The Senate Minority Leader, Senator Enyinnaya Abaribe, speaks with SUNDAY ABORISADE on the controversial approval of the foreign loan request of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), and the alleged autocratic nature of Nigerian leaders, among other issues
You disagreed sharply with the President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan, over the approach he employed to ensure the approval of the $22.7bn loan request of the Federal Government. Were you really wrong in coming up with your argument for a fresh debate on the borrowing plan?
The context of the argument on the floor was that there are different items within the law (borrowing plan) that we are supposed to look at and we felt that, to pass it, we would need to look at each item and know which of them would actually bring value to the country considering the fact that where we are now, a blanket resolution that every money borrowed will have a multiplier effect, is wrong. I was advocating a line by line interrogation of what was provided for us by the committee and the Senate President felt that the Committee had done its job and that we would either vote for all or won’t vote for any. That was the basis for the disagreement.
The Senate President also said that there was an opportunity for you to ask necessary questions during the debate on the second reading of the document instead of trying to do so now that you know it’s not in accordance with the Senate rules.
There was no much information on the details of the proposed borrowing plan when the issue was debated upon on the floor. There was no breakdown at that stage. Details of the borrowing plan and the beneficiaries were brought out when the committee met with the beneficiaries of the loan. During the second reading, most of the details contained in the presentations by the Minister of Finance, heads of the ministries and agencies of government including state governments who would benefitted from the proposed loans had not been done . The necessary revelations about the loan were done when the committee met with beneficiaries.
Some said you appeared not interested in the loan request hence your decision to shun the final approval process?
Nobody is against taking of the loan per se. Far from it. What we are saying is that taking of loans, especially some that are not for viable reasons, and some that are so general that you don’t really know how you can access the return on investment on it, is worrisome. For example, if you build a road, we know that it would reduce time being wasted in the course of transportation and it increases economic activities in the area because it makes it easier to move things from one point to another. But turning around and then telling me that you are doing an enhancement of educational programme is nebulous and open. There is no feasible value in sight for the people. Another example is the $500m for the Nigerian Television Authority to do digital imaging which are adequately covered by the private sector. Look at the kind of arguments that were made to justify it. Saying that Nigerian goes to South Africa and Europe to do editing for instance, makes no sense because it is basically a private sector enterprise. Is government going to build its own facilities? Government cannot run a business. That is why we said we should look at these things individually and then, debate it to justify its approval or not.
Some of your colleagues also pointed that there is nothing in the proposed loan for the South – East geopolitical zone. …..
Atalanta in quarantine after Valencia coronavirus cases
Everybody has seen that the borrowing plan had no single provision for the South-East geopolitical zone, yet the South-East would be made to pay for a loan that didn’t benefit its people. I had the opportunity to be at the Rivers State Government House over the weekend and the state Governor, Nyesom Wike, said there was no Federal Government investment in the state, despite the fact that the oil that comes from there, would be used to repay the loans. When you see all these things, you need to really reflect on them. People feel we are just being intransigent, we are not. We are just pointing out things that really matter to the unity of the nation
You were part of the 8th Senate that rejected the bill because of the reasons earlier pointed out by you. Why pass it for second reading when the same issues that led to its rejection then had not been addressed?
The same request came in the 8th Assembly and it was rejected because the details were not very clear. I guess that since the government felt that they could not have their way, they left it. They have brought the details now but were not allowed to interrogate these details. We cannot really say much during the second reading because the details were not there. When the committee came with the details, we were not allowed to question the rationale behind taking some of the loans in the first instance.
Are you saying you did not go against the Senate rules by insisting on discussing the details of the loan before approval after the committee had submitted its report?
There is always a third reading. When the committee comes out with its report based on its findings, we will look at the report and decide to either agree or disagree with its recommendations. We can even agree with something at the second reading and when it comes for third reading, we disagree because there would be better and further facts that would be available to us based on the committee’s report. It is based on the further facts that would inform our decision to either accept or reject the recommendations. For anybody to say we didn’t speak during the second reading on the proposed loan request is not being fair on us.
