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Nigeria’s rising debt, subsidy to privatised public assets worrisome –Auwal, CISLAC boss

Mr Musa Auwal, is the Executive Director and Chief Executive of Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), a non –governmental organisation and civil society advocate group committed to good government.

Working with several international organisations, including Transparency International (TI), the group has offered advice to Nigerian government on policy framework particularly in areas of poverty eradication and the fight against corruption. In this interview with Daily Sun in Washington DC on the sidelines of the recently concluded annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the CISLAC boss advocated the establishment of Beneficial Ownership Register without which he argued the fight against corruption would not be won.

Excerpts:
Nigeria’s Finance Minister’s presentation on 2020 budget proposal
The minister was very honest to have admitted that there are some challenges because servicing the nation’s huge debt will not allow the budget we have to be implemented in a way that will have enough allocation for other sectors and that what we have in the budget won’t be sufficient to sustain them.

This is because allocation for debt servicing is equivalent or more than allocation for the capital project; which means servicing the debt will continue to increase the more if we keep borrowing.

You mean the trend is of grave concern to Nigerians?
Yes. Definitely it’s a huge concern that will continue to increase if care is not taken, because so far, we have not been able to differentiate more tangible means besides the new tax proposal which in itself has some challenges because you must amend the law to do that.

So, for now for instance, President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to sign any bill to amend the legal framework that will enable government to increase tax.
So, the presentation to use money from taxes to augment implementation of 2020 budget is still not tenable, whereas, there are lots of taxes that can be regenerated.

I want to make it clear here that the National Assembly is going to be really busy dealing with budgets, and the issue of amending the Constitution and that of the budget are two different things if you can understand how National Assembly works.

The National Assembly should not be taken for granted because both Chambers have a legal team work that allows that and every member is equal in National Assembly.

Nobody should take advantage of National Assembly. In National Assembly of today, they discuss, debate and make sure that whatever they are passing has public interest at its core.
There are so many lapses that the government can preempt. For instance, look at the money budgeted for generators, all the monies injected into power sectors seem to have been squandered and this is not good for both government and the people.

You know it is not good to allow the money that is meant for capital project to be diverted for other exigencies and that is why there are abandoned projects by past governments.  Remember servicing debts on these projects is automatic; once the money is allocated, it goes automatically.

We have had cases where the implementation of the capital project is 50 percent, and the government will say 55percent have been achieved. We did not even achieve 60 percent and I am not sure that in 2020 the allocation for the capital project will even meet the 50 percent or 60 percent.
Meanwhile, debt servicing is almost automatic and that is why we want the president to transform his advisory body into an economic management team that will be responsible for carrying out policies to strengthen our economy and eradicate poverty.

My advice to Buhari on new advisory Committee
I want to advise Mr president that his team of Advisory Committee is good but he should keep empowering them to suggest policies that would create enabling environment for job creation for the youth in the country.
I am of the view that by so doing, our economy can take a new form and we will respond to issues of underdevelopment facing us today in Nigeria.
I also advice that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) should be subjected to remitting  money into the federation account, because our findings show that they have multiple accounts.

But the Federal Government through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has said that they must have a single account, yet NNPC is still operating the way it had always done and no one is documenting them.

Is VAT best option to raise additional revenue?
There are many ways government can generate income. I am of the view that instead of taxing the low income earners that find it hard it to even earn a living, they can tax companies. We have a lot of construction companies that are doing whatever they like in Nigeria. They should be taxed.

I assure you that we the civil society organisations in the country will continue to monitor these things seeing that Nigeria’s revenues have consistently been diverted and this affecting efforts to reduce poverty in the land. We also believe that there is no way poverty can be reduced when Nigeria’s budgets hardly make provisions for the poor.

I am of the view that since the three tiers of governments, the Federal, States and Local Governments promised to take Nigerians out of poverty; they should create good programmes, designed to deal with poverty to support the poor earn living, rather than programmes that bring dishonesty, and distrust issues.

I am also of the view that for government to eradicate poverty in Nigeria it is necessary it to follow poverty eradication programmes.
Government should remove inequality and insecurity, otherwise the conflict we see everywhere will continue.
The other part that I want to call the attention of the president to is to focus on electoral reform, there is no way we can achieve good governance without reforming the electoral process.
Therefore government needs to sanitise the political parties because what we have at the moment are unfortunately not meeting the aspirations of Nigerians. There is need for us to have national composition as we have over 90 political parties.

I am saying that if this is what Buhari can do in terms of sanity, some of the indiscipline we are facing won’t be happening if the government is straightforward. You cannot continue without the whistle blower policy regime.

