Professor Olaseni Akintola-Bello is Nigeria’s Team Leader of European Union, Support for Federal Government Reform, (EU-SUFEGOR) since 2014.
Prof Bello, a renowned Economist, has been the CEO, Arbitrage Consult Limited, but has worked in various capacities with the European Union for years.
In this interesting interview with ODOGWU EMEKA ODOGWU, Prof Bello talks about operations of SUFEGOR, solution to corruption in Nigeria, true democratic leadership Nigeria wants and the personality of former Governor of Anambra State , Mr Peter Gregory Obi, CON among other issues. EXCERPTS:
What actually is the duties of SUFEGOR and what has the office done to warrant its existence in Nigeria?
We are supporting reforms and that is why we are one of the agencies that is supporting Bureau of Public Service Reforms. We also support office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation and National Bureau of Statistics for quality data generation that helps in decision making. We also provide support for ministry of Budget and National planning, particularly the micro economic department, and monitoring and evaluation department in the ministry and because of the recent integration of the budget office of the federation with the national planning commission, we also now extend our support to budget office of the federation.
Because you will need money to do some of those things, part of the objective is to increase the capacity of the federal Inland Revenue services. We provide support to some critical sectors of the economy. We assist Bureau of Public service reform in spearheading governance reforms and the office of the Head of the Civil service of the federation. But before that, we did what we called National strategy for public service reform which is to look at the direction of the governance reform in Nigeria. The National Strategy for Public Service Reform (NSPSR) has four pillars; the first is the Board which involves the transparency, accountability, corruption control, efficiency and effectiveness of government regulatory services which is part of the open governance as well as service delivery.
What of contracts, budget etc?
We also provide support for budget management to ensure that contract management is improved. We provide training for project officers as well as try to make the budget accessible to you and me. We did what is called understanding the budget to enhance simple understanding of the whole thing.
We are also looking at how the medium tax reform strategy can be reinforced so as to improve participation in budgeting and to also increase participatory perspective in budgeting in bureau of Statistics, the essence is to ensure that the number of statistical data considerably improve. We have administrative statistical data, script statistics, informal sector and Agric statistics in Nigeria. We want to make sure that the methodology for collating these data are based on best international practices because without good quality data, you cannot do much. The quantity of the statistics that can be affected.
And of cause we also have directorate of national planning, we have been active in supporting government in economic recovery good plan and we want to see how we can fit into vision 2020 and how the economy can grow from recession to recovery and from recovery to growth. The aim is that we want the public to grow to a reasonable level and that is why they are focusing on key critical sectors of the economy; agric for food, transport, maritime, and aviation, infrastructure which involves the road network, rail, road and others.
And of course, to succeed, we have to do the network of roads, you can see the Niger bridge, coming up quickly and the to ensure that the infrastructure are alright because infrastructural development can lead to employment. That is the essence of the Environmentally Responsible Public Procurement (ERPP) and usually we have what is called focus lab where we identify the key areas in each of these sectors.
As a renowned economist, how can you relate all you have said to the realities on ground, especially from the economic point of view?
That is what we call a jump in economics which means that something will first get worse before it gets better. Economics is all about people’s expectations; it matters a lot in economics. It takes time because people are looking at the fact that there is possible income and possible income lass with economic activities such as the multiplier effect. There are also other things we ought to put into consideration if you have a country that is ridden with corruption even with the best intention of the government.
People are only struggling to make living for themselves. So, for the economy to do well, we need a much disciplined situation. Even though we are fighting corruption but it seems nothing is happening. If you look at some of the World Bank reports on studies, it tells you that to tackle corruption requires a process, just like a chain reaction. So, each sector has a process and to tackle corruption, we ought to focus on these processes. I am not saying that what we are doing is not good, but it is medicine after death. But all I know is that to genuinely fight corruption in this country, there ought to be a process, where in government value chain can this corruption likely to take place, looking at these sectors, public finance, education, electricity and so on.
Since SERVICOM is for good governance why has it not applied these processes since 2004 till now in curtailing corruption?
SERVICOM came on board to implement certain activities. Every donor agency or partner has their programme when they are coming and the programme is governance reform, it is not focused to essentially fight corruption but focused to do so many things. One of the things that we are encouraging the Bureau of Public Service Reform to do is to hold an international seminar on anti-corruption in Nigeria and that one will be coming October this year on the many faces of corruption.
