Saturday, May 30, 2009

Religious Leaders and Taxes

Should religious leaders be paying taxes? This issue is the subject of current discourse that is generating lots of controversy. According to the words of Governor Raji Fashola “……religious leaders are not different from you and me. If they earn income from that activity, it is only proper that they remit to the commonwealth, to the common pool and to the common developmental resources from which they benefit”.

I do agree with Governor Fashola that religious leaders should be compelled to pay taxes. In fact this issue is more than just paying taxes. I have always campaigned for stricter regulation of religious organisations - in terms of financial accountability. But before I go any further, I will state my interest. I’m a Christian and I do attend a Pentecostal church. But I will also be the first to criticise the Christian faith and more especially the Pentecostal mission. I believe they are the most guilty when it comes to financial transparency and accountability.

It is very unfortunate that whenever anyone criticises the activities of the Church or their leaders, you are likely to be classified as an ‘anti-Christ’. Even when such criticisms are genuine and unbiased, church evangelicals will label it blasphemous!

For me, most of Nigerian churches and their leaders can be accused of ‘double dipping. On one hand, they claim to be charity organisations – hence should be tax exempt, but on the other hand, they are reluctant to be transparent about their financial dealings. The fact is no one really knows the balance sheet of these Pentecostal churches or how much the leaders earn in salary. And it is even more unfortunate that the government allows this financial recklessness to perpetuate.

Why wouldn’t religious leaders pay taxes? I agree with Governor Fashola, that these religious leaders use the roads, their children use the schools, their wives use the markets, they use water, they enjoy the benefits of the security the government provides. So they are happy to enjoy these freebies at the expense of the masses who struggle hard to keep up their tax payments. But on the other hand, they can continue to live in their palatial mansions and junket around the world in their private jets.

However, the structure of Nigerian churches (especially Pentecostal) will make it very challenging for the State Government to enforce the tax regulation. The Federal tax law exempts religious institutions from tax payment but not leaders of religious bodies who earn salaries from such organisations. We currently have a situation where there is no clear delineation between the church and its leaders. Most of these leaders are not on any stipulated salaries. Some will even tell you that they don’t earn salary but live on goodwill of church members! We then need to ask ourselves, is it public goodwill that has helped purchased multi-million naira private properties? Is it public goodwill that paid for multi-million dollar private jet? Is it public goodwill that pay for the exotic holidays? Is it public goodwill that pays for the convoy of expensive cars? We’ve heard it all before!

The truth is they run these churches like a one-man private business or what I will term as ‘sole trader’. They dip their hands into church funds as if it is their family inheritance. They use church funds to finance their grandeur lifestyle. They live in the most expensive areas of the country. They are happy to show off their private jets as the Lord’s doing that his marvellous in the eyes of the ‘poor’.

The Churches themselves are no exception. We are now seeing churches engaged in secular business. As I wrote in one of my piece, Nigerian churches are now big time real estate investors. Some of the most expensive educational institutions in Nigeria today are owned by religious organisations. I wouldn’t be surprised if some have invested in the stock market. But that doesn’t really bother me. My concern is, we need to know where charity work ends, and profit-making begins. A charity organisation (which includes Churches) should not be engaged in any profit-making activity. In an ideal world, they are not expected to have huge bank balance, if they sincerely engage in charity work. It is only fair that if a church has property which it rents out and from which it earns income, it should pay tax from such earnings.

So what am I saying? You can be sure that some of these dodgy Church leaders will do everything to circumvent the system. And until, the Government sets up a regulatory authority to monitor the activities these churches and their leaders, Governor Fashola will be facing an uphill task.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Ten Years of Democracy - Who is The Biggest Loser?

As we mark the 10 years of democratic rule in Nigeria, the question on my mind is who has been the biggest loser in the last ten years? Unfortunately, all socio-economic indices show that the nation has been retrogressing since independence. The last ten years of civil rule has also not made any difference. In fact some will agree with me that the situation in the last ten years is worse than what it was twenty years ago. The rot in our economy and social life has continued to perpetuate - even at a faster pace! Our leaders have continued to loot the treasury with impunity.

While the failure of how our leaders will suggest that the masses are the biggest losers, I however want to disagree. Yes I agree that the masses are yet to see the dividends of democracy. Yes I agree that nation’s infrastructure are in decay. I agree that our refineries are still not working. I know we have given up on stable power supply. I know we have no potable water supply. I agree that our major highways are death traps. I know we don’t have a functioning transport system. Yes, I agree that 70% of the nation live in abject poverty. Yes, I agree that our educational system is in a mess. I will however argue that our leaders are the BIGGEST losers.

They are the ones who have failed in all aspects of life. Despite the vast human and mineral resources at their disposal, they have failed to make any meaningful positive impact on the economy. Instead of providing good leadership and governance, they continued to loot the treasury with impunity. They have used their position to rob us of our commonwealth. They have turned a nation of 140 million into a country of Oligarchs. They sold government owned enterprise to their families and cronies under the guise of privatisation. They continue to distort the market by creating private monopolies under the guise of Public-Private Partnerships.

All they know about is rhetoric. They tell us about due process and rule of law. However, they award billion dollar contracts to their cronies without any regard for due process. They squandered the nation’s resources on grandiose projects that lack any public benefit. They use the ‘rule of law’ to subvert the fight against corruption. They use taxpayers’ money for cosmetic image laundering projects. In some other society, some of our leaders will be languishing in solitary confinement.

They come up with vision and agendas that are bereft of any rational thinking. They talk about Vision 2020, in a nation that can’t get its refineries to function. Our can we a one of top 20 economies when we can’t even get the simple things right. Our can we be one of top 20 economies when we can’t even generate 1500mw of power? How can be in top 20 when industries are closing down left, right and centre due to lack of power supply? How can we be in top 20 economies when we are still importing plastic chairs from overseas? How can a nation of 60% unemployment be in the top 20 economies? How can an economy that is controlled by few private individuals be in top 20 economies?

Our leaders are a failure. They are visionless. Most of them are born losers! Some are not even fit to run a family not to talk of nation. What else do they want? We have the vast mineral resources. We enjoyed almost 10 years of oil boom. We had the opportunity to develop our human capital. Despite all these opportunities they continued to lead us on a path of destruction. All we read about in the media in the last ten years is systemic looting and thieving. They have turned the commonwealth into private possession.

