Fashola’s interview that set him on collision course with National Assembly (Part 1)

Babatunde Raji Fashola

The Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, in this interview speaks on the controversy trailing the 2017 Budget, the role of the legislature in the budgeting process and other issues affecting his Ministries. This is the first part of the interview. The second part will be published on Friday.

There was this controversy with the National Assembly over the alteration of the 2017 Budget by the National Assembly, prompting the Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, to complain. As a former two term governor and a lawyer, who is the final authority on the Budget? Is it the Executive or the Legislature?
I don’t see this as a matter of authority. I have had course to say that when it comes to the exercise of power, the society benefits more from the power of example, rather than the example of power. And power of example requires us to show good examples. What is good example? It is to first recognize that the idea of separation of powers is not casting stone. It is not a divine idea. It is a creation of men, philosophers. I think they were 16th or 17th Century philosophers. And like everything that man creates, it is imperfect. And so in a young democracy, the idea of final authority, like I said, is not the best example. What is the purpose of a budget? Let us first understand that. It is the instrument by which government sets the agenda of what it wants to do within the territorial area called Nigeria. How it wants to positively impact on the lives of people. So first of all, when should the budget come? If you want to do civil works, it must come in the dry weather, not in the middle of the rain when you are less efficient. And I have made this point even when I was governor. It is not that you can’t construct during the rain. When you move your equipment to site, when you pour your tar, it rains, you can’t use it that day, it cakes, so there is a lot of wastage. And I am just going to go into a few other things. First, to go back to the point about separation of powers and we are the final authority. The real truth is that it is the sharing of power that prospers the society rather than the pure separation. It is inter-dependence rather than dependence. And I will give you the examples that readily come to mind. The constitution provides that no public officer elected or otherwise shall embark on his duties without first taking his oath of office. The president and the vice president on the day they are elected can’t swear themselves in. The power to administer the oath that sets them on their journey comes from the Judiciary. So if the Chief Justice of Nigeria says I’m separate, I’m busy, in fact you people didn’t even tell me we were going to have the inauguration at 8am I am going to come at 6pm, I’m exercising my powers, you know what will happen on that day. But immediately the president is then sworn in, he has to go and proclaim the National Assembly. And he can say I’m busy, I’m not ready yet. You people wait. So he can actually hold on to proclamation for a year if he wants. You known what that means. It is not a good example of power. It is a bad example of power. And then of course when they are going to appoint the CJN, you must first get confirmation from the Senate and be sworn in by the Executive. So it is impossible for anyone of them to say we are independent, we are not doing anything together. I think that sets the context to then say: What is a budget? It is a developmental plan with estimates on how much money will be spent, how much money will be borrowed, how much will be collected. Who controls all of the machineries for collecting taxes? Federal Inland Revenue Service. It is the Executive. Who controls the machinery for setting fiscal agenda? It is the Ministry of Finance. It is the Executive. Monetary policies, Central Bank of Nigeria. It is an Executive agency. Tax collection like I said is FIRS. Numbers and data, GDP, inflation rate: National Bureau of Statistics. They are all Executive agencies. National Planning, Executive. So all they are asking you for really and truly when they bring that plan: roads, bridges, agric, education, healthcare, drugs for hospitals, is approve, authorize us to do this. That really is the process in a nutshell. That capacity to gather all that number is not in the Legislature. The Doctors are not in the Legislature. The Nurses are not in the Legislature. The Town Planners are not in the Legislature. Some of them may be professionals elected as legislators, but they don’t have that number. Oh yes, the Legislature has a mix of Doctors, Architects, everything, but the bulwark that does the work is not in the Legislature, it is in the Executive. In the same way, let me just pause and reverse this: the Executive has Bills they want to pass into law because they need laws to do certain things. They draft the framework, but send it to you. You have the final say on that. Subject of course to Executive briefing and all of that. So when the Budget comes, can I really say a legislator cannot contribute to the budget? No, I can’t say that. But I hold the view, subject to what anybody else thinks, that you can’t increase the Budget. No. Because you don’t collect the revenue. So, if I have told you this is what I can collect, this is the deficit, this is what I want to borrow, you cannot ask me to collect more than the capacity I want to collect. But I think you can reduce it. Then we need to also understand what is going on in Nigeria. Can I say that the Legislature can’t suggest a project? I don’t think so. I don’t think I can fairly say that. But I understand that his responsibility is representation, his responsibility is lawmaking and his responsibility is oversight. So it is likely he knows his area better than me, the Minister. I can’t know all of Nigeria. So is is meaningful to have imput. But the questions will be: at what stage do you suggest and what type of project do you suggest? You must understand first of all that the power to make law at the federal level is limited by the constitution. You can only make laws for matters listed in the Exclusive Legislative List and in the Concurrent List. So with respect to roads in my Ministry, it is only federal roads that I can do. So you can’t suggest to me that you want to insert a state road. I won’t do it. In fact, you can’t put it in the Budget, it is an unconstitutional law. You can’t suggest to me in the Ministry of Education that the Minister of Education should go and build primary schools. You are encroaching the territory of the Local Governments. So if you put it in the budget it is an unconstitutional law. So irrespective of the powers that you have, those powers are also circumscribed by the Constitution. Unfortunately, there seems to be some reluctance to have the Judiciary resolve this matter, but I think for the long term development of this country, the Judiciary must be invited to exercise its powers and set the parameters of who can do what. There is no divine right too that the Budget must be made by the Executive. So if the Judiciary comes to the decision that the Legislature should provide the Budget, then let them provide it, we go and implement it. But I think it is unfair to the delivery of service to Nigerians, after we have held public hearings, used taxpayers’ money to hold those public hearings, you didn’t bring these projects then, we have defended our plans, you now go away and then decide to do what you like. So in my Ministry, apart from the 200 roads that I inherited, they are now asking me to do over 100 new roads, they are not giving me new Engineers, they are not increasing the overhead cost in the Ministry, so where is the manpower first to start? And secondly, most of those roads are not federal roads. Thirdly, most of those roads, if not all of them, don’t have a design. So how do we award contract for a road we have not designed, irrespective of the powers that you have. And we must have this conversation for the development of the country. I know that the National Assembly also means well. But you may mean well and not do the right thing. In the power arm for example, we have I think a couple of hundred new projects, rural electrification projects. We will need a minimum of 100 Engineers to implement those projects in addition to the ones we inherited and are carrying on with. So are we then budgeting for the development of Nigeria if we continue to do this? When we have reports which show that there are thousands of uncompleted projects from (late President Umar) Yar’Adua’s Administration, there was a national recommission report of uncompleted project – I think it was the (late Gamaliel) Onosode report – so all of those projects too are in somebody’s constituency now. They are not in space. So what must be the developmental strategy? It must be led by the Executive, understood by the Legislature and appropriate for to say let us complete those that have started. So when you reduce the budget for Lagos-Ibadan Expressway from N31 billion to N10 billion, then we now have to meet to appeal to you and you say okay you will give us only N10 billion more, and we are owing the contractor about N15 billion already and the contractors have written to me to say they are going to shut down; you reduce Second Niger Bridge from N17 billion to N10 billion. You reduce Okene-Lokoja-Abuja by about N3 billion or N4 billion. And meanwhile, just a few weeks ago some Representatives were complaining about the same road. The only reason why it is not being finished is budgeting provision and funding. Everybody wants power. We put Mambilla there, you cut it by I think about N7 billion. Bodo-Bonny Road is a bridge to the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas station, you remove some of it. So we have to start coming to explain this to you. If there was an intention to do this, discuss it during the budget defence. Why did we spend so much taxpayers’ money, so much time, television coverage all those things and we didn’t resolve these issues? And then after we have gone, you seem to unilaterally on your own change everything. So what was the purpose of that interaction? So it is a complex thing. But I think as I said it is part of our evolution as a country and the age of our democracy. I think that they had this problem also in the United States of America. And from the checks I have done, even in the National Assembly they have what is called earmarks, but in principle they have agreed it must be federal projects. So whatI have in my budget now: Primary Healthcare Centers, boreholes. That is what is in the budget. That was the meeting we have with the Acting President, explaining to them that look… It was after appealing to them that they will increase some of those roads, explaining to them that Bodo-Bonny, the N9 billion there was our counterpart funding. And they now said they will restore it. So those were the reasons the budget wasn’t signed on time. Because the budget that came out, we didn’t recognise it from what went it.

