Nduese Essien, former Minister of Lands and Housing, was also a member of the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2007 during which he served as the Chairman of the South-South Parliamentary Caucus in the NASS. He also served as a member of the Federal Government’s Technical Committee on Niger Delta and Chairman of the House Committee on Anti-corruption, National Ethics and Values.
In this interview, Essien takes a critical look at the polity, contending that despite the myriad of challenges staring the nation on its face, it is still better for the people to work and live in peace and describes the preparation and implementation of Nigeria’s budget as a mere ritual that offers little for the ordinary Nigerian but praises President Jonathan for the able way he’s piloted the affairs of the nation so far.
You have quite a wealth of experience in public service. So how do you see the performance of the Federal Government under President Goodluck Jonathan?
The government has been battling to solve the myriad of problems that had existed before the democratic dispensation of 1999. The present government started off very well during the period we served in the cabinet. President Goodluck Jonathan showed himself as very patriotic, intelligent, sincere and anxious to move Nigeria forward. He did so very successfully till the elections of 2011.
When he returned as President after the elections, he resumed with renewed vigour and determination to continue with the foundation he had laid. But he has been confronted more by daunting security challenges. In spite of the challenges, he has been able to make some impact in the areas of power and development of infrastructure, particularly roads.
If you drive around the country, you will find that there are a lot of improvements in the road network. I believe that if Nigerians allow him to settle down and focus on many other needs of the country, he will achieve more by the end of his tenure to justify his wanting to continue on a second term and to advance some of his projects.
Talking of advancing his projects, you have been a Federal legislature and Federal minister and you know that the budgetary system is key to good governance and service delivery. Are you satisfied with how the Federal Government handles its budgets?
Having been a member of the House of Representatives for eight years and was involved in budget screening, I have seen a lot of loopholes in the budgetary processes. Later as a minister, I was on the other side overseeing the budgetary process in a ministry. Of course, I did that only once. What I have found out is that the budgetary process in the MDAs is not being taken seriously by those who prepare it.
Firstly, the notice to prepare and the timeframe for submission is usually inadequate. Consequently, the budgets are prepared as an annual ritual of no significance. Most often, with the same format of previous years, the ministries repeat the same items that were in previous budgets, year-in-and-year-out with an agreed percentage map up to contain price increases.
The budgets are always done in a stampede. The shoddy attitude in the preparation of the budget often results in unnecessary duplication of items and the inclusion of outrageous provisions for such areas as local and international travel, conferences, overseas training, maintenance of equipment, etc. That’s why you find that in most cases, the recurrent votes and the overheads continue to increase yearly, leaving very little for capital projects.
I don’t see the sense in government running a budget without being able to do things that would bring development to the people.
How many people are involved in the running of government? It is just a very small percentage of the Nigerian population that earn all the monies that are appropriated for recurrent and overhead expenditures. Less than 25 percent of the budget is meant for developmental purposes and that is why we end up, year-in-year-out, running government without being able to move the country forward through the provision of basic infrastructure.
As long as we continue to have a budget where recurrent expenditure and overheads are far higher than the capital votes, we will continue to witness slow pace of growth in every sector of the national economy. Government should find ways of reducing its recurrent and overhead votes while increasing the capital votes to benefit majority of the population. We cannot continue to service minority needs at the expense of the majority.
Again every year, the recurrent budget and overheads are funded in full and utilised in full while the capital is inadequately funded and not fully utilised. If the budget implementation does not resolve in the development of new infrastructure and maintenance of existing ones, what then is the essence of government in a developing nation?
There is therefore, serious need for the government to overhaul the budgetary process. I am not asking for the overhaul to be carried out this year but from subsequent budgets. The budgetary process should include a determination of the effectiveness or value added components of each sub-head in the previous year to justify its continuance and at what level in the next year. The MDAs should find out the authentic number of their workers and make provision for the payment of wages. They should find ways of reducing the overheads. Nigeria needs more resources to develop the country instead of just paying a few people that are working for the government.
For a government that it interested in development and good governance, don’t you think it should have identified and tackled this problem long ago especially with someone like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as head of the economic team?
I think the problem should have been identified long ago particularly with the pressure that always comes from the legislature. But in most cases, the legislature itself gets overwhelmed by the volumes of papers that are being brought to it for approval within a short period. You know in most cases, the legislature has barely one or two months to look at the budget and this is not the only thing they do.
The legislature sees the budget for the first time when it is presented to it in the chamber and in the process of attempting to provide for their constituencies, disorganise the original document and mutilate the figures. It would be most helpful, if the input of the legislature is obtained when the budget is being prepared to ease the process. With pressure from the executive and the public to pass the budget, the legislature is often stampeded into letting go without satisfaction. This happens almost every year. There is a serious need for the Economic Team to take a critical look at the budgetary process.
The legislature is supposed to carry out oversight functions on the executive. Do you think they have done a good job of it so far?
The coming in of the legislature after the military rule in 1999 has reduced some of the excesses in government. During the military regime, which operated without the legislature, a lot of projects were usually scheduled but never executed.
At times, such projects got paid for in full and sometimes repeated in subsequent budgets. Now, the legislature has been able to highlight some of the repetitions in the budget. I will not say they have completely eliminated the defects in the budgets. Apart from strict budgetary scrutiny, the legislature has effectively used its oversight powers to checkmate some executive recklessness.
