Jonathan Cannot Clean the System - Bukola Saraki
Mon, 11 Jun, 2012
Bukola Saraki, immediate past governor of Kwara State and senator representing Kwara Central Senatorial District, says the level of wastage and corruption in the Nigerian government system is now a danger to our economy and must be addressed. He spoke with ANAYOCHUKWU AGBO and TAJUDEEN SULEIMAN
What’s your take on the 2012 budget?
It’s a well-crafted budget. I always like budgets that are focused, that have objectives. What is the objective of this budget? I see three things there. One of the things already affecting us is lack of jobs. Fifty per cent of our youths are out of jobs, and we must create jobs for them. The budget addresses that. It’s a budget that also addresses growth and a budget that tries to bring fiscal discipline. And it is supported by certain decisions that I think are very good. But what I think the Executive needed to do is to bring down the recurrent expenditure more. I think that 72 per cent is way too high. I think that that is the real reform that needs to take place, even above deregulation. If we can bring down the cost by about 20 per cent and increase the capital expenditure it will be very good for us because it will stimulate the economy.
Your agric initiative in Kwara State brought many people back to the farm. Do you think the federal government policy on agriculture supports that kind of initiative?
I’m not somebody who praises people easily, but I’ve read the proposal by the minister of agriculture and I think they got it right. For the first time at the national level, they are seeing agriculture as a business, not as a development project. You see, that is the difference. When I was governor, I saw agric as a business. Agric has to be seen as a business. But when you see agric as contract or government project, it won’t work. So what they are doing now, his own approach is: how do I make agric a business? How do I get cassava processing? You cannot get cassava processing if you pump all the fertilizer and tractors to farmers. Who is going to buy? Once nobody is buying, it is going to collapse. But what he is doing now, his own area of focus, is how to stimulate the demand for the produce. Once he does that the rest will fall in line. Now he’s bold enough to say I want more cassava flour. If there is a demand for cassava flour by bakeries, there will be more demand for cassava. If I make imported rice very expensive, there will be demand for local rice. If there is demand for local rice, the farmers would be working. So I believe that going along that line, you can create the jobs, because you can now create the factories. They have already picked cassava, sorghum, rice and some diary products. But the problem with all these things is that the minister is not the guy in charge of the border. He’s not the guy at the port. So this thing goes beyond the minister’s portfolio. I’m happy that the President has said there will no longer be any waiver. Because all it takes is for someone with a waiver to bring in imported rice into the country.
Many people are complaining about the cost of security in the 2012 budget. What’s your own view?
I have not seen the details yet. But I think the person that wrote that line for the President did not help him. Why do I say that? When you say security, what parts of security? Does it include salaries of the military, which I think it does? Does it include salaries of the police, which I think it does? But I’m not sure. I know that the salaries of the police alone are almost N300 billion. The salaries of the military alone are about N250 billion. So when you add all the salaries, you’re almost at N700 billion. So I think it includes all these overheads. But if it’s purely capital, then it’s a bit high and we may need to look at it again.
You brought the motion that led to the ongoing probe of fuel subsidy. But the government has gone ahead to remove the subsidy in this year’s budget. What do you make of it?
When I brought the motion in September last year, it was largely the same thing that the Executive was saying. If the subsidy is N240 billion, I don’t believe it threatens the stability of the economy. But by the time I checked the figures by year-end, it was close to one and half a trillion naira, more than the entire capital budget. Something we used to spend about N600 billion in the past. It’s not sustainable. There’s no responsible president that can sustain N1.5 trillion on subsidies. The question that we must ask is how did we get to N1.5 trillion when we spent N600 billion last year? What happened between last year and now? Has the economy boomed so much that consumption went up? Or what happened? So my take is that until you have the answers to those questions, it will be difficult for you to make a comment on the subsidy debate. Because if, for example, at the end of the probe, we find that N1.5 trillion is the true amount spent on subsidy, then arguments can be made for withdrawal of the subsidy. But if at the end of the probe, you find that there was massive corruption, leakages and you find that the true figure is only about N300 billion, then the question would go to the Executive: At N300 billion, will you really go ahead and insist on deregulation now?
On the issue of corruption, a lot of people believe the government can do better. What do you think the government can do to stem corruption?
