Senator Suleiman Adokwe (PDP, Nasarawa South) is the Chairman Senate Committee on Information and National Orientation. In this interview with newsmen, he speaks on some pressing national issues. CHIBUZO UKAIBE brings the excerpts
Nigeria recently marked independence today. Many have asked are reasons 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 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 most of the disenchantments whenever Independence comes is that people reflect 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 President then, late Yar’Adua, corrected us to say what we were probing was much more than that. While we talking about $10billion, he was talking about $16billion. 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 blazingly refused to come to the National Assembly.
Today, we are seeing 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 to 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 call. 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.
What will the 8th National Assembly do differently to ensure that the constitutional amendment exercise does not fail just like some previous ones?
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 lot 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 States 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 contention 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 that state governors 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 becomes a reality in practice, considering the vested interests of governors over this issue?
The National Assembly has made sure that the general public is sensitized on the importance of local governments independence. And there is a greater awareness today than there was in the past two amendment exercises. And 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, only caretaker committees are running the local governments. And some states including mine Nasarawa, even the salaries of the local government staff is centrally made in the State Ministry of Local Government. The Finance Departments of the various local governments have been killed off. 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 N1million if they have a special request. And that was not the intendment of the constitution.
Are lawmakers not worried that budget performance, over the years, 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 into 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. If 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, the budget, for instance, of 2018 in the United States of America 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 sometimes in May releases of the first and second quarters should have been done. And up till this moment, we don’t know whether any releases had been made. Hopefully when they come they will let us know.
And 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 but in real terms it didn’t make any impact. Because if you had a budget of N10million capital expenditure and you are given N5million what you had intended to buy with N5million even N20 million could no longer buy them. In my arguments for this year’s budget, they announced over N7trillion. But in the real terms of exchange rate that is just about 25billion United States dollars. And previous budgets in the Jonathan administration of N4.5trillion amounted to over 30billion United States dollars.
So, 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 N30billion from oil revenue you should do the real exchange rate of N30billion. If you do 30 billion times N300 to a dollar for instance, that means your budget should be a budget of N9trillion not N7trillion. So, there are all these lacunas that is 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 off from there. If they made 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?
What is your impression of the clamour for restructuring and why, in your estimation, do you think some people are opposed to the idea?
For me, the major issue is that peoples perception of what restructuring is is different, depending on where you are coming from. And for others, 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. Other people believe in the six geopolitical regions, 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 and which we have plenty here. Truth be told, a lot of us in the northern states are not doing half of what the Premier 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 the space of four to five years he had established a secondary school in every province and he had established a university, college of agriculture and so on. We are not doing those things again. And the gap between the North and South was being bridged so fast. By the time I got to the university – sometimes in 1975 – Ahmadu Bello that was established as a backward university was the biggest university Africa South of the Sahara because of the vision that that Premier had. The people who inherited from him are not doing one-tenth of what he did. Instead everyday they are just crying ‘this country must be one, nobody can divide it. We must continue to eat of those resources’. We can do our own resources. It was just groundnut and soyabeans 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 N40billion per annum for a population of almost 200million. 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.
And that is why nobody should shy away from this restructuring talk as far as I am concerned. We should face it squarely. We should be able to take our destiny in our hands and know that we can do other things rather than waiting just for oil. Because we cannot wait for an asset that is wasting away. And our land is there forever. No matter how bad our land is, it cannot get worse than the desert areas of Israel, Saudi Arabia that we go and find greeneries there. People have turned deserts into lucrative areas. Why can’t we do the same? Even the desert we have in Nigeria, if you take that desert to Israel, it will be a fertile land for them. But we are treating them as there is desert encroachment and we are just running away. We still have green spots everywhere in the North. That means our soil is still rich enough to produce green shrubs. So, you need very little effort to be able to make that soil produce. And we just have to do it because we can’t continue like this. Certainly, we have come a long way.
There are too many things binding us that the question of breaking apart is not appealing to anybody. Even the people that are making noise about cessation, it is just a strategy to draw attention to their problems. And they do not genuinely want to leave. I don’t think the Igbos stand to gain by seceding because they are so confident in Project Nigeria that they have invested in every part of this country. So, I do not see them wanting to abandon their assets. Most of the best buildings you can find in the North are owned by Igbos, not even by the Hausa-Fulani that are indigenous to those places. But in real terms, there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed.
The country can only progress if you implement social justice. If there is no social justice, you are bound to have agitations everywhere. And these agitations must be listened to. If they use the carrot and stick, you listen to people, you woo people back for security reasons. You have to do certain things in order to keep the country one and protect our territorial integrity. But at the same time you must do those things that will improve on the welfare of the people because government is about the protection of lives and properties and creating wealth and prosperity for the people. Once a government cannot do those things, it reduces its legitimacy. And so, you can’t shy away from the need to address these social problems. And that is what restructuring, as far as I am concerned, is all about; ensuring there is social justice for everybody.
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 National Assembly 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 insecured, it goes to tell you the barometer of insecurity all over the country. And it’s something for everybody to worry 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.
And even as we are getting close to Christmas some of these insecurity will manifest more. It’s very characteristic of our country. When you are getting close to festivities, all people who are in government loose their sleep because you have to worry how people can travel freely. We are worried more than anything 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.