INTERVIEW: Nigeria needs mass movement against government corruption – Eze Onyekpere

INTERVIEW: Nigeria needs mass movement against government corruption – Eze Onyekpere

Published: April 9,2014

“If one looks at the 2014 budget, one would find out that it is filled with lots of frivolous, unclear and wasteful expenditures.”

Every day it appears Nigerians are losing the battle against corruption, as government officials continue to act with impunity towards efforts to rid the society of the menace. But, civil society groups are not about to let up.

Centre for Social Justice, CSJ, recently got an order of the Federal High Court, Abuja to compel the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to release details on statutory transfers in the 2013 and 2014 budgets. Lead Director of the group, Eze Onyekpere, who spoke with Bassey Udo, Idris Akinbajo and Emmanuel Ogala in Abuja, said Nigerians need to form a mass consciousness movement to mobilise the people against the vestiges of corruption and graft, particularly in government.
Excerpts;

Q: What motivated your group to go to court?

If one looks at the budget appropriations over the years, some government agencies receive funds under statutory transfers. As a matter of tradition, those transfers are never disaggregated. They come in bulk sums.
Later, the National Assembly, the Independent National Electoral Commission, National Human Rights Commission, National Judicial Council and Public Complaints Commission joined the ranks of agencies that receive bulk sums without the disaggregation made in the public domain.

For civil society, it appeared improper that agencies of government under a democracy founded on rule of law should have access to any money and spend it, without details made public to the sovereign people, who are the real owners of the budget, after all, the powers those in government are exercising, the people gave to them.

We sought for the disaggregation of these votes and the details from the Minister of Finance and the Coordinating Minister for the Economy. She said she could not concede to our request.

Therefore, we went to court based on the powers conferred on Nigerians under the Freedom of Information Act and Section 48 of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, saying we needed these details. After a number of adjournments, the court ruled on February 25, 2014 in our favour that the Minister should release the details of these statutory transfers to us.

The idea is that once these details are given to us, we would sit down to review them, and let Nigerians know what was wrong with them, in terms of the provisions for what should not be there in the first place.

For instance, there is no reason why these votes should be secret. Even agencies like the NHRC and the National Judicial Council that get votes in secret have been complaining of not having enough money. It is important that a critical look is taken of their allocations to see whether, actually, enough money was made available to them in their budgets.DSC_0007

So, it is in furtherance of the cause for transparency, accountability and the right of Nigerians to access information which have been hidden away from them that we went to court.

Q: What explanations did the Minister of Finance give for her refusal to give out the information?

There was no explanation whatsoever. She did not even have the courtesy of responding to our requests.

Q: With the court order, are you satisfied that you have achieved your objective?

Not exactly. What the court did, which we are not so happy with, was not granting our request for damages.
The law says if one is unlawfully refused access to public information or document that there is a penalty to be paid by the public official as remedy to deter other people from unjustly denying the people access to public information.

People who, by virtue of their positions, have access to such information, but fail to release them, either deliberately or by mistake, should be sanctioned, to serve as a lesson to others in future. They owe the people a duty not to frustrate the quest for justice.

Q: Apart from the statutory transfers, critics say the budget is full of duplications and questionable provisions. What’s your candid assessment of the 2014 budget?

If one looks at the 2014 budget, one would find out that it is filled with lots of frivolous, unclear and wasteful expenditures.

The first shock one is likely to have would be that despite government monetization policy, a number of individuals and agencies have been receiving monies for the repairs and maintenance of private buildings for which they have already been paid for. Therefore, they are taking double from the public till.

The same thing applies to cars. Officials who have been allocated official vehicles maintained by government also receive allowances for vehicle maintenance.

The same thing applies to the votes of institutions. For instance, under the Presidency, about N188 billion is provided for computer consumables and stationeries.

If this figure is disaggregated into 262 working days in a year, one would have N719 million spent on printing papers, computer consumables and stationeries. There are persons reading about N42,000 worth of newspapers every day.

There is also the case of the Finance Ministry asking for N600 million for security equipment. Does the ministry need security equipment to prepare, defend and approve the budget?

The National Orientation Agency, NOA is also asking for N475 million for security equipment. So, there are all kinds of frivolous expenditures in the budget that are indefensible.

