Exclusive Interview: CSOs will sue FG over $22.7bn loan – Vivian Bellonwo, Social Action

Vivian Bellonwo, acting Executive Director, Social Action x-rays the anti-corruption battles of the Muhammadu Buhari administration. In this  interview with Newsdiaryonline, the civil society activist slams the alleged  lack of transparency over the recent $22.7billion loan approved for  the Federal Government by Nigeria’s Senate.She hints that civil society organizations,CSOs will sue the Federal Government over the  approved loan request. Excerpts:

By Danlami Nmodu

Q: The government has told us that focus on economy is a major pillar of the Muhammadu Buhari government. Four years on plus an additional year now, how has the economy performed in your judgement?

A: Well the issue of the performance of the economy is something that is there for everyone to see. I do not think that we have made any significant progress in economic development, when you look at all the indices.Just the other day, the (Federal Bureau of) Statistics reported that for the first time in six years we have recorded trade deficit, there is imbalance. So even that sector is recording bleak outlook. And then you look at other integral parts of the economy, look at power. Power has not improved. We’ve not had any significant improvement in power supply. Industries, small scale industries, medium scale industries are still struggling with power to support their production. The same applies to infrastructure sector.Look  at roads, the  state of our roads is still appalling. In fact when you travel on some parts of Nigerian roads, it looks as if bandits now profit from the appalling state  of roads because that’s where they ply their trade now.They line up all these terrible roads and they grab people..These are the indices and indicators that  naturally build into the economy to indicate an economy that is progressive, an economy that is flourishing.But when all these component parts are not performing well, when they are all bleak, what do you expect that economy to be like?

Q:  But Government celebrates the fact that they brough the country out of recession. Is that not an achievement?

 A: ..Look.. we are not  celebrating figures, figures that are manufactured from the moon.What we are looking at are realities.Everyday living realities of Nigerians.Just look at in the past two years.Let me not go even farther.Two years, three years, can you see the number of Nigerians that have committed suicide for one economic reason or the other because the quality of life keeps going down.Whem people lose hope,losing hope in daily living, these are the kinds of thing that you see.Everyday we are confronted with somebody just walking and all of a sudden he jumps under the  bridge. These are not good tales.These are not positive tales that indicate that things are alright with the economy of a society.These are  strains, these are signs of health strains by any economic standards.

Q: What of the claims by the government that it is also investing in infrastructure and  reconstructing roads, railways and all of that.Is that not part of attempts to boost the economy?

A: Yes, if only it’s being done in a manner and in a way that is perceptible. But in this case, when out of hundred thousand kilometer roads, you have done like ten, it is still a drop of water in an ocean, the impact is still  very far-fetched. We haven’t had any significant improvement in infrastructure. The roads,if you travel from Abuja here through Lokoja through Kogi ,travel through  Edo, the roads are still terrible despite the quantum of money that you keep borrowing everyday in the name of road reconstruction and infrastructural reconstruction.

Q: And talking of borrowing, the Federal Government has asked for and the Senate has approved another   loan  of $22.7b. Do you think it is not justifiable given the challenges you have identified?

A: It is a disaster. It is a disaster of monumental proportions.

Q; To ask for the loan?

A: This recently approved loan, that is one of the worst. In fact it is not one of the worst, it is the worst disservice that this administration has done to this country. This loan..

Q: You mean the $22.7bn

A: Yes the $22.7billion .The disastrous impact on Nigerians, on the economy, on the lives of both yourself and myself and generations to come is not something that we can begin to sit here and quantify

Q: Why do you think it is disastrous?

