Wednesday, 29 June 2016

A Must Read Interview by Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) cc @DrJoeAbah

The Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Engr Babachir David Lawal, in this interview with select journalists in Abuja, vowed that the Federal Government will recover all looted funds. He also spoke on the controversy surrounding the ambassadorial nominees and other national issues.

Engr Babachir David Lawal, Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF)

Apprehension and anxiety among Nigerians over delay in budget implementation. 

The concept of our budgeting in this government is zero budgeting where government considers only appropriate key projects that are important for the implementation of its key programmes and policies. To that effect, the Ministry of Budget has sent out a request to Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) to send their request for capital fund releases.

All MDAs have replied and the Budget Office has started releasing money for capital projects according to the priority of government. It is important to prioritize because we are all aware that the revenue of government has fallen by about 40 per cent since the budget was approved by the National Assembly. As we all know, budget is a statement of intention, implementation will be based on the reality of the revenue as the years go by. And because of that, MDAs are required to write a request for funds only for those projects that were appropriated by the National Assembly and; secondly, that the ministry considers important as a priority, so to say. Quite a number of the projects obviously that are in the budget might not be a priority to the ministry. During the budget process, we had the issue of padding where the executive discovered that the National Assembly included certain projects in the budget and appropriated for them.

That did not originate from the executive branch, so obviously such projects will not be considered a priority for the executive branch of government if at all they managed to sneak through the vetting process jointly carried out by both the executive and the National Assembly which eventually produced the budget. Even those that have been appropriated for, in light of the dwindling revenue, government will still need to prioritize. For example, government might find it very difficult to implement the constituency projects to the letter because MDAs might not find constituency projects as critical to the execution of their mandate and given the dwindling resources this could be some of the areas that will suffer during implementation. If the revenue of the government improves, of course, all capital projects appropriated for will be fully implemented. But we do not see that happening soon. While the government is willing to do that, it is obvious that it can only implement that for which you have money and I think these are some areas that might suffer from the implementation in the budget.

On invitation by the National Assembly in connection with the Ambassadorial nominees.

This (last Friday) morning, I received a letter from the National Assembly summoning me to appear before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, essentially what they want is a letter from us indicating the criteria used in the nomination of the career Ambassadors which the President forwarded to them for confirmation. We will respond to that letter and God willing I will appear.

Date Of Appearance.

The letter stated Tuesday 10:00 am, however I’ve just got a phone call from the Minister of Foreign Affairs that the date has been shifted to July 11. I have not seen the confirmation effect to that but the date has been shifted. Certainly, we will appear, we are law abiding, we respect the National Assembly and we respect the laws of the land. One thing however is clear, the constitution makes it clear that it is the prerogative of the president to nominate ambassadors and the criteria he will use to do so is also the constitutional right of the President. Whatever criteria he chooses to use is constitutional. Be that as it may, I must say that we are disappointed that the National Assembly took the decision it took but again we believe that the Senate is made up of very responsible and patriotic Nigerians, great people including former governors who know the constitution regarding separation of powers. We believe that the Senate will not do anything that will bring the country to disrepute because right now Nigeria enjoys tremendous goodwill all over the globe. Countries now have high regard and respect for our president, our ministers and all other representatives of government are treated very well and with respect wherever they go. It is important to have ambassadors, therefore, to sustain this goodwill.

Again, a lot of the travels by the president and government representatives are to attract direct foreign investment into the country and ambassadors are key to sustaining this and ensuring that the goals for these trips are achieved. A third reason why we think these ambassadors are key is because of the phenomenal of global terrorism; almost every country around the world is facing it and all nations of the world are now collaborating with each other to fight this international terrorism. It is important that Nigerians has representatives on the ground who will represent its interest and defend it.  Delaying the screening of ambassadors even by one day is inimical to the country and we believe that senators being patriotic Nigerians will not want to cause undue hardship and put Nigeria at an undue advantage in any regard. While we respect their rights and their views on the issues of ambassadorial nominees, we expect that in coming to whatever decision, they will consider patriotism and put into cognisance the interest of their own country and not due to probably political considerations or even personal considerations to bring undue hardship and disadvantage to their own country.