The National Assembly in the past few years have been collecting N150 billion allocation. Do they need that? My answer is in the negative. They can make do with N75 billion.

Beyond that, there is another N100 billion allocated for constituency projects in the service-wide votes for them. And all those constituency projects are more or less wasteful. These are things the Federal Government should not be getting involved in.

The budget of the NASS usually includes N550 million for members’ image laundering. So, before a vote is made to launder the image of members, it means they have agreed that their image was dirty.

Some of these projects are just a way for them to get out money into their pockets. Some of them would gather some women; print t-shirts with their images emblazoned on them; television would be invited to cover the distribution of 200 sewing machines and may be 100 pepper grinding machines.

One sewing machine costs about N15,000. Multiplied by 200, the total would be N3 million. One pepper grinding machine costs N12,000. Multiply by 100, the total would be N1.2million.

By the time this is ended, they would have used N3.2 million to write off about N100 million that may have been appropriated for constituency projects.

While the innocent women would be dancing, they would not know what they received were not personal gifts, but a cheat out of what belongs to them.

If one looks at the service-wide votes, there is about N118 billion as personnel cost. Which agency of government is called service-wide votes?

There is another N21 billion provided for logistics support to INEC. If one has such money to give to INEC, why not give it to them directly.

There are all manners of funds that one would find that there is an intent to provide them as sludge funds that can be managed and mismanaged for the benefit of certain selfish ends.

In the Ministry of Agriculture, despite all the praise on the Minister that he is saving money for Nigeria, what one sees is a budgetary system that tries to ridicule the intelligence of the average Nigerian.

The Ministry of Agriculture for the past three to four years has been putting monies for seeds, seedlings, organic and inorganic fertilisers in its budget. Each of them is repeated for about six to seven times, with monies voted in billions for them. They play on words to deceive Nigerians.

And despite all our protestations all over the years, government has refused to do something on them. So, one can see clearly an intent to bring out money and take it away from the prying eyes of the public so that it could be managed or mismanaged.

We have brought these to the attention of the National Assembly a number of times, and all we got was information that each time they remove the money powers from above would force them to put back the money.

These are the kind of things that happen to institutionalize corruption and theft, making the process so difficult for people to get the desired benefits from the budgeting process.

From the research we carried out recently for a publication we made on the issue, we discovered that about N295 billion that could be reallocated to more purposeful and useful ends.

Q: Since the court order, what has been the Minister’s reaction?

Well, she has no reason not to comply with the order.

Q: If she does not, what happens?

Well, the usual procedures against a contemnor of court orders and processes would be invoked against her.

Q: Have you been following the contentions in the National Assembly over the budget? How do think this has impacted the budget process and the quality of budget we expect?

Over the years, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, MTEF prepared by the executive and approved by the National Assembly has a lot of loopholes.

First, the law requires that the Minister of Finance should consult widely with the civil society, private sector and key agencies of government, including even the state governments, before the MTEF is prepared.

But, what we find was that there was no such wide consultations, at least civil society, to the best of my knowledge, was not consulted, particularly on such issues as crude benchmark price, which affects the entire country, and if not resolved, would affect allocations.

But, what I find wrong is an attempt by both the executive and the legislature to run away from the facts and chase shadows.

The benchmark price of crude oil, which they have been quarrelling over the past two to three years, should not be the reason to quarrel, because whether it is $72, $75 or $79 per barrel, the major thing is that crude oil price would not collapse within anywhere they have fixed it.

The second thing is that the challenge is about making sure that we are producing the right quantity or volume of barrels for export.

The country produces about 2.5 million barrels per day, but they claim that through oil theft the country was losing about 30 to 40 per cent of it.

So, what the executive and the National Assembly should have concentrated on should have been how to plug the leakages through which the theft of crude oil is committed, because at the end of the day, both the MTEF prepared by the executive and approved by the National Assembly was simply meant to put a rubber stamp of approval on stealing.
They are simply saying: We have recognized that crude oil is being stolen, because instead of 2.5million barrels per day in 2013, the country is now targeting about 2.3 million barrels production capacity.

So, if no action is taken against the perpetrators of the crude oil theft, then they are being licensed to go on and steal that quantity of oil or more, while we manage with whatever is left. That is not good governance.

Security of lives and property is the first duty of government. So, they were chasing shadows when they have been busy pursuing other things instead of the reality of securing our crude oil from being stolen on such a gargantuan basis.