A: There are so many reasons; and before now we had adduced…Look when this loan memo came up, we made several representations, several calls to the National Assembly, to the Senate and we adduced several reasons why this request is simply not in the interest of the common man. It is not in the interest of Nigerians for several reasons. One, when you look at the issue of social accountability, Nigeria has not been known to effectively, properly account for public resources. We have had several loans in the past borrowed in the name of power to fund power infrastructure; we ‘ve had the ones that are meant to fund infrastructure such as close circuit television, we ve had  the ones for roads reconstruction,several that have run into billions which till date you can hardly point at anyone and say yes, this is what that loan money was used for. ..Let me take you slightly back just last year when the Senate was doing the budget defence.Then, the amount for debt servicing came before the Committee for budget defence  and the minister of  finance was summoned, because there were several loans that Nigerians were repaying that  were practically eating up the budget of the country.So they started asking questions. They came across so many of those. A specific one was one was over $500million that was meant for Abuja CCTV installation, that is installation of close circuit television and all that. On paper, good.These are systems that should support security.With the close circuit television installed in strategic parts of the city, it can help to bust some crimes and all that.It was laudable.And Nigeria has been repaying ostensibly the loan for the installation of (CCTV).But then, they started asking questions when the issue came up.We have been paying this loan for several years now.And they asked the minister, where and where are these CCTV?Where are they in FCT, we are  all  in FCT? And the minister couldn’t provide any answer.She simply said well , she is not sure  it exists, but that the loans are being repaid and that her predecessors have been repaying it and she simply inherited it ..This is just one of the several loans Iam talking about.Several loans have been taken in this country without any implementation and nobody has held anyone to account.That loan is a failure,it failed and nobody has been asked to account for it.It has gone into private pockets.There is no CCTV,the country doesn’t have the money and nobody  is asking any question.And that is the same fear that we have towards this $22.7 billion, because like I told you earlier, the country does not have any active, effective social accountability mechanism. And so the process of  good tracking and accounting for this $22bn is far fetched.

Vivian Bellonwo,Acting Executive Director Social Action

Q:But the Senate President has assured us that the Senate would ensure that the expenditure of this loan is monitored.Are you not sure of their capacity to track the proper  application  of the loan?

A:We do not have any reason to believe the Senate President.Yes.Why do I say so? I said so because when this issue  was brought before the floor of the Senate, majority of the Senators wanted to subject this issue to critical examination,which is the way it is supposed to be.They wanted to subject it to unbiased debate.There questions that are surrounding it.For instance,what are the terms?What are the conditionalities of this loan? How many years, what is the duration? What are the interest rates?You can’t just go to somebody and say borrow me money and then the person will tell you, ok you will have the money but then, later whatever condition I give you, you will abide by it and pay and then you will accept like that, take it and go home.That is the kind of crazy thing you have done with this.The majority of the lawmakers wanted to subject this thing to a reasonable debate,critical debate so that we can look at the areas perhaps where this could be good, this may not augur well for the country.

Q:I  recall there was commotion

A:Exactly and he  shot it down, the Senate President did not buy into that.What he did was to quickly collapse the House into a closed session and comfortably shut out those  critical voices that would have subjected this  request to transparent scrutiny.So at the end of the day we are having a loan request that has been approved and then they said the conditionalities and the terms can be sent later

Q: But the government has been assuring us that it will expend public funds diligently and with responsibility.Are you not comfortable with the government’s records of expenditure?

A: Certainly not.Certainly not, because even at the level of the budget, I mean we’ve seen the fisticuff we had with the budget.Budget implementation had never at any time  gone past 50 , or 60 per cent and no proper accountability.The moment the approval is made on paper there, everybody goes to sleep

Q; Let’s put it bluntly, you mean even under Buhari’s regime that is fighting corruption, there is no proper accountability?

A:Absolutely not, absolutely not.

Q:But the chief campaign issue and the pillar of the government is anti-corruption

A:What corruption are we fighting? Many of the MDAs that are even involved, they don’t even make any pretences about it. They don’t make any apologies. Recall that last month or so, it was revealed that many of the MDAs for years they did not have audited report

Q: We reported that first

A: None of their activities has been audited.They just come, take public funds and you go expend as you wish and the following year, you come again.Year after year, no accountability.Nobody asks you questions.You just come yearly and take your allocation and go home.

Q: What do you  think is responsible for this sluggishness towards the government’s anti-corruption drive even by the MDAs? Is it because they think they can go scot free?

A Yes, because people have been going scot-free.Yes.So it tells you that we have not fought or matched words with the anti-corruption mantra  as  projected. That the adminstration has not matched words with actions.

Q: Despite the imprisonment and trial of people?

A: Because if it had been matched with actions, these Ministries, Departments and Agencies that administer public trust will not boldly refuse to account. Some of them when they summon them for budget defence, they don’t even come.

Q: Why do you think there is this perception that the anti-corruption war is not going anywhere? Why,  what’s wrong with it?

A: It’s because of things such as this. Ministries, Departments  and Agencies are running for years ,as in years, without any accountability, without any auditing. So where is it.These are the things that feed into such perception. In this case, it’s not even just a perception, these are realities.

Q; But EFCC and ICPC keep telling us they are doing their jobs diligently, you don’t believe them?