Honestly, I’m not sure whether corruption is the best word to describe some of the things I’ve seen in the last few years since I’ve been in government. I think it’s a combination of corruption, lack of patriotism, incompetence and even sabotage. Corruption is even a mild word to describe some of the things. Incompetence and lack of patriotism are even greater crimes than corruption. Now let us take the issue of subsidy we’re talking about. Now N1.5 trillion is more than what I received as governor for eight years, and that is just one agency of government. Apart from the oil-producing states, no other state in the country has seen that much. So if we’re talking about corruption, how much could the man in NNPC or PPPRA have stolen? But if you look at it and ask, how many litres of fuel do we need in a day? NNPC says 32-40 million litres per day. If you calculate that in a year it will come to 14.4 billion litres. The same NNPC, in their presentation of what they have imported as at October last year, said they had imported about 17 billion litres. So we asked them why they imported 17 billion when they said we only needed about 14.4 billion for one year? That is a waste of almost 3 billion litres. The man looked and said, “Oh, we need to have strategic reserve.” He said we needed to have 56 days of storage reserve. When I converted the 56 days of storage reserve, and it came to about 2.5 billion litres. So add the 2.5 billion to the 14.4 you said we needed, and we get 16.9 billion. But don’t forget that the 14.4 billion is supposed to be the total for one year. As at the time the NNPC said it had imported 17 billion, it ought to have imported just about 10 billion. So if you look at it, you see that as a country we must have brought in 3.5 billion litres we didn’t require. Multiply that by the subsidy amount we must have paid for that. You’re talking about close to over N300 billion. Now I put the question to you: Is it corruption that has led to that? It is either the decision making process is faulty or there is gross incompetence or something else. Do you get what I’m saying? The damage to the country is that the government spends over N300 billion it did not need to spend. That is just one example. That is at the oil subsidy. If you go to other ministries, you will see some expenditure that shows duplication in what different agencies are doing. If you sum up the whole thing, it runs into billions. Do we also call that corruption? Honestly, I don’t want to see it as just corruption. I think it’s a combination of all of these factors we talked about. And why it is frightening is that the level of wastage is so huge. The damage is huge.
Let’s look at a hypothetical situation. If you were the president, what would you do to fight these kinds of corrupt practices? What would you do to clean up the system?
I believe the system cannot be cleaned by one person. President Jonathan is going to find himself in a more difficult position because the politics, the awareness of Nigerians has changed. He’s on the seat at a time when the awareness is there, at a time when people can speak their minds. You know in the past, nobody dared speak about these things. So what I’m saying is that as long as we all play our own part, especially we in the legislature, the situation would change. The level of wastage and corruption in the system is now a danger to our economy. You see when you have surplus as a country, you will not feel it. If our revenue is about eight trillion, do you think the President will be shouting he wants to remove fuel subsidy because he’s paying N1.3 trillion? He’s shouting now because the N1.3 trillion is suffocating him. He cannot do capital project, he cannot do anything, and he asked why? And they tell him, “Oga it’s because we’re paying subsidy.” But if we’re earning N10 trillion, the man will not be bothered.
What are the right things to do to solve the security challenges in the country?
I think the issue of Boko Haram is something that needs immediate action. Then in the medium and long term, we can look at the causes and see how we can engage and try to find solutions. We must strengthen the security agencies to be able to stop some of these attacks. In other countries all over the world, they have these kinds of challenges every day. But the security agencies are up to the task, and they are able to prevent so many attacks that we don’t get to hear about. Yes, we can go on to talk about why Boko Haram? But at the same time we must be able to have a security outfit that can anticipate and intercept, and break down some of these happenings through intelligence gathering. Honestly, we have not got to that point yet. Because these bombs, when they do them, they don’t do them without communication, without talking to people and so on. I don’t believe our intelligence is good enough. In the medium and long term, I think there are many social and political issues the government needs to address to try and bring some of these problems down. Now we have Boko Haram in the North-east, God forbid, if another group comes out again tomorrow in another part of the country. We are seeing events everyday to suggest to us that we’re in danger and the government is not paying attention. We have seen gully erosion in the South-east doing great damages; we see desert encroachment in the North, and of course in the South-south we are seeing what happened to Ogoni land and other oil-producing areas of the country. It is not speculative any more. The issues of the environment are so many and we are not dealing with it yet. We need to do something now before the situation gets worse.