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Buhari Attacking The Basic Infrastructure Of Corruption—Ndoma-Egba

By Michael Jegede

Former Senate Leader, Senator Victor Ndoma-Egba, SAN, is the Senior Partner of Ndoma-Egba, Ebri & Co. law firm. In this interview, the legal expert cum politician gave President Muhammadu Buhari a pass mark in his evaluation of the President’s performance in office one year after. Ndoma-Egba noted that Buhari has so far done very well in the fight against corruption and insecurity. He, however, observed that he has to put in more efforts to excite Nigerians in the area of the economy. The ex-Senate Leader equally dwelt on other important national issues.

How would you assess the present administration of President Muhammadu Buhari’s one year in office considering the fact that it came with full force on the mantra of change?

The one year in office, I would say we have seen the good, the bad and the ugly; the bad and the ugly not necessarily attributable to the actions or inactions of the present administration. The bad and the ugly were largely inherited because from what we now hear and read things were far worse than we ever imagined.

And given the kind of rot that is now becoming evident, the change that we anticipated will be slower than expected because it means we have to arrest the rot first before you can begin to build. And for me, the good news is that one is beginning to see the will to take painful decisions that we have not made in the past. What is comforting now is the political will to take decisions that we must take if we must survive.

Buhari in his change agenda vowed to focus in three areas - corruption, security and economy. Looking at these three issues, to what extent would say the Buhari government has gone in each of these areas?

Let’s take them the way you listed them. Corruption first - I think everybody agrees that the fight against corruption is now energized. My personal reading of the situation is that the President is attacking the basic infrastructure of corruption. He has gone to the basic infrastructure of corruption and he is attacking that. One, even though the constitution has always provided for a consolidated revenue account – one account; the reality is that we have always had a multiplicity of accounts so that MDAs that is, Ministries, Departments and Agencies ran several accounts, some known to just very few operatives in those MDAs. But today everything is pooled into a single account – the Treasury Single Account (TSA).

So you have damaged a substantial part of the infrastructure for corruption. Two, the single largest infrastructure for corruption, as far as I am concerned, has been the fuel subsidy regime. It has been most opaque. And I remember the first time General Babangida was increasing fuel prices. It was to address the issue of subsidy. And there have been several other price increases after that all aimed at addressing the issue of subsidy. So, it was like the subsidy had become an endless story. And all sorts of palliatives were introduced – Peoples Bank, SURE-P. It was like the subsidy infrastructure was also begetting its own children to feed corruption, because all of those now became independent avenues to reinforce corruption.

So, now the subsidy issue is being addressed or has been addressed. So, I think another major source of corruption has been addressed. And then people are now being made to account. I mean, see the recent bazaar. It was like everything was just being shared without method. I think that his election promised to fight corruption; he has done substantial well in that regard. Then we take the issue of security. Insecurity keeps mutating. Before it was Boko Haram. Boko Haram has been substantially contained. But we are now having insurgence in the Niger Delta. We are having kidnappings. We now have a new phenomenon called the herdsmen.

So, I think that if you isolate Boko Haram; that has been substantially dealt with. But we now have new challenges. And I want to believe and hope and pray that the President will also rise to these new challenges. Insecurity today is a global phenomenon. It’s global. And they need a basic framework to deal with that. I think in terms of the legislations, we have been updating the laws to deal with terrorism, money laundering and all of that because they are all related. But the issue of the fight against insecurity will be an ongoing one for a long while. And It is also related to the state of the economy. Unfortunately, people are not, the hardship is taking a stole on the polity.

Price of fuel has gone up. Electricity has come down. The price of electricity that is not available has gone up. So, it’s taking its stole. And when the economy is bad, it is a breeding ground for insecurity. So, in the economy we are yet to see the change. Of the three areas of focus by the President, substantial progress has been made in two - corruption and security. But he has to work seriously in the area of the economy.

The passage and signing of the 2016 budget which is the first budget prepared by the Buhari administration was delayed due to some controversies and disagreements between the National Assembly and the Executive to a point that Nigerian became so worried because the economy was standing at a standstill and nothing seemed to be happening. What do you think should be done to ensure that we don’t have such kind of unnecessary delay in the passage and signing of budget into law?

The truth is that the budget has always been delayed. I think it is only once, I can’t remember the year that we passed the budget early. If you take the history of our budgets, they have always been delayed. Now, is that a good thing? No! Definitely not! And it was to address those delays that we passed the Fiscal Responsibility Act that gave a template and the timeline for certain actions to be taken in preparing the budget.

The fiscal responsibility act contemplates that you start the year with the budget for that year. And that is why I believe that the current Minister for National Planning, Senator Udo Udoma has again taken the bull by the horn because he has given us a timeline for the 2017 budget. And I want to believe that that timeline is derived from the provisions of the fiscal responsibility act. So, we must go back to obeying the laws as they apply to the budget. The fiscal responsibility act is there to guide us in the budget making process.

Can you give further insight into the provisions of the fiscal responsibility act as it relates to budget preparation?

The (budget) proposals are supposed to be in the National Assembly by September if I remember the provisions of that act clearly. And so by December you would have passed the budget and you are starting the New Year with a new budget. So, we have observed the law more in breach than in compliance. But historically from 1999, I think it is just one year that the budget was passed early. That was I think in February or so.

Proper implementation of budget after passage has been one major issue that has really dragged us back in terms of overall development of the country. Do you see this present government having the willpower to ensure a reasonable extent of budget execution as it ought to be for betterment of the Nigerian people?

