Nigeria is not ripe for Diaspora, electronic voting -Rep Garba

Hon. Abubakar Kannaike Garba represents Ilorin East/Ilorin South Federal Constituency of Kwara State and is the Deputy Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Works. In this interview with PHILIP NYAM, he speaks on a wide range of issues including the delay in the passage of budget, the problem associated with credit facilities for farmers and SME’s and the use of card reader and electronic voting system in the country

 

The issue of late passage of the budget has remained an albatross in the country and the 2017 Appropriation Bill is no different. This has also led to the extension of the financial year to May 4. How do we come out of this vicious circle?

I think from experience we have an idea of the number of months it takes the National Assembly to process the Appropriation Bill. I don’t think it is anything less than threefour months and sometimes within these months, there are breaks and holidays. I think to be on the safe side, it is better to come out early. I think the real adjustment has to be an early preparation and presentation of the budget. I believe if we want to conform from the beginning of the calendar year to the end of the calendar year but then, that is not what the constitution says.

The constitution says 12 calendar months. So, if we start in May, that is if we decide to adopt May as our budgetary year. I don’t see anything wrong with that. But if we want to correct that anomaly and we want our budget to start from the beginning of the year to end of that fiscal year then, the right thing to do is, we should be submitting our budgetary proposals sometimes in July while the running budget of the year is going on. So what it means is that assuming we pass this budget in April and it commences in June, since this current year budget elapses 31st of May the new budget commences June 1.

So, if that is the case, for us to correct the anomaly, we should be presenting a budget proposal from June and when we do that, we do it with the view to ensure that the budget will be ready for assent in December.

But that will now mean that this current year’s budget will be superseded by the new budget and that is the time we will correct the anomaly and we will make it a practice subsequently. It is a lot of work to correct that anomaly. The other consideration is just to continue the way it is and see that averagely it will be from one May to the other. Personally, if we can consistently run it that way, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Another knotty issue is the lack of proper implementation of budgets. Would you say the late passage of the budget is responsible for the poor implementation?

Yes, it is because we are used to the budget starting in January and ending in December but to me, it is not sacrosanct. It is not unconstitutional and that is why we are able to do it-to start the budget to kick off in June and elapse next year may. If that is what is convenient, to me it is even better. When you talk of budget implementation let us see what happens usually.

In December the president presents the Appropriation Bill, and you should know this is a democracy. But I think the problem is when we moved from the military era to a democracy where the legislature plays a prominent role in the budget, we did not really factor in the time needed for the legislature to do proper consideration of the budget and interface with the MDAs before the budget is passed. That, in my opinion is the major cause of this overlapping of the budget beyond the time we anticipate. Before now when the military head of state reads the budget, nobody has the opportunity to process it.

They don’t interface with the MDAs, they don’t debate it but it is different now. So in my opinion, if we see that may or June is a good time to start the budget, we can do so and finish it 31 of May the following year. And if you look at implementation and you look at our weather system. For instance, I will narrow it down to construction works. We are a country that is still trying to develop infrastructure so we are doing a lot of construction.

And we know what our raining season is, because what happens is by the time budget is passed, before you say you want to implement the rainy season has kicked in and you find that contractors are not able to go to site until after the rains. In a way, naturally, if it starts in June, it is probably a better time the rains are going to be going down gradually so by August, the deep rains that can stop construction are  over and people can move to construction site and drive their projects.

So in a way, the anomaly is a little bit more convenient for our weather conditions. The important thing is not just the timing it’s the implementation of the budget. Now that we are shifting to May, it gives us an opportunity to release another tranch of funding for the budget. So, I see this year, we are going to have a higher percentage of implementation than the previous years.

Because performance has always hovered around fifty, fifty-five percent but I can comfortably tell you for most MDAs now they are on eighty percent based on releases that have been given to them. So, if that ensures that we better implement, I don’t see any problem with it. All we need do is to look at our policy and see whether we should just retain it as it is provided we are not faulting any issues of constitution.

Why does the National Assembly have to compel the executive to implement the budget and release fund even after passing the budget?

A budget is what it is. It is a financial projection of your expenditure and revenue. By the time you do your MTEF which is a precursor to the appropriation processing, you would have determined what your anticipation of income and revenue is. We know the major source of our revenue is crude oil, we would have determined the anticipatory value per barrel in USD, what your production is likely going to be.