Was this because there was not enough consultations with the lawmakers?
You see, let me say immediately that nobody has even been guilty of over consultation. We are always guilty of under consultation. But how much consultation, what are the mechanics for consultation? The MTEF, which is first presented before the Budget, is a consultation platform. The Committee hearings is a consultation platform. It might interest you to know that during my tour across the country, what the governors were asking for was different from what the elected representatives of the State at the federal level were asking for. Legislators were largely, not all, because I won’t say the same thing of everybody, some were saying they wanted roads too their constituencies and I was saying that look your governor says he wants X road that connects his state so let us do for example Kano-Maiduguri, let us do Oyo-Ogbomosho, let’s do Enugu-Port Harcourt that connects several states, but they are perhaps interested more in roads that go to their Senatorial Districts or their federal constituencies. And I argued that look, if we can’t get to your state, how can we get to your constituency? So it is perhaps a conflict between constituency and national development. And I think that as statesmen that I assume that we all are, it should be the national development first. Now, I must be fair, the people also have a burden here that they have transferred onto legislators. Our people expect that legislators will build roads, that they will build hospitals and that is what gets them the votes. So, we need to understand this. We must then continue to educate the people that the legislator’s job is not to build roads. And that is why in the process of choosing what goes into the budget, every state has a Minister in that cabinet. And that is why before the budget is presented by the president, it must first be debated in the cabinet, approved by the cabinet, comprising Ministers from 36 states and the Vice President and President who campaigned round the country and made promises also to various constituents. This is for me the price of self-governance. A lot of consensus building.

