Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, Engr. Babachir David Lawal, immediate past National Vice-Chairman, Northeast of the All Progressives Congress, APC, is famed for his unwavering political affinity to President Muhammadu Buhari since the president’s first political outing in 2003. He is famously known within the Abuja political circus as having Buhari at the centre of his politics and was one of the key figures behind the scene in the emergence of Buhari as the presidential candidate of the APC.
Lawal, from Hong in Adamawa State, an electrical/electronic engineer in this interview bares his mind on sundry national issues. Excerpts:
By Omeiza Ajayi
Where are we as regards the 2016 budget?
Well, you know that our concept of budgeting is zero-budgeting where we only appropriate money for key projects that the government considers important for implementation of its key policies.
To that effect, the Ministry of Budget and Planning has sent out memos for MDAs to submit their request for capital releases and they have all complied.
The Budget Office has started releasing the capital projects releases according to the priorities of government.
This is because the revenue of government has fallen by about 47 percent since the budget was approved by the National Assembly. Budget is a statement of intention, the implementation is based on the reality of your revenue as the days go by, and because of that MDAs are required to write and request for funds only for those projects appropriated by the National Assembly and secondly, that are of importance, as a priority.
Obviously, quite some projects that are in the budget might not be a priority for the MDAs. As you are aware, during the budget process, we had this issue of padding in which the Executive discovered that the National Assembly included certain projects in the budget and appropriated for them, even when they did not originate from the Executive arm.
So, obviously, such projects will not be considered a priority for the executive arm of government if at all they manage to sneak through the vetting process jointly carried out by the Executive and the National Assembly which eventually produced the budget.
Now, even those that have been appropriated for, in the light of the dwindling revenue of government would still need to be re-prioritized. For example, the government might find it very difficult to implement the constituency projects to the letter because MDAs might not find constituency projects as critical to the execution of their mandates and given the dwindling resources, these could be some of the areas that would suffer during implementation.
If the revenue of the government improves, of course, all capital projects would be fully implemented, but we do not see that happening soon. So, while the government is willing to do that, it is obvious that you can only implement that for which you have money, and I think, to my mind, these are some of the areas that might suffer non-implementation in the budget.
The Senate has summoned you in connection with the recently-unveiled list of ambassadorial nominees. What is the issue?
One thing, however, is clear – the constitution makes it clear that it is the president’s prerogative to nominate ambassadors, and the criteria he would use to do so is also the constitutional right of the president.
Whatever criteria he chooses to use is constitutional. Be that as it may, I must say that we are disappointed that the National Assembly took the decision that it did, but again we believe that the Senate we know is made up of very responsible and patriotic Nigerians, there are some past governors who have governed and known the constitutional provisions regarding separation of powers. We know the Senate would not do anything that will bring the country into disrepute because right now Nigeria enjoys tremendous goodwill all over the globe.
It is important to have ambassadors therefore to sustain this goodwill. Again, a lot of the travels by the president and government representatives is to attract foreign direct investment into the country and ambassadors are key to sustaining this and ensuring that the goals are achieved.
The third reason why we think ambassadors are key is because of the phenomenon of global terrorism. Almost every nation around the world is facing it, and all nations are now collaborating with each other to fight this international terrorism. It is important that Nigerians have representatives on the ground who would present its interest and defend it.
The non-presence of ambassadors even by one day is inimical to the country, and we believe, senators, being patriotic Nigerians would not want to cause undue hardship and put Nigeria at an undue advantage in any regard. We expect that in coming to a decision on this, they will take into consideration the interest of their own country and not political or even personal considerations.
Of course, we read in the newspapers some of their concerns such as federal character and so on.
At the last count, my recollection is that out of the 47 diplomats-nominee, 32 out of 36 states and the FCT were represented. Now, while the constitution preaches federal character, it does not always say that every state must be represented in every appointment except of course, in the case of ministers where the constitution said there should be a minister from every state, and not in all other appointments.