When you get those parameters is what is going to be used to prepare the budget. When the budget is prepared, you still need to benchmark it against your income sources and the major problem with the implementation of the budget is not that the MDAs do not sometimes want to implement the budget, sometimes the funds to implement it are not there. I think that is the major issue.

We have been running a deficit budget in Nigeria for quite a while because our expenditure projection has always surpassed our projection on income and we have always identified where we will get the variation, deficit from. Sometimes it is from internal loans and sometimes from foreign loans. Now, if you match it together assuming something is not properly done, I don’t think that there is any country that achieves a hundred percent of budget implementation but at least a safe zone is eighty percent and is a pass mark anywhere.

So, what I think we should do is first and foremost being more realistic in our budget. If we know that this is our income projection let us try and plan based on our sincere and feasible projection and income. If you have a bogus budget that you know that you cannot match when income comes, it doesn’t make any sense.

You know what your oil revenue and non-oil revenue projections are you have to be pragmatic about it. The pragmaticism is a pre-condition to making implementation more feasible but sometime if you blow your budget and you do that against the backdrop of a shaky income base you won’t be able to provide money. So when the time comes to provide funds there will be stories.

To even talk about budget implementation to a sizable percentage, we need to talk about being more feasible and pragmatic in the budgetary process.

When we are more realistic in our budget, you’ll see that implementation will be better. The problem is yes, we have it in the budget but we do not have the resources to implement the budget. Then another thing is as the legislature, in our oversight, we need to track the budget. We need to do continuous interfacing with MDAs- if in the first quarter this was released, what are your priority projects?

Have you done them? How do we go about doing them? What makes them priority over others? What do we do in the second quarter? All these amounts to tracking and are important.

They are some climes where implementation of budget is time-lined. By the time you are doing the budget, you rate and quantify the timing so you can say this will be done at these times. I see a situation where if we say we need to be really better structured, at some point in time, when budgets are passed, the ministry that is responsible for the implementation can come out with a narration on implementation and prioritize. You look at the time of the year, what is feasible or urgent to the people, what should be delivered first.

A prioritization of the budget is the first thing in my opinion that the executive should do first. That gives you an idea that you are a structured ministry and you are planning.

Yes, it is an Act by the National Assembly but the parliament cannot time it because we do not understand the daily rudiments and challenges of MDAs. But when it is passed by the president and given to you as a working paper, the minister should sit with his team because they understand the challenge and more conversant with what is on ground.

They should now look at it and time the implementation. It is still a proposal at that phase based on what the ministry of finance is able to give to them but because you can jiggle it like that as an ministry, you’ll find out that you appropriate money rightly for the right things and that helps to shore up your budgetary achievements and you have more impact to the populace.

Recently, the House passed an amendment of the Electoral Act through second reading and two of the amendments generated a lot of controversies especially the electronic card reader. Almost all PDP members were against it. Are their fears justified?

I will just base my thoughts on our experience as Nigerians on the card reader. The level of credibility we have in our elections, the single factor that made the elections quite credible is the use of the card reader.

But let me point out that people are mixing the issue of card reader with the electronic voting system. To me, as a nation, I have my reservation on whether we are truly ready, whether we have the technology for electronic voting. However, the first phase that we need to optimize in my opinion, is the card reader. Because even though the card reader is a preliminary of the voting process, it is also what authenticates the number of people who have the right to vote at that instance based on the fact that they are registered.

It is the sanitizer, and a check for the serious cases of rigging that we used to have in the past. The difference between past elections and this one that was seen to credible globally is the card reader. So, I cannot understand why anyone will want us to jettison the use of the card reader.

The fact that we had one or two problems in the operations  or efficacy of the card reader as demonstrated sometimes that it did not recognize the card or read, is what happens with electronics even human lives sometimes have their own challenges talk more of electronics that are made by humans. But I don’t see why anybody should have anything against the card reader.

It is what has brought credibility to our elections; we must continue to retain it. In fact, we should improve the technology of the use of the card reader. The other thing is that the electronic voting is more complex than the card reader. I would probably prefer a situation where we will record more milestones in our power issues as a nation before we consider the use of electronic voting.

But we can also experiment. Everything in my opinion should be done step wise. It is safer; you learn from experiences and improve upon them. If for instance, you have a local government election, you can try and provide backup electricity or bring solar-powered electronic voting systems and test-run them and we can learn from that experience and know what to do better next time. To me, when you take this subtle test you can learn from them.

The other aspect of that amendment is the issue of Diaspora voting. This House has consistently rejected it since 2007 and INEC on its own has also been very skeptical. Now, in the amendment the Diaspora voting was approved. Do you think Nigeria as it is today, is prepared for such an experiment?