Former President, Olusegun Obasanjo recently wrote to President Goodluck Jonathan, complaining about certain serious national issues. If you have an opportunity, would you write to the President?
I would not subscribe to former head of state confronting an incumbent President in public. Apart from direct personal access, there is also the council of state meeting where they can express their views. However, I am not aware of the circumstances which led to the public outburst. But I think, it should be avoided in respect to the office.
Let me take you back home. What’s your take on the on-going agitation for the zoning of the governorship of Akwa Ibom State to Eket Senatorial district?
Well, the concept of zoning was introduced to ensure that various sections of the state have an opportunity to make an input to who becomes the governor. It started before the advent of the current democratic dispensation when Uyo Senatorial District was given the first turn to present a candidate.
They did by presenting Obong Akpan Isemin. Isemin served until he was interrupted by the military. Again in 1999 when democracy was returned, it was felt that Uyo should be allowed to complete its term.
That was how Obong Victor Attah came in as the governor of the state. He served his first and second terms. Before the end of Attah’s administration, he had conceded that the next turn should go to Ikot Ekpene Senatorial district. That was how Godswill Akpabio came out. He went through the primaries and emerged among 57 aspirants to become the governor. He served his first term and it was believed that since Uyo Senatorial District did eight years, Ikot Ekpene Senatorial District should also do eight years. Automatically, it was believed that the next turn should go to Eket Senatorial District. But from 2011 and 2012, some people started feeling that nobody from Eket Senatorial District was qualified to take over.
They claimed that no one was competent, educated and rich enough to become the governor of the state. Of course, that was an insult to the people of the district because there are several people who could serve as governor and do very well and even more. There was this pressure from Uyo to continue in 2015. That was why a number of us from Eket Senatorial District came together and had to counter the pressure until the governor agreed that the next governor should come from Eket Senatorial District.
That is already a settled matter. So far, we have more than 22 aspirants from the senatorial district. Many of them are more than competent to run for the governorship. It is because of what has been happening that the state accepted to rotate the governorship among the senatorial districts. Eket is a very complex senatorial district. We are looking out to bring the most competent aspirants to take the mantle as governor of Akwa Ibom State. We believe that Akpabio will stick with the decision that the next governor should come from Eket Senatorial District. There is no doubt that whoever comes out of our district will do well, if not better than what Godswill Akpabio has done.
The 2011 polls was the watershed of violence in the history of Akwa Ibom State. Do you think the 2015 polls will be better?
Let me begin from 1999. When the military supervised elections in 1999, there was some semblance of democracy. People emerged because they were accepted by the electorate and the electoral process also allowed people to emerge freely. But by 2007, some people had emerged as chieftains of political parties. Some of them felt it was their right to decide who goes where in the next election. They imposed candidates in various constituencies and after imposing the candidates at the party levels, they went to the electoral commission to ensure that their candidates emerged to show the strength they had on the political system. That was what caused the crisis.
Those who lost out through imposition at the primaries wanted to fight back to ensure that the persons imposed didn’t win the election. By 2011, the trend continued. There is real and serious danger that if the trend is not stopped, we may have another crisis-ridden election in 2015. We must insist that the political parties allow internal democracy to prevail. They should allow people to emerge from the primaries based on acceptability and popularity among the electorate.
Any attempt to impose candidates at the party level will lead to violence in an attempt to stop the imposed candidates from emerging during the general election. It is now in the court of the political parties to prevent the so-called chieftains from attempting to impose candidates on the people. Because of imposition, you find that some people in government do not owe allegiance to the electorate. Many of them don’t even know what to do.
So it is often good to allow the electorate to select people to represent them.
That is my candid advice to the political parties. No party is exempted from it because most of the political chieftains think that it is their right to choose whoever should represent their constituencies.
Boko Haram seems to have defied every solution. What do you think can be done to rein in the group?
Boko Haram came out in the open during the ascendency of President Jonathan. It had been there even before the President came into office. Apparently, some people had formed militant groups to prosecute their election plans and the militant group metamorphosed into what we now call Boko Haram. It is the same thing all over the country. Some politicians believe they can win elections by using these people or by aligning with various cult groups.
After the elections, the cult groups do not have any other engagement and so they use the arms bought for them by their principals to cause havoc in the society.
That’s why we have armed robberies and lots of kidnappings after elections. I think the approach the President is taking in handling the Boko Haram insurgency is a step in the right direction. Such militant groups that exist in other parts of the country should not be allowed to grow to endanger public peace and safety.
What would you say about the prediction that Nigeria may likely break up this year?
My advice to Nigerians is that as we prepare to celebrate our centenary, we should remember that we have come a long way and should not allow anything to make the country disintegrate. It will be very difficult for various sections of the country to develop and grow as separate nations. The losses that would be incurred will be massive. Rather, Nigerians should resist the prediction that the country will break up. Nigerians should also realise that when predictions are made, the predictors would do everything to ensure that their predictions come to pass. We must therefore, be very careful as not to fall into the hands of those who do not wish Nigeria well.
By Soni Daniel, Regional Editor, North