Hon. Toby Okechukwu (PDP, Aninri, Awgu, and Oji River Federal Constituency of Enugu State) is the Deputy Minority Leader of the House of Representatives. A lawyer, Okechukwu was first elected into the House in 2011.
In this interview, he speaks on national matters among which are the security situation in Anambra ahead of the governorship election in the state and the threat of State of Emergency declaration there as well as the zoning formula of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, for the 2023 general elections.
President Muhammadu Buhari, during his 2022 budget presentation, said our debt profile shouldn’t worry Nigerians. How do you reconcile that vis-a-vis the current harsh economic realities?
The issue with the budget is that the budget is increasing in size, but not increasing in value. Four-point eight trillion naira as at 2014 was about 40 billion dollars. Sixteen point three trillion naira in 2021 is 39 billion dollars. So, in real terms, I will say it is motion no movement. The distress you are seeing is because we are poorer. The volume or size of the budget is of no consequence to the reality on the ground. So when you say 16trillion, it still means 39billion dollars as in 4.8trillion would mean 40billion in 2014. That is the reality of the moment.
Regarding the expenditure that is above the threshold as par the provisions of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, it presupposes that we are breaching the law in the first place. It is an Act of Parliament. It shouldn’t be done. 3.9% above the 3% provision by the law, which is almost 1% more than the threshold of 3% of the GDP, shouldn’t happen in the first place. When you go above that statutory recommendation, it presupposes that you are breaching the law and it has economic consequences.
So what do you think would happen?
Well, we will look at it and appropriate action would be taken. We will look at the provision of the law. But what the President said is that he is acknowledging that we going above the threshold. And we will find out whether there is any remedy in that respect or is it just advisory as per the provisions of the Act? We will look at it.
Looking at the debt profile of the country and the concerns it has generated, what is your reaction?
The challenge we have really is that the debt profile is huge and it continues to expand and, because of the absence of productivity, it would be difficult to pay back. So, you are saying that our children are being tied up and if you don’t have a framework for productivity, then, there is a huge challenge.
In the past, we had borrowed for recurrent expenditure. Borrowing is not bad. Borrowing to tie to projects that will defray the loan is what should be happening. So, our expectation is that when they bring the loan for approval, we will look at what department, agencies, what infrastructure and what is the cost-benefit to Nigeria?
But the President is still within sustainable limits…
When you take 3.6 trillion out of a 16 trillion naira budget to service debt only, what does that mean? In addition, you have a non-debt recurrent expenditure of 6.8 trillion, including overheads, salaries and things like that. The combined effect of the 3.6 trillion for servicing debt and 6.8 trillion for recurrent expenditure simply means that about 70% of the budget is for non-productive purposes. And you cannot develop without sufficient provision for capital expenditure.
So, you are only having 5.3 trillion for capital and that also includes the capital of statutory agencies because what has happened now is that they have included the capital of TETFUND and the capital of some other agencies of government into the budget. That is why that the capital is swelling.
If you check it stricto sensu, federal government ministries and all that or even Ministry of Works, it will just be giving about 2 trillion or so, which is a small percentage of the budget.
Some Nigerians will say that PDP at the moment is boiling over zoning formula. How do you describe what is happening?
I don’t understand what you mean by boiling. Boiling in what sense? The party has zoned all the former offices in the South to the North and vice visa and that is what is on the table now. Unless, you have dancers, you cannot start beating the drum. I don’t understand what you mean. When our convention is one month away, we shouldn’t zone offices? We shouldn’t deal with it? That is what is on the table now, so there is no boiling.
But you know Nigeria is full of drama and you want PDP to be actors and create scenes. We wouldn’t do that. We won’t give you that privilege because it is an organized party and it’s been there since 1999. All these later day parties, amalgamating with all manner of tendencies, will soon come to their own assessment. You see, the caretaker is not anticipated and it is not a stable form of party administration. When you have that, you have peace of the graveyard and when they want to go to the formal setting of organization, of administrative structure, implementing the spirit and letter of their Constitution, they become combustible.
You saw what they had the last time and the Chairman had to be booted out. The entire structure of the party had to collapse and another caretaker arrangement is in place now. A party that had never had a Board of Trustees clearly against the provisions of their own Constitution, and you are coming to equate them with a party that has 20 years of history; that has spread across the country; that was able to pioneer an effort to prevent a military breach of government, that is the party you are talking about. That is the party of Alex Ekwueme. That is the party of Abubakar Rimi.