Spirit of the constitution
So, the spirit of the constitution has been fully satisfied by having ambassadors from 32 states out of 36 plus one. I believe every objective analyst would agree with this. Secondly, there has to be merit and qualifications in every nomination.
Now, one of the criteria, I understand that was used was that it is important not to appoint someone that would soon retire. If you know the processes of nominating and deploying ambassadors, you would understand that it is highly unlikely that the Senate would be done with it within the next two or three weeks.
They would need to be presented to their countries of deployment for checks and confirmation by those countries, and we cannot dictate the speed, so it could take, in all honesty, probably six to seven months for an ambassador to be fully cleared and assume his new post. It would take longer still for him to acclimatize and settle down in his work.
There has been a subsisting policy, not by this regime alone, that it would be good if someone, for example, has 30 months to retire, he should not be posted. He would just be settling down before retiring, and so it does not make sense. A lot of countries have complained about this. You send an ambassador, and after one and half year he retires. So, one of the criteria was that the person must have not less than 30 months to retirement.
Again, another criterion that was considered was your seniority level. You must be someone on GL16/17. Now, due to no fault of this government, not all states have people in the Foreign Service Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About four states did not make it, however, not necessarily on the criteria of seniority.
There are other qualifications that are required to post you to go and represent Nigeria. Again, there are specialist areas for which only specialists are required. There is also the requirement of gender sensitivity.
What has delayed the appointments of people into Federal Government boards?
Let me tell you; it took some of the previous governments two years to make board appointments.
Issue of board appointments
Now, the issue of board appointments is moving faster than in previous governments. We need to do it very diligently. Up until September, only the president and vice president were running the country and their hands were too full for them to get engaged in board appointments. Then the SGF, Chief of Staff and quite some few others came on board, and it is the OSGF that co-ordinates all of these.
The president approved the setting up of a committee late last year to do this. The first thing the committee did was to set up criteria for people who would merit being on a board in an APC government. We needed to get all the parastatals whose boards need to be constituted. Then we did what we called ceding, in the sense that we needed to share the boards in an equitable manner among all the states so that each state, as much as possible, would have its own fair share of board chairmen and board members.
I think we started with close to 400 or 500 parastatals. It was not a mean job with board membership of, in those days, I think five to 6, 000 people -chairmen and members- from all the states and we decided to cede them in such a way that when it comes to a state, the board membership must also be representative of the local governments there.
So, first, we ceded among the zones, then we said okay, maybe north east zone has 20 chairmanships and 1,000 board membership, then we go back and share the chairmanship in an equitable manner according to the weight of the parastatals because in government I understand there is Category A, B and C boards so that you do not end up with only Category C or A; so it is not a very simple job.
While we were doing this, the government had to also look at the Oronsaye report which recommends the scrapping or merging of some parastatals. There was a White Paper by the former government on the implementation of the Oronsaye Report. So, this government decided to study that report which had very good merit in it because a lot of the parastatals were just doing nothing or were doing what others were doing.
So, in considering the Oronsaye Report, is there any likelihood of carrying out the merger or scrapping of parastatals?
Look, the Oronsaye Report is domiciled here as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. They did a good job, not necessarily that everything is acceptable. What happened to the Oronsaye Report was that they made their recommendations and took it to the Cabinet. By the time the White Paper came out, it appeared that only 40 per cent of the recommendations were approved for implementation by the White Paper. It appeared that every minister started defending his staff. So, for example, parastatals recommended for scrapping suddenly found themselves in the survival list, because government is like that.
So, the Oronsaye Report was completely mutilated during the White Paper. While the activity in itself was commendable, as a government, it is only natural that we look at it in the context of our own objectives.
So, we are looking at it. A lot of hardwork went into it, and we would like to study it and implement it in agreement with our policies.
Are you most likely to also look at the 2014 Confab Report in that manner?
Well, the government has not taken a decision on the 2014 National Conference. I understand that some Nigerians want it implemented but the government has been too busy with key areas of governance to talk about an exercise that we thought was essentially diversionary and a sort of, maybe, a ‘job for the boys’, because if you remember, it was reported that almost everybody in the committee got N7 million, and we consider it essentially as job for the boys.
