Magu doesn’t need Senate’s nod as EFCC chair, says Osinbajo
It was an evening for straight talk, as journalists gathered for a media chat with the Nigerian Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, at his residence in Abuja. The event was organized by the Presidency’s Office of Digital Engagement, to create a format for improved engagement with the government by the media. Speaking to that goal, Osinbajo said, "I believe that governance starts with engaging people. People want to ask questions, and get answers. Even if the answers are not entirely satisfactory, they at least know where things stand.”
The chat that followed addressed a wide range of unfiltered questions on the economy, the insurgency in the North-East, humanitarian issues and the Judiciary. The Vice President took questions from around the room, and answered each one in a tone that vacillated between affability and mild bemusement. Osinbajo speaks clearly and directly, demonstrating enthusiasm for a point with illustrative hand movements and making direct eye contact with the audience. The gathering had as informal an air as was possible, in a heavily secured place like the State House. There were brief introductions of the participating journalists, and the usual awkward and lengthy observation of protocol was skipped. While the format did not allow for follow-up questions - a hindrance to getting really deep into the issues, the Vice President was relaxed enough to let slip some interesting and provoking answers.
On tax and power
Mr. Osinbajo made clear that it isn’t the government’s priority to criminalise tax evasion. Rather, it is expected that tax amnesty and a renewed push would help improve tax collection from the 12% it currently stands. He spoke of plans under the government’s economic recovery strategy to increase VAT to 10-12% in the next two years, and affirmed that the team will also consider changes to personal income taxes as well. Also on the economy, he hinted at upcoming reform of patents under the Federal Minister of Trade, Mr. Okey Enalamah, and informed the group of plans to release N700m in payment assurance to energy distribution companies, while working with all energy stakeholders to handle the issue of tariffs.
“The government is also investing in solar,” he said, “but solar is still more expensive and would need to be carefully considered before being brought on stream, especially with the urgent need to ensure that energy tariffs do not soar too high.”
Otodo-Gbame and North-East displacement crises
Speaking to the humanitarian issues facing the country, the Vice President considers forcible displacement, such as that of Otodo-Gbame community in Lagos State to make way for urban renewal, a state issue. He spoke to the Federal Government’s commitment to do all it can on mass displacement in the North-East, particularly through the Presidential Committee on North-East Initiatives (PCNI). He said that PCNI is working with donor agencies and state governments to improve the humanitarian situation in the North-East while excusing shortcomings with the enormity of the task.
In implementing the N5000 per person monthly welfare stipend for the unemployed, the Vice President explained that they had challenges finding the right approach to identifying the right beneficiaries. “The current World Bank standard, isn’t as effective in reaching the five million people we projected and that’s why we’ve only reached one million people,” he explained. Still, the welfare program has been expanded to 10 states as the government continues to tweak its approach.
On Judiciary and Magu’s failed clearance
The Vice President also addressed some controversial stories making the rounds in the news, particularly the blows dealt to the Presidency’s anticorruption drive in the courts. While prescribing a mix of both legislative and constitutional reform to improve the work of the judiciary, Vice President Osinbajo decried the current system whereby lawyers can appeal , to prolong court cases, almost indefinitely. Osinbajo also cites these same appeals as reasons the Presidency has ignored court orders for the release of Shi’ite leader, Zakzaky, and former NSA Adviser, Mohammed Dasuki.
In perhaps the most controversial statement he made at the event, Osinbajo said that the National Assembly need not agree with the Presidency on the appointment of Mr. Magu for Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). “Section 1(71) of the Nigerian constitution could be cited as evidence that the government need not even have produced Mr. Magu to be cleared by the Senate at all,” he quoted.
Negotiations for Chibok Girls continue
In a few days, it will be three years since the mass abduction of the schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno State. The Vice President assured #BringBackOurGirls campaigners that the government is doing all it can behind closed doors to bring the girls home to their families. The #BBOG campaigners have consistently mounted pressure on the Nigerian government to do more the ensure that these girls are returned home.
The Vice President also praised the media for its work and used the opportunity of the gathering to charge the media to conduct good investigative journalism on local incidences of corruption, following through on court updates. He urged the media to scrutinize why these cases fail, and to not see corruption cases as a battle of wits.
The jovial tone of the evening belied this administration's tumultuous relationship with the media, which has had many a misstep to pick on in the last couple of years. No one knows this more than the Vice President, and he touched on this only once throughout the evening.
“Corruption is an existential matter for Nigeria," he argued. "Bribes and the like attack a fundamental part of our system."
At the end of the evening, the Vice President was as gracious and quietly confident as he was at the start, taking his time to mingle with all journalists present and take photographs.
In a lot of ways, the evening was a confirmation of what so many outside the Villa already believed: that Osinbajo is as thoughtful as we hear, and as gracious as President Buhari is brusque. The Vice President may have charmed the audience, but the issues brought forward are not any less severe, and the questions of the President's ability to deal adequately with the challenges still loom.