Q: Government has always claimed that it was doing a lot to check the menace of ghost workers. Would you say government has achieved much in this direction?

Honestly, nothing is happening here. The number of ministries, departments and agencies, MDAs that have been brought under the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System, IPPIS is far less than the number outside.

Interestingly, this started in 2006. We are in 2014 today, about eight years down the line.

I make bold to say that bringing agencies under IPPIS is an exercise that can be done across board in six months, at the most one year, if the will was there, that is if the Nigerian factor is factored into the equation.

There is no way anyone would convince me that it is right to do only 50 per cent of the verification for this number of years, since 2006.

What is even more annoying is that government has found out that there are some people who have stolen the country blind, yet it is not ready to prosecute them.

For instance, government has verified that the Budget Office of the Federation had about 1,000 workers prior to verification. But, the figure came down to only 251 post-verification. What this means is that 749 were ghost workers.

Yet, there was somebody that was a Permanent Secretary, another was in charge of the Accounts Department, and another in charge of Personnel and Payroll at the time these things were going on.

They all signed off the vouchers before the monies were released. Yet, nobody has been prosecuted.

So, what impression is government creating? Is it that anybody that steals any money would be given a pat on the back? Some of the persons who presided over these things have even been given National Honours and awards.

Time does not run out against the state to bring an offender to justice. Even if the offenders have all died, monies could be recovered from their estates, just like monies have been recovered from Abacha estate.

If the person was given a national honour, and it turns out that he is found to have been a thief, he should be stripped of the honour.

We must send a clear message to those who are thinking about continuing stealing that it is not a profitable venture, and that if they do, it would not be funny if the long arms of the law catches up with them.

But, it is obvious that the government is shielding those criminals. That is why the Minister of Finance would not want to release the details of the perpetrators, we were forced to go to court to compel her. That is why we are not happy.

Yes, we have gotten that judgment against the Minister of Finance, but the second tranche of the campaign is for the release of the names of the officers who actually presided over the massive looting. What government has given are the rough figures. But, we want the details. The case is not ended yet. We are still in court till government gives us those names.

Q: But, the Minister has said time and again that giving those names would not be easy?

No! The court has not made an order on that. If she says it is not easy, then wherever she got the information about the ghost workers, those details are still there.

If she does not have the information, the Head of Service would have the details of who served as Permanent Secretary, the Chief Accountants and Chief Personnel in the last 10 to 15 years. These are documents one can call out at the tap of the button. So, it is clear the government is interested in shielding criminals who are behind these things.

Q: But, the Minister of Finance comes with so much international pedigree that it almost sounds odd that she would be so reluctant to expose these people she has admitted are stealing the country blind. What could be the reason for this?

That question should rather go to the Minister. But, all I know is that it is her duty to expose such persons. She should even be happy that if she cannot, there are people who are interested in furthering the cause for transparency, assuming the government does not have the political will to do so.

If government is interested in transparency and accountability, then she should hand over the responsibility to the people who are interested in exposing these people.

Let all Nigerians know that these are the people who are doing this. Even if it ends at that, it would have sent a strong message across that government is not in the mood to tolerate such behaviour.

Very soon my organization is going to open a “Black Book of Fiscal Rascality”, because later in the year we are constructing what we call a “Fiscal Rascality Index” where we are going to measure MDAs on how rascally they have been with public funds.

This would include those who have contributed a lot to the economic adversity of the country, particularly those who stole money, those who did not follow due procurement process, those who violated financial regulations and public service rules, and those who refused to return monies that were meant to be returned to the treasury.

We would dare those indicted to go to court when they are named publicly that they contributed to the looting of the country’s treasury.

Q: But, you sound as though you do not believe the government’s stated commitment to fighting corruption?

Where is the commitment? Is it the same President who looked Nigerians in the eyes and told them he does not give a damn when he was asked to declare his assets publicly?

If you believe the government’s commitment to fight corruption, then you may well believe that I am Pope Benedict.

Q: If nothing, has government’s probe of the CBN governor, Lamido Sanusi’s allegations against the NNPC over the $49.8billion not convincing enough of its commitment?

But, the question is: How many probe panels, reports and recommendations indicting top officials of the petroleum industry and the NNPC has the government done anything about?