Of course, we have read in the newspapers some of their concerns such as federal character and so on. At the last count, my recollection is that out of the 47 diplomat nominees, the 36 states were represented. Out of 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, 32. While the constitution preaches federal character, it does not say that every state must be represented in any appointment, except of course in the case of ministers. Not in all other appointments, so the spirit of the constitution has been fully satisfied by having 32 ambassadors out of 36 plus one, I believe that every objective analyst will agree with this. Secondly, there has to be merit and qualifications in every nomination, one of the criteria that I understand that was used is that it is important not to appoint someone an ambassador that will soon retire, if you know the processes of nominating and deploying ambassadors you will know that for example, it is highly unlikely that the Senate will be done with it within the next two, three weeks. These ambassadors will need to be presented to the countries where they are going to be posted for checks and confirmation by those countries. We cannot dictate the speed at which they will do it, so it could take in all honesty probably six to seven months for an ambassador to fully be cleared and assume his new post. It will take longer still for him to acclimatise and settle down to his work.

There have been a subsisting policy not by this regime alone that it will be good for someone who has 30 months to retire not be be posted because then he will just be settling down before retiring, it doesn’t make sense. Indeed, quite a number of countries have had cause to complain about this, you post someone an ambassador within one year or one and half years, and he retires. So, one of the criteria the person must have is that he must not be less than 30 months to retirement. Therefore, if they have this, you have not met the criteria. Another criteria that was considered was your accelerating level, you must be someone on grade level 16 or 17, due to no fault of this government, not all states have people in the ministry of foreign affairs, in the foreign service department that met this criteria.

States that didn’t meet the criteria.

Four states didn’t make it one way or the other. However, not necessarily on the criteria of seniority. There are also criteria and qualifications that are required to post you to go and represent Nigeria, not just because while in the foreign service or the civil service you were able to make grade level 16 or 17, quite a number of qualifications are needed. Again, there are specialised areas for which only specialists are required. So, even if you make that retirement criteria, service length or rank criteria, there are other criteria. Also, there is the requirement of gender sensitivity, this government in its APC manifesto promises gender equality, this is another criterium that was used to the extent that we have about 12 women in the list of 47, among other criteria. Again, it is solely the president’s prerogative to determine the criteria to use to appoint an ambassador while we acknowledge also that it is also the prerogative of the Senate to approve or not to approve that nomination. So, obviously for all the criteria set up for this nomination, quite a number of states did not make it.

If I remember very well, Ondo, Bayelsa, Plateau and one other state did not make it but basically if any state does not have anybody among the list of 47, it is because one way or the other they did not meet the criteria including the criteria of qualification. Qualification in the sense that all said and done you must have the character, the integrity and the experience to represent Nigeria even if you meet all the criteria. You must be change compatible, that is you must have the integrity, you must have the experience, you must really just have the qualifications that are required of a representative of Nigeria.

These are only career diplomats fully drawn from the civil service, they are not political ambassadors, you must also understand that being posted out as an ambassador is not promotion, if you are a level 16 officer and you are posted out as an ambassador, it doesn’t mean you become level 17. When you finish your duty tour, subject to your other requirements of upward mobility in the service, you come back to where you left unless while in the service, you have earned yourself a promotion. So, it is not right to think that just because one is appointed an ambassador or because a level 17 is appointed an ambassador because he met the criteria while a level 17 officer from the same state who couldn’t make all the criteria does not mean level 16 officer is now your senior, it is just a duty tour. Again, we should understand that there are other ambassadorial appointments that will come from outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or related agencies, those I could call maybe purely non-career diplomats.

It is obvious the government will use those appointments to try and balance any lopsidedness in the current list, unless of course, we again cannot take a political appointee that will meet a criteria that we will set up for that purpose. It is not automatic that for example if I cannot find a suitable APC man in Adamawa State I will go for an APGA man. So I don’t understand the worry while this is just a first phase that is drawn from career civil service. All over the civil service, you will see these type of lopsidedness in which some states do not have certain categories of staff or certain ranks and therefore when this type of selection comes you will find that the government will not be able to be equitable just because its hands are tied by the system. So I don’t see why the Senate is over working itself about because I don’t think it is lopsided because they haven’t gotten representatives from 32 states, having worked hard to have gotten gender equality, having tried hard to get the people with the correct qualifications; the government can’t be faulted.

On likelihood of carrying out the merger or scrapping of parastatals in accordance to Oronsaye reports.

Look, the Oronsaye Report is domiciled here as the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. They did a good job, not necessarily that everything is acceptable. What happened to the Oronsaye Report was that they made their recommendations and took it to the Cabinet. By the time the White Paper came out, it appeared that only 40 per cent of the recommendations were approved for implementation by the White Paper. It appeared that every minister started defending his staff. For example, parastatals recommended for scrapping suddenly found themselves in the survival list, because government is like that. So, the Oronsaye Report was completely mutilated during the White Paper. While the activity in itself was commendable, as a government, it is only natural that we look at it in the context of our own objectives. So, we are looking at it. A lot of hardwork went into it, and we would like to study it and implement it in agreement with our policies.

