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Germane issues thrown up at Senate committee budget defence

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The recent screening and budget defence by ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) before the Senate standing committees threw up some issues.The Minister of Interior, Rauf Aregbesola, set the ball rolling, when he said the least daily upkeep spent on a prisoner in America is N31, 000, which makes nonsense of the dignity of labour in Nigeria.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) is currently battling to get government to implement the N30, 000 minimum wage agreement.Even some states are finding it hard paying the N18, 000 minimum wage, which became applicable in 2011. It is exclusive of all deductions, except those specified by the law, and yet this could not be achieved in many states that were paying percentages.

Aregbesola, however, advised that no comparison should be made between Nigeria and America, as such was bound to completely dampen citizens’ morale.But comparing the new minimum wage with what an American prisoner enjoys per day was a declaration that Nigerian workers are lower than American prisoners.The minister added that what is spent daily on a prison inmate in America can be as high as N60, 000 in some states.Aregbesola’s comments were in response to questions from some members of the Senate and House of Representatives Joint Committee on Interior during the 2020 budget defence session.

It was apparent he was particularly concerned about the state of Nigerian prisons aside workers’ welfare.He said: “At the Federal Executive Council level, when the budget being defended now was to be planned by way of inputs from various ministers, I kept quiet after listening to the Minister of Finance on the challenges and constraints facing the nation’s economy.

“One of such challenges is paucity of funds, which has made the Ministry of Interior unable to pay for 40 fire trucks manufactured for the country by Turkey 18 months ago. But I’m assuring the committee members that Nigerian prisons would not be allowed to degenerate into concentration camps, in line with the new mantra of correctional service given to it.

“Towards this end, we are engaging the governors, because there is no other way to do it than to work with them. We are also working with the Ministry of Justice, which already has a committee in place for decongestion of prisons.“We are also planning a meeting with the Nigerian Governors Forum to sensitise governors on what they should do to ensure that aspect of criminal justice administration is not neglected. There will be serious problems if all of us failed to come together to solve it. No sane person will want to administer or be in charge of a concentration camp in this time and age. We are all concerned. Nothing can be done by limiting ourselves to what is available, but much can be done by being creative, innovative and very prudent in the management of scarce resources.”Aregbesola’s submission was triggered by comments made by a Committee member, Senator Chukwuka Utazi (PDP Enugu North) on the sorry state of prisons across the country.

In his comment, Utazi observed that there were fundamental issues the minister must address with regards to the deplorable state of Nigerian prisons.In his view, the prisons are over-congested to the point that not only are prisoners taking turns to sleep, but their daily rations are inadequate and life-threatening, which cannot in anyway enable them come out as sane citizens.Utazi said: “Since our justice system is not helping, the Minister should use his passion to help us get a good feeding allowance for prisoners. What we give to our prisoners in Nigeria is not acceptable anywhere. We also need to address the issue of prison expansion. Most of the prisons in Nigeria were built during colonial administration.”

Then came the issue of illegal mining, which in the past had led to the premature death of many citizens. It has often been said that illegal mining has been responsible for some serious health issues and even death. For instance, in 2010, lead poisoning in Zamfara State had resulted in the death of many people, including 111 children.

And though the Federal Ministry of health said it had discovered 355 illegal mining sites, with 46 percent proving fatal, many were still surprised, when the Minister of mines and solid minerals development, Olamilekan Adegbite and the Chairman, Senate Committee on Solid Minerals, Mines, Steel Development and Metallurgy, Senator Tanko Almakura claimed that some state governments were the brain behind this illegality.

The minister said: “Foreign nationals are being encouraged by our people to engage in this illegal activity. Some state governments are encouraging these nationals, which is why you see them with security personnel. What do you expect an officer overseeing mining activities to do, when the state government is backing illegal mining? 

“Ordinarily, mining is in the Federal Government’s exclusive list, hence state and local governments cannot participate. We can compare it to oil and gas. If you say states that are endowed with oil and gas were to get involved, there would not be anything to share at the end of the day, because most of what is being shared comes from the oil producing areas. What if the people say it belongs to them?”