Our leaders are cowards. They loot the treasury and seek court injunction to prevent them from being investigated or probed! Due to fear of been voted out of office, they continue to rig elections. They use state agencies to intimidate innocent civilians and subvert democratic principles.

It is also interesting to know that some of these leaders are now attending Harvard University to learn about leadership and governance. These are some of the delusions of Nigerian leaders. Can someone please tell them that leaders are born and not made? You do not need to attend Harvard University to become a good leader. How many of the world great leaders are alumni of Harvard University?

But in all these troubles, I can see hope. The days of these kleptomaniacs are numbered. The alarms bells are ringing. The sound of the warning signal is getting louder. Let him that has ears listen. But as they say, the dog that is destined for doom will never heed to the call of the hunter.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Nuhu Ribadu and the US Congress

On 19 May 2009, the Ex-Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu, gave a testimony before the US House Financial Services Committee. Mr Ribadu’s testimony was titled ‘Capital Loss and Corruption: The Example of Nigeria’. It is intriguing that this story was not reported by any of the major media house in Nigeria. Transcripts of the Mr Ribadu’s testimony were only circulated by Nigerian-owned internet media organisations, most of which are foreign based. Is this a ‘conspiracy’? Or perhaps, it is not that important to report. For me, I think Mr Ribadu’s appearance at the US congress is worth every page in the newspaper.

One of Nuhu Ribadu’s requests was a review of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) to include power to prosecute both givers and takers of bribes. In his words, he noted that “until those receiving the bribes are punished for their actions, the marketplace for high stakes elite bribery will continue to thrive”. While I agree with Mr Ribadu that both givers and recipients of bribes should be seen as equal in the eyes of the law, I would be surprised if the US government will succumb to his proposal for the FCPA Act review.

The anti bribery provisions of the US FCPA Act prohibits corrupt payments to foreign officials for the purpose of obtaining or keeping business. Persons subject to the FCPA Act includes any individual who is a citizen, national, or resident of the United States and any corporation and other business entity organized under the laws of the United States or having its principal place of business in the United States. Criminal penalties of fine of up to $2million may be imposed on violator of the FCPA anti bribery provision and imprisonment for up to five years.
If Mr Ribadu’s proposal is accepted, it means in the case of Halliburton as an example, the US government will be able to charge the Nigerian officials who were named to have received bribes from Halliburton officials. And for this to happen, the Nigerian government will be required to sign a Treaty Agreement with the US government, which would allow extradition of named suspects to the US for trial.

Nuhu Ribadu should remember that Nigeria is a sovereign nation. The US, as much as it can try, cannot dictate to the Nigerian government how it deals with its domestic issues (which include corruption). In fact, to ask the US congress for changes in the US law to help fight corruption in Nigerian is somewhat patronizing. We need to remember that we are the architect of our own problems. No country will enact laws in the interest of other nations. The primary duty of the US legislature is to enact laws that will protect the interest of the US and its citizens. As a nation, we are fond of looking for help where it does not exist. We blame everyone but ourselves for our woes. The fact is every developed nation (including the US) has had the problem of corruption one time or the other. But the good news is that they have been succeeded in flushing it out of their system. And I’m sure they did not ask for other nations to enact legislations on their behalf.
Unfortunately one of our biggest problems as a nation is that we fail to accept responsibility for our actions. I was reading the other in the newspaper, that the Minister for Foreign Affairs called a meeting of the diplomatic corps in Abuja, and he accused them of partly responsible for the Niger Delta crisis. As far as the Minister was concerned, the foreign nations are responsible because they buy crude oil from the militants in exchange for ammunitions. But the question I will ask the Minister is, how did we find ourselves in the Niger Delta crisis in the first place? Was it the western nations that brain-washed the Militants into blowing up oil installations? What has been the government track record in dealing with the Niger Delta crisis in the last 10 years?

The problem of corruption is endemic in the Nigerian society. We need to find ways of discouraging people from asking for bribes. There are enough laws in Nigeria to prosecute corrupt individuals. The political will is what is lacking. Corruption has become an institution in Nigeria. And it is this same institution that has produced the incumbent President. What do we expect from a President that rode into office on a political engine that was fuelled with stolen money?

Even if the US government accepts Mr Ribadu’s proposal, how does he think it will work in Nigeria considering the government continuous subversion of the anti-corruption crusade. How can a government that has been unable to institute corruption charges against any official be able to extradite anyone to the US or any other foreign country to face charges? We know how the current Attorney-General used the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) to frustrate the trial of a former Governor in the United Kingdom. Mr Ribadu should then tell me, how the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act Treaty will be treated any differently by the Nigerian government?

I appreciate Nuhu Ribadu passion and zeal in fighting corruption, but I do believe the focus should be within Nigeria. No foreign government will help us solve our problem. Perhaps, the likes of Nuhu Ribadu should be using his position and influence to lobby foreign nations and aid agencies such as World Bank, IMF, DFID etc not to offer any nation; any form of foreign aid (not just Nigeria) unless it demonstrates strong commitment to anti-corruption. And the commitment should not just be setting up of ‘mickey mouse’ law enforcement agencies such as EFCC or ICPC. No government really needs an EFCC or ICPC to prosecute corrupt individuals, if it is really sincere. The Police Force is enough to do the job!

