Senator Enyinnaya Harcourt Abaribe is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy. He is also the Chairman, South-East caucus in the Senate. First elected in 2007 by his people of Abia South Senatorial, Abaribe, who is currently doing his third term was deputy governor of Abia State between 1999 and 2003. In this special interview, Abaribe among other issues said the government of the All Progressives Congress, APC led by President Muhammadu Buhari has failed in all aspects of governance.
By Levinus Nwabughiogu
The Senate has alleged massive padding in the 2018 budget estimates. How true is that?
All that we found in 2018 budget, I can only speak basically at the time we did the debate. Everybody heard what I said. I said that the assumptions under which the budget was built were not realistic and because it was unrealistic that the whole thing was like a work of fiction because you are building something on a foundation that could not be sustained. And we said look at the history.
You cannot build on oil production of 2.3 million barrels per day. That will not be sustainable considering the level of activities we find going on in the Niger Delta. More realistic, one would have been 1.8 million barrels per day which you are likely to meet and we also said that the assumptions on the price were not also realistic. We used the waited average of the price range and found out that it was something in the neighbourhood of between $48 and $50.
Yet, you are building your budget on assumptions of $45, which inevitably creates something that is illegal which is the Excess Crude Account, which we also eventually took a decision on as a Senate to say every money accruing to that place should go into the Sovereign Wealth Fund, SWF, so that we really understand where it is going. Of course, you can see that there was something that came out of the Excess Crude Account, which is now causing a controversy because some people just simply woke up and said this money now belongs to us and they want to appropriate money and spend without going through the law as it were. And we also said the assumptions on the question of the exchange rate was just unrealistic.
You can’t put N305 exchange rate when we know that the real exchange rate is close N365. So, you are talking N60 per dollar which gives people room for arbitrage assuming they want to translate it into cash. And of course, the assumptions about the Internally Generated Revenue and so on and so forth. There are many things that we didn’t find very interesting.
So, when they brought the details of the budget, we found out that for each agency of government, you would find duplications, you will find things that came out on one side of the budget then comes out on another side. And when questions are raised, the executive now reacts as if nobody is supposed to ask questions. They become very defensive.
But we are talking about the people’s money and therefore we need to ask those questions. Of course, there are procedures that should be followed before we even do a budget defence.
Ordinarily, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, MTEF, should be ready. We should debate and pass it on that basis, and use it to work out the budget. Now, we passed the MTEF on very severe pleading by the leadership of the National Assembly so that we don’t delay the process. Because it came just at the same time after the budget had been sent to us. And then when questions were being asked, the Executive also tried again to say, ‘oh, it was because we went on vacation.’ How could it be that we went on vacation? You could still send correspondence to the National Assembly so that as we are coming back from vacation, we meet your correspondence. You didn’t, one or two months after, you now tell us that it is because we were on vacation so you couldn’t prepare the MTEF or it didn’t come on time.
But the point really is this: there’s a whole lot we know in this budget that we should be able to critically look at and align. The budget is a set of estimates and because it is that, our job is to align these estimates to the expectations of our people. But when the executive sees the budget not as a set of estimates anymore but as a grounded rule that we are not supposed to ask questions, this is where this adversarial relationship continues to fester.
So, we are working on the budget now and we deliberately also say that the time frame you need to do critical work on the budget was too short for us to have finished before the end of this year.
The media was recently awash with some discoveries made on the budget especially in the budget of the Ministry of Power, Works, and Housing. Can you shed light on these issues?
All we did was to write to the Ministry after people had made their observations. Those were observations by the members of the Committee. There is essentially nothing wrong with what you see. What happens is when you give us a set of figures, we develop a set of interrogatories on that and on the basis of those interrogatories, we go ahead and say supply us with the details. We found so many things that were just put there without any explanation and we now said, ‘let us know why you are spending these monies.’
Don’t just write, for instance, I am going to spend N1.3 billion on budget support. What type of budget support? Why is that? What are the items inside? Those are the things, and going also against the backdrop that the 2017 budget was just released, I think up 11 or 13 percent which means nothing was done at all in the 2017 budget. And we are just being informed while we were sitting inside that the federal government said they had released monies for the capital budget. So, we now asked: ‘If they have released money for the capital budget, to which areas? That is why we now said let us just wait. Give us a set of responses and on the basis of these responses we can engage with you again and know exactly where we go from there.
With these observations, does it mean that the National Assembly is going to tinker with the budget holistically?
No, the job of the National Assembly like I have said earlier is to align the estimates made by the federal government to what we think is the appropriate economic direction we should follow. The projects that should be completed to give the common person a sense of the government taking his welfare into account and to also be able to set an economic direction for the country.
A budget like we said is a set of estimates from the federal government which the parliament works on. Like we told the committee on power since nothing had been done in the 2017 estimates, which we also believe that those estimates were designed to achieve certain ends, we should roll them over.