He explained that the ministry was invited by Federal Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) to explain what royalties are expected from each state.“We need to understand that the state can only come in through SPV,” he said. “If the states have their own mining companies, they will be treated like any other company. They can only go into mining on merit.”  He urged state governments to desist from encouraging illegal mining, saying: “We are talking to state governments through the National Economic Council (NEC). They should stop. They are the ones encouraging foreign nationals…”

The committee chairman then wanted to know if there had been any formal discussion on the issue.“Have we sat down to ask ourselves why these state governments are supporting illegal miners,” he queried. ‘The simple response is because they are illegal miners themselves. There is no way illegal mining can occur without the community’s knowledge. You cannot mine minerals illegally without the consent and participation of the host community.”

On the way forward, he urged stakeholders to find ways, structurally and legally to discourage state governments from getting involved in illegal mining.
Almakura was, however, of the opinion that that could only be possible by carving a role for the stakeholders. “The law on mining is in the exclusive list. So, there is need for us to come together— the Senate, House of Reps, stakeholders and even practitioners in the industry— to sit down and unbundle this to give every segment or every level of government some measure of participation, without usurping the exclusive legislative rights.

“I was a governor in Nasarawa State for eight years. But in spite of all the noise that Nasarawa is the home of solid minerals, I do not think the state government has made up to N100m from solid minerals…“We need to carry everyone along, as the process must not appear punitive. Rather, it will bring about collaboration and cooperation among all concerned, so that we can diversify the economy and create wealth for our people.”

Then came one of the highlights of the event, when some senators faulted Buhari’s anti-corruption strategy, which they said couldn’t win the war, “because it allows corruption to happen before sending the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) or the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) after culprits.

They recommended that the audit system be digitalised to check corruption and take away the drudgery associated with tons of papers for scrutiny during audit.The chairman of the committee, Senator Mathew Urhoghide said to successfully fight corruption and nip it in the bud; the Auditor General’s office should be the starting point.He said: “In fighting corruption, the first line of action is the office of the auditor general of the federation. If government is able to put all that is needed in the system correctly, as well as properly check whatever is allocated to all the MDAs and audit them, the issue of corruption would reduce tremendously.

“The audit system we are running right now is such that our MDAs and indeed the account of the federation is not subjected to any precaution, in terms of checking corruption. Rather, our resources are just ploughed into agencies that are fighting corruption.“There are things we thought of in the Senate, when we passed the Federal Audit Bill. But today, the Federal Audit Bill has not been signed. However, the ninth Senate will ensure that the bill is signed in to law. When this is done, I believe part A of that bill will strengthen the office of the Auditor General.”He explained that part B of the bill has to do with the establishment of a Federal audit commission, where they are going to have the right personnel that will carry out auditing of Federation account. 

“If government is able to do this, it would have taken care of corruption to a greater extent. What is budgeted for the office of the Auditor General cannot take care of its obligations to function well…”He explained that his committee was yet to receive the 2017 report. “But with the automated system, when you come for audit, your task has been reduced by maybe 97 percent,” he said.

The Minister of Finance, Mrs. Zainab Ahmed also underscored due diligence and queried the high personnel cost of N3.3trn as against the capital of N2.1trn, which she said is a mismatch.She said this portrayed the country as not interested in developmental projects, but is rather concentrated on consumption. She said: “We have a national problem of low productivity, especially within government. Our personnel cost in the 2020 budget proposal is N3.3tn from a budget size of N10.3tn. 

“We should collectively work together to see how we could reduce the cost. If we cannot do this, we should be able to maximise the staff we have, and how we can increase their productivity.“It is a bad situation that has built up over time. So, we have to take unpopular, bold and radical step to make a difference. This is not what the executive can do alone. We urge the nation to support us, when we want to take some radical actions to increase productivity, not just in the public service but also nationally.”


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NLCRauf Aregbesola
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