Buhari: My Govt Not Responsible for Recession, I Almost Resigned

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• Senate terms MTEF shallow, to amend Fiscal Responsibility Act

• House members mount opposition to $30bn borrowing plan

Tobi Soniyi, Ndubuisi Francis, Omololu Ogunmade and Damilola Oyedele in Abuja with agency report

President Muhammadu Buhari has rejected the criticism that his administration’s handling of the economy led the country into a recession, admitting, however, that he almost resigned due to the enormity of the challenges in the country arising from the fall in the price of crude oil.

Speaking at the State House in Abuja yesterday during a meeting with the Senior Executive Course No 38 of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS), Buhari said that it was not his administration that led the country into recession.

He said: “In the last one and a half years of this administration, the economy has experienced some tough times, particularly with the decline in oil revenues, which has had a harsh impact on Nigerians at the grassroots.

“It is also important to note that the economic recession is not the making of this administration, but rather a consequence of bad management of the economy in the past couple of decades. Nor is the recession limited to Nigeria – there are far, far worse cases than Nigeria.”

The president, however, said that no matter the scale of the problems facing the country, the important thing now is how to tackle it.

He said his administration was committed to finding lasting solutions to the nation’s economic structural imbalance.

“Let us have faith in our great nation that we will come out of this recession vibrant and strong,” he added.

The president said it was impossible for his administration to ignore the poor who made great sacrifices to bring him to government.

He said: “Ours is more than any other government in the history of Nigeria. Ours is a people’s government. We therefore must and we will keep faith with the people.”

He also declared his government’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, most especially to end extreme poverty in Nigeria.

“It is not going to be easy, but we are committed to dealing with the challenges in a decisive manner,” he added.

According to him, poverty for decades had been a major challenge for Nigeria despite the country’s enormous wealth.

He noted that several policies and programmes implemented over the years had not broken the cycle of poverty in Nigeria.

Highlights of the meeting included the presentation of a report, “Strengthening Institutional Mechanisms for Poverty Reduction and Inclusive Development” to the president by the institute.

Buhari said the report showed that strengthening institutions was key to reducing poverty and engendering inclusive development.

He also noted that the report prescribed some concrete measures on how to reduce poverty in the country.

Responding, the acting Director General of NIPSS, Jonathan Juma, told the president that NIPSS was in a precarious financial situation.

He said: “The financial situation of the institute is precarious. The payments for utility services are in arrears and worse still, we have to live with threats of litigation from numerous creditors.

“Operational vehicles in the institute’s fleet have aged and are a source of constant embarrassment. We have looked inwards and appealed to the generosity of individuals and corporate Nigeria for support and we are glad that some have responded positively.

“However, a decisive presidential intervention for sustainable funding of NIPSS is urgently required.”

For the institute to operate as an “apex institution” and be at the forefront of relevant research for national development, Juma said it must recruit and retain top level academics, very senior technocrats, and other experienced specialised experts.

Senate Terms MTEF Shallow

But as Buhari exonerated his government from not making the necessary structural adjustments that could have warded off the recession, the Senate, after Tuesday’s rejection of the president’s $30 billion borrowing plan, yesterday ripped into the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF) and Fiscal Strategy Paper (FSP) submitted to it by the executive arm of government, describing it as shallow.

Raising a point of order at yesterday’s plenary, the Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, drew the Senate’s attention to an interview credited to the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Udoma Udo Udoma, in a national daily, where he allegedly told Nigerians to blame the National Assembly for any delay in the presentation of the 2017 budget.

The minister was said to have inferred in the interview that the National Assembly’s decision not to pass the MTEF and FSP, which usually precedes the presentation of a budget, was the factor slowing down the presentation of the budget to the legislature.

Ndume lashed out at the executive, saying the MTEF and FSP presented to the Senate was so empty that it could not be legislated upon.

According to him, the degree of the document’s shallowness and its inherent flaws were not manageable, thus prompting his decision to write the minister, pointing out the flaws and asking him to make certain necessary documents available.

Ndume added that even though he also scheduled a meeting with Udoma on Tuesday to serve as the platform for the resolution of issues arising from the MTEF, the minister ignored both requests.

Ndume therefore said it was uncharitable for the government to go to the press and start blaming the National Assembly for its (government) woes, observing that the executive submitted the 2016 MTEF on September 30, instead of September 1.

Ndume cautioned against laying the foundation for the preparation of 2017 budget with another blame game.

“The Sun newspaper of yesterday (Wednesday) on Page 6 has a report with a heading which says ‘Budget 2017: Blame National Assembly for Failure to Meet October Target’. And in that, it said the minister stated that the suspension of the debate on MTEF and FSP, which lays the foundation for the budget, has stalled the ministry’s plan to have laid the 2017 budget before the National Assembly.