So, what you do now is to let us know. ‘Okay, I budgeted N100 for 2017, they gave us N11. I have a balance that they should give us N89. Now, we are just being told that money has been released when we don’t even have an idea. Now, we have given them time to come back and say ‘okay, we have gotten let’s say N20 again from the federal government for 2017. So, going into 2018 now, in order to complete that project, what we actually need is N69. That’s the type of budgeting we want to see so that there are completion and follow-up. Not for in 2018, all of a sudden you find that you have some other projects coming in new. Meanwhile, 2017 hadn’t even been appropriated. We are just trying to make sure that things go right.
In your own estimation, when will the 2018 budget be passed?
I think that by the middle of February, it should be passed because we are supposed to shut down plenary, go into committee work and we are given till January 16, 2018, to be able to finish the committee work. Thereafter, we will face the appropriation committee and defend it, which can take up to the end of the month. So, by the time we now do conferences with the House of Reps, I am thinking that by the middle of February this budget should be ready.
Some people in your political party, the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, who called themselves Fresh PDP, aggrieved with the outcome of the recent national convention, have set up a parallel secretariat in Abuja. How would you react to that development?
They are just a bunch of troublemakers and people, who are being bought by the opposition to spoil PDP. If you are fresh PDP, go and register your own party. I looked at the faces there and I didn’t see any face that I could recognize except one who even came to the South-East and breached our internal zoning, which we had done in the South-East. When you see a bunch of characters like that who try to show up, the best thing to do is to ignore them and do your business. Just ignore them. What are they going to do? What a party does is to canvass for votes. So, are they going to canvass for votes? No. They are sitting around in somebody’s house and claiming they have a secretariat and talking to each other. So, why should we bother ourselves about such a bunch of people?
How did you arrive at the conclusion that they were bought over by the opposition?
If you look at the set of characters, do you just wake up and say my name is this and then I am this, somebody should come and look at me? Why?
Political activities are beginning to gain momentum ahead of 2019 general election. What is your perception about the return of former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, to the PDP?
We think it is not just Atiku only. Most of the people who left PDP due to disagreements, we also encourage all of them to come back because they have now gone to taste APC and have seen. Our people say that when a woman marries two husbands, she now gets to know the one that is better.
I think it is now clear to them that APC was simply something that was set up merely to take over power from PDP based on a bunch of lies and propaganda that they dished out to the Nigerian public and of course, we are not saying that PDP didn’t also make its own mistakes, yes, they did. But we didn’t think that those mistakes were also enough. But be that as it may, PDP also taught APC lessons in civics.
The APC presidential candidate at the time who is now the president of Nigeria ran for president three times and won at the fourth time. In the three times he ran for president and lost, he never congratulated the person he lost to. He always went to court. He continued distracting the government. He continued feeling holier-than-thou; that he was just being unfairly pushed out. Now that he was in the saddle, the very first thing PDP did to him was to congratulate him. PDP didn’t take him to court. PDP left him to run the government.
It took him six months to even make a simple decision of finding a cabinet for himself. And of course, that malaise has continued till today. And so decisions are pending. One year after, he would not take those decisions. He has kept the economy in comatose, used his own words to demarket the country by telling everybody outside that the country was a country full of crooks and all that, of course, he was the only good person. And of course, when you go outside your own country and call your own country corrupt, what do you think will happen? Investments will move out of your country because international investments don’t go to corrupt places.
What they do is to find safe haven, make sure that they can get a return for their money. So at the end of the day, we have all come out to see that the APC didn’t have an economic strategy in place. And we are now working on the basis that ‘oh, we will learn as we are in the office’ and that has cost Nigeria greatly.
So, difficulties and economic malaise have encompassed the whole country. And of course, they touted that they were going to come in on the basis of taking care of security in the country and a lot of people believed the hype and of course, what have we seen? We have seen a situation where as you say that you are liberating people from Boko Haram, you are creating another menace that is even worse than Boko Haram called Fulani herdsmen.
As you say that you are trying to keep everywhere calm, you have skirmishes all over the place. Things that were not heard of in the North and so many other things coming up. The insecurity situation also says that you have not really fulfilled that promise.
But the bombs are no more going off like before…
I don’t think that is correct when you say that bombs are not anymore going off. Because every time we also hear that one bomb or another goes off in the North, in the mosques and in and around the Northeastern part of the country. The question of bombs going off in Abuja had been settled long before the APC government took over.
The last bombing that was done was the Nyanya motor park. After that, there had been none in and around Abuja. And the Jonathan government was in office throughout that period until this time. And so, you can’t wake up and now say that because bombs are no longer going off in Abuja that that is attributable to the Buhari government. No, that had already been sorted out by the very good work that was done by the DSS under Ekpenyong. I think when we make claims, we should do so with timelines so that can understand whether those claims were genuine or not.
