Chairman, Senate Committee on Rules and Business, Babajide Omoworare, represents Osun East Senatorial District in the National Assembly. In this interview with Mojeed Alabi, he speaks on the 2016 budget, the anti-corruption war and other issues. Excerpts:
What is your take on the controversies surrounding the budget submitted to the National Assembly by the President and the claim that it got missing?
I sincerely don’t want to go into the details of missing budget or no missing budget because probably, an overzealous political appointee or appointees; overzealous without attempting to disrespect the persons involved, had thought to be in custody of budget so that another figure or figures do not take up his or their roles. But that cannot be Mr. President’s headache. In fact, that should be the headache of the Senate.
This is because this document was brought to us in the full glare of the public. The proceeding was beamed to the word live by television stations and also streamed live online. Why should the Senate have such challenge when the lower chamber did not experience such? So, you would see that the questions are really not for Mr. President but for us, the senators.
So, you are blaming the Senate for the ‘missing’ budget palaver?
If any document was missing on the premises of the Senate, I don’t think it is the challenge of the executive but that of the legislature that neither confirmed what was presented nor protected it. Therefore, the Senate should not be encouraged to just gloss over this matter but to take a deep look into it to avoid a repeat.
For instance, there are ways people can be subjected to security checks without making them feel embarrassed but that is not the case in the National Assembly; as long as people wear identity cards of senators, they are not checked by the security agents. So, whether it is a case of missing or mix-up, we should guide against such in the future.
What do you make of the proposals by the President as contained in the budget?
The President christened it ‘Budget of change’ but I think it is of a budget of resuscitation. Nigeria was on the brink of collapse before President Muhammadu Buhari emerged. And I was just wondering what would have happened if former President Goodluck Jonathan had won his re-election bid, especially with the ongoing revelations about the sharing of our patrimony. For instance, this is the first time the perception of the people about the budget as sharing of a national cake is changing.
This budget emphasizes baking rather than sharing of the national cake. It concentrates more on the revenue end of the budget and less on the expenditure end. We could recall that at a time in history, and specifically, two years ago, oil was sold by June 2014 at about 120 dollars per barrel. On the average, for about three years in this country, oil was sold for about 110 dollars per barrel. Today, it is going to 27 dollars and still going down. I am not a prophet of doom, but with the realities of the United States now exporting oil after about 40 years it stopped, and with the lifting of ban on Iran, we can then predict how much low oil price will go down.
So, this is the time to gird our loins. It is time about revenue generation now. What this means is that government must ensure that people pay their taxes. I know that Value Added Tax (VAT) in Nigeria is the second lowest in Africa after Eretria. It is five per cent in Nigeria and four per cent in Eretria. Though I am not proposing increment of VAT, but we may have to do that in future. We just have to extend the tax net. We don’t need to increase tax now but there are too many people who are not paying tax whether withholding tax or sales tax or even VAT and Pay As You Earn (PAYE).
Nigerians are just not in the habit of paying because there was free fund from oil. Now that the revenue is dwindling, Mr. Babatunde Fowler has a lot of work to do. Before now, 75 per cent of our revenue used to come from oil, while our 90 per cent of our foreign earnings also used to come from oil, but that has changed now. We must look for alternative means. Containers come into Nigeria filled up but they leave Nigeria empty because we don’t export anything.
That is the challenge of trade imbalance we now experience. Trade was balance before because we were exporting a lot of our oil. We now have to go beyond oil and assume we don’t have oil. This is possible. Government has to look into other areas particularly agriculture, solid minerals, tourism, among others. We also need to look at things being imported into the country that foreign exchange won’t be available for. The era of Nigerians importing toothpick, egg, champagne and a lot of luxury goods should be over immediately.
Are you calling for tax on luxury goods?
Infact, luxury goods should be taxed appropriately and immediately too. If you are able within this environment to maintain a yacht, limousine, an aircraft, then you must pay tax. We must also look into how disposable income will be in the pockets of common Nigerians. This can only be done by growing micro-income and small medium economies. The white-collar jobs are no longer there, so we must hone peoples’ skills, talents and encourage people to learn new skills.
We must make funds available to them and not for the rich getting richer, so that we can bridge the current wide gaps between the rich and the poor. The only way we can do it is by encouraging our graduates to look inward and venture into what can earn them income.
This same budget you have described as budget of resuscitation is said to have increased budgetary allocation for domestic purposes in the Presidency from about N500 million to more than N1 billion. Does this not contradict your description?
