Senator Gbenga Kaka, a former deputy governor, represented Ogun East in the National Assembly between 2011 and 2015.
In this interview, he speaks on the prospect of a better budget performance in the coming fiscal years, as well as bares his mind on the controversial pension law for past office holders passed by some state assemblies, arguing that “they don’t expect them to die after leaving office.
There seems to be a departure from the past National Assembly with the early passage of the 2020 Appropriation Bill. What is the implication of this on the economy?
I believe it is a complete departure from what it used to be. And without any doubt, it is going to be for the better because there are specific periods for projects and programmes. For example, agriculture is seasonal and if for any reason there is a delay in the passage of budget till March or May, that year’s programme is gone for good. With the passage of the budget this December, all the needed preparations that ought to take place between January and March must have been concluded by now so that we can meet up the seasonal requirements. There is no conception or any idea that can see the light of the day without adequate financial backing. If the budget is not approved, and the executive is restricted from spending, there will be poor implementation. That has always been responsible for budget 30 per cent implementation. This time around, we hope we would be able to achieve 90 per cent implementation at the end of the new fiscal year.
Other than early passage, what other parameters determine budget performance?
Beyond early approval of the National Assembly, there are so many other parameters that determine budget implementation. If the budget is approved and the implementation strategy is faulty, then we are bound to have problems. Timely release of fund is a critical factor. As you know, money for government comes in tranches on monthly basis. If the priority of government is skewed towards a particular programme, then the available money will be diverted to that place. So, there is a need to synchronize the timing and priority of the government.
How realistic is the oil benchmark adopted by the National Assembly for the budget?
That is part of the factors that determine success of budget implementation. We have what we call Medium Term Expenditure Framework. In that framework, there is an assumption that the average cost of our crude oil, which is still responsible for about 80 per cent of revenue will be $54 or $55 per barrel. If in the course of the year, the price goes up to the average of $80 or $90 per barrel, we will have excess to spend. If on the contrary, it slides to as low as $30 the way it happened shortly after the inauguration of the APC-led government in 2015, then the economy may be at the risk of collapse because there will be no money to fund all the highlighted programmes. So, the Medium Term Expenditure Framework has to be followed in terms of pricing and the quantum of crude oil to be lifted. In the current budget, they are talking of 2.2 million barrel of oil production per day. If we are able to maintain the 2.2 million per day, our assumptions will hold. But if it falls below the projection either because of operational or market factor, then we are going to run into trouble. If there is escalation of the crisis in the Middle East and the price is favourable to us, we will be smiling to the banks. We will have more than enough money to execute our projects and it will be unnecessary to be putting our neck in some of the loans they are seeking from left, right and centre. More importantly, there must be prudent management of resources. It is when we manage prudently that we get good results. If we continue in the business as usual, we may not be able to deploy the available resources in a beneficial manner.
Would you subscribe to the position of the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan, calling for the declaration of a state of emergency in the power sector?
I am 100 per cent in support of the Senate President’s position on the declaration of a state of emergency. I had personally called for it as early as 2005 when President Obasanjo was there. I wrote a letter personally asking Mr President to declare a state of emergency on the power sector. In 2016, I specifically called for a review of all the concessions given to GENCOs and DISCOs. And it was a genuine call borne out of patriotism. When those generating plants were being sold, the intention was to give room for foreign investors to bring money and expertise into the sector. If by now, those people refused to bring the needed fund into the sector, I don’t see any reason they should continue to hold on to our collective patrimony. We should feel free to review the memorandum of understanding and the agreement signed to liberate us and make us independent of them. They are not being sincere. So, I support the declaration of a state of emergency to ameliorate some of the challenges we are facing now. If they cannot inject the money they promised to inject into the sector, they should not hold us down.
The hate speech bill before the National Assembly is still generating controversy. Some say it is an attempt to gag the press, others see it as a step towards dictatorship. What is your opinion on this?
Who is going to interpret what hate speech is? Who defines what hate speech is? I think the government should not allow itself to be distracted. The administration is doing well on the issues of anti-corruption, transportation and education. Hate speech is something government should treat with benign disregard. Those who are preaching hate speech will be the ones in shame by the time their claim comes out as lie. So, rather than killing a fly with the sledgehammer, they should ignore them and get focused. All our people working with Mr President should concentrate their attention on deliverance of the promises the administration made to the people. You don’t expect those in opposition not to talk, you don’t expect the people who are in a hurry to see the dividends of democracy not to talk. If they are misguided or talk out of ignorance, we can go out to enlighten them. We should also allow the media to do their job. By and large, within the extant law, I think we have adequate cover for the hate speech. Whoever is displeased or strongly accused of making hate speech can be challenged in the law court.
One of your colleagues in the Senate made a personal disclosure that you stopped receiving pension as a former deputy governor of Ogun State when you got elected. What motivated you to take an exception to the rule?
Let me note a point of correction. First and foremost, I only attempted to stop my pension when I was in the Senate on moral ground, but I was persuaded not to do so. I felt that since I would be rendering continuous service for the nation, then one just had to give way to the other. But I was made to realise that the pension being paid was a post payment in lieu of the past service, which made sense to me. In the same vein, I was a director in two different companies and I sought legal opinion legal on the propriety of retaining the directorship and I was also made to realise that there was no law that prohibited me from holding on except on moral ground. And so I opted out. But for the pension, I received the basic salary of the incumbent governor and my driver was also being paid. I am sure there is no state assembly that did not pass the law before they started disbursing the money, which means what they are doing is actually legal and mutually exclusive of the new duty they are discharging. If they want to make it illegal, they either go back to the house of assembly or they allow the superior National Assembly to find a way around it; otherwise, we are stalked. If the National Assembly is going to do it, they have to ensure uniformity. There is no reason some people will be taking N500, 000 as pension, while another person will be taking N10 million per month. It doesn’t make sense.
What really is the propriety or otherwise of people earning so much when in actual fact most states could not pay the entitlements of the senior citizens who had put in a minimum of 35 years?
In Ogun State, I confirm to you that there is no outrageous pension for past political office holders. What operates is the basic salary of the incumbent governor and deputy governor with a driver attached to it. I can also say it authoritatively that I never benefited for once since 2003 from any free car being given to me not to talk of housing. Other than the salary of my driver they are paying, there is no other benefit. If pension must be provided to past public office holders, it must be made mandatory within this limit so that the arbitrariness can be wiped out. Part of the reasons for the pension being paid to them is because they have been precluded from holding some other positions. Besides, there are some paid employments they can no longer partake in. And, of course, they don’t expect them to die after leaving office. But the arbitrariness can be wiped out by having a uniform template upon which pension payment can be based.
Then, where does the role of Revenue Mobilization Allocation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) come in here?
They are limited in their operation to basic salaries and allowances. Pension issue is not within the purview of RMAFC. That is why some former governors had to go through the state house of assembly.
Now, what is the way out of the quagmire because some state assemblies are reluctant to do a review of the pension law for fears of offending one godfather or the other?
For any bill to be passed into law, it must go through public hearing. There is no bill passed without public hearing. So, if the people of any state had given their consent to the bill when the house of assembly was passing it into law, then they should blame themselves. And if they don’t want it any more, they can as well tell their elected representatives to make an amendment to the law. It is not compulsory that pension should be given to the past public office holders. If the majority feels it is not morally right, they should abrogate it democratically.