Overall, Mr Ribadu’s performance at the US Congress hearing can best be described as ‘below average’. Considering his exposure and role in the anti-corruption crusade in last six years, I did expect more from Nuhu Ribadu. Instead of answering questions directed to him and keeping to the point, Nuhu Ribadu allowed himself to be drowned in emotions. To me, Nuhu Ribadu came across as someone who was unprepared for such an important hearing. He was unable to properly articulate his viewpoints to the US politicians. The reality is most of this US politicians don’t even know anything about Nigeria, except for what they read or hear in the media. Their assessment of issues will only be based on facts and not speculations. And unfortunately, Mr Ribadu was unable to back some of his claims with facts required.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Transport Infrastructure in Nigeria - Evaluation and Prioritisation

Transport infrastructure is a prerequisite—though by no means a guarantee—of economic development. However, in this current climate of global financial crisis and dwindling commodity prices, governments across the world are aiming to invest in transport infrastructure that provides the best ‘bank for their bucks’. Gone are the days, when government embark on transport projects that offer little or no public benefit, or projects which can be considered not be economically viable. The government needs to understand which schemes and interventions are most important? Which must be done first? Which are the most crucial for achieving agreed objectives? Which will benefit users more? While some of the projects undertaken by government might look impressive in the eye of the masses, especially in a country like Nigeria with significant infrastructure deficit, the ongoing maintenance/operating costs to the government can sometimes be exorbitant. Transport infrastructure projects that are not economically viable can also be a massive drain on the government budget.

It is common knowledge that the cost of providing transport infrastructure can only be affordable if it is subsidised by the government. If the provider decides to charge the true cost, it is likely to be prohibitive to the masses. And this is a major reason, why public transport is not allowed to operate in totally deregulated market. Although subsidies are paid, it is still important that some of the operating costs are recovered. However in some western economies, the cost recovery can be as low as 30%. The long term effect of the maintenance and operating costs of transport infrastructure is one of the fundamental reasons why these western economies develop evaluation and prioritisation framework for major transport infrastructure projects. Before funds for transport projects are appropriated in government budgets, these projects are subject to rigorous analysis which addresses the social, environmental and economic impacts of such projects. The business case supporting such projects needs to be compelling to convince the government that such projects are viable and offer sound public benefits. The evaluation framework used to assess transport infrastructure projects is usually devoid of any regional and political bias and form the basis of independent advice to Ministers.

This process of project evaluation assists in determining whether a project meets efficiently the country's economic and social objectives. For country like Nigeria, with different competing demands across sub-regional areas and massive infrastructure deficit, it could be advantageous in balancing community needs. Unfortunately, we currently have a situation where the government needs to be seen as investing in all six geo-political zones of the federation, even if some of the transport investments lack any merit or long term benefits. Public commentators will also continue to query the rationale behind some of these projects until the government is more transparent about its decision-making process.

For example, the widening of the Abuja Airport-Expressway and Outer Northern Expressway to 10-lanes is being done at cost of $1.7bn. From a transport infrastructure planning perspective, the questions that come to mind are, how did the govt come to the decision to spend $1.7bn on widening these roads? Has the govt considered other ‘soft’ engineering traffic management options or even passenger rail? How does the need to widen these Abuja roads stack up against other strategic roads in the country that requires urgent rehabilitation? Is the business case supporting such investment compelling enough? The same questions can also be asked of Lagos-Kano Rail Modernisation Project.

The government needs to deviate from the conventional approach of making transport infrastructure projects decisions without any sound social, economic and environmental rationale. The government should not just be seeking advice on just construction costs and traffic performance; they need information on long-term and indirect impacts on society's mobility, the environmental impacts/consequences, as well as the ability to serve diverse needs. The need for better understanding of the social, economic and environmental consequences of transport infrastructure projects is now required more than ever before.

Prioritisation is a valuable transport planning process which ensures delivery of transport-related objectives in a cost effective and efficient manner. It is about deciding "what to spend, in what areas to achieve the results you want", or making sure expenditure is prioritised on schemes and interventions that achieve the most.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bi-Courtney and MMA2 Terminal - What a Mess!

Recent revelations about the details of the MMA 2 Terminal Private-Public Partnership (PPP) agreement between the Federal Government and Bi-Courtney Aviation Services are disheartening – to say the least. Following my observation of the PPP contracts signed to date, I have come to a conclusion that the Nigerian PPP framework has been designed to legitimise state corruption. In this current climate of overwhelming infrastructure need, the government is using PPP to enrich few individuals at the expense of the general public. I’m now beginning to ask myself where public interest lies in all this.

As some of you maybe aware, in 2000 the Obasanjo regime signed a Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) contract with Bi-Courtney Aviation Services for the construction of the second terminal at Murtala Mohammed Airport (MM2). The new airport terminal was opened in 2007. However, the PPP contract is now subject of controversy.

There is an ongoing row between the FG and Bi-Courtney on the duration of the PPP concession. While Bi-Courtney is insisting that it has 36 years to run the terminal, the FG through the Federal Aviation Authority Nigeria (FAAN) noted that the concession is only for 12 years. Whether it is 12yrs or 36yrs, there are other details in the contract which I find really disturbing.

According to media, the PPP contract contains an ‘exclusivity’ clause which “forbids the FG from improving or expanding the old terminal at the Murtala Muhammed Airport. And that that all scheduled domestic flights in and out of Airport in Lagos State shall during the Concession Period operate from MM2 and that no new domestic terminal shall be built in Lagos State”. The question is what is the intent of this clause?

The single most important public interest concern with PPP transactions is the inherent tension that is created when governments view t leasing of assets as a potential income source. If such PPP are properly structured, they can provide large public benefits. However, PPP contracts in Nigeria are structured to grant concessionaires substantial monopoly power, ultimately at the cost to the users of the system. The MMA2 agreement, Lekki-Epe Expressway and Lagos-Ibadan Expressway PPP contracts are no exceptions in this regard. When I raised the same issue on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway PPP contract, some thought I had a personal ‘beef’ with Bi-Courtney Ltd. For your information, I do not have anything personal against Bi-Courtney, but I believe the right thing should be done. The exclusivity clause agreement that forbids the FG from improving or expanding the old terminal at the Murtala Muhammed Airport and prohibits construction of a new domestic terminal in Lagos State limits the prospect of competition and runs counter to the public interest.

Thank goodness that President Yar’Adua is currently reviewing the terms of the agreement. How can we be sure that corrupt individuals have not been involved in the deal? Let even assume that the concession is for 36 years. Does that mean that the govt cannot build any domestic airport in Lagos for a period of 36 years because of Bi-Courtney? Come on! So where are the public benefits? How does the govt intend to encourage competition? How can a company hold the monopoly on where local flights depart or arrive for a period of 36 years? Whoever must have advised the government to accept such a clause needs to have his head examined by a Psychiatrist.