I must let you know that it is easy for people to peddle any lie. The budget is an open document; in fact, I have a copy even on my phone here. It is 1, 800 pages and I can show you here the budget for the State House, my calculation has not summed up to that figure. If peradventure it is, we will surely reduce it. And if I may ask, what is domestic? Of course there are expenses for medical, honorarium, publicity, refreshment and miscellaneous.
All these are on Page five of the budget. For refreshment and miscellaneous, it is N104. 744 million, among others. There are so many other headings such as, cooking gas, fuel cost and budget preparation. But the impression people give is that N1 billion will be expended on meals. We must understand that I used to be in the Committee on Federal Character, where we ensured that every year, State House budget must be reduced.
I was there for four years and we ensured everything went down annually. One thing about appropriation and budgeting is that you cannot move capital end of the budget all of a sudden. But this is the first time we are adding more into the capitals. The capital is a lot more but that does not mean that the miscellaneous will just stop all of a sudden because governance must continue. It is the cost of running government that we have to reduce. The more personnel you have the more overhead you have by the way of recurrent.
The moment we clamour for recruitment into Immigration, Military, Civil Defence, then you must be ready to add more money to overhead. These are things we are still going to amend. So, I will have to have more than a second look at this. But I must let you know that the figure being bandied around may just not be correct. I have actually concentrated my deep interest on the major areas concerning my constituency where I am more accountable to. But as a lawyer, I am choosing my word most advisedly, may not be correct. But if it is correct, then we will reduce it.
So, you don’t believe there are errors in the budget?
There is no budget submitted to the parliament at any point in the history of this country without some degrees of review and correction because nobody, whatsoever the caliber, is infallible. I have tried to explain when members of the opposition party in the parliament said we should adjourn after the estimates had been circulated and I told them that because I was of the view that the Order 92 of our Standing Orders states that at that point we were not supposed to discuss the estimates but the economic situation in connection with the proposals.
The Standing Order now provides that you may discuss the estimates but not that it should be the basis of the debate. Our debate should have focused on the possible effects of the foreign exchange, among other cogent issues. But opposition members don’t really like to adhere strictly to the rules of the house but to look for the weak areas in the proposal, no matter how minute or immaterial their points may sound because that was exactly what we did as opposition in the past.
What we have done in the interim is that Section 82 of the constitution enables the government to run even when there is no new budget in the new financial year as long as you don’t spend more than what was expended in the corresponding period of the previous year. That is quite ambiguous because the executive arm may just decide to spend on concurrent expenditure by paying salaries and overheads without touching the capital.
So, that was the purpose of extending the financial year for a quarter before we vacated so that government would continue with capitals hoping that before the expiration of the period the new budget would have been passed and assented. We did this to avoid lacuna in the area of capital projects. I have said this before that this budget is still a proposal. Section 80 is clear about the issue of budget presentation stating that government cannot spend without appropriation. If that is done, it is called misappropriation.
Expectations are very high among Nigerians about what government will do for them in terms physical infrastructure and economic recovery. But there seems to be more concentration on anti-corruption war than other areas of governance. What is your reaction to this?
Government does not need appropriation to retrieve money from those who have stolen it but government requires appropriation to commence execution of capital projects. That is why it is important for the National Assembly to expedite action on the budget debate with a view to having it out on time. But I can assure you that government is not just concentrating on the war against corruption alone but very much committed to redefining governance in Nigeria.
At the same time, the anti-corruption war is also very important to governance at this time. Apart from the fact that monies recouped can serve as seed money that can help to facilitate budgetary implementation, there is also the need to build a new culture of integrity, credibility and accountability on the part of those in power. As you can see, the ministers have been working. I must also let you know that one of the few times I have criticised Mr. President, is his being too careful to take some steps because of public perception, and in the process he is committing another error.
We must first agree that there is a thin line between democracy and autocracy. But you can easily cross the line to become autocratic even as a democrat if you don’t check yourself. But in the case of our President, he is even double-checking himself. And that is also very dangerous. So, when people tell me that the President is slow, I say he is not slow but only checking himself because he had been a Head of State and was criticised for taking some bold steps, and now he doesn’t want to be seen that way any longer. But I will advise the President to stand firmly and act decisively when he should.
Some people believe that the anti-corruption war is targeted at members of the opposition, especially the way the National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Chief Olisa Metuh, was handcuffed during his arraignment in court.
