Mr Oluseun Onigbinde, an open data analyst and a fiscal transparency advocate, is the co-founder and CEO of BudgIT. In this interview, Onigbinde speaks on how President Bola Tinubu can reduce the cost of running the government. Excerpts:
What aspect of President Tinubu’s policy direction would you like to speak on?
He has done a few things, but the two most important things he has done are his removal of fuel subsidy and the exchange rate parity, though the market is still going through some processes. We don’t have the final price point yet, but we are already seeing that the gap between the parallel market and the official market is closing.
I think that is what is necessary. It is very clear that a lot of producers and manufacturers are heavily dependent on the parallel market and, before now, only a few people were using the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, to benefit themselves. That parity is on its way and I think that is good for Nigeria and to state governments because the exchange rate has changed. It also means that certain things would change, keeping the ratio in dollars terms or revenue to Gross Domestic Product, GDP, will also change.
Some of those things will differ significantly. I think that is necessarily, but we have to continue watching them. The other one is the subsidy removal. That has been discussed and most Nigerians have come to a consensus that fuel subsidy has to go because we can no longer pay for it. We are used to all forms of debts, but we cannot keep borrowing for consumption. My own idea is that citizens are bearing the brunt and they have accepted that to some extent. (But) they (citizens) are also concerned on issues such as: Is government also being fair to them and is the cost of governance going down?
Are they (government) still being honest to them by taking the burden and putting them on the side of citizens? What exactly is the budget of the government in this regard?
Those questions are on the table as we can see that is quite germane on the social media. There have to also be some reduction in the cost of governance and the way government does business. It costs very highly to run government in Nigeria. Some argue that there is multiplicity of government agencies doing the same job.
What is your take on the issue of multiplicity of government agencies and if you have a few examples of the ones to scrap and the ones to merge, which ones would you mention?
I think we have to go back to the Oronsaye Report which asked us to look at agencies like the Independent Corrupt Practice Commission, ICPC, and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, if their roles are not similar and if there is need for us to merge them together.
Some agencies are supposed to be tucked into some ministries, so they don’t continue operating as stand alone agencies. But there are bigger problems here. When the report was published, if you look at the National Assembly, over 60 of the bills there were establishment bills. So, constantly, they were establishing new agencies just to make sure development goes around the country.
Everybody wants to put some form of the Federal Government presence in their community and that’s a big problem. In my own view, there are some agencies that we need to go back to and decide if they are necessary or not. We have to put up another appraisal. We need to ask ourselves, are these agencies necessary? We have research institutes, it is not just about whether they are necessary but do they generate revenue and are their earnings from government? Or should we just treat them as stand – alone where they should find how to earn their revenue and not from government purse? They have to be in that kind of mode and not a burden to the Federal Government.
But it has to be a form of appraisal of things to be sure we need these agencies and how many people we need to run them. In cost of governance, I think about it in three ways; first, the life style of public officials. You see a lot of our political office-holders move in long convoys of cars, travelling, buying things with unreasonable amounts.
Every time we are buying brand new cars for Ministers and heads of agencies. People want to sit down and say “ you cannot have people struggling, passing through hard times and you have those in public offices lounging or enjoying themselves”. Also, the agencies and ministries that draw funds from public treasury, how many are they?
The cost of public contracting, are we certain that we have looked at public contractors and seen that if something costs N10 in public market, should it also cost N10 in government documentations?
The way I see cost of governance, we want to ensure that there are no wastages in how public officers conduct themselves, no waste on how we pay people. We also want to be sure that we don’t do public contracting the way we are doing it because we keep borrowing money, and keep putting ourselves in a lot of debts. We don’t ask ourselves: “If I spent N70 trillion within eight years, did I get N70 trillion worth of investments and payments within same period?” A lot of efficiency is required now from the Nigerian government.
There are issues about projects outside Ministries, Departments and Agencies, MDAs, mandate. Can you shed some light on this?
Yes. It is disturbing that in the 9th National Assembly, you know that before, we had constituency project, which is N100 billion, and every National Assembly member puts whatever they like as project, some do street lights, some do empowerment projects, but we don’t agree with that. We think that situation is flawed and abnormalities have just stepped in which is very dangerous. I hope President Tinubu will hear this and pay attention to it. For instance, you might be a member of (the National Assembly) committee overseeing the National Institute for Public and Strategic Studies, NIPSS, which is a strategy outfit, and the institute is asked by you to do a road construction in Alimosho local government, how is such agency supposed to be doing road construction?
You know, these are the situations we find ourselves in. You gave examples of the Federal College of Dental Technology and Therapy, Enugu and the Federal Polytechnic, Ukama, Akwa Ibom. Can you give us a vivid example of how this is detrimental?
Look, if an agency does not have the mandate or technical expertise to do certain things and the agency does it, what you get is just a waste. Who is going to prepare the bill of quantities? Who is going to ascertain that the project has reached a certain value for money?
The team or organisation does not have the capacity or mandate to do that. I have spoken about this that it is extremely wrong for people, especially at the National Assembly and also at the executive level, to be just inserting projects in the budget in such a manner that you mount pressure on the executive through the Accountant General’s office, saying this project must be executed.
Spending billions of naira on this kind of thing and I said in the 10th National Assembly, such things should not happen. The only way it will not happen is that the executive put those things in the budget and do not implement them. But in a situation where you find the Border Community Agency constructing roads just doesn’t make sense…
On the issue of debt profile, the Debt Management Office, DMO, has warned that for Nigeria not to enter into trouble, this government should not borrow extravagantly and that it should meet acertain margin of revenue generation to be able to match her debt servicing with revenue generation.
Did you see that communication from the DMO?
I saw it. Public service agencies should be able to state the facts irrespective of who is interested or who cares about it. I am happy that they were able to say this.
This is not even the final position of our debt. I think it is more than this. The thing is that our revenue is a huge problem. The efficiency has problem and that is part of the examples I was giving previously. We have a poor revenue structure and the only way we have to do it is to optimize what needs to be collected. Look specifically at the tax waivers we are giving to various agencies.
For me, that is not the best. This is an opportunity for this new government. There are too many waivers. Some of them are not necessary. Some are even destructive for those industries. They now have to give it to different revenue generating agencies to be able to do it more efficiently. Look at our revenue input, look at our GDP, it is still within permissible level, but if you look debt and compare that to our revenue, it is outrageous. It is beyond normal level. I have not seen any financials or respectable country spending about 80 to 90 percent of its revenue, especially at the federal level, on debt servicing.
What is your take on the idea of merging ministries as a way of cutting down cost of governance vis-a-vis the need to satisfy federal character?
Honestly speaking, merging ministries is a good idea but I think the major problem is the size of our Ministers. Somehow, we have to go back to the Constitution and say we don’t need 36 Ministers because I know we will do well with 20, if we are honest about it.
Even if you merge ministries, you would still create the cascade of the Super Minister, Minister of State I, Minister of State II and all that. Some of those positions are unnecessary. It is not about merging ministries but having less number of people to manage them.
For instance, we should just have a Minister of Education. There is no point having Minister of State for Education. All we need is just one man or woman to man each ministry. I think Mr. Festus Keyamo also talked about the abnormalities surrounding the Minister of State. It is a constitutional issue. It looks as if the President’s hands are tied but he can still do something about it. He can appoint three persons from each of the geo- political zones to serve as Ministers and I think that would be fair enough.