That is the party of Adamu Ciroma. That is the party of Olusegun Obasanjo. So, we have a very deep history and don’t expect us to do things by way of ad hoc. So, we are seasoned in what we do and zoning in our party is deliberate. Look, we’ve had these people occupying this place; please move it up, let the other people have it. I am sure you are concerned about zoning the presidency. It is not on the table. We said what is available and the terms and reference and mandate of the committee was to zone party offices, NWC members and the people working with them. So, the next would be the presidency and when we get to the bridge, we will cross it and the party will take a decision on the zoning of the presidency.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar just said Nigerians have not been concerned about where the President comes from but about good governance. This is perhaps directly against the expectations of the people of the South-East and South-South who feel it should be micro zoned to the area. How do you think this will pan out eventually?
His Excellency has a right of opinion and he has also been a participant. If you listened to him very well, he said zoning has always been used to deal with affirmative action.
The challenge we have with some people is some level of selective amnesia. You want to hear what you want to hear and forget what is convenient for you to forget. You don’t want to get the full picture of the story. What did he say? He said that the political class in 1999 got together and deliberately decided that the presidential candidates for all the parties that will be in the contest will come from the South-West. That was why you had (former President) Obasanjo from prison to presidency.
That was how you got Olu Falae (AD/APP presidential candidate in the 1999 general elections). It was deliberate affirmative action to cure the effect of the injury that was done. Chief MKO Abiola won a (1993 annulled presidential) election. He was not allowed to take over and, in spite of that, he died. It was affirmative action. It was deliberately done. Ordinarily, Peter Odili was on the verge of winning the nomination of PDP, but President Obasanjo said no, you need to have affirmative action.
It (presidency) had to go to the North and it did. Unfortunately, we lost him, a first-class President, President Yar’Adua.
Later on, it (presidency) moved down South because President Jonathan was his Vice President. And then, we also were mindful of the need to make sure that this balance is fulfilled and, unfortunately, we lost in 2015 because the mood of the nation was that it should go North. So, the party will get together as a seasoned administrative party organ. There is no place in this country you don’t have PDP because it was deliberately done. From G17 to G34, it was a clear class action by the statesmen of this country. That is the background of PDP. So, by the time it comes, those deliberate affirmative actions will be thrown up.
So, if eventually it is thrown open or zoned back to the North, how would you feel? Would you galvanize support for the North?
The question is preposterous because I wouldn’t answer what is not on the table.
South-East has really been in the news, perhaps, for bad reasons. We are having IPOB and other security challenges and it culminated in the killing of Dr Chike Akunyili recently. How do we come out of this quagmire so to speak? What is happening in the South-East? Some people described it as very unusual because the region is not known for any kind of crisis. So, what is happening?
I will say that what is happening in the South-East, what is happening in the North-East, in the North-West, North-Central, to some extent, in the South-West, namely, kidnappings, killings, and the rest, is a symptom of the challenge we have presently, which is the poor management of our diversity. It is a major issue. It is the body language of leadership that people respond to. Some of these problems have always been there.
The South-East is a problem because you wouldn’t expect a community to self-destroy, to go against itself and, unfortunately, Dr Akunyili became a victim in circumstances that were very unfortunate. It is so sad that you would have a medical doctor with six children who had first-class die like that. He could ordinarily have left the country. The artwork of the daughter, who also made a first-class, is being used in California and London.
They used her artwork to decorate the undergrounds, the rail lines and the airports. The three children, medical doctors, all made first class. So, why should you have a man like that die in such circumstances? In the same manner, a good number of our citizens have died? So, it shouldn’t be happening.
So, I feel saddened about it. We shouldn’t get to that point. We should all work together to make sure that some of these issues are addressed and you address them by engagement. We understand the distress our people feel. We understand the hurt, but you don’t express it by inflicting much more hurts on yourself because it is not going to go to anybody’s good. But what is clear is that this country has always had problems, but they are isolated problems in particular regions; like when we had militancy in the Niger Delta, it was in the Niger Delta. Boko Haram was stricto sensu in North-East.
Then, we had the Mitatsine riot; we had the religious riots in Kaduna and the rest. But these were problems isolated in some areas. Now, you have the entire country engulfed. There is banditry in the North-West. I understand recently the entry of Boko Haram in Niger State, taking territories. They are declaring caliphates.
This is not the way a country goes. There is something fundamentally wrong. And good leader is the one that pulls together and says let us address the fundamentals so that we can overcome. So, you see little issues like animal husbandry, how the entire country has weaponised it against itself. A multibillion-dollar business, you weaponised it against yourself? And what should be the solution? The solution is that Central Bank gives loans to farmers.