In a way, what you said is part of the things government can do but we are much interested on how government can generate more revenue, how government can make good decision or improve the quality of data generated by the national bureau of statistics. The National Bureau of statistics has gone far to make sure that the Federal School of Statistics in Enugu reviewed their syllabus so that they can improve their chances of being accredited by the National Technical Education and that has been completed. Some of these things can be subtle.
In the Bureau of Public Service Reforms, we published what is called the compendium of reforms in Nigeria from 2011 to 2017 ministry by ministry. We tried to identify some of the problems and how government has been tackling them. I can say that some of these reforms predate Buhari’s government. When Buhari came in, the reform still continues. But as I said earlier, it takes time for some of these things to mature but what we do is to make sure we don’t relax n the efforts of fighting corruption because if you don’t fight corruption, it will fight you. There is no country that doesn’t have corruption but the most important thing is to identify it and nip it in the board. And at times, you don’t do as you like, there is rule of law, there are procedure you have to follow. You don’t behave like other countries where if you are involved in corruption, you will be exterminated straight away. We are not like that type of country.
So, to succeed, you need a very determined leader and a leader who is above board, when you look at corruption, you have to look at the broad perspective. It is not only about stealing money. When you put people in a position that they don’t deserve, it is also part of corruption. So, corruption has so many dimensions and you suppose to tackle them one by one.
You said when people that supposed to be in power are in power, Nigeria turns better, do you have people in mind?
There are so many people that can make good leaders. But this country is a very funny country because they don’t look at people who are credible but people who can spend money very lavishly and people don’t really realise that when people are talking, it is their money that they are using to talk. Some people that are talking today in this country are talking because of money. People got oil block, something that belongs to me and you and so, they can now talk, you know Nigerians, we are slaves to money.
You wonder why a governor after about eight years in office will want to become a senator, it is because they want immunity to continue to protect them but there are some governors who did not do that. For example, in Anambra state, though am not an advocate of Mr. Peter Obi but the man tried his best. I lived in Anambra state for over seven years from 2006 to 2012 as European Union EU State coordinator. There was a programme we had then, reforms for funding institutions programme. When you look at Anambra state now, it is very calm and we made a lot of strides in terms of fund, for example, participatory budgeting, which is very important. It is one of the key achievements of Peter Obi, because he believes so much in it and he relates a lot to the people. One of the things you can do in governance is to give equal participation both at the community level. He really encouraged the town unions when he was there. They had voice. So, the people who are now enjoying the foundation he built forgot that somebody laid the foundation. He also ensured interconnectivity of roads. It is now easy to move from Awka to Ihiala , from Abagana to Awkuzu or to Eziowelle and from there to Idemmili area and other rural communities. The roads are interconnected. He domiciled ANIDS in the budgeting of the state in line with MDG’s/NEEDS of the Federal Government and used it to work virtually in all sectors for his people. He remained the best that has happened to Anambra state even with complaints of his miser attitude to spending money by his people particularly politicians. He believed in using the money for public good.
Also, in education, a lot of schools were there, he spent money in schools. He gave the Anambra state University Igbariam now Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University, COOU intervention fund of N5B at a glance. In Nigeria people don’t sustain good legacies. Even in Lagos state, some governors do that. The present governor in Lagos state is doing well, but he tries to undo some of the things that Fashola did just as Fashola also had his own policies to undo what Tinubu did. I think such is bad but people are now putting emphasis on performance. Look at what happened in Ekiti state. I thought the way the man was shouting the people will be swayed even though people said it was rigged but they were the people that said it was rigged. People also accuse him of rigging his own. So, I think there are credible people in Nigeria but what we have not done is to identify people with experience as our leaders so that people don’t just get up from somewhere and say that they want to become president.