Both the Finance Minister and the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance said the 8th Senate approved about $6bn out of the $29.96bn requested by the Federal Government then, were the details of the amount approved then provided for you….
(cuts in) I cannot remember when such approval was given. I will have to check my records and archives again to know what to say about it.
Were these parts of the reasons you said that the democracy as being practiced now is becoming difficult?
What I said really is that there is an impatience with the authorities to listen to another point of view. So, any contrary opinion to theirs is unacceptable. Instead of looking at the merit of the opposing point of view, what they do now, is to decide on whether you are on the side of government or not. All those who said yes and vote on the side of government now seems to be the right people whereas democracy thrives on conflict of ideas and interest anywhere in the world. That is what democracy thrives on. That is why I said may be some people are finding the idea of democracy very difficult because they are authoritarian by nature.
Now that the South-East and the South-South geopolitical zones are saying that their people are not beneficiaries of the multi-billion dollar loan request, do you foresee a review of the borrowing plan?
I find it incongruous when we have to be fighting over who will take loans or not. It is because it affects all of us. It affects every one of us. When we go into debt peonage it affects our country. We were rejoicing as a nation that we were about to exit the debt trap but all of a sudden, we are back there with even greater proportion. If you look at it, you will ask yourself where are we going as a nation or not. I know that there are lots of arguments that the country needs investment and that taking loans would make it easier because it would lead to multiplier effects and increase the economy. That is true. But what type of investment do we need now as a nation? That is what we are asking. Assuming the roads that are being built now are being tolled in some ways, we can now say that the toll that will come from the roads, which we built with the loan, would be used to repay the loan. Then there is no problem. Also, the investment in the power sector should be defined in such a way that those consuming power will pay back the loan.
Are you saying that there are some of the projects which the loan is meant to fund which are not really viable investment?
Some parts of the loan cannot be tied to anything. When you cannot tie it to any form of investment, then, it means that every money that is coming in to the country as revenue will be used to pay back the loan. Already, the problem facing the country now is that, almost 30 per cent of our income is being used in debt servicing. Yet, we are being put into further debt now and nobody in government is seeing anything wrong with that instead somebody will come and tell you that the totality of our economy is in order. You don’t check debt to GDP. Rather, you check the actual earnings you are making to be able to pay back the debts and the service obligations that you have without being had to be dragged on the rest of the things you need to pay for. Civil servants need to be paid. Our children need education and there should be welfare programme for the citizenry. There must also be security for lives and property of Nigerians. If 90 per cent of our revenue now goes into debt servicing, will the other 10 per cent takes care of other services? When we are borrowing, we should bother about the micro economy.
A member of the opposition party in the Senate, Clifford Ordia, led the committee that carried out legislative activities on the loan and he came up with the recommendations that led to the approval of the loan. Does that mean there is no longer clear demarcation between the majority and the opposition in the Senate?
This question should be directed to him (Ordia), not to me. We are not doing these things on the basis of political party affiliation, but we are looking at what is in the best interest of Nigerians and the nation in general. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in party ‘A’ or party ‘B’. As a Senator, Iam supposed to ask myself. What is it that I’m supposed to do? If I see that the assignment given to me wouldn’t work well for my nation, I should have the courage to tell whoever gave me the assignment that we don’t think that this is in the best interest of the nation.
What is the way out now since you have expressed the fears that the nation is being overburdened with debts?
There are people who are in charge of our economy. It is up to our economic managers to review the whole thing and in the light of the whole criticisms, make the best decision for our country.
But the Senate President said the capital component of the 2020 budget would be funded with part of the foreign loan……
I am not aware that we agreed to use part of the loan to fund the capital component of the budget. I remember that it was mentioned by the Senate President that the loan would fund part of the 2020 budget and I also remember telling him that I don’t think that it was correct because a loan is an expectation. Assuming we agree to take the loans and the people who are supposed to give us the loan, for one reason or the other, declined? Will you still force them to give you? So, what will happen to the capital projects? The argument that we will borrow money to fund our capital projects is neither here nor there