There is not one thing that this government claims to have done that was not initiated and started by the Jonathan and the previous PDP governments. But rather than acknowledge that some good things were done, all that we see in order to justify the ineptitude that creeps all over this government, is their always trying to say, PDP didn’t do anything.
What is the new thing that they have done? The TSA that they are touting which has also resulted into so many difficulties for government itself, agencies and people doing business was started by Jonathan’s government but was being introduced by the government sequentially, say you take a few government agencies so that it will not be a sudden rush. Of course, when they came and now did things the way they did them, it led to part of the economic problems we are seeing today.
N-Power was introduced by this government and they have also given jobs, employment to the youths.
Where have they given it? I have not seen any youth. I have sent people from my own senatorial zone for them to show me where they have taken any of them. It is nothing but propaganda that we simply see and bogus claims that we also always see from this government.
Is PDP hopeful of taking over power in 2019?
Obviously, we will take over power in 2019. And we have worked out all our strategies and you are going to see it emerge and be fulfilled very soon.
Your name is making the rounds in Abia as a possible governorship aspirant in 2019. Do you have any intention to run?
No, I am not interested in playing state politics. I play national politics because I represent not just myself but the totality of Ndi Igbo in Nigeria in the Nigerian Senate.
On the controversy trailing the $1 billion approval by the National Economic Council, NEC to tackle insecurity in the North-East. What’s your take ?
We need to continue to support and fund our armed forces. The only problem that we have with what’s going on is to ask the simplest question: where did the governors derive the power to appropriate money? There is nowhere in the constitution where governors have the power to appropriate money.
And that’s where the problem lies. Where did they get this power from? That it is just an illegal thing. And if the governors claim that the money belongs to the three tiers of government, so, how did the governors now become the people to appropriate for the federal government and Local governments’ shares? I think what is just going on is simply the same we have always seen in Nigeria where people perpetuate impunity and because they are in the ruling party, people don’t want to admit that they have gone the wrong way.
I heard the vice president say the other day oh, it is no longer for the northeast alone. But of course, when governor Obaseki was speaking, we heard him very clearly say, it is to fight Boko haram. That they are now trying to run away from that and extend it to all over the place just tells you that the initial concept was very flawed and they are just realizing it but of course, cannot come out and tell Nigerian we are wrong, let us now do the right thing.
Some persons believe that senator Abaribe is very critical of this government. Is that true?
Yes, because I am in the opposition. I am from PDP. And as a senator from the PDP, my job as an opposition member is to look critically at the what the government does and find the areas they have done well and say, fine, they are doing and the areas they are not doing well and say, no, they haven’t done well. My job is not to praise the government. My job as an opposition leader is to oppose. So, nobody should find it very difficult or something that shouldn’t be done.
In fact, I will say that this government is floundering. And they are for the main fact they have been in opposition for so long that they are even opposing themselves. This was what they were doing to the PDP government. They always never saw anything good in PDP government. So, why do we now have to give them a slack when they are not doing well and I continue to say they are not doing well in every aspect of the national life. They can say all the propaganda but the propaganda does not amount to the fact. They are not doing what they promised Nigerians. Understand that they made sets of promises and we are going to hold them to account for those promises.
When we wanted to increase fuel prices in order to eliminate clearly all the fuel subsidy scams, they came out on the streets and said oh, no, how can, this and that. In fact, that fuel will drop to N40 when they come in. Where is fuel now? It is trending towards N200 and they are still paying the subsidy. That’s the most painful part I will say that Nigerians see them do this and then, they continue to pull the wool over everybody by saying oh, it’s PDP. Everything is PDP. Ask them about anything. It was the same when they were doing campaigns. They couldn’t answer any critical question of all the things they were saying.
They said we are going to reduce the exchange rate and we said how are you going to do it. They said oh, you know, there is insecurity. Every time you asked them, there said the same thing. Whenever we tackle insecurity, everything another thing will be alright. Now, they are there. They are not tackling insecurity, they are even doing one of the worst things you can do to a national institution like the military. They are dragging the military into politics.
Aren’t you surprised that the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, the man you stand as surety bailout from the court has been at large since October?
No, I am not surprised. We have a case in court and our case is predicated on one thing: Nnamdi Kanu was supposed to appear in court on October 17 and on September 14, soldiers stormed his residence and nobody has seen him since they stormed his residence. So, we are in court asking that you cannot ask us to guarantee that surety anymore considering that you have adopted self-help yourself to try to arrest him or do anything to him before the time he was supposed to appear in court.
So, we have sued the federal government asking them to prosecute first the Chief of Army Staff for taking the military inside there to engage himself with somebody who was under the court bail. We have also sued that they should produce him because, since October 14, nobody has seen or heard from him. Nobody knows where he is and so coming around to now ask where he is, I don’t know where he is. That’s why we are in court.