There is an organised heist going on in the current regime of President Muhammadu Buhari as the Senate President, Dr Bukola Saraki, explains in this interview with a group of select editors. Saraki also criticises the All Progressives Congress-led federal government’s lack of foresight and transparency in revamping the economy and fighting corruption. Bayo Akinloye presents the excerpts:
Looking at the budget benchmark, one can see the oil price coming down gradually against the budget benchmark of $60. Will this not negatively affect actualising the budget?
I made a comment where I said it was a hopeless budget that will rarely bring Nigerians out of poverty, diversification of the economy and inclusive growth. When I said that, I noticed a lot of people were a bit defensive, saying the statement was borne out of politics. I am a kind of person that is responsible enough to choose my right words and I am happy about this question.
If you followed the previous budgets under this administration, there was no budget under this administration that I have ever used any word as strong as that. Some of the budgets had given hope; some had tried to address growth. But this budget (2019 budget) particularly, I still stick to my words: it is not only hopeless; I think it is even deceptive. Is it that those that prepared the budget did not ask themselves these questions?
Looking at the issue of the oil price, they had not completed the budgeting exercise, when the price of crude oil dropped to 50-something and they are now using the benchmark higher than the current crude oil price, what does that mean? If some people believe that the price might go up, then they better come back later with a supplementary budget.
But to say categorically, putting the price at 60 is not realistic. The government will soon know that the price will not be realistic. Not only the price: if you look at the production level throughout 2018 and 2017, we are producing about 1.9 barrels and now we are now using 2.3, how? What indices are there? Again, it is not realistic. And if you are going to base your revenues on that, you’ve already seen the big hole. That was the reason I said it was not a budget of inclusive growth.
Would you say the preparation was wrong or was it just done simply out of ignorance?
Well, I can’t see their minds or speak on their behalf. What I am just saying is from my own experience as an SA (special assistant) on budget. What I suspect is that they are just looking at the best way of financing the expenditure, based on realistic projections. What is even disturbing is the fact that when you look at the total expenditure, you’ll see that over 70 per cent is already gone on recurrent, debt servicing and others.
So, it’s clear that any shortfall of revenue is going to be very impactful because already between the crude oil price and production we have already seen that once we don’t meet those targets, we are going to have a huge deficit problem.
Generally, budgeting has been a big problem for this administration. There are always issues around the process and the eventual document. What exactly is the administration getting wrong?
One is that they (are) all realistically based on assumptions and I believe that the leadership needs to take charge. They need to provide leadership. You see, as a president, you can’t just be a technocrat to prove this. I can’t just imagine if somebody tells me he’s going to produce 2.3 million barrels of crude oil, when we have always produced 1.9 million barrels. It is not true.
It is better if some of these assumptions are realistic. But I think there should be more consultations with the National Assembly, at the senior level – I am not talking about the ministerial level. The president should be able to sit down with the Speaker, House of Representatives, and the Senate President to tell them that this is what my technical people have brought to me.
By the time it comes to the National Assembly, to the public domain, it will be something that is fully known, not talking about ministers briefing leadership. If the process is followed, it will become document owned by both (the Presidency and the National Assembly), not a document owned by the executive.
What is happening now is the fact that a lot of works that should be done behind the scene; that shows consultation and ownership are not there. That’s why it takes a longer time. The executive will bring it (the budget); it’s as if the work starts all over again, because we have constitutional powers to do our work. So, it starts all over again. But if there is adequate consultation, by the time it (the budget) comes to the National Assembly, it will be in the National Assembly for a very short time because the principles have been agreed on.
The framework will have been agreed. It will only remain the details. So when you see details, you might see maybe five per cent or 10 per cent adjustments, here and there, because you’ll see those adjustments at the lower level.
That is why you’ll see a budget that the executive will bring and by the time it leaves the National Assembly, it looks like a document that does not look presentable and the provision of the constitution, which emphasises check and balances expect that, but there is no dialogue and we may continue to see this kind of scenario. Even if you bring your budget in the second week of December, if there is adequate consultation, there shouldn’t be any problem.
If you look at some of the states, they bring their budgets and they don’t have issues, because of consultation. When I was governor, before I brought the budget, I would have consulted with the entire House of Assembly. Whatever was their concern, like their priority I knew it. I would have incorporated it in the budget, because they are stakeholders. You can’t ignore them. There is no alternative to dialogue and once you don’t do that, those are the kinds of things causing friction.
It’s not the personality. Change the whole 360 members of House and 109 senators, even if the president likes let him write the names of the people he wants in the National Assembly, as long as the style and the approach does not change, it will be the same result.