There must be a kind of stages one has to attain in leadership before aspiring for that position. It is easier for a governor to become president because he has acquired the necessary experience and skills of governance before thinking of the experience expansion so that if you are eventually elected, you have to take every part of the country as your own so that you don’t create any room for suspicion of favouritism or nepotism and their ought to be fairness in distribution of the nation’s resources. So, Peter Obi tried in developing the critical sectors of the economy as a Governor of Anambra state but, I will blame him for failing in one important area which is developing Awka as a modern State capital. Some local governments like Awka North were completely a different nuclear thing. It was even very difficult to access Awka North till date. So, he didn’t develop Awka at all, not to talk of Awka North. Awka North was like abandoned. I don’t know how it is today , four years after Governor Willie Obiano took over.
Once you leave Enugu and approaching Awka, you will be expecting to see a nice building but you wouldn’t see any. Though, he did his best to develop other key areas. So, I can say he is one of the persons that are credible but people say he doesn’t like spending money.
But you earlier rated him very high?
Yes, he was rated high for prudence financial management. There was a programme called State bearing point for equity mechanism which European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (EBRD) sponsored through Department for International Development (DFID) of the Unite Kingdom government, which was the standard instrument for measuring performance. We looked at so many factors in determining performance for the governor’s forum. They developed the template which we used in the assessment. He did very well. In fact, in the assessment he did very well, if not the best if there is anything like that. He was the then Chairman of the South East Governor’s forum, and then we were looking for who will bail the cat and he volunteered for that and told us to start from his state and the state did very well.
In fact, he blazed the trail in terms of the state’s peer review mechanism. But the problem is that, in Nigeria, a state like Anambra State, is viable for news media people. But Obi didn’t want to shout his feats then. He achieved a lot and made little noise about them. If he had use the media, because there is a lot of media in Anambra state, some of the things he did would have been highlighted just as the incumbent governor, Chief Obiano is doing now. Obi raised the IGR of Anambra state quite alright but he was very frugal with money and since he handles money that way in a small state, he may not do well when given the opportunity to superintend the 36 states where we have over 1000 public agencies with different interests. So, for somebody to be eligible to govern Nigeria, he must be a good manager of money and good manager of resources.
He is coming from a very comfortable background. He has made his money before coming into politics. He believed that people should work for money before they get it. So my only fear for him is that we have a complex country where people feel that government money belongs to them and it’s their right and that is what is causing the problem. So, we need a leader that can fix Nigeria, a leader that is frugal and knows the values, because once you lose money, it is difficult to get it back.
Assuming after now, Peter Obi declares to contest for the President of Nigeria, what will be your advice for him?
He has to relax and spend money for there is no how he will get that in this country without spending money. Somebody like myself, for example, will like to be a senator but I don’t have that type of money to spend because if you spend that kind of money and you don’t get elected, you are ruined. He is a right person for that position, he is approachable and he doesn’t discriminate. Throughout my stay in Anambra, he didn’t show that I am from Yoruba. In fact, people are even telling me that I am closer to the governor that I should help them beg for one favour or the other because he listens to a good advice. He wants good advice and if he sees it, he grabs it. There was a s time we did a study about Citizens Report card on education, water supply and health in the three cities of Awka, Onitsha and Nnewi because that type of study has to be done in urban areas and you have to ask people their impression about the quality of service. We came out with a very outstanding findings and he was so amazed by the fact that people are even collecting money to be served. That is something he didn’t like at all and horridly set up a committee to ensure that the problem is looked into. That is part of responsiveness. A leader must be responsive, responsible and accountable. Peter Obi is a leader and he is responsive, responsible and accountable, no matter the misgivings from some quarters. I wasn’t in his kitchen cabinet but I have access to him, and discovered that he was responsive.
There was a time when crisis broke out about money found and buying cars and what have you, and he didn’t like it at all. He opened up and said he wanted them to prove their case, which they did because there was no longer reference to that. He is somebody that is very frugal and people wondered why he paid such amount to a car dealer. He is not that kind of person but you know in Anambra and South East, we have so many big people that you can’t scratch their back because if you scratch their back, they will scratch your face.
There was a time we wanted to do a medium term expenditure frame work, he organized a workshop for all the permanent secretaries and other stakeholders and told them that he wouldn’t mind being part of the workshop but his worry was if all the villages and communities did participate before it closes. He was following the process but said he wouldn’t like to institutionalize the process so that other people can benefit from it.
Do you agree that politicians have turned Nigeria into election nation following the diversion of resources, political campaign at the expense of good governance?
