Leadership Challenge Has Delayed, Diverted Nigeria’s Development Potentials, Says Onyekpere.

Mr. Eze Onyekpere is the Lead Director of Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), one of the leading civil society groups in the country. A lawyer with specialisation in Development Law, covering electricity reforms, fiscal governance, human rights and constitutional reforms and called to the Bar in 1988, he has worked on electric power sector reforms, privatisation, gender and trade policy and liberalisation of education. He has tremendous experience in public expenditure management reforms involving fiscal and legal issues and economic governance. Onyekpere has authored over 25 publications and over three hundred media articles. In this interview with CHIJIOKE NELSON, he spoke on the economic travails of the nation amid its glaring potentials. Excerpts.

HOW would you compare Nigeria’s economic potential with what is on ground?

Nigeria’s economic potential is the picture of a full-grown person, indeed an economic giant that not only takes care of its domestic and external challenges, but responds to the needs of fellow African countries in distress. Nigeria was destined to be an economic leader but we are currently suffering from stunted growth, a dwarfish economy. Nigeria’s performance is less than 50 per cent of its potentials. We were supposed to refine our crude oil at home and export refined products, which would have fetched us more foreign exchange, created jobs and put more money into the public treasury through taxation. In agriculture, we should have been feeding ourselves and processing the surplus for export. In manufacturing, Nigeria should have been producing household electronic gadgets, automobiles, enough food and beverages, clothing and footwear, etc. All these production would have been for the domestic and external markets. By now, we should have exceeded our dream GDP targeted in Vision 2020.

Where would you place the nation’s development challenges among leadership, budget processes and implementation?

I think we should be able to separate the hardware from the software issues; to identify the real illness, problems and challenges rather than mistaking the symptoms of the challenge as the challenge itself. Like Chinua Achebe clearly stated, the challenge is about leadership which is the hardware of governance and once you get the leadership right, all other things which are the software issues will gradually fall in place running on the existing hardware of good governance. So, the problematic budgeting process is a symptom of poor leadership. If the leadership is right, with nobility of volition, proper technical and tactical grasp of the issues and with ability to understand the needs of the people, the budgeting challenge, being just one of the many challenges facing Nigeria will be resolved. It is the wrong leadership that has led us to this sorry state. In a situation where morally bankrupt persons, intellectual dwarfs, thieves and unscrupulous elements are in the commanding heights of power, the Nigerian situation is bound to happen.

It is imperative to clarify that a reference to intellectual poverty is not a reference to persons in the corridors of power not having doctorate degrees or professorships; it is about properly educated minds, who understand our place in history and the need for us to claim our position to lead the Black Race out of shame, poverty and underdevelopment. We need leaders who can bring practical and workable alternatives to IMF/World Bank ideas, which have never been the foundation for the development of an African country.

Do you think there are misplaced priorities in terms of policy focus (donor agency bill) and what are the likely implications of the bill when passed?

That Bill is a clear case of a man whose house is on fire and instead of trying to rescue valuables, he is busy chasing rats. Civil society and nongovernmental organisations have no business getting clearance from a government agency before they can access and use funding support. It makes no sense because it creates an unnecessary bureaucracy, may be to frustrate groups that are critical of government and put them out of business. Would that be the democracy of our dreams? Already, we have laws in place to checkmate money laundering and terrorism. The impression being given is that donor agencies simply through money at civil society organisations without demanding for retirements or without any checks and balances. No, there are contracts; there are audits and all manner of checks because some of these monies are tax payer’s monies from countries such as United States and Britain which do not take kindly to the issue of corruption. Pray, ICPC that is already overburdened with corruption cases; where will it find the manpower and other resources to engage in the micro level regulation anticipated under the Bill if it becomes law? Of course, the bill will also violate rights to freedom of association, to receive and hold opinion on grounds that are not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

As a civil society leader, what were the contentious issues in the 2014 budget?

It is a budget of waste, frivolities and the business as usual approach to fiscal governance. We still have all manners of waste where agencies were getting hundreds of thousands for stationeries in a day; the usual maintenance and other maintenance services running into tens of billions; the National Assembly that takes its entitlement of N150 billion; service wide votes that are clear slush funds which are very open to abuse. Very little is voted for capital expenditure and the bulk of the money, over 72% goes to maintain the bureaucracy which is less than 1% of the population. Essentially, the 2014 budget continues the tradition of fiscal rascality entrenched over the years by successive governments. It has only become transformed under the current dispensation to higher decibels of rascality.

How can these budget controversies be eliminated?

There have been a plethora of committee recommendations, position papers from civil so0ciety and the academia on how to cut the rot in the budget but the political will to effect change is lacking at the highest level. We can reduce the bloated recurrent expenditure. Why are we having boards and commissions with over seven members? Why are agencies duplicated? Why did the government abandon the monetization policy? Why are we paying for the foreign medical treatment of ministers, permanent secretaries and board chairmen and members? If we are paying for the foreign medical treatment of those who are supposed to fix the health system in Nigeria, what will motivate them to fix it if they do not attend local hospitals? Why is stealing condoned in the public service? Until we find answers to these questions and the people on the corridors of power remember and acknowledge that there is God, then, the problems will continue, especially if we fail to organise for change.

