By Ijeoma Nwogwugwu
My initial instinct when I read the House of Representatives Chairman, Committee on Finance, Dr. Abdulmumin Jibrin’s response to my article, “The National Assembly is Partly to Blame”, was to assist him by asking him to refocus his rejoinder and respond to the issues I had raised from an informed and constructive perspective. I must confess, I did call him, but fortunately, he did not pick up my call immediately. By the time he did return my call, I had changed my mind. I decided that the public should get some insight into the quality of the person appointed by the leadership of the House of Representatives to head one of the most powerful and important committees in the lower legislature.
My decision to restrain myself was a masterstroke. By Wednesday last week, I had three rejoinders to his piece, all of which set out to educate him, since he had displayed an obtuseness that belied his academic qualifications on the role of the legislature in policy formulation, appropriation and governance in a democracy. The feedback to his article from readers on the THISDAY website, www.thislive.com, was no different. Save for two readers, all others who posted comments to his article were scathing in their criticism on the ineptness of his rejoinder.
I must also confess that in my article I did pull back my punches. However, in this response, I shall take off my gloves for a bareknuckle contest and hope that Jibrin finally gets it.
Let me start by educating Jibrin, who regrettably chairs the Committee on Finance, by using a very simple analogy: It is an incontrovertible fact that a lean, properly nourished and fit human body is a lot more efficient and would in all probability live longer than one that is obese and is susceptible to diabetes and heart disease, among other ailments.
It is from this perspective as well as from an ideological point of view that my column has for years advocated for a leaner, properly streamlined public sector. It is only someone as oblivious as Jibrin that does not see the corollary between the inefficient, over-bloated bureaucracy that all tiers of government operate in this country and the pervasive corruption in government that has defied all logic, and this includes the shortfall in oil revenue arising from the hugely mismanaged, opaque and inefficient Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC).
Besides, Jibrin displayed crass naivety by stating that the Finance Ministry or better still the executive arm of government had failed in its responsibility to formulate policies that would cut the government’s recurrent expenditure. Again, my article, which I believe was one of my simpler, less exclusive ones, was very clear on efforts by the executive arm to slash recurrent expenditure, especially personnel costs that account for at least 40 per cent of the entire budget, starting from the Olusegun Obasanjo administration to the report of the Steve Oronsaye Committee and the implementation of an integrated payroll system that would largely stem the haemorrhage arising from paying salaries, allowances, gratuities and pensions of non-existent public sector workers. Since Jibrin failed woefully to grasp the thrust of my article, then I shall restate it here that these are properly defined policies of the executive that have been fashioned out to streamline the public sector and cut the cost of governance and by extension recurrent expenditure.
Lamentably, the executive arm of government has been handicapped by a plethora of legislations that have set up scores of useless and inefficient departments and agencies of government. Had Jibrin a better understanding of my article, he would have known that the responsibility of scrapping and consolidating these agencies lies with no one else but the National Assembly. Essentially, the executive has thrown down gauntlet. It is left to the legislature to take up the challenge and stop playing politics or burying its head in the sand over what is clearly a major problem that it can no longer shy away from.
But since the National Assembly is unwilling to do what is right, it is time we stopped being politically correct by spelling out their complicity in retaining an inefficient and over-bloated public sector.
First and foremost, it is not just their constituency projects that the legislators have their sights on every year. It also pays the legislature to keep as many ministries, departments and agencies functioning for self-serving reasons.
Indeed, the more departments and agencies our so-called legislators are given to oversight, the more pressure they can apply on the chief executives of these agencies to award them contracts and employ their cronies and relatives. It is for this simple reason that the annual ritual of budget defence is characterised by the reallocation of funds and resources to sectors, departments and agencies whose heads pay back in cash and in kind. It is for the same reason that the National Assembly has for four years allocated to itself N150 billion that is unaccounted for and was given a first line charge on the Federation Account by the legislators themselves during their First Amendment of the 1999 Constitution in 2011.
Let no one delude themselves that the legislature, in the course of appropriation, carries out its duties with the best interest of the public at heart. Contrary to what the legislators would have us believe, they are anything but populists. More often than not, the business of appropriation is carried out to benefit already over-paid, avaricious legislators such as Jibrin. And this applies not just to the reallocation of funds, but also to the annual mucking about with the oil benchmark set by the executive.
Is it any wonder that parastatals like the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), among others, are allocated several billions every year for contracts that are not executed? A thorough investigation into such parastatals would reveal that a disproportionate number of these contracts are awarded to legislators or companies that are associated with them. Once the mobilisation fee for the contract is paid, it is carted away and public is left the worse for it.
As for Jibrin’s 50 questions, they were pointless and added no value to the country’s growth or economic prosperity. Like the Coordinating Minister for the Economy and Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, pointed out to Jibrin and his committee, some were repetitive while others were jejune. More importantly, the questions asking for the correlation between the GDP growth rate and economic performance showed that the committee would rather Nigeria’s economy is assessed on benchmarks or indicators that are different from the rest of the world. But that is completely impossible, as countries like China, India, Singapore, Brazil and Malaysia that we want to emulate, are measured by the same benchmarks.
But Jibrin would have none of that. His preference, instead, is to heckle and harass one of the few people that give the Jonathan administration any form of credibility. If he must know, as a columnist, I have no compulsion whatsoever to hide my bias for Okonjo-Iweala. And I make no apologies for it. He could attribute this to my ethnic bias or call her my “favourite aunt” for all I care. But his hollow commentary can never erase the fact that she is a woman of immense intellectual capacity, has garnered accolades and recognition from all over the world and is someone any right thinking Nigerian should be immensely proud of.
So if Jibrin and his cohorts are looking for someone to hound, they are barking up the wrong tree. If it is their intention to keep chipping away and projecting the administration in a bad light, they are more than welcome to do so. However, they need to redirect their spotlight on the soft targets of this administration, as they are legion.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Ijeoma Nwogwugwu/Thisday