“We received the MTEF on 30th September instead of submitting it according to law by 1st of September – not later than that. That is not even the problem. I have a copy, I went through and the copies that have been circulated.

“I talked to some experts. Even in this chamber, we have people we can call experts. If you look at this document that they call MTEF, it is empty; it is empty and it doesn’t contain anything. If you have nothing, how do you consider nothing?

“Going through and knowing that it was empty, on October 19 – this is my letter – I wrote to the Minister of Budget and National Planning. In the third paragraph, I stated, ‘To enable the Senate objectively review the MTEF from a holistic fiscal perspective, we deem it necessary to invite you to a meeting to brief the leadership of the Senate on Tuesday, 1st November.’ But the minister failed to turn up.

“Before this, I said: ‘You are requested to please send the following documents ahead of the meeting because that is what will make us to have something to consider.’

“I said: ‘(a) the Medium-Term Development Plan (even a draft copy) upon which the 2017-2019 MTEF is founded; you know that is important.’

“Secondly, I requested that a comprehensive report on the implementation of the 2016 budget (as of third quarter, September 30); that is also an important ingredient. (c) All fiscal rates, taxes, charges, etc., used to derive the projected revenue in the 2017-2019 MTEF, because we don’t know what is there and how they arrived at those figures.

“Finally, I have here also a copy of the request for approval of the federal government’s 2016-2018 external borrowing plan which was thrown out at last Tuesday.

“We asked for a report on the structure/composition of the debt, funding sources, how the borrowed funds are to be spent as well as a repayment plan and schedule. As I said, up till now, there is no communication on that.

“We cannot afford to start the 2017 budget process with his blame game. This Senate is the Nigerian Senate. This Senate, especially we have the opposition that is cooperating with us and we have the majority in this Senate.

“So it is not like we are working against the government. We know what we are doing and we should do it right. When they bring nothing and we ask for something so that we will do it properly, they speak to the newspaper to start blaming the National Assembly.

“I think it is important that we discuss this and advise ourselves properly,” Ndume said.

Reacting to the matter, the Senate President Bukola Saraki said he engaged the minister after reading the report but he denied making the remark, even as he echoed Ndume that it was not right to engage in a needless blame game.

He said: “I think it is important that I share some information on this because I too saw this article yesterday in the newspaper and I also took on the minister on why this was being done and he denied the article and promised that he was going to make a statement to debunk it.

“He sent me an email, saying that he never gave the interview. Be that as it may, I think the matter is serious enough for the leader (Ndume) to have raised the issue.

“I have not seen it in the papers today but I will take him by his word. But again, when those kinds of statements come out, the denial is sometimes not seen.

“The leader has made the point that this issue of blame game is totally unnecessary. And if he has said he is withdrawing, that means he has said it as well that the National Assembly is not responsible for any delay.”

Also briefing newsmen after the plenary, the Senate Committee Chairman on Information, Senator Aliyu Abdullahi, said the Senate was worried about the “careless statements” emanating from ministers, adding that the government was “padded with persons” who do not want it to succeed.

He said what was expected from both arms of government is a collaborative effort and not the blame game which he said was not healthy for the nation’s democracy.

Udoma Denies Snub

However, in a swift riposte, the Minister of Budget and National Planning debunked the accusation by Ndume that he (Udoma) snubbed the upper legislative chamber and refused to turn up for a scheduled meeting with the lawmakers on Tuesday.

Udoma’s rebuttal was conveyed in a press statement issued last night by his Media Adviser, Akpandem James.

According to the statement, while acknowledging receipt of the letter from Ndume inviting him for a meeting with the Senate leadership, the minister said the meeting was eventually moved by agreement, and wondered why Ndume would go on the floor of the upper legislative chamber to say he failed to turn up, when he was aware that the meeting was rescheduled.

“Senator Udoma was equally surprised that even after the newspaper that published the story, which quoted him as blaming the National Assembly for the delay in the presentation of the 2017 budget, has published that the reporter never spoke with the minister, Senator Ndume still went ahead to make an issue out of the matter on the floor of the Senate,” the statement said.

Senate to Amend FRA

In related issue, plans by the National Assembly to amend the 58-year-old Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) has reached its final stage, with the submission of the report upon which the amendment would be predicated.

The report, which was presented to Saraki by Ndume yesterday, recommends that the annual budget must be presented in the first week of September.

The report presented by the Technical Committee on Budget Reforms also recommended that the budget be considered within two months and passed on the 30th of November at the latest, reported the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).