On probability of President Buhari implementing the 2014 Confab Reports.

Well, the government has not taken a decision on the 2014 National Conference. I understand that some Nigerians want it implemented but the government has been too busy with key areas of governance to talk about an exercise that we thought was essentially diversionary and a sort of, maybe, a ‘job for the boys’, because if you remember, it was reported that almost everybody in the committee got N7 million each, and we consider it essentially as job for the boys. They probably produced a document that is good and commendable but I mean, this government is too busy with very more vital areas of governance, and we are not intending to spend our time reading reports. The exercise of governance is not about reading reports. The reports are here, so many volumes that for example, it would take me like seven days to go through. The economy needs attention and I wonder what happens to my work while I am reading it; while the economy needs attention, unemployment is there, insecurity is there, people are blowing up pipelines and so on.

On allegation that he is responsible for the travails of the Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu.

See, let me tell you, the Office of the Secretary to Government is the punching bag of everybody, and that is how it should be. My own understanding of the present government in relation with the opposition is such that the integrity of our president has been established over his almost 73 years as solid; you cannot assail it. So, the only option left for you as a ‘dirty’ opposition since you must attack the government is to attack those less known. And those less known that are easy targets, that they think when they attack them, they are attacking the president are the SGF, the Chief of Staff, Minister of Petroleum and the CBN Governor, for one reason. These are appointive positions; they are not elective. Probably, they think that “oh, if we make him look dirty, the president would sack me.” In my life, I have seen Ekweremadu for, maybe twice, and the second one, was incidentally, in a church in Yola. I do not understand the psychology of, when you are accused of something, instead of defending yourself, you waste your time hunting for who could have been the cause of your travails.

If they remove Ekweremadu as the Deputy Senate President, how does that personally benefit us? Of course, while I was in the party then as National Vice Chairman, it was the party’s position that because we are the majority party in Parliament, that we should produce all the Principal Officers. To that extent as an APC member, I am not happy that APC has not produced the deputy senate president. It is an aberration, but the senators decided, which is their constitutional right, to create the aberration. The solution, if they need any solution would lie with them not BD Lawal, not SGF because I am not a senator. I am the SGF. So, whoever tells you that I am responsible for the travails of Senator Ike Ekweremadu is burying his head in the sand rather than running.

On Corrupt APC members.

Let us be very sincere and reasonable. Obviously, to my mind, the preponderance of corrupt people would be in the PDP for one reason; they have been in government for 16 years and they were the only ones enjoying the booty, and they were doing it in a flagrant manner. Tracing my own (political) genealogy for instance, from ANPP to CPC and now APC, we were not getting anything. Nobody was giving us contracts. PDP were the ones in government; they were the ones the president was approving money for sharing; they were the ones that took government money to fund their election. APC had no access to government money to fund the president’s election. It got to a stage when PDP saw it clearly on the wall; you remember they even shifted the elections; it was so clear they were going to lose, and so they thought they could buy it.

Throughout the last tenure of the Goodluck Jonathan campaign, their goodwill among Nigerians was on the decline and they were spending, and it got to a stage that they did not care about following the due process anymore because they thought they were in power and they thought they could buy their way through and remain in perpetuity. So, they became even careless about the manner they were taking the money. Remember, Nigeria even borrowed $100 million from the international market to fund the war on Boko Haram and they simply shared it. APC did not go to borrowing anywhere. We were not sharing oil wells. We had no access to NNPC funds. So, if these agencies were converted into agencies for looting and pilfering, it is obvious that even if we had corrupt men in the APC, they did not have the opportunity to steal, and that is assuming we had. I cannot, in all honesty, say that all of us in APC are saints, but the truth is, we did not have access to funds to steal in the first place, and so we did not have opportunity also to reject the stealing. So, let them roast in their stew. Let them carry their cross.

They can make all the noise and try to deflate APC, but our hands are clean by providence. Look, let us face it. If they arrest you, why don’t you say, ‘I shared the money with so and so persons’ and then let him turn out to be in APC? Those that they are arresting, it is from the interrogation that the information burst out. Let them leave us alone. This is just the beginning. They will return our money by the time we finish digging their soak-aways and bringing down their (overhead) tanks; we would recover our money. (Interview culled from Leadership)

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