As am talking to you now, the whistle blower policy regime is dead.
Secondly we need to allow free press. The Federal Government should stop harassing the civil society because we are not looking for appointment, rather the CSOs want Nigerian people to be happy and respected globally.
It is unfortunate that when a Nigerian travels out of the country, he/she is assumed to be  a  419ner, everyone of us is tired of these embarrassments.
We are asking the Nigerian government to be more transparent in all its dealings. We are saying this because it is our country, and we deserve better things than the one we are getting from the government.
We are tagged as criminals, but then, the people stealing our money are hiding behind the government and they are encouraging this dubious act of embezzling public funds.

This is demoralising because after some people have been exposed for embezzling and you collect back some money and assets from them, others in government continue to re-loot same and cannot give good account of some of these recoveries. This does not speak well of Nigeria at all.

Advocacy on Beneficial Ownership Registry
We were actually prompted to embark on this advocacy as it was obvious that Nigeria loses an estimated $17 billion annually to illicit financial flows owing to government’s failure to honour commitment it made on BOR in 2016 at an anti-corruption conference in London.

In fact, a lot of money laundering through organised crime is ongoing because we do not have the identity of owners of these assets.
So, both at local and international sphere, Nigeria is losing billions of dollars annually to the perpetration of corruption.

Some of these individuals use their official positions to give themselves tax holiday, waivers and all sorts of frivolous and self-centered interests.

Can you expatiate on this allegation, sir
For instance, if an entity has already been privatised, why inject tax payers fund into such entities in the name of helping them.

This is because many of them in government own those businesses and so they are using their position to short- change the country and the people”
Don’t forget that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has made critical steps towards addressing corruption in the programming and policy implementation, and that most of the statistics quoted about Nigeria today are developed by the World Bank, IMF and other foreign bodies.

Way out of corruption in Nigeria
The only way to unravel this mystery is when we have Beneficial Ownership Register in place so that there is commitment on the part of Nigerian government.

However, the sad story is that after we have done all the advocacy for the 8th National Assembly to amend the Companies and Allied Matters Act , CAMA, repeal Bill, pass the Witness Protection and Legal Framework and many other, President Buhari, due to what he termed some technical reasons, declined assent to the Bill and drew us back”

This is why we feel that the only way to get the country on track and in tandem with the effort to get back the stolen assets locally and internationally is to get the Beneficial Ownership Register in place without which we will not be able to fight corruption in the country.

Nigeria’s challenges fighting corruption
I am concerned that some people  in government are hiding under the cover of lack of legal framework to fund business, some of them allegedly being used to fund terrorism and other forms of insecurity in the country.

How CISLAC fared in its functions
Let me emphasise that we are in collaboration with International partners, and considering publicly accessible registers of true owners of companies, trusts and other commercial entities as an essential tool in the fight against corruption.

We commend IMF for working together with Transparency International and other partners to develop a methodology for assessing the nature and severity of governance weaknesses.

However, we are still calling on IMF and all other multilateral and bilateral partners to develop and implement clear and transparent anti-corruption policy, which will facilitate policy-recommendations targeting systemic and coherent anti-corruption and transparency measures.

Secondly, in the context of weak institutions, pervasive corruption, the penetration of organised crime through national governance structures and state capture by criminal networks and individual technocrats, civil society organisations should be consulted in the process of governance assessment and policy responses.

It would be beneficial in this case for CSOs, governments and development partners to work jointly, especially in areas of i) fiscal governance, ii) Public Procurement, iii) Rule of Law, iv) Anti-Money Laundering and Combatting Facilitation of Corruption.

Our position on the communique from the Development Committee of the World Bank Group.

I applaud the committee for taking position that the global growth remains subdued, with the pace of investment and trade softening, and downside risks persisting due to policy uncertainty, trade tensions, financial volatility, and rising debt.  Of particular note is its emphasis that the World Bank Group, in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, can help emerging and low-income countries bolster potential growth, increase their resilience to shocks, boost domestic revenues, and continue building policy buffers.
Don’t forget that the two organisations have an important role to play in addressing the increase in debt vulnerabilities, and can help countries meet a range of challenges in the international financial system, including tackling corruption.

Relevance of World Bank/IMF annual meetings to your advocacy with respect to Nigeria’s  governance challenges.
Don’t forget that the World Bank Group plays a key role in the global effort to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity.

One of the ways the organisation works towards achieving these goals is by calling on citizens from around the globe to collaborate on a range of issues related to poverty reduction, international economic development and finance, building human capital, and strengthening resilience.
We are optimistic that there is no way CISLAC will attend these meetings without literarily drawing from the fountain of knowledge being offered by these global bodies.
“Both at local and international sphere, Nigeria is losing huge billions of dollars annually to the perpetration of corruption as some of these individuals in government use their official positions to give themselves tax holiday, waivers and all sorts of frivolous and self-centered interest

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