I will say yes but it is our fault because we have the National Assembly and we send rascals to the National Assembly and the rascals now make laws and amend our constitution. (Apologies to eminently qualified ones in the National Assembly and Houses of Assembly). I give you an example, Nigerians should not have accepted the security vote which governors are spending anyhow. We should not have accepted the immunity of the governors or anybody, we should not have also accepted the issue of constituency project because by its name, it means that government is not doing well. Constitutionally, it is only the executive that is expected to spend public money. No part of the constitution that said we should give money to lawmakers to spend.
Recently, we discovered that one of the ways they use to delay the budget was to go to President and say look, let’s increase this project from 45 to 50 and they bargain. Two barrels can come to us and President or the executive can keep the rest. That is a horror and wickedness because if a nation has a good budget practices, things like that would have been accommodated because that is why people are talking about the organic budget law where everything is well spelt out, their tight schedules are given and all these demand for constituency project will be accommodated through the various committees that will be set up by the national assembly. They will be accommodated through the budget law and that is what participatory budget is all about. So, it’s our fault. They made budgetary provisions for certain projects and keep the rest for elections and that is why we have so many abandoned projects.
What have you done in that regards?
We have commenced study in the abandoned capital projects in Nigeria, though, we have not completed it but we just concluded the first stage and the next stage is to go on physical inspection. It is only when you go for physical inspection that you have thorough result. It is not only the parliamentarians, it also involves the executives-civil servants. We don’t spend time to look at these capital projects and that is one of the lapses we need to correct because most of the cost expenses are padded and the benefits are much more than the cost. So, it’s easy to approve them than when you now start, you now start seeing the generality of expenditure and the government will now say no, we can’t continue to do this and that is our problem. In Nigeria, we have very good laws on the physical responsibility act which says any project that exceeds certain amount should go through what we call cost benefit analysis of basic finances and I have never seen any project cost analysis done.
We don’t obey laws here. We breech them. The same physical responsibility law says that corporations should remit certain percent of their earnings to government but most of them don’t obey it. Before, JAMB was not remitting a very quality sum to government, but now we marvel at its remittances. So, there is something in our financial regulations that is awkward and weak and that is what we have to look at. Sometimes I wonder how it is possible for somebody to take up to billions of naira for pension and nobody dictated it. So, there are some weaknesses in our financial processes. So, we now come back to what I said about the World Bank study. The process must be weak. Now the money is gone and we now start shouting Maina this and Maina that. The money has left the treasury, so the question is, how did it leave? So, there is something wrong with our financial management process and we need to do something about that. So, it’s a problem that we have.
Based on what you said about our law, budgeting system, corruption and pension scam, how can you describe our democracy?
We are still far from the target of a truly democratic country because in a democratic country, there will be processes that will bring you to law. You cannot just do anything you like. There must be respect to human law. But at times, I keep seeing this rule of law as a very funny thing too. Take for instance, if you don’t put your hand in government coffers, EFCC will not come to your house.
So, people are taken public funds and putting it into private use. So, I will say that democracy needs discipline and we don’t need to jump into hasty conclusion by saying that fight against corruption is one sided. It is one sided but they didn’t come to my house. If you go into politics and soil your hand, EFCC will go after you, whether you are in PDP or APC and I think the problem with us is that we need to develop the very objective way of looking at things. We are too sentimental and too emotional to jump into conclusion and the media too is not helping matters. You don’t do investigation only to arrive at editorial to say we shouldn’t do this or that. If there is a case of certificate forgery, for instance, in a real democracy, you investigate it and expose the person. Well, I think we only need leaders who will leave above this pettiness and shun ethnicism, corruption and all that but we will one day get there and that is why all these Property Verification Number (PVN) , Bank Verification Number (BVN) and what have you are hanging everybody. With that, they can trace you anytime. So, I am optimistic we will get there. Now people are not paying tax, but after sometime, they won’t be able to do that.
What is your word for Nigerians against vote buying which now infiltrate our political space?