In any public-private contractual arrangement, there is always a risk of corruption. For agreement like these and many other where large of amount of money or lengthy concession period are involved, such risk must be well managed. The govt has however failed to run open and transparent processes, when it comes to PPP deals. PPP agreements are signed without any regard for competitive tendering or proper tender evaluation process. To put it bluntly, our PPP framework is a sham. The govt does not seek input from third parties before entering into such contracts. Legislators do not hold the executive accountable on these agreements. Most of the agreement offers little or no public benefits. Most of the PPP agreement undermine competition and lack consumer protection provisions. The agreements are only successful at mortgaging our future away to few privileged individuals.

In my opinion, all PPP agreements have so far failed. The govt needs to go back to the drawing board. In fact, we need a moratorium of PPP agreement until the govt introduces a ‘consumer and competition’ legislation. Some may argue that PPP has helped delivered some key infrastructure like the new Airport Terminal, I will note that the devil is in the detail. By the time people wake up to the reality of this daylight robbery, it might be too late.

Anyway, my advice is that in cases where a contract or concession was inappropriately awarded, members of the public needs to push for provisions that will allow for contract termination.

Friday, May 15, 2009

British Parliament - The Nigerian Perspective

The last few days has really been sad for democracy. Earlier in the week, I criticised Nigerian legislators for their ineptitude and lackadaisical attitude they have shown recently in carrying out their statutory responsibilities – all at the expense of the Nigerian taxpayer. On the other hand, the British Parliament is trying very hard to restore its moral integrity following series of allegations bordering on corruption and fraud. Some members of the British Parliament (cabinet Ministers inclusive) are now being subject to all sorts of public ridicule because of their expenses claims. The subject of controversy in Westminster relates to the ‘second home allowance’ worth up to £24,000 (for MPs representing seats outside London) and incidental expenses allowance worth up to £22,000, which is aimed at costs incurred in the course of an MP’s duty. Following revelations from Freedom of Information (FoI) campaigners, we now know that some MPs have being abusing their privilege as Parliamentary members when it comes their expenses claims. So far, none of the MP have been found guilty of any wrongdoing, however the allegations in the media borders seriously on fraud and corruption. It is therefore not surprising that people are now questioning MPs moral authority.

I find this issue worrying for two reasons. Firstly, the British democracy that prides itself on transparency and integrity is now subject of financial sleaze. This sort of allegations does not help a country that is arguably one of the biggest exporters of democratic values. A democratic institution that should be setting high moral standards for a nascent democracy such as ours is now enmeshed in series of allegations of fraud and corruption. One question I have asked myself is, how will the British Home Secretary - who has been accused of ‘flipping’ her home address in order to exploit the system - tell Mr Aondoakaa to deal with corrupt Nigerian politicians? Anyway as the Yorubas say, “Ko si bi ti ise o si”, meaning “the grass is never greener on the other side

The second reason, which I find more worrying, is the attitude and response of some Nigerians to this issue. Instead of learning from these unfolding events, some are busy using it to rationalise the endemic corruption in the Nigerian society. Some are busy saying, “after all corruption is not limited to Nigeria”, or that “Nigeria is not the only the corrupt nation in the world”. I totally agree that corruption is not peculiar to the Nigeria democratic institution alone – hence the Yoruba adage. But we wouldn’t do ourselves any justice if we continue to pursue such lines of argument.

Based on my own personal experience regarding fight against corruption, I have more faith in the British democratic system than the Nigerian system. I’m confident that if any MP is suspected of engaging in any wrongdoing, he would be charged to court and probably sent to Prison. British Ministers and Parliamentary backbenchers have jailed in the past, so it is nothing new. You will all remember Jeffery Archer and Jonathan Aitken. However let’s ask ourselves, how many Senators or House Reps members have been charged to court and convicted in the history of Nigerian politics. What happened to the likes of Adolphos Wabara, Ghali Nabba, and Bunmi Etteh? These were people who had serious allegations of corruption hovering over their heads. Their tenure as leaders of the legislative assembly was ensnared in sleaze.
As far as British politics is concerned, I’m confident that the MPs are fully aware that they are not above the law. Their cases do not need to be referred to any ‘special’ anti-corruption agency. The Metropolitan Police is enough to deal with such MPs. Also, the Prime Minister or Justice Secretary does not need to set up an ‘Investigation Panel’ with an 8-week ultimatum to look into such matters. In the British society, these are matters for the Police to deal with. So what I am saying, we can always trust the British system that the law will take its course.

We also need to appreciate the transparency in the British democracy. Let’s remember that information on the MP expenses were obtained through Freedom of Information Act. The FOI Act was passed in November 2000 by the British Parliament and it gives people a right of access to information held by public bodies. The range of public bodies covered by FOI can be very wide. The legislation represents the foundational right-to-know legal process by which requesters may ask for government held information and receive it freely or at minimal cost.. One can therefore say that the Parliament is now a victim of a legislation, which it passed. I do agree and that is the way it should be. Legislators should be enacting laws that are based on national interest and not personal. In Nigeria, the FoI Bill has been going back and forth between the legislature and executive in the last 4 years or so. For me, this issue reinforces the urgent need for the passage of the FoI Bill in Nigeria.

Our democratic institution lacks any form of transparency. Thank God for technology and the internet news media, who have been successful in revealing some of the scandals in our democracy.

For now we can all sit back and make mockery of the British Parliament. At least we know what the British MPs are claiming in expenses/allowances, and efforts are now being made to correct the system. The question is, what about us?
Food for thought………………..

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Cost of Democracy

Is the taxpayer getting value for money from the current democratic structure? Are our elected politicians offering the taxpayers value for money? Should we outsource the nation legislative function to the private sector? Or should our elected politicians’ salaries/allowances be performance related? While some of these questions may sound trivial, these were some of the thoughts going through my mind over the last few days. It was reported in Thisday newspaper recently that about 17,500 public officers at all tiers of government draw N1.21 trillion allowances every year from the public coffers. This amount represents 93 percent of the N1.3 trillion that it costs the economy to retain their services every year. The balance of seven percent or N90 billion represents basic salaries payable to these public officers. To put this in context, it means N1.3 trillion is paid out to maintain 0.0125% of the nation’s population! Whilst the newspaper provided a further breakdown of how much is paid out in salaries and allowances to all tiers of government, this piece focuses on the legislature.