What is the position of the civil society to the White Paper on Orosanye Committee Report?

Except a few points of departure, CSOs want the government to implement the recommendations of the Committee. However, the Government White Paper on the Committee’s report, to a great extent, has messed up the recommendations of the Committee with its approach of “government accepts”, “government rejects” and “government notes” without assigning any reason for the positions. We want the cost of governance reduced and savings ploughed into capital expenditure.

Do you really see corruption in Nigerian system as widely held?

Yes, corruption is one the greatest challenges holding back Nigeria’s development. It is pervasive, systematic and systemic and it has eaten up the fabric of the Nigerian society. It is responsible for the poor service delivery of the public and private sectors of the economy. Beyond looting the treasury, it is about cutting corners, lowering standards and enthroning mediocrity in leadership.

Nigeria’s total debt stock has hit N10 trillion mark. What are your concerns?

We have been borrowing without due process and we have been mismanaging the proceeds of borrowing. The enabling law, which is the Fiscal Responsibility Act, said we can only borrow for capital expenditure and human development. Can any one point to the capital project/infrastructure or investments in human development worth N10 trillion. Our ability to repay is hinged on continued pumping of crude oil. The little investments made out of our debts are not self regenerating or sustainable. And Nigerians are not presented with cost benefit analysis of the projects in which borrowed sums are invested. However, incurring debt per se is not bad provided it is wisely invested in sectors that can facilitate economic growth and human capital development. Unfortunately, we are borrowing to mismanage the proceeds.

You seem not to be in support of the President’s move to borrow $1 billion for the fight against Boko Haram insurgents. Why?

The President’s letter to the National Assembly states that the borrowing is to upgrade the equipment, logistics and training of our Armed Forces and Security Services to enable them more forcefully confront the insurgency. Nigeria cannot be looking for resources to fight the insurgency, while refusing to block the leakages in its fiscal system.

First, the waste that emanates from the loss of over 350,000 barrels of crude oil every day to theft has been left unattended by the Federal Government. 350,000 barrels of crude oil a day at an average price of $100 per barrel is $35 million a day, which will amount to $1.085 billion in a 31-day month like July. This sum is more than the $1 billion requested.

The second is that the Federal Government has refused to call to account the natural and artificial persons who brazenly mismanaged various security contracts, including the Abuja CCTV contract. How can the same government be asking for approval to borrow when it has failed to properly husband the resources already entrusted to it? Where is the guarantee that if the loan is approved that the resources will not be mismanaged?

The third is that the enabling legislation- the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) authorises borrowing only for capital expenditure and human development provided that such borrowing shall be on concessional terms with low interest rate and with a reasonably long amortisation period. The request for approval is required to present the cost benefit analysis of the loan, detailing the economic and social benefits of the purpose to which the intended borrowing is to be applied. However, the specific source of the loan and the interest rate attached to the loan are not disclosed. Essentially, it is not known whether the loan will be concessional, which according to the FRA, means a loan at not more than three per cent interest rate per annum. It is also not clear whether the President intends to send in a Supplementary Appropriation Bill since this request was not one of the funding sources of the 2014 Appropriation Act.

While the continuation and even increasing the tempo of activities against the terrorist groups is desirable, it will be contrary to common sense, law and reason for the National Assembly to approve this request without following the procedure laid down in the FRA and starting the process to make the fiscal system more accountable. It is not too late for the President and his ministers to live up to their oaths of office by managing our resources in the best traditions of prudence and greater value for money, because we cannot continue to be the proverbial man who lives by the riverbank and washes his hand with spittle.

The word “impunity” has been a critical issue in the public domain. Where do you see impunity and what is the sustaining factor?

Impunity is about people violating legal, moral and other societal standards in the full knowledge that no sanctions will fall on them. It is about being above the law and being immune from the sanctions of the law. It is the governor, lawmaker or other public official who steals money and will get no sanctions; it is about refusing to carry out lawful duties, it is about election rigging and knowing that no one will prosecute you; and it is at the core of our under-development. Justice sector and attitudinal reforms will facilitate the campaign against impunity.

What do you find challenging in the nation’s fiscal and monetary regime?

The fiscal and monetary policy has failed to respond to the challenge of underdevelopment of the country. Essentially, there has been a lot of “book approach”; officials simply regurgitating received information and knowledge with no value added and this can only take a nation not too far from where it started. Value added that takes cognizance of our circumstances or consciously replicating best practices and avoiding the pitfalls of such practice is what is needed.

The issue of insecurity has become everyone’s concern, even in international arena. Where did we get it wrong ab initio?

The devil is at work but he uses human instruments. We got it wrong as a people when we refused to rise above petty ethnicity and religious rivalry. It has come back to haunt us and those who think they can get political mileage out of it will sooner than later find out that it is an ill wind that blows no good to anyone. It has assumed a life and agenda of its own. The solution lies in the unity of the political class in an understanding that despite the political differences, this is an evil that must be confronted and defeated. But in the first instance, the government of the day must be more serious with the task of protecting life and property.

What actually is the way forward for the country?

Nigerians should organise and mobilise to take back and own their country. Knowledge, entrepreneurship, savings, investments and a culture that links hard work and innovation to riches and wealth should replace the current corruption and mediocrity.

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