Where does Nigeria stand on implementation, because it is very poor?
It will be poor because the funding is not there. Go to the Independent Revenue, it has been underperforming from day one of this administration and they keep giving the man independent revenue that is not realistic: N700 billion, N800 billion, and N900 billion. Look at the implementation; N150 billion and N200 billion. These are areas we have been telling him. Independent revenue is not working, because there are many leakages.
In a government that claims to be fighting corruption, the level of leakages is too huge. You are giving a budget of N900b and they are coming with N200 billion so that N700 billion does not allow the implementation of the budget, because the first charge will go to personnel.
Like this budget now personnel is about N2.3tr, you cannot do anything; it’s gone. Serving of loans-overN2tr, overheads even if you can’t take the whole over N2tr, N6tr has gone, so, recurrent expenditure has carried the whole money. It is now the little money after that that can be used for capital expenditures. So, once you have gotten the revenue wrong, implementation will be a problem.
What is even more frightening now is that the deficit is so huge that a majority of the borrowing in 2019 is going into the recurrent expenditure. If you are not already seeing it now, and that is against the law. Borrowing is meant for capital expenditure. So, the major issue now is the issue of revenue, you must block the leakages.
As long as you don’t block the leakages, you’ll have a poor implementation, you’ll break the law and there will be no investment in capital infrastructure. And when there is no investment in capital infrastructure, there cannot be growth. There cannot be an issue on addressing poverty – so where is the hope for Nigerians?
Currently, their propaganda machinery on, instead of us looking at the message; we just attack the messenger. This is the truth, and that is why it will continue to reoccur. Go and look at the budget in the last three years, you cannot address the issue of independent revenue. I think finally now the president is going to an extent now on oil subsidy.
Go and look at my speech, I have shouted about the issue, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) was blowing illegality called cost-recovery, where is it called cost-recovery? This is illegality; it is inefficiency. Again, that is the source of leakage, because if subsidy management is efficient, we would save money; if subsidy management is inefficient, monies that should be coming to the consolidated account is going away, so these are the things that we should all tackle, but unfortunately that is not the case.
So, when you talked about the implementation of the budget it will be poor, because there is no money to fund the budget. The reality is that there is no money.
Government’s borrowing has been massive, without a corresponding impact, why is this happening?
If you borrow well, if you borrow for infrastructure there is no problem with that. As you can see now, I am sure some of the borrowings are going for recurrent expenditure, because of the huge deficit. Secondly, should we be borrowing? Since our expenditure is up, instead of doing N150 billion, we are doing N700 billion, servicing of the borrowings is high.
If you remember when we were in recession in 2016, some of us said, look we need to recoup some of your assets. Again, instead of looking at the message, they said ah, they want to sell it to their friends. Go and write it down, a time will come when we will have no alternative than to restructure the G.D.P assets.
This year, finally, the government that was saying over a year ago that we wanted to sell assets has put N810 billion in the budget this year – unless it’s a U-turn. I don’t believe they’ll do it. Even, if they do it, that money cannot come in a year. Again, that is another gap, which might materialise in 2020. So, it’s either you have equity, revenues and investments or you borrow. But their own has been a one-line strategy, which is borrowing and the borrowings have not been properly utilised.
What can you say about the management of the economy in the last three years?
Well, these are the things that have created a lot of issues, based on the fact that we need serious investment in infrastructure. Like I said, you can’t do social investment in education, invest in health, invest in security and infrastructure, the money is not there to do that. I think should try and get more private sector investment, if the private sector is allowed to do the infrastructure deficit-roads, and they focus on education and security, things will be better.
A year or two ago, I was the one that pushed very strongly for the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. I said look, it is a viable road and people die there on a daily basis. I said focus on viable roads instead of just constructing or reconstructing roads that are not so viable and will not be completed. But they were shouting that Saraki didn’t want them to complete the South-west road.
Today, go and find out, what are they doing now? The NSIA, the sovereign wealth fund – exactly what we said that you cannot fund a road like that through regular appropriations. So, these are the wrong decisions that had been taken. The private sector must have confidence in government.
You can harass politicians but investors’ money can only go to where there is safety. As long as the private sector investor does not have confidence (in the government), things will be difficult due to the fact that the right decisions are not taken by the government.
I keep saying that ordinary Nigerians will go and vote on February 16, 2019, but the business community have voted already – that is the truth. Unless we bring that confidence (back) in our economy, it will be difficult. That is why for those of us that found ourselves on the other side of the divide, we are saying for Nigerians to move this country forward, we must do the right thing and vote for our candidate, Atiku Abubakar, because that is what will bring confidence in the private sector to invest (again in the country).