That is the challenge, but sometimes, in life, you do not consider your current incapacity as a draw back against what you should do and where you should be. It is true that those of us in Nigeria do not even have a proper census, proper data capture system, we don’t even know the number of Nigerians which is a major problem. We don’t know the actual number of Nigerians of voting age.

We are battling with our national identity, we don’t have a databank on our identity as Nigerians and that is a major problem but while we are struggling with that, on the flipside, most of these people who are living outside this country in most cases are living in societies where there is appropriate data capture, where people can easily be identified.

I see that as a test to take Nigeria where we should be in properly identifying Nigerians. I will rather we look at it as a challenge to upscale our approach as identifying ourselves as a people because the population outside this country is just a small fraction compared to the population of those living at home.

If we have just 10 per cent of our current population outside this country, it must be huge. But that 10 per cent is something you can test run and easily manage and tap into competences that domicile in countries where they reside to prove a point that properly identifying Nigerians and having a databank is the way to go. So let us use that as a template.

Let’s take up the challenge we know we don’t have that capacity but does that stop us from taking up the challenge, my answer is no. Let us find out from our embassies Nigerians that are legally residing in these countries.

Let’s challenge them to come up with their numbers and also find out if there are technologies that domicile in these countries that can properly articulate these people and let’s look at the best way we can get them to register and vote.

We might even experiment the electronic voting where technology domiciled in some counties and they can also use the card reader as part of what the bill is seeking. We will be able to know them and know they are genuine Nigerians.

Let’s see how it works and we see the results that it has impacted then maybe that will challenge us to capture Nigerians properly. Most economies in the world are creditdriven. It is only in Nigeria you must have your money before you can build a house or buy a car. What is the underlining factor and limitation? It is because we still have this fear that as a Nigerian, if you collect money you can still just disappear from the radar and nobody can track you.

I know in other climes, even if you don’t pay your rent somewhere, they blacklist you anywhere you go to get another house, you pop up and they will tell you that your credit is already questioned and ask that you go and settle before they can give you a house. So, that way, we can tap into a lot of things. Once you have an income and your income can match with what you are trying to get on credit.

So truly beyond even elections, as a nation we are suffering because we have not properly identified ourselves. There are a lot of milestone in economy and in security that we can benefit from but because of the databank that has not been properly established. We are not keying into the global trend.

The House a week ago passed a motion sponsored by you urging the CBN to use its credit guidelines and compel commercial and merchant banks to fund minimum startups for small and medium scale businesses. Some of these facilities exist but they do not get to the target beneficiaries. Do you think your proposal is workable?

You see, it still boils down to being able to identify ourselves as a people and properly profile ourselves. Now, who are the farmers? Are they properly structured? Do they have an organisation? I sponsored a bill on the Nigerian agricultural associations bill were we are saying that all associations must be properly structured and they should be organized and supervised by government. if you say you are a farmer you should belong to a registered agricultural association.

To be a legitimate member, you must have paid dues for some months or years. Everybody knows you as a rice farmer, fish farmer and all. If people are properly identified, under the umbrella of that association, you can key into that. In other climes they even make sure the people of that association are guarantors to people that are qualified for credit and what happens is that if some fish farmers want credit, they use that association as the collateral and security for those members to access the funding.

So, that check encumbers morally because if don’t pay back, you are the one making it impossible for your members of your association to access the same credit. And because they have the same operational hub, when the man who collects credit for fish farming goes to buy a new machine or a car, they start wondering how this came about given that he has not started selling fish. That means he is already diverting funds, they will check him, they will bring it to the attention of the association and even leak it to the bank.

As a people we need to be better structured. If we are not properly structured in whatever we do, we cannot make progress.

These associations can help separate actual farmers from political farmers.

That will solve the problem of diversion of funds meant for farmers; because the bank will know who to talk to.

They will talk to those associations and consider those who are ready and qualified to benefit from the loan within the association and even if they do not have collateral, you can use members of the association their collateral. It is practiced in India.

That is the best way they have driven small and medium scale farming operations and enterprises in India.

So, everybody has the moral justification to pay his loan and make it perform so that other people can also benefit. It’s a two edged benefit; it doesn’t go to the man who doesn’t have a farm and in case the man that even has a farm doesn’t have collateral, he can hide under the umbrella of the association as security.

These are the easy ways that banks will be comfortable to lend money to those that deserve it.

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