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Why Ministers must protect the President at all times, by Senator Seye Ogunlewe

*Says budgets will never be fully  implemented in Nigeria
*Talks on the assassination of  Funso Williams

By JIDE AJANI, Deputy Editor, CHARLES KUMOLU AND ANTHONIA ONWUKA
Oluseye Ogunlewe’s bluntness may come with a tinge of contradiction in what he professes.  When you ask a man about his tenure as minister of works and member of the Executive Council of the Federation, EXCOF, in the Olusegun Obasanjo government and he tells you that there is no cabinet but a President-in-Council, you begin to wonder what manner of EXCOF was in place.

But Ogunlewe may be right.  In relating his description of the cabinet as President-in-Council, he sees no reason why the dissolved EXCOF was harangued over none invocation of Section 144 of the 1999 Constitution.  According to Ogunlewe, EXCOF members must protect the President.

Senator Ogunlewe

In fact, he does not share Professor Dora Akunyili’s position in going public with what she said in council which ought to have remained there. Ogunlewe, formerly of the Alliance for Democracy, AD, but now of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, gives an exposition on why Nigeria may never get out from the morass of underdevelopment. His reason:

“Our budgets will never be implemented; never. It will never, forever. Look, if we go on with the way we are used to doing our things, it will never ever be implemented.  Budget is for project execution and running of the government but where you have too many projects at the same time in the same budget and the amount of money provided is so low, what do you think will happen to that budget? But members of the public will only read the quantum of money allocated.

They will not relate it to the cost of the project and these are things that are not made clear to members of the public. Ogunlewe was in the Senate between 1999 and 2003 and attempted to contest the governorship election in Lagos State in 2007 before the leading PDP aspirant, Funso Williams, was assassinated.  Ogunlewe was one of those arrested and detained while investigation went on.  He talks on that issue.

You will find Ogunlewe an interesting person although many other issues could not be discussed because of time constraint. Excerpts:

Your party, the Peoples Democratic party, PDP, and Lagos State, one way or the other, the two have never really mixed.  Why has that been so?

Well, in any political organization, there must be differences and caucuses but we’re trying to bring everybody together now and settle everything and have a common front which I believe is going to happen by having a common front.

Don’t you think that has been made more difficult with the nomination of a technocrat, somebody not seen as a party man to represent Lagos State at the Executive Council of the Federation, EXCOF?

Let me tell you, it is a gift for you to be made a minister and remember your party members, remember the nation, remember what you want to achieve and it is not something mathematical that if you fix X and Y, you get XY.  I think the nation needs the experience of Dr. Aganga and I expect him to perform for the nation. It is a sacrifice that the Lagos PDP has had to make in the interest of the nation.

You party came so close in 2007 to capturing Lagos, compared to 1999 and 2003.  Your party’s front line aspirant was cut down.  You were one of those arrested and detained for whatever reasons.  If you look back at that experience, what do you see of it?

It was a sad, very sad experience and up till today I would not want to believe that it happened and it remains a sad moment and I would not want to remember it because if I do, so many things would come up so. I wouldn’t want to dwell on it at all.  Let’s leave that aside.

But the people out there would want to know the workings of your mind because you were one of those accused of complicity in Funso Williams’ assassination?

One should just pray that the God Almighty in His infinite mercies would one day expose the people behind it, the people who were beneficiaries of Funso Williams’ death.

Who do you think would like that type of thing to happen?  One day the true and full story would be told of what actually happened and which is outside the political structure because of the insinuations here and there but it is going to come out one day.

It is because of those insinuations that ..?

Let’s just leave it at that.

We can’t just leave things like that.  Here was a man that was frontally against some other political parties in the land at that time and when he was killed, all attention was merely beamed on the PDP…?

(Cuts in) You know God has a way of working so don’t let us assume there is no God.  He has a way of working and one day.  He would do what He knows best how to do.  God has His own plan and that God does not like injustice.  One day, somehow if not now, later, nobody has ever done something as bad as that and did not pay for it and God said, I am God of vengeance who visit sins of generations on other generations; God said I am God of vengeance and He visits sins from generations to generations, 72 generations and you can see how God does His things.  It is only He who can avenge the death of Funso Williams so let’s leave it at that. For people to go and kill somebody, the vengeance would be for eternity.