That is one of the examples I actually wanted to site. People are raising this question because the character of Mr. President. We must understand the fact that there are so many discretions in government. In this matter, the President of the country will not teach the security agents how to do their job. In criminal justice and sentencing, the Police and other security agents have a lot of discretions, particularly if the accused has propensity to escape or to be violent.
I wasn’t there but I understand one of the toughest persons arrested by the security agents in the recent past is the PDP National Publicity secretary. So, if they feel they cannot take him to court without restraining him, so be it.
Your party pledged the nation’s unemployed youths N5, 000 monthly allowance but right there on the floor of the Senate, the party members kicked against it. What is the basis for this?
You would recall that when this matter was raised on the floor of the Red Chamber by a PDP senator, all of us embraced it. But we insisted it could not be immediate because it was not appropriated for. And that is one of the cardinal policies of Mr. President. How would you expect government to do such with appropriation? That was what played out.
Up till date, there are lots of PDP members still holding strategic positions under the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration. How do you feel about this?
That simply shows that those opposition party members still holding such positions till date are shameless and without principle. Such is part of the reasons they want us to run our administration the way they ran theirs. I can assure you we cannot be stampeded.
There is a perception that the National Assembly is not on the same page with the executive arm of government in terms of cutting costs of governance. There are questions on the appointment of too many aides and the proposed purchase of many cars. What is your take on these issues?
You have spoken about two things; cooperation between the legislature and the executive, and the idea of cutting costs. In the area of cooperation, I want to believe very strongly that we don’t have a choice than to work together with a view to moving Nigeria forward without compromising the principle of the rule of law and separation of power. But the little friction noticed so far can be traced to the challenge we experienced in June, 2015 when the leadership of the National Assembly was to be inaugurated.
So, when you witness such a major crack, it must be expected that there would be hang-over, and this is being resolved now. On the cost of governance, I also agree with Nigerians that it must be reduced. But should it now be reduce at the cost of what? In my own case, I have only five official aides, but on my own I have more than 40 aides, who I pay, so that I can function well as a senator representing 10 local government areas and an area council, situated in Modakeke.
What is your comment on the cars, which the National Assembly is planning to purchase?
Nigeria is a very delicate country to govern. A whole lot of people who are not adequately informed about developments also like to share views not minding whether their positions are correct or not. Even in the United States of America, where our system of government is copied from, it is not possible for parliamentarians to do official works using personal facilities. There are several duties carried out by National Assembly members requiring tours and visitations, should they do that using their personal cars?
If we are to inspect projects by the executive and the same executive sends us vehicles to convey us there, are we not compromised by that action? Anywhere in the world, such costs are covered by taxpayers’ money. But if Nigeria will now be an exception, we may then return to the drawing board for a review. So, the issue is not about the number of cars. I am usually baffled when people write a whole lot of irrelevant things on social media and newspapers though I agree that democracy is very expensive.
If democracy is expensive, what do you suggest as the alternative?
I am only emphasizing the fact that democracy is expensive. We may not really have alternative but our people should be able to understand that bare truth. The alternative to democracy is still democracy. Then we must let Nigerians know that two people cannot occupy the same office. What is important is that we must ensure that those representing us represent us very well.
Your party promised change but what Nigerians are witnessing especially in states controlled by the APC is workers not only receiving ‘half salaries’ but also receiving sack letters. Is that the APC’s brand of change?
I must say that what Nigeria is facing now is a passing phase. It cannot last forever, and that APC remains the only hope for the masses. We must understand that there was a government in this country a few months ago that squandered the commonwealth of Nigerians. They did not make hay while the sun was shining, but has now made it difficult for states to meet up with their obligations.
It is not only Osun and Imo states that cannot meet up with their obligations. In Osun today, houses are springing up everywhere, development is taking place and the government has not lost focus. The difference is that in many of the PDP controlled states, apart from salary payment, there are no capital projects as we see in Osun State.
In the light of dwindling revenue, there are allegations that some government officials in Osun State are living large…
I will never encourage anyone to live above his means. And those who are close to me know that one of the challenges I faced during my campaign was that people said I had not built mansions in Ife town. But why would I build mansions anywhere? To do what? Is it not to sleep and wake up? I am not saying that my lot has not improved. How do you know that these people they are accusing of living large have not been accessing facilities from their banks? They may have used the opportunity they have at that time to access facilities to execute these things. But if anyone is found guilty of living above his or her means, he or she should explain.