Vote buying is a corruption on its own but one thing people don’t understand is the fact that they sell their right when they sell their votes to good development and as I said earlier, there are weaknesses in our law. There should be a law that is regulating all these including defections. There should be a provision for independent candidate in our constitution so that it will be difficult for people to jump from APC to PDP or to ADC as the case today in the country. A country deserves a leader it gets. If a politician comes to you and offer you N5,000 for you to vote for them, you may not have right to complain of bad governance. What it means is that you have ab initio sold your right to good governance. So, the point is that this vote buying is not done in the open, they do it secretly. I also suggest that we properly structure our system the security agencies be properly empowered so that no amount of money can entice them. Vote buying is criminal offence and it should be part of our constitution.
EU has been accused of keeping mum in the face of corruption, as well in the area of herdsmen killing and others?
There are so many donor agencies in Nigeria and the issues you raised are not part of their mandate and there is an international agreement that you don’t come to a country and get involved in their politics. In fact they were warned not to venture into the politics of any country where they exist unless a very important issue. It is easier for government of a country like France or Germany or Britain or America to say, no, you can’t do this but EU is a multinational agency and their objective is to come and help the country and not to dabble into politics, otherwise, they lose their credibility. And that was why EU funds a number of things.
They fund the non-governmental organisations to be more aware and to be in better position to hold government accountable and arrest some of the tricks in governance and they also do a lot of election monitoring. This is just to ensure that fairness is enshrined in the electoral contest. So, EU, USAID, World Bank, Bill Gate Foundation and other donor agencies will never get involved in the politics of the country otherwise , if another government comes in, they become the enemy of that government. They supposed to come as an impartial umpire and they are trying to help the country in so many ways.
Having accessed all past and present governors in Nigeria, how do you think they can come together to salvage this nation?
How can they come together when they all have a vested interest? Look at Malaysia for example, the man sworn in as Prime Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was in power as Deputy Prime Minister, later left the scene and then went away and formed an opposition because he did well when he was there and the whole people voted for him years after and he returned as the leader, that is the role some of these politicians like Obasanjo are to be playing. To me, he shouldn’t be partisan, he should be an elder statesman so that we can call on him to come and salvage the nation for us. But if one is already taken sides and once that is done, you lost your credibility.
Apart from Obasanjo, look at Jonathan, he rarely says anything. Others like Abubarkar, IBB and others hardly say anything and I wonder where objectivity lies. The people we can look up to are the People that are causing serious problem in Nigeria. They are people with big money because I know it’s impossible to be a governor or even a House member without money. There is no conscience and morality among our people. What we are doing in this country is money politics.
Your assessment of Peter Obi who is a politician and a businessman as people are calling on him to come an contest for president or become a Vice to someone preparatory to 2022 when it is the turn of South-East?
Tutelage is very important, he has to position himself very well because if he serves as vice president under anybody, it will give him a tremendous experience but he has to do something about his frugality because there are certain things you have to do in a federal system just to keep the country together, because, somethings become complex when you are superintending over a large group of people. I think he can be a very good Vice President but I don’t even know why he doesn’t want to go to the senate assuming he went to the senate, he would have performed well but I think the problem was that he left Anambra state and joined PDP which, to me, is not a good move but he wants to be politically relevant but I don’t want to talk about PDP as a party, but, Peter Obi is a perfect gentleman.
I don’t think he is a rough man. He loves Anambra and invariably Ndigbo hence he was Chairman of South East Governors forum for 8 years even while coming from a minority party so to speak. He is very passionate over anything he believes in. He believes in Nigeria, hence since after he left office , he has continue to support Education in hard to reach areas across Nigeria. He is very refined, though, may have his faults, and he speaks his mind .Even as a governor, he gets up and serves everybody. To succeed in this country, one needs to be a strong man and ready to spend money but I must admit that he is a very intelligent man. He is very hard working and business minded, strong too because to govern Anambra with several Billionaires is not a child’s play. I think, with his antecedents, he can do well if given a higher responsibility.
Anambra state is a very difficult state to manage and anybody that manages Anambra state can manage the nation and that is why I am not too sure why Senator Chris Ngige didn’t succeed because he went into the midst of the confrontation. Anambra was a very hot place but he was able to get people together from all the different camps and he became very acceptable. Generally, he tried in Anambra but did not do well in Awka, especially in Awka North which is one of the poorest council areas in the state following the outcome of our poverty mapping.
Other poor areas include Ogbaru, Anambra East and West and others. When we presented the case, he was shocked and swung into action immediately and that is a feature of a responsive leader.