According to the newspaper, the 469 federal law makers (109 senators and 360 members of the House of Reps) cost the nation over N76 billion yearly salaries, allowances and quarterly payments. The breakdown shows that senators account for about 21 billion or 28 percent of the amount while House of Representatives take up the remaining 72 percent or N54 billion. We now know that each member of the 54 standing Senate committee receives a monthly imprest of between N648 million and N972 million per year, while, a member of the lower legislative chamber receives N35 million or N140 million as quarterly or yearly allowances.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I find these figures mind blowing. It even became harder for me to reconcile these figures when I read in the Tribune Newspaper that only one bill - the 2009 Appropriation Bill - had been passed by the lawmakers five months into 2009, and that they passed only four laws in the 2008 legislative session. And these were my reasons for the questions in my introduction. Based on these performances, I will be interested to know any legislator who can justify these salaries and allowances. I also don’t think these current salaries and allowances are sustainable in the long term.

As you all know, the legislature is a type of representative deliberative assembly with the power to create and change laws. The main job of the legislature is to make and amend laws. In presidential systemof government, the legislature is considered a power branch which is equal to and independent of the executive. Members of the legislature are also expected to hold the executive accountable on matters that affect their electorates.

However, the Nigerian legislature is at odds with the functions of a modern democracy. Instead of holding the executive branch accountable for its actions, our lawmakers collude with them to loot the treasury. The ineptitude of the National Assembly is also not surprising, considering that most of these legislators don’t even understand their responsibilities. Our legislative assembly brews one of the highest level of mediocrity. In order to feed their greedy and kleptomaniac tendencies, they jump up for joy when Appropriation Bills are debated because it gives them opportunity to ‘load’ the national budget.
The nation expects more these lawmakers. Paying federal legislators N76 billion per year in salaries and allowances without commensurate performance is not acceptable by any standard. As I said earlier, we may be better outsourcing the function of the legislators to the private sector. I don’t expect that any company executive will be paid N140 million in allowances without delivering on company target.

I agree that politicians must be well paid to prevent them from being corrupt. However, political office should be seen as service and not short cut to riches. Salaries and allowances of elected politicians can never be at par with the private sector. And if any politician thinks it should, he might as well pursue a profession in the banking or oil and gas industry.

I have had the opportunity to live in two western democracies in the last 10 years, and I have met elected Members of Parliament in these countries. The members of parliament make themselves very accessible to their constituents. They have an obligation to make representation to government on behalf of their constituents on issues that affects their welfare. They operate a well staffed constituency office, and it is mandatory that they attend to their constituents on certain days of the week. Now tell me, how many legislators in Nigeria have an office in their local constituency? It is a well known fact that most of legislators when elected move permanently to Abuja. Even though they are paid an allowance to maintain a constituency office they never do. They only return at the end of their term to seek votes for re-election. What is the function of legislator who cannot fight for his constituents? We read everyday in the media how local community are being exploited by state agencies. I read a story about some local residents who were asked by PHCN to pay for an electric transformer to be replaced! In a civilized society, these are issues elected legislators should be fighting.

The present crop of legislators seems to have lost their heads. Instead of charting a new course which will help strengthen our democratic structure, they embarked on silly and grandiose goose chase, probing all sectors of the economy. No wonder why they have only managed to pass four bills in the last 18 months at cost of almost N76 billion per year. If the N1.3 trillion spent yearly on public officers is invested in the nation’s infrastructure, I’m in no doubt that the nation will be better off.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dele Momodu and the 'Nigerian Obama'

Following the emergence of Barack Obama as the first US Afro-American President, Nigerians home and abroad are now desperately seeking an Obama who can deliver the much desired change that is needed in our beloved country. The search for the ‘Nigerian Obama’ has also now become a common slogan within the society. Many political commentators and media columnists have also joined the bandwagon in searching for the ‘Nigerian Obama’. But what most of them fail to highlight is the difference in the nature of the system that brought President Barack Obama into stardom, and that of Nigeria.

It was therefore interesting to read Mr Dele Momodu 4-week marathon article in the Pendulum column of Thisday Newspaper titled ‘The Search for Our Own Obama”. Like many people, I followed this article with great interest, trying to understand the perspective Mr Momodu was coming from. For me, the need for a Nigerian Obama is a no brainer, but the question still remains, how this so-called Obama will be able to take over the leadership of a nation with an endemic corrupt system. In arguing the case for the Nigerian Obama, political and social commentators often lose the focus of current discourse.

Mr Momodu’s in his article mentioned several notable names, who he described as a ‘potential’ Obama. He also provided an analysis on the reasons why some of these Obamas may never realise their potentials, even though according to him, they have all it takes to deliver ‘change’ to the Nigerian society. Some of the names mentioned include, Nasir El-Rufai, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Donald Duke, Babatunde Fashola, Fola Adeola, Oby Ezekwesili, Dora Akunyili, Pat Utomi and Buba Marwa.

I agree with Mr Momodu that many of these individuals have been tried and tested in the political scene. Some have also demonstrated good leadership qualities in their chosen profession. However, I believe that the search for the ‘Nigerian Obama’ should not be limited to any individual or group of people. I have no doubt in my mind that in a country of 150 million, whether we have somebody of Barack Obama’s quality is not the issue. I can tell you that for one Dora Akunyili, there are other one million and one other Akunyilis, who will even perform better if given an opportunity.

Rather than been narrow minded and singing the praise of few individuals either because of their success in politics or business, we should be clamouring for a ‘corrupt-free’ system that will encourage the ‘Nigerian Obama’ to come out from the closet. For me to mention the names of few individuals as potential Obama is somewhat patronising. The truth of the matter is most of these people will never venture to contest for political positions because they know quite well that the Nigerian electoral system is as corrupt as it can get. I need not to remind you of how some of these individuals have been hounded out office just because they tried to reform a corrupt system. Can we imagine a political contest that includes all the mentioned names? How interesting will it be to see Raji Fashola, Dora Akunyili, and Pat Utomi all contesting the Presidential elections under different political platforms? I can assure that if the system is fair and transparent, they will be many Obamas seeking political positions across all tiers of government.