Your tenure as minister of works was marred by controversy. There was FERMA (Federal Road Maintenance Agency) but then, so much money but people didn’t feel the impact, not even in Lagos State, your state. What went wrong? And I’m also sure that you would have heard people say you chopped money?

What about the people?  Are they not seeing what we did?  What is that talk about chopping money?

Did the people not see the Oshodi underpass which we did, a place where a trailer can go inside a ditch and you would not even see the top – what happened thereafter?  If you go there today, what do you see? If you come from Alapere, towards the toll gate, to the long bridge, you would not believe that it was only two lanes and there was n o median, what happened? We turned it to four lanes.

FERMA?

Yes!  The people have forgotten that if you were coming from Ikeja and going to Ibadan, you had to get to Ojota interchange, you could spend six hours there.  If you were coming from Magodo and you were going out, either to go to Lagos Island or to go to Ibadan, you could spend four hours there.  We established the interlink and we also established another road that could link you out of Magodo and straight to Ibadan.  People have forgotten, it was not there before.

At Seven-Up, there used to be massive dump of water; we had an underpass drainage that links straight to the Anglican Church and all the waste water and sediments coming from that end go through that underpass.  You can go and see; it is still there.  It was not there before and several like that. If you were going from Lagos to Apapa on that bridge, your vehicle would be jumping and the bridge would be vibrating and it made both driving and movement uncomfortable.  What has happened? On the Third Mainland bridge before, it was so bad but we put traffic light there.

One thing I have discovered is that the opposition would not allow people to appreciate these things with their propaganda.  Go to Apapa you’ll see what we did.

Is it a matter of people forgetting or people not knowing because some of these projects you’ve mentioned were thought to have been put there by the Lagos State government?

It is pure propaganda. It is federal highway.  We did all these things.  Borini Prono did the underpass, the pictures are there; the records are there.  Anybody who wants to claim that these things are not true or that they are imaginary should come out and challenge me.  We have the company that did it, 22 kilometres from Alapere to the long bridge was done by Julius Berger.  There was always heavy go-slow at that time.

They were always asking me what I was looking for because I was always inspecting the projects then because I knew what it meant to the people of Lagos and I knew what it meant to the people and government of Nigeria which I was serving as Minister of Works at that time

You served as minister of works and when you remove works from the total budget, what do we have left? As minister, you have an insight to how these things work.  Now, the question is why are our budgets never really fully implemented?

Our budgets will never be implemented; never.

Why?

It will never, forever. Look, if we go on with the way we are used to doing our things, it will never ever be implemented.

Budget is for project execution and running of the government but where you have too many projects at the same time in the same budget and the amount of money provided is so low, what do you think will happen to that budget?

But members of the public will only read the quantum of money allocated.

They will not relate it to the cost of the project and these are things that are not made clear to members of the public. For instance, how much or what does it take to build a power station?

Okay, if, for instance we want to build a power station and it would cost $20 million and what is allocated to it is $1 million in the first year, what that simply means is that if $1 million would be allocated to that project then it would take 20 years before that power station is completed.  That is the truth. One, the budgetary provision does not relate to the contract sum. Two, no project will be completed and if completed it would never be completed on time. Some projects would be abandoned at some point. The most important and efficient contractors in road construction have moved out of the country. They have all gone.

Why?  Was it because of funds or what?

They have all gone because they can not understand and appreciate how and why we do our own things the way we do them.  They do not appreciate how we do our own budgeting.  It is frustrating for them to do business here in Nigeria the way we are used to doing our things. What they are used to all over the world is a situation whereby there is a completion period of X number of years and then allocate money to cover those years. But here in Nigeria, what we do is just to allocate any money.

Guffanti has left; Strabag has left; Taylor Woodrow has left.  These are outstanding construction companies but they’ve all gone bankrupt because of us. They left because we could not keep pace with the work they were doing with the amount of money we were allocating. Take a university in this country for instance. Of the total amount of money given to a university, about 90% is used for salary alone.  So when you have such a situation, what is the university left with. How do you think the university would run?

If you talk about a teaching hospital it is worse. If you talk about road construction, it is equally worse.

If you pick Lagos to Otta road, the total cost of construction is N19.5 billion (Julius Berger).  How much money do you think can be provided to finish that road in four years?  This is something that is determinable.