Instead of making Sambisa a theatre of war, the large land area in Niger, is a place where Boko Haram takes over 500 communities, can’t the spaces be occupied by way of making their ranches? And what happens is that why can’t we take Anchor Borrowing Scheme or these other ones or even bring 1% interest-free loans and say, please, let Central Bank make this available to every Nigerian? You don’t even need that type of space. Make it clement for herders and other Nigerians.
Let them borrow money guaranteed by state governments and establish ranches so that you can be productive. And after that, you pay back the money and the federal or state government will introduce the infrastructure because that is what government is there to do. There is a need to engage the restive youths and the rest.
The Federal Government through the Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, SAN, has threatened to invoke the constitutional provisions against Anambra State by way of declaring a State of Emergency should the problems there persist.
It has really generated so much dust. How do you place such consideration?
The Attorney General is entitled to his opinion.
As a foremost law officer of the country, his opinion should not come easily because once you dump it in the public domain, it becomes a policy of the government. It is presumed to be the policy of the government. So, when you come out to make a pronouncement, it should be very well measured and there are conditions precedent to declaring a State of Emergency, including parliamentary collaboration.
Anything that would make you declare a State of Emergency in any part of the country, apart from natural disaster, presupposes failure of security, not being able to exercise the basic responsibility of government, which is the protection of lives and property. That is fundamental. And that is why people like myself, yourself, individuals give away their rights to government, their coercive violent rights to the government.
It is only government that has the legitimate right to exercise violence. Government is the one that has the legitimate capacity to kill.
No individual has it. So, when government abdicates that responsibility and it goes back to the Hobbesian state of rule of the jungle, what it means is that the leviathan, coercive power of government to influence the direction of the society is lost. So, it is a failure of government that will orchestrate a State of Emergency.
Our expectation is that government should do its job and by this, I mean the Federal Government. If you want the states to do it, yea, the states can complement but it remains with the realms of complementing what they are doing. If we are serious about dealing with security issues across the country, let them be the chief security officers in spirit and letter. And that is where state or subnational policy come in.
You were part of the meeting of the recent South-East stakeholders and the meeting came up with a couple of resolutions and one of them was that you condemned IPOB sit-at-home order. Some people are saying it is not IPOB that is threatening the people. Others are saying hoodlums have taken over the place. From your own experience, from your own investigation, tell me what you know about it.
Well, I have no tools to investigate. I can only be informed by agencies of government and from what we read. From all indications, IPOB has said they are no longer interested in the sit-at-home. So, if they are no longer enforcing or wanting the sit-at-home, why do we have to continue?
The economics of it is not healthy. When you have investments in the South-East and you tend to invest, you will not go there. Four days in a week is lost and IPOB said they are not responsible. So, it means that some other elements are doing it and I don’t think it is helpful to our economy and even to the people because these are people you want to protect. Nobody sits at home and improves his fortune.
It cannot happen. Where it had happened in Southern Cameroon, nobody can go there again. Children are no longer in school. So, the best course of action is dialogue, working in concert to make sure whatever challenges we have, together we can overcome them.
There is merit in the cry that is coming out. There is no gainsaying that the South-East is challenged in public service, in presence in government, in infrastructure. But the point to make is that you don’t further diminish yourself because, by the time you come back in the next two, three, four, five years, the level of divestment that will happen there will be unbelievable. How did Lagos begin to be the magnet? Apart from its history of being a long pre-colonial entry; that was where Zik founded West African Pilot and all that and the seat of government was there.
So, it benefitted from the consequential presence of government, infrastructure, a lot of commercial activities, everybody was going there, they were enjoying the presence of people. But other than that, you will find out that the previous insecurity, kidnapping and robbery that was happening made our people divest to the West and that is why when you see manufacturing companies, pharmaceutical and business setup and all that, they will first have their headquarters in Lagos.
The first car I brought it in through the port in Warri. That was in 1992-1993. My friend sent it from overseas; I paid for it, cleared it in Warri and brought it in.
Why do you think that the level of port activities in Warri and in Port Harcourt has diminished? You think it is somebody said, “don’t go there again?” The issue is that when you are going to those jurisdictions, those ports, you have to pay wartime insurance. It is very expensive.
By the time you go there, you also have to be careful about the kidnapping. So, people are doing most things in Lagos. I am telling you the consequences of having issues, the level of divestment you get and that when you think you are coming out, you will be in further deep shit.