We need to remember that Barack Obama was not the first afro-american to seek the post of US President. I’m sure we can all remember Rev. Jesse Jackson’s political adventure. Also, Barack Obama became the fifth black Senator in 2004. If Jesse Jackson was hounded in late 1980’s, which hope will it have given to the likes of Barack Obama. If Barack Obama was rigged out of the Senatorial election in 2004, do you think he would have contested the US Presidential elections? The point I’m making is, western democracies operate a political system that is fair and transparent. An average man on the streets of America or Europe knows that his votes count. He knows that his votes will not be collated at Police Stations. He knows that the election will be conducted by people of integrity, who will not bow to undue pressure from anyone.

Also, Barack Obama did not belong to the group of Washington elites. He did not emerge from the political ruling class, neither was he one of their favourites. He never held political appointment prior contesting for the position of President. However in Nigeria of today, you either have to belong to class of the political elites or have a political godfather in order to win elections. You need have been seen in the corridor of power before seeking leadership positions. You need to align yourself with the ruling party in order to secure political victory, because of the benefit of using the state machinery to rig elections..

For me, it is the system that has failed us in producing our own Obama. For example, how can an Obama emerge within a democratic structure that promotes mediocrity through meaningless principles of federal character? If elections into the White House were based on federal character, I believe Barack Obama will not even smell the streets of Washington. The discussion should be about how the system can be reformed. While I do not have a straight answer for that, I want to believe it will be a huge challenge. It is not surprising that the current political elites are not interested in changing the system. How do you expect someone to change the system from which he has benefitted immensely- albeit in a corrupt manner? This is one of the major fundamental problems with the Yar’Adua government. While President Yar’Adua accepts that the election that brought him into government was fraudulent, it is impossible for him to undertake any sincere electoral reform, as his political party is likely to be biggest casualty of such reforms.

In whatever way this reform is achieved, one is certain. We need a wholesale review of our constitution. The review should not be about meaningless issues such as state creation. We need a constitution that will promote transparency and fairness in our electoral system. We need a constitution that will promote a system of governance that will enhance our democratic values. We need an electoral system that will make every vote count. We need an electoral system that will give confidence to the Nigerian Obama that he will not be rigged out of an electoral contest. Until we realise these facts, we may still be searching for the Obama in 30 years time.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Vision 20-2020 Indeed!

It was recently reported in the media that some Directors of the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) were arrested by the EFCC over the alleged award of N1.7 billion for importation of plastic chairs. According to the Tribune Newspaper, the contract was awarded without regard for due process, and the contractor was paid a total of N61.7million for expenses which were already covered in the contract price.

Apart from the allegation of corruption, there is one issue in this story that I find really depressing. I can’t believe that 49 years after independence, the government is still awarding a contract for importation of plastic chairs (!). There are serious questions we need to ask ourselves here, does it mean that there is no company in Nigeria that manufactures plastic chairs? Is technology behind plastics so advanced that they have to be imported from the US? Let’s be frank, if we can’t produce plastic chairs in 2009, then what’s all the rhetoric about Vision 2020 all about? President Yar’Adua better get his thinking hat on. This is a national disgrace! When I was growing up there were thriving plastic manufacturing industries in Nigeria. I can still remember Eleganza and Metalloplastica. So what happened to these industries?

According to the report, the cost of the contract was N1.7billion. For goodness sake, can anyone imagine how many jobs will be created if those chairs were manufactured in Nigeria? What is the government actually doing to develop the manufacturing sector? We have failed to utilise our human capacity, and we have become a ‘big for nothing’ nation. When Third world nations were going through massive industrial revolution, our leaders have been busy looting the state treasury. Malaysia has been successful in manufacturing its own car. Indonesia has been successful in manufacturing plane engines. We are still importing plastic chairs!

Someone needs to advise President Yar’Adua that none of G-20 nations imports plastic chairs.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Deliver Us from this Evil!

As the news filtered through last night that Mr Segun Oni of the Peoples Democratic Party has been declared the winner of the Ekiti Governorship election re-run, my heart sank. It was a night of disasters, which was made worse for me by the defeat of my beloved Arsenal team. My heart sank not because PDP or Segun Oni won the elections, but because the little hope I had for our nascent democracy was shattered. As they say, democracy is a journey and not a destination. Political commentators often say that our democratic principles need time to mature and that it will be foolish to compare ourselves to the other western democracies, some of which have been in existence prior to our independence. Yes I agree it is a journey, but a journey that is on a road to ‘perdition’ is not worth embarking on in the first place.

I’m neither a supporter of Kayode Fayemi of Action Congress nor am I a card carrying member of the PDP. For me, I can only describe the current set of political parties in Nigeria as mediocre. Although it is an aside issue, most will agree that these parties lack any form of ideology or focus. Whatever be the case, I believe in the spirit of fair play. We need a level playing field in order to foster democratic maturity. However, our political system is a sham to say the least.

The Ekiti election has demonstrated that there is really no democracy in Nigeria. It was a clear reflection of the larger society. The situation in Ekiti was only accentuated because its perceived isolation. But it is a reflection of what goes on in the 36 states of the federation during the general elections. So can anyone imagine that! The Ekiti elections was doomed for failure from the word go. The election campaigns were marred with violence and intimidation, the federal government continuously threatened to deploy armed soldiers (in a democratic society!), the election was also suspended midway, and the most interesting part was the disappearance/resignation of the resident electoral officer. There was no way that any of the political parties would have accepted defeat.

The actions of federal government and INEC only brings back the memory of June 12 elections. People of Ekiti have been robbed of their mandate in broad daylight. I believe the ghost of June 12 is still very much in our midst. Two weeks ago, there were allegations the results from three wards in Ido-Osi local govt were collated at a Police station. However INEC has neither confirmed nor denied this allegation, which suggests to me that there might be elements of truth in it. So we need to ask Prof Iwu and his cohorts that, when did the police station become an election collation centre? When did Divisional Police Officers (DPO) become INEC Returning Officers? If these allegations are true, it is fraudulent for INEC to validate such results. Are these not the same results the Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Mrs Ayoka refused to accept two weeks ago? Have the results suddenly aligned with her Christian faith?