But once you do not put period and cost together, you end up with what we usually have in Nigeria: non-implementation of the budget; non-performance of the budget. But mind you, it is not that the budget can not perform, it is simply because the amount of money allocated has no relationship and no linkage with the actual contract sum. In so many other instances even, the projects are never designed; the projects are just conceived by somebody and they put it in the budget – no design. But we have to understand that it takes time to design a project, then you advertise it employing due-process and the entire year is gone. So, what we can do to have a budget that we can implement to perfection is to have smaller number of projects on-going, put more money on those projects and determine the periods for completion so that they do not drag on for too long but for as long that we continue to do what we are doing, where projects drag on for many years, and just put money in the budget irrespective of the total cont
ract sum or the period for completion, it might take 20 years to complete.  Then people will come out to say budgets are not performing.

As minister of works, you were a victim of non-performing projects.  So, what steps did you take to address some of the concerns you’ve just raised because it’s not just enough to raise concerns?

Good!  Let me tell you, you are just a member of the cabinet and when people even talk about cabinet in Nigeria it sounds funny. There is no cabinet!  It is the President-in-Council. I’ve also heard some people say why can’t some ministers initiate policies? I laugh when I hear such.  On whose behalf would he be initiating that policy? It is the policy and programme of Mr. President.

It is left for the minister to execute the policy of the President.  This is not a parliamentary system where you talk of cabinet. It is not for the minister to initiate policy, it is the political party that would drive the policy based on manifesto and presented to members of the public during campaigns.

But mind you, this is not a parliamentary system of government.  In Nigeria, we have mixed the two together: the Parliamentary System and the Presidential System. Look at what Barack Obama did in the United States of America. While campaigning, he promised health reforms and once he became President, he pursued it himself.

He did not just hand it over to ministers but he took it upon himself having promised members of the public while campaigning. So, you must have a presidential programme to be implemented by the minister. The minister does not tell the President what to do. It is the President that will say, ‘look as a party, this is what we promised the people; this is what we want and this is what we must do.

At the cabinet level it is the President’s budget and not the minister’s. Then when it comes to the National Assembly, it is even worse. Those ones just spread the money to cover too many areas, the money becomes smaller.  If you see our budget in Nigeria then you will know Nigeria is in trouble, in problem.

Why? Which problem?

My friend, we can never develop the way we prepare our budget in this country.  We can never get anywhere.

With due respect, what you have said now is frightening? But you were part of the EXCOF of that era during Obasanjo’s time, were there no times your conscience pricked you to do what you thought was right.  Even within the strictures and encumbrances of procedure, what did you do as an individual to remedy the problem?

I discovered, even with my experience in Lagos State alone, that unless you allow Nigerians to participate in road construction, we won’t get anywhere.  A situation where we have left everything to the whims and caprices of foreigners, the country will never develop because you are not encouraging your own contractors, your engineers to participate in the development of the country.  It is never done anywhere in the world.

A percentage of the infrastructural development of your country must be carried out by some of your own people in your country. If everything is done by foreign contractors, where will our own people get money to flourish, to run their establishment?

With the understanding of members of council, we decided to buy small asphalt plants and we bought about 36 smaller ones for road repairs and we bought some seven big ones, to be installed and with the participation of the Nigerian Society of Engineers and it was a public/private partnership.  This was with a view to increasing the capacity of our own engineers.  The major problem of a Nigerian contractor is equipment.  He has no financial capacity to buy equipment.  They are as intelligent and capable as any other engineer in any part of the world.  We bought those equipment and they are being installed now.

I am not too happy when I see Lebanese maintaining our roads; we must encourage our own people. The other area was that I tried to make sure that additional funds were provided for road construction because you must balance it.  You can not say because you are minister from one zone, then all or most of the jobs should be done in your zone, the National Assembly will never agree to that so you have to spread the projects across irrespective of the contract sum for those projects.  So what do you do?

It is still happening now because all the projects must be accommodated.

You talked about party programmes and structures. You were in Alliance for Democracy, AD, and later dumped it for the Peoples Democratic Pary, PDP. What was that singular factor that made you dump AD for PDP?