They probably produced a document that is good and commendable but I mean, this government is too busy with very more vital areas of governance, and we are not intending to spend our time reading reports. The exercise of governance is not about reading reports. The reports are here, so many volumes that for example, it would take me like seven days to go through.
Economy needs attention
I wonder what happens to my work while I am reading it; while the economy needs attention, unemployment is there, insecurity is there, people are blowing up pipelines and so on.
Back to the National Assembly. How true is the allegation in some quarters that you are responsible for the travails of the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu?
See, let me tell you, the Office of the Secretary to Government is the punching bag of everybody, and that is how it should be. My own understanding of the present government in relation with the opposition is such that the integrity of our president has been established over his almost 73 years as solid; you cannot assail it. So, the only option left for you as a ‘dirty’ opposition since you must attack the government is to attack those less known. And those less known that are easy targets, that they think when they attack them, they are attacking the president are the SGF, the Chief of Staff, Minister of Petroleum and the CBN Governor, for one reason. These are appointive positions; they are not elective. Probably, they think that “oh, if we make him look dirty, the president would sack me.” In my life, I have seen Ekweremadu for, maybe twice, and the second one, was incidentally, in a church in Yola. I do not understand the psychology of, when you are accused of something, instead of defending yourself, you waste your time hunting for who could have been the cause of your travails. If they remove Ekweremadu as the Deputy Senate President, how does that personally benefit us? Of course, while I was in the party then as National Vice Chairman, it was the party position that because we are the majority party in Parliament, that we should produce all the Principal Officers.
To that extent as an APC member, I am not happy that APC has not produced the deputy senate president. It is an aberration, but the senators decided, which is their constitutional right, to create the aberration.
The solution, if they need any solution would lie with them not BD Lawal, not SGF because I am not a senator. I am the SGF. So, whoever tells you that I am responsible for the travails of Sen. Ike Ekweremadu is burying his head in the sand rather than running.
When is the president going to start dealing with corrupt persons in APC?
Let us be very sincere and reasonable. Obviously, to my mind, the preponderance of corrupt people would be in the PDP for one reason; they have been in government for 16 years and they were the only ones enjoying the booty, and they were doing it in a flagrant manner.
Tracing my own (political) genealogy for instance, from ANPP to CPC and now APC, we were not getting anything. Nobody was giving us contracts. PDP were the ones in government; they were the ones the president was approving money for sharing; they were the ones that took government money to fund their election.
Access to government money
This is the truth. APC had no access to government money to fund the president’s election. It got to a stage when PDP saw it clearly on the wall; you remember they even shifted the elections; it was so clear they were going to lose, and so they thought they could buy it.
Throughout the last tenure of the Goodluck Jonathan campaign, their goodwill among Nigerians was on the decline and they were spending, and it got to a stage that they did not care about following the due process anymore because they thought they were in power and they thought they could buy their way through and remain in perpetuity.
So, they became even careless about the manner they were taking the money. Remember Nigeria even borrowed $100million from the international market to fund the war on Boko Haram and they simply shared it. APC did not go to borrow anywhere. We were not sharing oil wells. We had no access to NNPC funds. So, if these agencies were converted into agencies for looting and pilfering, it is obvious that even if we had corrupt men in the APC, they did not have the opportunity to steal, and that is assuming we had. I cannot, in all honesty, say that all of us in APC are saints, but the truth is, we did not have access to funds to steal in the first place, and so we did not have opportunity also to reject the stealing. So, let them roast in their stew. Let them carry their cross.
They can make all the noises and try to deflate APC, but our hands are clean by providence. Look, let us face it. If they arrest you, why don’t you say, ‘I shared the money with so and so persons’ and then let him turn out to be in APC?
Those that they are arresting, it is from the interrogation that the information burst out. Let them leave us alone. This is just the beginning. They will return our money by the time we finish digging their soak-aways and bringing down their (overhead) tanks; we would recover our money.
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