When I read Mrs Ayoka’s letter of resignation on the internet about two weeks ago, I acknowledged with sceptism. She claimed in the letter that the turn of events in Ekiti electoral process were against her Christian faith (!). And thus she cannot continue as the REC. It gets to me when people use religion to justify every action. Although, I’m a Christian, certain things are just morally wrong. I’m sorry to say this, but people who use religion to justify every action are mostly hypocrites. When you are engaged to do a job, you are guided by ethics and code of conduct. If your belief does not align with the ethics of your profession, then you shouldn’t be in the profession in the first place. For goodness sake, what has Christianity got to do with morals? People should learn to take responsible for their actions and stop hiding under the pretence of religion. Do you need to read the Bible to know that electoral fraud is a crime against humanity? Unfortunately, she now has to justify how the Ido-Osi local government has changed some much within two weeks to be acceptable from her Christian viewpoint.

The REC was even bold enough to say “any aggrieved party should go to the tribunal”. I don’t actually understand what she means by this statement. Does she have an understanding of the cost of litigation at all? It is suffice to say that the legal profession has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Nigeria fraudulent electoral process. And this is no disrespect to my learned friends, of all whom I hold in high esteem. But as soon as elections are lost, the candidates head straight to court to contest the election. They will agree with me that if the electoral Commission has done its work properly, they wouldn’t be any reason to go to court or tribunal. We need not to be na├»ve about slow the legal process can be. As an example, it took AC two years to get a judicial reprieve.

My concern is that Nigeria is gradually drifting into oblivion. People are continuously losing faith in the system. The emergence of separatist group such as MEND did not start overnight. The current belief in certain quarters is that the government cannot be engaged in any constructive discussion. And when this happens, the MEND style attacks could start to spread across the nation. You can only force the will of the minority on the majority for a while.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Who Is the Best Lagos State Governor?

Recently while reading discussions on a public forum, I came across a post titled ‘Who is the Best Lagos State Governor?’ Although, Lagos State has had four civilian governors and 12 military governors/administrators to date, the author of the post was specifically comparing the records of following state executives, Alhaji Lateef Jakande(1979-1983), Late Air Commodore Gbolahan Mudashiru (1984-1986), Brigadier-General Raji Rasaki (1988-1991), Col Buba Marwa (1996-1999) and Babatunde Raji Fashola (2007-till date). I will note that public opinion on this issue was somewhat divided, as people rated each governor based on their perception of each governor’s performance.

You will agree with me that these five state administrators have all left indelible marks on the face of Lagos - whether good or bad. The names of some these administrators are synonymous with some of the landmark projects/initiatives they implemented while in office. We can remember Jakande for ‘free education’, Mudashiru for his ‘prototype school buildings’, Raji Rasaki for the ‘third mainland bridge’, Marwa for ‘Operation Sweep’ and Fashola for bringing sanity to Oshodi.

It will however be difficult to compare the incumbent state governor, Babatunde Raji Fashola to the previous state administrators. The reason is that, although he has implemented major public initiatives and projects since his assumption of office, his administration is still in its early days. And also, it will be unfair to compare him with the previous administrators, most of who were in office for at least three years. But from my own viewpoint, I do strongly feel that best administrator to have ever governed Lagos State in my generation is Alhaji Lateef Jakande. And I will tell you the reason why.

For me, Alhaji Jakande was the best governor not just because of his ‘free education’, mass housing programme or implementation of ferry transport services. Having said that, these projects are yet to be surpassed by any other administration. They are thousands of people today, who will not have had opportunity to be educated or own a home if not for the Jakande administration.

My assessment of the Jakande administration is based on ‘vision’ and ‘sincerity of purpose’. I’m yet to see any state administrator (excluding the Babatunde Fashola), anywhere in Nigeria who had or shared the same vision with Jakande. I have also not seen any administrator who implemented projects/initiatives with same sincerity as Jakande. In terms of vision, the Jakande administration worked tirelessly to put Lagos State on the right path of development. The administration did not embark on headline grabbing projects that were only aimed at scoring cheap political goals but offered no value to the masses. He understood the importance of developing human capacity, hence his free education. He knew that ‘health is wealth’, hence, his free health programme. With little resources, he was able to create a pseudo social welfare system in Lagos State. He was also an ardent believer in the system he created. He did not travel overseas for medical check ups. His personal physician was a medical doctor from the public hospital. His children attended public schools. To demonstrate his commitment and sincerity, he ordered all his aides to withdraw their children from private schools and enrol them in public schools. This is a man that was willing to set an example. How many children of our state administrators are studying in Nigeria talk less of attending public school.

He was very sincere in his actions. He didn’t embark on projects to suit personal interest. His housing programme is a very good example. He was not just building houses to sell to his cronies, aides or members of his family. His housing programme was aimed at the poor masses. Civil servants benefitted immensely from this scheme. He never allowed any of his aides to purchase any of the housing units, except for those who did those through fraudulent means. I will be quick to point out that Alhaji Jakande wasn’t only the state administrator that has embarked on ‘low-cost’ housing programme. We all can remember Marwa Gardens, Jubilee Estate etc. But let’s ask ourselves, how many of these housing units were actually allocated to low income earners and working class. Most of these housing units were sold ‘off plan’ to government cronies, most of whom never had intention to live in such housing estates. Can you imagine someone living in a 5-bedroom house in Ikoyi, moving to Ajangbadi?

I can’s stop asking myself, how Lagos would have been if the policies/initiatives of Jakande were continued. This was a man who introduced ferry services in the early 80’s. He was on the verge of delivering a mass transportation system (metro rail) as far back as the early 80’s. This was when the population of Lagos was barely five million. For me, this is a man who had a vision; he understood the implication of rapid urbanisation on transport infrastructure. For those who may not know, the Jakande administration did all the ground work for the rail project now been proposed by the current administration. The government went has as far as acquiring the corridor for the rail project. Some of which have now been sold off to cronies of subsequent governments.