We don’t have that money. There are some countries like Saudi Arabia – those kinds of countries that can fund their projects successfully. We cannot. Where is the money and who is going to bring out the money? Do they (investors) have confidence in the government? The answer is no. Then, the government has to go, if the government does not go, poverty will continue.
Because oil price is at this level, it’s not going to move up. So, we already know the revenues. The question with this revenue is: will it bring the needed investment? The answer is no. Where will the money come from? It has to come from somewhere else. This is why they have been taking loans, which is not good for us, it should come from investment.
We were taken aback recently when the Governor of Zamfara State said the president disclosed that the economy was in bad shape, because he’s been telling us the economy was growing and that we were moving in the right direction. Again, the figures coming out from the NBS are showing us that over 20 million Nigerians are unemployed – that is alarming. What does the country need to do?
The country needs to vote out the All Progressives Congress (APC). This is not just propaganda. I have said it many times that my commitment is to see a Nigeria that is not backward. In 2014, we believed Buhari would come in as a former general – a former head of state – who has the capacity and with his integrity, address the issue of corruption, which will provide an atmosphere for people to invest in the country.
And I said then that if Nigeria did not perform on three issues: security, provision of jobs and eradication of poverty and corruption, they should vote us out. That’s a democracy, because the election is a referendum. There are some in APC, who know that the man has not performed but because of their own personal interests, they have kept mute or have chosen to look the other way. They say Yoruba should look at 2023 – so people should just continue this way? No.
No president knows everything, but a man should know his strengths and his weaknesses. You don’t have to be an economist to revamp the economy: put the people who will be able to do it in the right place. Let us look at it: in 2015, there was the issue of Boko Haram. Today, they are not only in the North-east, they are also going as far as Zamfara. What we saw in North-central is even as bad as that. In that area, he is a failure.
Regarding the economy, the NBS has told us the number of unemployed people. Today, we have over 85 million people living in extreme poverty, the highest number in the world. Even within us, let’s ask ourselves: all these cases in court, tell me why there is none from this administration? So, everybody in Buhari’s government is a saint? They are clean?
To me, the way forward is clear: if we continue in this direction, we will not perform, because the revenues cannot ensure growth, because the numbers are not there and we must change that. To do that, we need investment from economists, investment from the private sectors.
What did you try to do to reverse these anomalies before you eventually left the party?
Go and look at 2016, when we were in a recession. I called a debate and we wrote the president, listing things that he was yet to do. I will give you an example: we said we should see how we can raise equity and he (Buhari) attacked us. They said we wanted to sell refineries to our friends – you can remember. If you see the 2019 budget, the President is saying he is expecting the sum of N810 billion from the restructuring of the JVC – exactly what we had said at that time.
I shouted about oil subsidy during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. I raised the issue of oil subsidy; it was a scam that we were importing fuel and consuming 30 million litres per day – that Nigerians cannot consume that. That made Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and others to go back – and because of us – they saved half a billion dollars yearly. That was one of the major ways of curbing corruption under Jonathan’s government.
If you look at it, that this subsidy must continue, then let it be efficient. Instead of doing that, the NNPC wrote the government saying that without putting the money in the budget, they can take the money straight from revenue, called cost recovery. This is fraudulent, it is illegal. There is nothing we did not tell the President that this cost recovery is wrong.
Under this government, we went from fuel consumption of 30 million litres a day to 50 million litres per day. Where is this consumption taking place? This is criminal. What I am saying is that if we could be so hard on Jonathan that claims to be doing 30 million litres per day, now, they are debiting us with 50 million litres per day. Nobody will tell you that we can consume more than 25 million litres per day. Calculate the amount of money that we are losing. It is not appropriated, that terminology is just a means to cover that transaction. Instead of reversing it, the president said it should be appropriated for and now we are coming back for it to be under the budget.
You should open it up to the private sector, because the private sector is more efficient. With the private sector, the price we pay for the subsidy will come down because you cannot tell me the total cost of importing petroleum products will be higher than NNPC’s. No government’s agency is as efficient as the private sector. I gave an example of why the private sector should be allowed to invest in infrastructure, because as the government you cannot.
I spoke on the Lagos-Ibadan road and it came to a level that royal fathers in the South-west were calling me: ‘You don’t live in Lagos?’ ‘Are you against the South-west?’ I called Wale Babalakin and other people they were fighting on the road for the sake of Nigerians to reconcile. I begged them to drop all their court cases and they settled.
But the government said no – the road must be financed by the budget. Today, they have seen the light and they have gone to the Sovereign Wealth Fund to bring out some N100 million, because I spoke to the contractors and they said there is no confidence.