Well, I think that both the President and his major functionaries have given that commitment. And we should take them by their words. I listened to the Minister of Finance (Mrs. Kemi Adeosun) the other day on Channels. And I think the long and short of what she said was that the budget will be implemented in full. The Minister of National Planning has also given that assurance and that they will be inflating the economy with the injection of N350billion. A few days ago I read in the papers that the major construction companies are returning to their various sites, that they are now being paid to go back to work. So, I want to believe that they are committed to implementing the budget in full.

Taking you back to the fuel subsidy removal issue, no doubt, most Nigerians believe it’s a welcome. But the question some have asked is: why was the attempt to introduce the policy in 2012 by the then Goodluck Jonathan administration strongly opposed by the same people adopting it now that they are in power? Why did they shut down the country then to kick against the policy knowing fully well that it has all these benefits they have outlined to Nigerians now?

I think it was the process of engagement of the public. And between 2012 and now, people have gotten to learn and know a lot more. I don’t think that prior to the attempted removal in 2012, the government sufficiently sensitized the public. Now, that massive strike came and a lot of lessons were learnt, because, one, come to think of it, many places outside Abuja and Lagos, you don’t buy fuel at N145. You don’t.

You go to my part of the world, you buy fuel at almost N200 per litre. So, lessons have been learnt from since then. People have gotten to know that this subsidy does not benefit the common person. It only benefits a little clique. Lessons have been learnt and a lot have gone under the bridge between 2012 and now. The public had become wiser.

Recently, you delivered a paper titled: “Democracy, Law and Change: Imperatives for Nigeria”, at a public lecture organized by Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Ilorin Branch. What was the lecture all about?

Essentially, my thesis in that paper was that federalism as currently structured has become a drag on development. In fact, it has become the biggest impediment to development. And I gave an analysis of the rate of developments when we had three regions to when we had four regions to when we had twelve states and to when we had thirty-six states. You could see when we had four regions, the economy of Nigeria was one of the fastest growing in the world.

In fact, as at 1965, it was said that the economy of the then eastern region was the fastest growing in the world. When we had the twelve-state structure, we still saw developments. State government were building stadia; they were building universities; they were building waterworks; they were building dams; they were engaged in very huge projects.

Now, after the twelve-state structure, we came face to face for the first time with retrenchment. We came face to face for the first time with delay in salaries. We came face to face with high indebtedness by states. So, which means that they were some optimal points in the issue of federating units viz-a-viz development.

Then, I now compared our circumstances with the circumstances of countries that enjoyed certain economic parity with us as at 1960. You take Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and India. These were countries that were considered at par with Nigeria in 1960. What is it that they did that we did?

Quite a number of them experienced military rule, the same way that we did. Yes, so that even though military rule may have been an impediment to our growth; it cannot be the only reason because in spite of their own experience of military rule in Brazil, for instance, they are still ahead of us. Now, what is it that we did that they did not do? Their federating units have remained largely the same since 1960.

In fact, where they have created new federating units, it has been very marginal, maybe, two or three maximum. In our own case, the last states were created in 1996, which means that from 1960 to 1996, a period of 36 years, we moved from three regions to 36 states, which means we were creating one new state on the average every year. Now, each state creation exercise comes with its own implications.

You now have to find capable hands to run the new bureaucracies. And we were not producing these capable hands at the same rate we were creating states. And I told a story. In my own state, it got so bad that when Akwa-Ibom was created out of Cross River, we had to go secondary schools to find people to become permanent secretaries. And a friend of mine who was never in the civil service was made a permanent secretary.

So, the creation of states was breeding inefficiency. Inefficiency breeds corruption because corruption is simply people taking advantage of an inefficient system for their personal benefits. So, I now concluded by saying that we must look at this structure again squarely in the face and begin to think of federating units as more of economic needs, because there was no economic consideration to the creation of states in Nigeria. They were not created for economic purposes. Some were created as gifts to friends. You just say, okay, this man is my friend; I create a state for him. There was no method to states’ creation.

So I concluded. The good news is that it’s a conversation but is taking root. Just this morning I read in the papers that the legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola, was making the same proposition. Two weeks ago, the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, made the same submission. So, at least it’s a conversation that is now taking place in the public sphere - that is beginning to engage Nigerians, can we continue with the present federal arrangement that we have? My answer is a very unequivocal NO!

In recent times, the clash between the herdsmen and farmers has resulted in the senseless killing of innocent Nigerians in different parts of the country. What in your view would you say is the solution to this problem?

There is a beautiful piece that was done in the Guardian some weeks back by a friend of mine, Ambassador Kayode Garrick. Ambassador Garrick was an Ambassador in Brazil some years back and he compared our cattle with the cattle in – is it in Columbia or so - meat for meat, milk for milk, hide for hide. And clearly we have not even started. And why is it so? You take a cow from Maiduguri and trek all the way to Calabar. The muscles get so tough that you cannot even enjoy the meat. The cow is so stressed that it cannot produce milk. So, for me it is more of an economic than a political decision.

First of all, do we see these cows or cattle as a resource? If it is a resource, do we want to maximize the benefit of that resource? If it is yes, can we maximize the benefits by subjecting these cows or cattle to these primordial means of keeping them alive? No! Everywhere now the trend is ranching. You enclose them and feed them properly. They are not stressed. Their meat is tender. They produce more milk. And then you can now begin to export. Where we are now we cannot treat these cattle as a resource. So, for me, it’s a purely economic decision. And I will refer you to Ambassador Kayode Garrick’s article.