ENGINEER Victor Ochei is the Speaker, Delta State House of Assembly. In this interview, he speaks on issues ranging from power shift, the activities of the State Assembly, especially in relation to the 2014 Appropriation bill. Excerpts:
BY DAPO AKINREFON
Recently, the Governor of Delta State, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan, presented the 2014 budget proposals to the Delta State House of Assembly. What will be the factors that will guide your speedy action in this respect?
Well, I think that, basically, many principles guide every budget process and its consideration. On top of them is that what is being planned for now is to ensure that even when the House is on a short recess, the Finance and Appropriation Committee will be at work and go through budget defence and also assess the performance of the former budget with a view to assessing what factors are due for review in considering this year’s appropriation as well as to ensure that some key projects are accorded priority, if not appropriately funded before.
In giving speedy consideration, many people have expressed their fear that the state legislature, being what they say is an attachment to the executive arm of the state government, is more often than not, incapable of objectively assessing in details.
If they say so, who, then, has the constitutional power to do it? Sometimes, people know only how to criticize and never belong to part of the solution. That criticism, without being immodest, is unfair to the legislature; I say this because, basically, the ingredients of budgeting are very standardized. In other words, they are not mere wishes or the result of the rule- of- the thumb decisions.
Well, whether anyone thinks we are an appendage of the executive or not, whichever way you deal with the budget, it is still going to be the executive that will do the implementation. That does not take away the fact that we still have to do our work, though the public must also understand the very clear difference between a state budget and a Federal Government budget. A Federal Government budget is based on a fixed benchmark price per barrel of oil and the estimate of the barrels of oil to be sold in the fiscal year and the proceeds will be shared among the stakeholders-the federal, state and local governments; that is why they stick to bench mark and all of that.
From your vintage point, are you satisfied with the level of performance of budgets held under your watch as Speaker?
Yes, if you ask me; the extent that the budget performs is the function of the receipts from the Federation Account. Last year, we had a proposed budget of N472 billion. Now, for 2014, we-that is Delta State Government- have proposed N391 billion, which is short on last year’s estimates by about N80billion. And the reason is obvious; what they received last year fell far short of what was expected.
So, the state government, quite wisely, felt the best thing now is to budget close to what is more realistic so that where there is deficit, it will be minimal, and there can be public confidence restored in our budgeting system. When you budget for N472b and, at the end of the day, your receipts, statutorily and through Internally-Generated Revenue (IGR) fall short of that by almost N80b, (even though the fault may not necessarily be that of the state government), then you know that there is a problem and you cannot continue to budget like that any anymore. You now have to tailor your coat according to your cloth and not your size anymore; and that is what the Delta State Government is trying to do.
But, so far, in terms of performance, in spite of the fact that we have a big short fall, performance has been tailored along the line of priorities. Whenever you have a short fall of the expectation, the only thing you have to do in the strictly economic sense is to have a priority scale or scale of preference or opportunity cost, so to speak. In following that, I will say the state government has done well in line with the budgeting process.
Assessing the legislature on how strategic it is to the growth and nurture of our democratic sector, would you say it is strictly relevant?
To ask that question will be to undermine democracy because the legislature is the symbol of democracy since the constitution is supreme. The legislature is the only place on account of which the constitution comes into play and we are guided by the law as enshrined in it as every other law is derived from it. Without the legislature, it is like having a lawless democracy.
So, I don’t imagine anyone talking about democracy and removing the legislature which is the back steam. The place of the legislature cannot be over -emphasized. It is one very more than essential ingredient in the process of democracy.
To what would you attribute the simultaneous numerical growth of the PDP and the decline in the strength of the opposition in the state?
There are different styles to market a product. The style with which you market your product determines the returns you are going to enjoy. In the state generally, the performance of the state administration under the watch of Gov. Uduaghan is a key factor, as is the role of the party leadership. In specific respect to the House, we have complimented what the party leaders and the state governor are doing. The style we have used in wooing our colleagues who are in the minority party is simple: We run an open door policy and we do not segregate on the platform of political parties. We work and take decisions together like one family.
On the other hand, at the state level, like I said, the performance of the state government, the role of the party leadership and the resolve of PDP stakeholders to set aside their differences and work together, has also been instrumental to the resurgence of the party and by the same token, the dwindle of opposition parties, especially the DPP, especially in the Delta Central Senatorial District, where we won the recent bye-election.
As 2015 draws near, do you subscribe to the power rotation principle, particularly as it affects Delta State?
Yes, I do, as it affects Delta State; Delta State stands on a tripod-the north, south and central- as its fulcrum. Since the central and the south have taken a shot at it, I believe, as a person, the north should have a go at it, to give a sense of belonging to every part of the state, because what makes one to say he is a citizen of this state, is the fact that he can aspire to the highest seat in the land, on the strength of his individual worth and merit.
So, Delta North is not excluded: as far as they can aspire to it, I think it should be encouraged and they should be given. Though people may say I am speaking sentimentally because I am from Delta North, I feel this is a positive sentiment that is becoming increasingly popular and common place among all Deltans.
The very idea of zoning, by virtue of it favouring Delta North this time around, has triggered a plethora of aspirants from the zone. Does it not bother you?
That is the beauty of democracy. It is everybody’s inevitable right to contest for any of these positions contained in the constitution, if they are competent and meet the requirements. At the end of the day, it is our right, as Deltans, to choose. It is about like different industries making the same product. It is the product that appeals to you most, in terms of value, that you purchase; you can’t expect equal sales from the market for the same product range.
Anyhow, the issue of legion aspirants is just not peculiar to Delta North. When Delta Central was to have their senatorial bye-election election in October, 47 aspirants came out. That is just the beauty of democracy; everybody has the right to aspire and you cannot disenfranchise anyone. At the end of the day, the choice will be made and I do not think that the plethora of aspirants has anything to do with the choice of the people.
If you were asked to give the criteria as to who will govern Delta State come 2015, what will you say it is?
I am just an individual, as you know, and I am not in a position to do so, on behalf of Deltans.
Indivisible entity: But, as an individual, I think that, for me, the next governor should be that person who keeps Delta state as one indivisible entity,where ,at the end of the day, ethnicity will not be the basis of our everyday relationship or judgment, and our differences and diversities will not count. He or she should be someone who will push this economy from what it is now to an economy that is running along the Delta Beyond Oil as the current Governor plans, and, at the same time, with the oil .