He was however criticised for building temporary structures as classrooms and taking over people’s land/properties to build schools? But the point is, he was sincere in his actions. He didn’t take over people’s properties to reallocate to his friends and allies. It was all for public good.

It is sad that 26 yrs on, state administrators are now been celebrated for implementing mundane projects. Governors are now awarded for things like routine road maintenance. But unfortunately, this is the ridicule we face as citizens. With the way these projects are sometimes celebrated, you want to ask yourself, is the Governor spending his own money or taxpayers’ money?

As for Babatunde Fashola, I must commend him for his work so far. Also, he still has 2+4 years to write his name in gold, and surpass the achievement of others.

Eko o ni ba je o!

Friday, May 1, 2009

The President's Interview

It was with great interest that I read the Wednesday’s publication of President Yar’Adua’s interview in the Guardian newspaper. With almost two years since his assumption of office, Nigerians have been looking forward to hearing from the Nigerian leader. Unlike Ex-President Obasanjo, one can describe President Yar’Adua as a man who is shy and unassuming. However, his perceived ‘soft’ nature has also continued to fuel speculations about his leadership qualities and more importantly, his understanding of the challenges facing the position he currently occupies. Following my review of his two years of stewardship, I have personally come to a conclusion that, President Yar’Adua just doesn’t get it? Having said that, this last interview somewhat paints a different picture of the ‘servant leader’. The reason why he has waited for two years before granting such a media interview is still beyond me.

Contrary to public speculations and beliefs, I was amazed by President Yar’Adua understanding of Nigerian issues. He was very articulate in his response to questions, most of which he backed with facts and figures. He looked like a man who is on top of his game. He came across as very intelligent. We however need to remember that he used to be a university lecturer. So I don’t think I’m well qualified to doubt his intelligence in any shape or form. However the question on my mind is, after two years in office, where are the actions to show for this intelligence?

Whilst the interview centred on the President’s ‘seven-point agenda’, one key area that was of most interest to me was the issue of transport infrastructure. The President provided an insight on the recently awarded Lagos-Ibadan Public-Private Partnership contract and Lagos-Kano Rail Modernisation project. On the Lagos-Ibadan Concession Contract, I was delighted to note the government’s intention to provide alternative roads for those who do not want to use highway, before the concession takes place. This is necessary for the sake of equity and fairness. It was also good to know that the content of the concession contract was signed by the previous administration at a cost of N150 billion (!). How N150 billion concession contract can be signed by a government without regards to competitive tendering process still beats my imagination. These are some of the atrocities committed by the Obasanjo regime, despite all its rhetoric about ‘due process’. Also we need to ask Ex-President Obasanjo, why will the road concessionaire be given exclusive right to land and highway? It is expected that the concessionaire will make decisions that suits his business interest also improve its profit share. What if those decisions undermine the government strategic road planning intent? I’m pleased that this government has been able to remove such clauses from the current contract. It is becoming clearer by the day that Ex-President Obasanjo economic reforms were only aimed at enriching few individuals. The so-called ‘privatisation’ of government institutions was done without any regard for public interest. And I will personally continue to call for his head.

Now that the government is looking favourably at entering into Public-Private Partnerships in the area of infrastructure development, it is important that it develops a sound and transparent PPP framework. I will note the current duplication within the institutional framework that is set up to govern the PPP model. Agencies/bodies such as Bureau of Public Enterprise, Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Council and National Council for Privatisation have duplicated responsibilities that need to be streamlined. Also, let’s not be deceived, the financial market is not what it used to be 10yrs ago. We need a framework that will be flexible and responsive to the economic climate. Private investors will not be interested in unstable economies that operate inconsistent economic policies

As for the Lagos-Kano Rail Project, the President noted that government is still in negotiation with the Chinese firm (CECCC) to re-scope the project. And that instead of the previously proposed two ‘standard gauge’ tracks; the contract will be for a single ‘standard gauge’ track at a cost of approximately $3billion. This therefore means the Lagos-Kano corridor will have two rail tracks of different gauges (one existing narrow gauge and one new standard gauge). I have never supported the original project for one main reason. I do not think enough work has been done to date to demonstrate that, upgrading 1,315km of rail track between Lagos and Kano is economically viable. We need to realise that not all rail projects are ‘good’ projects. For me, the original cost of $8billion is a colossal amount of money to spend on a project without due diligence. Our focus should be on developing the critical transport infrastructure needed in major conurbations of the nation (Lagos-Ibadan-Abeokuta as an example) at this point in time.

Following President Yar’Adua comments, it has now become apparent that the Nigerian government is stuck with the project – albeit with changes to project scope. I’m still however concerned with the government approach on this project. While it might look cheaper to build a single ‘standard gauge’ track, as against two that was previously agreed by the Obasanjo administration, I still cannot understand its benefit. What is the benefit of having a rail corridor with two rail tracks, with differing gauges? I want to assume that the rail corridor is to be built to cater for freight and passenger movements. How much extra capacity will the new single standard gauge track provide? The reality is that the two tracks will be mutually exclusive to the different train types (i.e. narrow gauge and standard gauge trains). Has the government explored the option of constructing a single ‘dual gauge’ track instead of the proposed standard gauge track? A ‘dual-gauge’ railway has railway track that allows trains of different gauges to use the same track. Generally dual-gauge railway consists of three rails, rather than the standard two rails. The two outer rails give the wider gauge, while one of the outer rails and the inner rail give a narrower gauge. Thus one of the three rails is common to all traffic. This effectively provides two tracks of narrow gauge and one standard gauge track within the corridor. While this option might be slightly more expensive, I believe this will offer more benefits in the long term instead of the single ‘standard gauge’ now been proposed by the government.

The final question is, has President Yar’Adua been able to convince me with the exuberant display of his knowledge about national issues? At this point I’m not sure. As I sceptic, it is reasonable to assume that the President would have had enough time to prepare for this type of interviews. His advisers and spin doctors who have seen the questions before hand and provide him with proper briefing. Therefore it is difficult to tell who is actually ‘speaking’. Is it President himself or the ‘doctored’ response prepared by his advisers and spin doctors?

Anyway as they say, actions are louder than voice. The President still has two more years on his mandate to convince Nigerians he actually knows what he his talking about.