Is it the Nuhu Ribadu Report? Or the KPMG report? What has government done about the kerosene subsidy?

For Heaven’s sake how can government be talking about doing something when Nigerians have been told that the refineries are working at less than 30 per cent of installed capacity? Yet, government is still allocating 445,000 barrels per day of crude oil for local refining.

At the price of $100 per barrel, one would be talking about $44.5 million a day. If one converts that at N160 to the dollar, one would be talking about N7.102 billion a day. Multiply that with 365/366 days a year, one would be talking about N2.053 trillion. This is exclusive of the money the country pays for fuel subsidy.

Is this the way a nation that wants to make progress should behave? Assuming 30 per cent of this money is taken from the more than N2 trillion, we could make savings from there.

Every year is the same old story of monies being mismanaged or misappropriated. Why shouldn’t the money for kerosene be removed? Why can’t the National Assembly expedite the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill, PIB?

I am informed that Nigeria stands to gain additional N5 trillion in the Federation Account by the time the 445,000 barrels of crude oil a day is stopped, remove kerosene subsidy and liberalise the system through the passage of the PIB.

We have not even included the monies spent on the acquisition of another plane for the Presidential Fleet or build a new house for the principal officers of the National Assembly after they rejected the previous one built for them.

There is so much frivolities, waste and duplicity in this budget and previous budgets. Until Nigerians say no to all this, then we are going nowhere. Nigerians should say time is up.

For instance, Lagos-Ibadan expressway requires about N170 billion to construct, yet we have N2 trillion that could come in from the stoppage of allocation of 445,000 barrels of crude for local refining.

If another N100 billion is needed for Lagos-Benin-Shagamu Road, that would still be enough to take care of other things, like Abuja-Kaduna or Kano-Maiduguri roads. There is so much money to do a lot of things if corruption is stopped. Why the country is not developing is because of sheer organized criminality.

Q: What’s your grouse about service-wide votes in the budget?

It is not me that has issues with it. Steve Orosanye’s reports said that service-wide votes provide opportunity for monies to be mismanaged and stolen in government. So, we are not the one having issues with it. But, an expert in government whom they appointed said so.

For instance, if government allocated N45 billion to INEC in the budget for the year, what is the special logistics support that government has to provide another N21 billion for?

Assuming government needs to mobilize the army, the air force, police and other security agencies to assist INEC in moving electoral materials during elections, why is it difficult for government to put that money in the budgets of these agencies? Why does government need a separate fund managed by the Presidency and the Minister of Finance, where the money could easily be reached and diverted?

Again, there is a budget of N7billion for pilgrimages, yet there is another provision N1.6billion under service-wide votes for pilgrimages. In the first place, what business does government have paying for a private religious affair?
If there is any MDA that needs money for any purpose, government should give such MDA the money. Providing monies under any other guise provides an opportunity for the mismanagement of the money. That’s our grouse with service-wide votes.

Don’t forget, the National Assembly did a probe on service-wide votes in 2004 and they found out that over N1.4 trillion has been mismanaged or unaccounted for under service-wide votes by government since the return to democracy in 1999.

So, we do not know why we should continue to create opportunities for people to mismanage money when there is ample evidence that those in government would not change. Curiously, service-wide votes are illegal, as there is no law backing it. Let anyone who knows otherwise cite the law backing service-wide votes.

Q: What are the next steps to establish the kind of budget system we all desire?

We need to get in place a movement for change, because it appears Nigerians are no longer outraged. When the quantum and level of corruption and theft of national resources going on is announced, nobody seems moved. It’s like, yesterday the level was a trillion, and today it is about N200 billion, and as such nothing worth worrying about.
There should be a conscious movement between NGOs and civil society organizations, organized labour, the academia and the media advocating for change; a movement that can mobilize Nigerians on the streets of Lagos, Kano, Maiduguri, Aba, Abuja, Ibadan and everywhere to let any government that is taking Nigerians for a ride to know that enough is enough; that it either respects the wishes of the people or it gets out.

With such movement of the people in place, no President can look Nigerians in the face and say “I don’t give a damn” when asked to publicly declare his assets, because the consequences of that would be too dear for him.
That, to me, is the way forward, because we have been exposing this corruption, but not much seems to have happened.

INTERVIEW BY: PREMIUM TIMES

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