Saraki constituted a Technical Committee on Budget Reforms to produce a budget reform strategy paper and draft Budget Reform Bill.

The aim of the reform is to improve budget formulation, enactment, implementation, and monitoring evaluation with a view to improving budget performance.

Presenting the report, Ndume, who commended the Senate President for initiating the process, said the report would improve the budgeting system which has been incoherent.

He also expressed the need to repeal and re-enact the 1958 Act to check the anomalies in relation to the fiscal year.

Part of the report included the amendment of the FRA to enlarge the list of stakeholders to be consulted during the budget preparation process, as well as pre-budget consultation between the National Assembly, the executive and the public.

Also recommended by the committee included the enactment of an organic budget law that puts together all laws relating to the budget, including a fixed and realistic budget calendar and a pre-budget statement.

Speaking during the presentation of the report, Udoma said that the success of any budget depends on the collaborations between the executive and the legislature.

He said that the elements of the proposed reforms that could be immediately implemented would be implemented with the 2017 budget.

The Senate is now expected to sponsor a bill seeking to amend the Act in line with the recommendations contained in the report.

House Members Oppose Borrowing Plan

Meanwhile, it is not only in the Senate that the executive is expected to encounter stiff opposition to the federal government’s three-year borrowing plan, as opposition has started to mount against the proposal by the executive to borrow $30 billion from foreign sources from the House of Representatives.

Expressing their reservations to the borrowing plan yesterday, House Minority Leader, Hon. Leo Ogor, and the South-east Caucus in the House questioned the rational for the borrowing plan and Nigeria’s capacity to repay the loans inherent.

Ogor, speaking with THISDAY in an interview, accused the federal government of seeming to adopt a penchant for borrowing.

He cited the proposed $15 billion upfront payment for crude oil deal which is being brokered with the Indian government, and queried how the federal government intends to repay the proposed loans under the borrowing plan, with oil that has already been mortgaged to India.

“They want to borrow $15 billion from the India government using oil as mortgage, so we are looking at a loan profile that would be close to $45 billion. How would we pay this back?” he asked.

“Mr. President was in China recently, and he signed some agreements bordering on infrastructure including the Mambilla project which had been costed by the BPP (Bureau of Public Procurement) to about $5.7 billion.

“The government is trying to borrow $4.8 billion for the Mambilla project. I am aware there is an agreement between the federal government and the Chinese government on that facility. We are supposed to pay 15 per cent as counterpart funding in respect of the agreement, and that is less than $1 billion.

“So what is the difference for, who are the contractors, and what is the interest rate on this money, what is the grace period like?” he demanded to know.

The minority leader argued that it would be foolhardy for the legislature to approve the borrowing plan that would not be expended on sectors that would facilitate prompt repayment, adding that it would become a liability for future generations of Nigerians.

“I am not going to be a party to such huge loans. These monies would be paid back at a particular time. Except the projects that we use them for would be able to pay themselves in the long run.

“But if they are to be paid from oil which the federal government intends to mortgage to the Indian government, then I do not know how we would pay back,” Ogor said.

He however noted that the House was willing to debate the borrowing plan after receiving the details from the executive.

“People need to understand that we are asking for details because the devil is always in the detail. We would also look at the Debt Management Act, and look at our liability profile, but let nobody be deceived, nobody intends to give anyone $30 billion as a loan,” he said.

Similarly, the South-east Caucus in the House said any plan for foreign borrowing, which does not include an outlook for job creation and inclusive loans for all sections of the country would amount to short-changing some Nigerians.

Deputy Minority Leader of the House, Hon. Chukwuma Onyema, who is also the leader of the caucus, said the summary of the planned expenditure of the $30 billion which was included in the president’s letter to the parliament, did not include the South-east region.

“We consider it to be an oversight, else it amounts to shortchanging the region,” he said at a press briefing, adding that the South-east infrastructure deficit must be captured to ensure uniform development.

Onyema however clarified that the caucus’ position does not automatically translate to the caucus backing the borrowing plan, as it would examine the details alongside the entire House before taking a final position on it.

Despite the reservations expressed by some members of the House yesterday, the presidency expressed optimism that the lower chamber would approve the $30 billion external borrowing plan.

Senior Special Assistant to the President on National Assembly Matters (House), Hon. Sumaila Kawu, in a statement, said his interaction with the leadership of the House indicated that the request would be approved.

“We have identified the need to furnish the members of the House with the detailed breakdown of the borrowing plan to enable them make an informed decision on the matter. We are confident that the Senate, which had in a way demanded for the details, would revisit its position on the matter once the details are made available,” Kawu said.

He thanked the leadership and members of both chambers for cooperating and approving all the requests forwarded by President Buhari in the last 17 months.