In advanced democracies, we the tenet of lobbying, which can include greasing palms. Why is it not applied in our own case here?
Let me say first of all that it is happening and I have spoken to you about meetings that we have held. That is why the President has presidential advisers and liaison officers to the National Assembly. This is their work. And that is why there is also a party because we also belong to parties as well. And you will also see that even within the Executive, interestingly the Minister for Budget and National Planning used to be the Chairman of Appropriation (Senate). He was a senator. And you have quite a number of parliamentarians in the Executive. So it is not that this thing is not happening. I think part of the problem is that apart from the period 1999 to 2007 where this issue first came up and they tried to address it, and the period between 2007 and 2010 when President Yar’Adua died, again it was a big issue, no president has frontally addressed this matter since 2011. Indeed, if you recall, the president never took the budget. So he had abdicated that responsibility. So perhaps because that was the situation, the lawmakers had increasingly entered that territory. And when a vacuum is created and somebody enters it, you then find a new president who carries his budget, scrupulously reads it and wants to see what is there, and they say ha ha when did this start again. Just take what we give you. This is what we used to do before. And I think perhaps this was what played up. That is a very simplistic was to put it. But I think we must pay attention to the budget. Once the budget is wrong, the development is wrong. And we can’t afford this just at the time we are trying to come out of recession. And I must commend the National Assembly that in the last year, they allowed some flexibility and that is why you could see the progress that we have made getting contractors back to work in places where no work was being done. But to suddenly now do a flip back, as it were, instead of allowing that momentum to continue, you must understand it in the context of elections are coming, we want todo something in our constituencies.

Before the 2015 election, you held a meeting with Corporate Nigeria, with the then presidential candidate there, former Governor Rotimi Amaechi too was there and so many others, where you promised to do so many things. Two years down the line, can you say that promise has been fulfilled?
It is difficult to answer that your question with a yes or no because everything is contextual. What I ask people to do is ask yourself the question: What if? Let me give you one What if? What if we had used that $100 per barrel of crude oil efficiently in that 2015, will we be here today? What if that government that didn’t use that $100 per barrel is still there when it is now $50, what will happen today? Then ask yourself: What if that government at that time is also still there today, how many states more will the insurgents have now taken over? Ask yourself: what if that government was still there, how many of those girls from Chibok out of the 106 would we have recovered? We have all been spared the answers to those questions because they have become hypothetical because we have not abdicated our own responsibilities. The development is contextual. How much economic development can you have when you are fighting insecurity? Just last week, I was writing to the Minister of Defence that we need help around Yobe, around Chibok area, Damaturu for our contractors to go back to work because they are being kidnapped. So we have been spared the consequences of that. There is a global economic downturn, whichever way you turn. Global. And it has local consequences. How it affects you locally depends on what you did yesterday. How did you prepare yesterday? And I have made this point publicly before: if you hear that winter is coming or that there is heavy rain coming, when rain comes or winter comes, those who invested in warm clothing will not be immune from the winter, but they will be better than you than did not get warm clothing. That is what happened. China’s growth has been revised downwards, UK’s growth downwards, America’s growth downwards. South Africa is in recession. Venezuela is in depression. In fact, it is a basket case. I will tell you: I went to, and this is one of the what ifs, a meeting in Iran, oil and gas exploration companies in Iran. And I remember I sat in a meeting right behind President Muhammadu Buhari and the Venezuelan president. And the Venezuelan president was saying at the meeting that he wanted to flood the market with oil because the prices had crashed because he need more money. And President Buhari was telling him, don’t do it, all of us will suffer. Let us holdout and let us see how we can work together and reduce output, moderate and control price and get more value per barrel of oil. He obviously didn’t listen. So we could also have been on the road to Venezuela. And that shows you the kind of very sensible, stern and focused leadership that the president and his team have provided through a global economic windstorm. How well we have fared is now a question of what we did yesterday. But in spite of all of that, the indices are now heading in the right direction. Exchange rate index is heading in the right direction, the negative growth is slowing down, heading towards recovery, inflation rate is dropping month-on-month and these are cyclical seasons anyway. In all of my 50-something years, I have seen Nigeria go through this almost every 10 years. We went through this during the June 12 crisis, but we were too busy fighting for the soul of the nation nobody was looking at the economic numbers. We went through it in 2012 during the global financial meltdown, but we had a reserve with which we cushioned it. So nobody really saw the impact. We went through it in 1984 when Buhari became president. When basic commodities were located away in warehouses. So, the economic solution therefore is a process and I think it is heading in the right direction. And thetas why this budget is so important to push it back to the right side.