent of what was passed last year in terms of recurrent expenditure. But for the capital expenditure, as soon as the budget is passed you would have accumulated some reasonable amount of money and as soon as the budget is assented to, you commence your expenditure. And if the budget was assented to sometime in May, releases of the first and second quarters should have been done. But up till this moment, we don’t know whether any releases had been made. Hopefully, when they come they will let us know.
From our oversight functions in the implementation of the 2016 budget, many factors came to play to undermine the releases made. Number one, the economy is based on the dollar exchange rate. And in spite of the fact that there was up to 50 percent releases in certain agencies, in real terms it didn’t make any impact. If you had a budget of N10 million capital expenditure and you were given N5 million, what you had intended to buy with N5 million even N20 million could no longer buy them. In my arguments for this year’s budget, they announced over N7 trillion, but in the real terms of exchange rate, that is just about $25 billion, whereas previous budgets in the Goodluck Jonathan administration of N4.5 trillion amounted to over $30 billion. These are the real significant differences. That is why you can hardly feel any impact because the exchange rate is very high and government has not done anything to intervene. Let’s say you are getting up to N30 billion from oil revenue, you should do the real exchange rate of N30 billion. If you do 30 billion times N300 to a dollar, for instance, that means your budget should be a budget of N9 trillion, not N7 trillion. So, these are all the lacunas that are not giving the people the real value for their money. If you don’t budget in real terms of the exchange rate, you cannot get value for your money. And then it is not even being released as it is now. When you say we have exited recession, it is not inclusive because if there is no recovery of recession at the micro level, the ordinary people will not feel the impact of your claims of recovering from recession. So we already started on a bad note. We don’t know when this budget will come. I don’t want to preempt what the budget operators will come and tell us; when they come and give us the figures, we will take it up from there. If they make claims that they had made releases, we will begin our oversight functions to prove their claims. If it is there, then what has happened that people are not feeling the impact?
Some regions of the country are opposed to restructuring. What, in your view, are their fears?
For me, the major issue is that people have different perceptions of what restructuring is depending on where you are coming from. For some, it seems when you are calling for restructuring you are calling for the dismemberment of the country. And for others, it means fiscal restructuring; everybody should own the natural endowments in their locality. That is why we are having all these discordant views. But if we sit down and agree on what restructuring means to all of us, there are certain basic agreements that we can reach. What should be the percentage of accessing the natural endowments of your state? There is political restructuring, economic restructuring and so on. People want certain political groupings in certain regions, some believe in the six geopolitical regions, while others think it should be more than six. Others want to go back to the four regions. All these differences are there, but the truth of the matter is that everybody knows that we can’t go on like this. There are certain things that must give way. And if we are to continue with so much quarrelling, we will not achieve anything because virtually every issue now is reduced to the matter of restructuring. For me, I believe there are certain adjustments that need to be done. There are certain groupings that need to take place so that people can have some measure of fiscal responsibilities for their regions. I come from Northern Nigeria and central part of this country, I don’t know what our fears are. For me, there are things that you can do for yourself without looking at oil because there are many countries in the world that don’t have oil, that don’t even have any resources except human resources which we have plenty here. Truth be told, a lot of us in the northern states are not doing half of what the premier, Sir Ahmadu Bello, did for us in Northern Nigeria. When the premier took over Northern Nigeria, there were only two secondary schools: one in Barewa and one in Keffi – but within a space of four to five years he had established a secondary school in every province and a university, college of agriculture and so on. And the gap between the North and the South was being bridged so fast. By the time I got to the university sometime in 1975, Ahmadu Bello University that was established as a backward university was the biggest university in Africa south of the Sahara because of the vision the premier had. We are not doing those things again. The people who inherited from him are not doing one-tenth of what he did. Instead, every day they are just crying, ‘This country must be one, nobody can divide it. We must continue to eat of those resources’. We can work out our own resources. It was just groundnut and soya beans that kept us alive.
Even the Southerners who cling to oil to threaten restructuring should know that the demand for oil is soon going away; people are seeking for alternative energy. The real thing is, what do we do to diversify our economy? The oil industry in Nigeria doesn’t give us more than N40 billion per annum for a population of almost 200 million. It means that we need to do much more than that. Look at when the oil price crashed and we just went into recession immediately with no alternative. We don’t have any economic tools to manipulate our economy because it does not depend on anything other than oil, and once the price is down, you cannot meet your output, you can’t do anything else. Even the sugarcane seller is talking about dollar. He should have nothing to do with the dollar at all because all our industries are financed by the petro-dollar. And once it is no longer there, everybody gets into trouble.
The 1999 Constitution states that the National Assembly should make laws for the Federal Capital Territory. Are lawmakers not worried about the high rate of insecurity in Abuja being the seat of power? What is the legislature doing about it?
Certainly we are worried. We are worried about insecurity in any part of Nigeria, not just Abuja. And it is a measure of the problems we are having that is even poking into the eye of the country; because Abuja is the eye of the country. If the seat of government has become insecure, it goes to tell you the barometer of insecurity all over the country. And it’s something for everybody to worry about certainly. When insurgency, insecurity is storming the capital city, it is a threat to those in power because at the end of the day if government cannot deal with insecurity in the state capital, it means you can’t deal with it in any other place. So, it’s our collective worry. And just like the Senate President commented on many issues, there are so many issues to take up. Even as we are getting close to Christmas, some of these things will manifest more. It’s very characteristic of our country. When you are getting close to festivities, those in government lose sleep because you have to worry how people can travel freely. We are worried more than even the executive because most of us travel without any protection. Unlike a minister who has a convoy, we legislators don’t have a convoy. Even to give us one car, they have whipped public sentiment against us. But all the same we are elected to make sure that we make those laws and do those legislative duties that will guarantee the peace and security of every Nigerian, including residents of the Federal Capital Territory.