That is another interview entirely and it will take many days to talk about what informed my decision. It is a whole lot of things I would say. It would consume time talking about what happened then, because I believe that people would not want to remember the sad things that informed that spate of decamping then or what led to the collapse of AD. What has happened to AD since then?  Are we not living witnesses to what happened to the party? There were too many contradictions then in AD and it will take days for us to know about these contradictions. You may know about them. Between Afenifere and Bola Ige, what happened?

That is one leg!

(Cuts in)Yes one leg. It is an area for research. He was the Deputy Chairman of Afenifere. And when it came to the choice of presidential candidate in AD, someone else was picked and that was the beginning of the collapse of Afenifere because Bola Ige did not take it lightly. In fact that was where we missed the point. It is a whole story which all Nigerians know, which some people would only reduce to an Obasanjo affair because they don’t want to say the truth and the role they played in that saga. They will never tell us why Obasanjo was allowed to come into Afenifere affairs, they will never tell us who opened up the stage for an Obasanjo to enter.

In a nutshell on AD and for the sake of Nigerians, who still want to know why you left AD. Why did you ditch the party?

There are so many things which I can’t talk about. Where is AD today? If AD was waxing stronger, I would say oh I have regrets today. So what eventually happened to AD?

You are a big fish then and now and with people like you ditching the party it was bound to collapse?

Then there was a big struggle for the total control of AD and the person who wanted power succeeded. We know all these, but people in the Southwest will never tell the truth, they shift the blame to another person. They would never open up on how Afenifere was destroyed. That was a very defining era in Nigeria’s political history.

When you were a member of the EXCOF, there was this story by the opposition then that President Obasanjo would come into the chambers, decide on what to do without allowing ministers to make input, and that would be the end of the day’s deliberation. Now if you were to paint a picture of a typical EXCOF meeting then, how was it like?

Have you ever seen what the Nigerian constitution says about oath of secrecy? Any information that comes your way as a member of the FEC can not be disclosed to anyone. It is a crime for you to talk about whatever happened on the floor of the FEC meeting. You are not supposed to discuss what happens on the floor of the cabinet.

How does it make you feel when someone says that the president shouts down ministers during such meetings?

He is the president and the meeting is about the President-in-council. Every memo belongs to the President. People should understand that we are not in a parliamentary setting.

Who takes the decision at the end of the day?

It is the President. That is the system we are running. And that is why we are having huge problems today. Even at the state executive councils, the governor is in control. Who are you to challenge the orders of the governor, when the system allows them to wield enormous powers? Who are you to talk about anything the governor or the President does not want to listen to? He is the President in council and he has absolute authority.

I appreciate your sense of bluntness. And I also want to be blunt as well. Does that mean that while you were at EXCOF whatever the president said must happen?

You have to present your case. But you should understand that it is his government. You as a minister were never voted for, but the President was voted for. Nobody knows you. You don’t have a mandate; it is the President that has the mandate. You are only assisting him to execute his mandate. When it comes to campaign era, would he tell the people that he made a mistake because of a minister’s advice? Will the electorate listen to him? He carries the failure of the government. The buck stops on his table. That is the presidential system where there is no delegation of authority. It is absolute power.

The immediate past EXCOF was accused of not being decisive on the state of President Umar Yar’Adua’s health. If you look at the context of what you have said about EXCOF and the powers of the president, how would you describe the action of the dissolved council?

It was okay. They have to protect the president. So many people were talking as if they never held such positions in the past. What can you do for someone that appointed you? It is not as easy as people thought. It is very difficult.

If we want to look at section 144 and the oath of secrecy to protect the constitution, what can you say about it?

If the EXCOF members have the medical knowledge that the man is incapable, then they can base their argument on it.

If you were a member of that EXCOF, what would have been your contribution to the whole saga because someone raised an issue and it didn’t go down well with some members?

You can raise your position on the floor, but where the majority to take a decision, you will abide by it. And you don’t talk about that decision when you leave the council chambers. If the President says no, you don’t have to come out and say anything. It is just like the Guild of Editors where if a decision is taken, that decision is binding on all members.

Once the editorial board takes its decision, can one editor come out to disagree with the position? In your own profession, it is unheard of. It is not that you people don’t have an executive. The Editorial Board is the executive and they take decisions on behalf of the newspaper house.


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