17 January 2013

Nigeria: A Meaningful Poverty-Reduction Strategy Must Be Dynamic

Executive Director Niger Delta Budget Monitoring Group and former National Chairman, Coalition for Accountability and Transparency in Extractive Industries, Forestry and Fisheries in Nigeria, Mr. George-Hill Anthony, spoke with Abimbola Akosile on 2013 budget and fiscal responsibility, among other issues. Excerpts:

What is your view on the 2013 budget of N4.9 trillion?

Speaking realistically, it is very difficult to trust the Federal Government on matters relating to budget. The whole scenario about the national budget implementation appears deceptive. You may be aware that some years back, some Nigerians (including the current Coordinating Minister of the economy) foresaw what was coming ahead in terms of fiscal rascality; hence there was need to give the people a fiscal responsibility law.

I am at a loss how the current Minister of Finance, who played an active role in the enactment of that Law, could now preside over an economy dominated by violations of the same fiscal safeguards she played a key role to get for Nigeria.

For example, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), which the Fiscal Responsibility Act clearly outlined in Sections 13, 14, 15 and 16, is today being violated. That situation is compounded by the National Assembly, which treats the matter like child play, against the collective national interest.

If you look at the above and even Part 1 of the Nigeria Sovereign Investment Authority (Establishment, e.t.c.) Act of 2011, you can then measure the fiscal management objective of government and the politics that surround the national budget, and you can then connect that to interest of the poor and the sincerity of the government. Therefore, the 2013 budget does not hold much hope for Nigerians but for a few who take home about 70 per cent of the recurrent vote.

To your informed mind, is the budget people-friendly?

In Nigeria, we throw up figures just for the sake of it. How can a serious country project about N150 billion for Works Ministry when the entire road network has collapsed? In a situation where ordinary men and women on the streets don't feed well, is it realistic for government to want to privatise roads? The entire budget does not pass integrity test, as far as its friendliness with the people is concerned.

The President has promised better living conditions and jobs creation for Nigerians in 2013; how best could government do that?

Any budget of 70/30 ratio on recurrent and capital expenditure cannot give much hope. And the argument to retrench does not hold water. I agree that many agencies of the government have duplicated functions and could possibly merge. Even then, government needs to look inward and adopt an overhead expenditure tracker to reduce unnecessary waste.

If the government can give Nigerians good roads, power and a national identity (NIN) database that can stand integrity test, then other growths can follow. With a credible NIN, Nigerians can use that to access credit. By this, so many young Nigerians could become entrepreneurs and generate jobs.

There is no way government can improve living conditions if the East-West Road or the Enugu-Port Harcourt Expressway, which is killing people are not fixed. The agony, which people go through daily on these roads, is unimaginable.

Is the passage of the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) the lasting and final solution to the problems in the country's murky oil industry?

The PIB is like the judgment day catching up with the people that have been running away from it. Nigerians need to revisit their history and connect it with the restlessness of some people about the PIB. Nationally, we must be cautious for the PIB not to fling the country back to aggravated days of militancy in the Niger Delta.

The PIB must therefore be looked at fairly with a measurably level of economic justice for all Nigerians. It should not be a gambling tool for the 'three political wise men' of Nigeria, towards cementing decades of oppression and injustice. The argument that oil producing areas have too many interventionist bodies with nothing to show for it is relevant, but that is a different matter all together, which would be addressed with fiscal responsibility and discipline.

Therefore, the PIB should be structured in a way that funds must go directly to the oil producing areas, be it in Akwa Ibom, Rivers, Sokoto, Anambra, Ogun or anywhere, provided we are ready to have the political will in fighting corruption. I pray the Governors clamouring to have control over the Host Communities Fund realise they would not be Governors forever. The PIB should therefore be seen as a salvaging instrument for the survival of Nigeria.

The issue of poverty won't go away in Nigeria...what can be done to tackle this mounting problem?

A meaningful poverty reduction strategy must be dynamic towards uplifting the lot of suffering people. It is better to concretise blueprints for poverty reduction than throw a huge chunk of the national budget at tackling security.

There is a link between an accumulation of years in poverty and insecurity to some extent. I am not talking about political insecurity. The solution lies in how Nigeria structures the national budget and so many other underlining elements.

However, the YouWin initiative seems commendable, even though it is a surface route. Seriously, if the government is serious, they can plug so much wastage on over-head expenditure and plough it back to get at least one million youths as beneficiaries of YouWin every year, which can add up to lifting five million young people out of poverty in five years.

How best can the corruption in the public sector be curbed, with a positive ripple effect on the populace?

If Nigeria introduces capital punishment against corruption as is done in China and perhaps Singapore, then corruption would disappear, even overnight. So many hypotheses on how to fight the scourge have failed. Don't forget, hypocrisy in itself is corruption.

Which sectors should be prioritised in government's focus to make 2013 a better year?

If government can meaningfully address works, power, security, other things would queue behind. But without fighting corruption, all efforts would end up like dropping salt in the ocean.

What gaps can you identify in the 2013 budget, which can truncate the drive for transparency?

How sincere is the government on the performance indicators of the budget, which could help to meaningfully benchmark and measure transparency? It is not about figures flying here and there, in which within the bureaucratic chain of official secrecy, some people know they are feeding Nigerians with falsehood.

Now, for example, how much have been budgeted for works alone for the past five years and if the billions were actually spent, why is the entire national road network collapsing? Why do we have so many projects in the budget with an MTEF regime that is difficult to track? That is why the country is sinking. The bureaucracy seems to be overwhelmed by the underground intrigues surrounding budget implementation in Nigeria. That is the truth.

Until the Federal Government publishes quarterly allocations of the MDAs, with the MDAs also publishing the cash back-up they have received and the specific capital projects they have tied it to, then the country may not overcome complications of budgetary processes. It may be expensive to do so, but it is a pittance compared to what is stolen.

As the deadline year for the realisation of the MDGs approaches, what can Nigeria do to help speedier realisation of the goals for the collective good?

The MDGs in itself is a unique global concept. Pragmatically, only the Federal Government seems a bit concerned for the achievement of MDGs. There is a wider gap from the States and Local Governments. Sadly, the federal government alone cannot single-handedly achieve the MDGs; it is left for the communities, the States and Local Governments to work out and agree on sustainability plans for such projects, without which bridging the gap would continue to be a problem.

Another aspect government should be interested in, should be on how they can synergise more with the civil society post 2015. The UN system is already working on this and our government must learn from that.

There is talk of Nigeria's crude reserves running out in roughly 30 years....what can be done to avert the looming sharp drop in the revenue generation process of the country?

I think Nigeria is not facing any threat regarding reserves. Gas exploration should now be factored into Nigeria's economic blueprint rather than just wasting it. The major issue is about alternative energy sources, which countries that hitherto depended on Nigeria's oil are now shifting attention to. It is a development Nigeria's oil and gas experts should brainstorm on and come up with the practical way forward, rather than on the Vision 20:2020, which to me is bunkum.

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