A: I don’t need to believe them.What they need to do,they need to do what they need to do, they are effective.Look, they may have their own challenges, they may have their own issues and all of that.But to a large extent, their activities and their operations have still not met standards, they still fall below average.

Q:They have recovered funds, they have succeeded in getting sentences for some former governors and they are still making efforts to repatriate some funds. Yet, what else do they need to do?

A: That is what Iam saying, corrupt people that are more than ten thousand and then you jail three or four and you go home celebrating it? You recover looted funds to the tune of billions of Dollars and then you cannot even account for what you have recovered. Now even the Abacha loot, you can see the fisticuff that has gone into it. Nobody knows what is even being recovered and nobody knows where it has gone into. It’s just like getting from a leaking pocket and putting it straight into another leaking pocket. It’s like recycling loot…So it has not been up to standard. They may have made one or two successes which I give to them. Yes fine, but then, the tempo, the net should be widened not just focus on one politician or the other. The MDAs, the quantum of corruption that goes on in MDAs is incredible and they are not effectively looking into them. They have gotten so many leads. Several whistleblowing leads have been given to them, what have they done with it? They need to pick these up and run with them.

Q:So is there too much focus on fight against corruption that the real corruption itself is being overlooked?

A: That what I have just said.. we don’t  even appear to be getting at the real corruption.Look the heart of every government’s administration is the civil service structure.That is the bedrock, that is the mechanism  that runs it.And when this is still tied down,bogged down, all the processes are still bogged down in corruption, we need to unbundle the civil service and a whole lot of process,even the procurement process and everything associated with it is still not subjected to transparency.

Q: The impression I get   from you is that the Buhari anti-corruption fight has not made much impact

A: Absolutely.Yes.

Q: So what do you think they need to do because that is the major pillar of  the regime? What should they do to earn your respect and the respect of people like you in the fight against corruption,what do you require from them?

A: Some people argue that corruption is not only in Nigeria, that corruption is virtually in all the countries of the world .And so the one in Nigeria is not a case in isolation. Well,Iam almost tempted to go with Magu that corruption is the cause of everything including….. It is like a hydra headed monster.It has tentacles that  are linked to everything…But the organization needs to match words with actions

Q: You mean the EFCC?

A: The anti-corruption bodies, even the police. Under normal circumstances, Police is an important instrument of fighting corruption.But  what do we have today..?

Q: Before we round up I want to go back to this loan issue. Given the matter in which the $22.7 loan was handled, how easy or difficult to it make tracking the expenditure by CSOs as events unfold? Will it be easy or difficult?

A: It’s never been easy. It’s never been easy tracking loans. We have worked on debts and loans for decades now and to even get the basic information ..  is like passing the elephant through the eyes of a needle. Like the case of the Sukuk bond, the N100m sukuk bond, we wrote FOI to the minister, we made specific demands for details of that loan, we requested for details, including  the conditionalities and terms of repayment attached to it and all of that. There was no  response, no significant response. The same was the case  for other loans. We usually write to DMO or Minister for Finance, requesting for details of the said loans so that we could follow up, go to those areas and monitor. And so  having access to  information on those loans is very critical for civil society to be able to track. But this information is often not available.What you just have is a generalized and summarized information which does not give you specifics on what you needed to know to track these loans.But then, we’ll continue to press…There are options that are open to us: FOIs , and in this case we are also considering a litigation actually because of the quantum of money that is involved.

Q: You mean this $22.7 billion

A: Yes

Q:  You are considering litigation against the government?

A: Yes we are considering  going to court to compel the withholding of this loan or this money until all the information, all the details become clear. We need to understand, we need to know the conditions attached to this loan. We need to know..

Q: Who will  you be suing, the FG?

A:Yes the Federal Government.We need to know the conditions that are attached to this, we need to know what plan does  government have to repay this. Because we fear that what this administration simply wants to do is just to fritter away this quantum of loan.

Q You mean that CSOs may sue FG over $22billion loan?

A: Absolutely. In the coming days, we are looking strongly at that option..Because you need to take much stronger step to compel the government to be accountable for its actions.Because we resisted, we called on the national assembly not to approve this loan because the circumstance around it are not clear but it went ahead and approved it.Now we will likely approach the court…

Q: You mean by a group of CSOs?


Q:Finally, it means that from all we have said so far, the battle for accountability and transparency in Nigeria is still not an easy on, despite the fact that we are in a democracy. Right?

A:  Yes, Sure

Q: Why is it so difficult in a democracy?

A:Because that is the nature of persons that are in authoriy.Public figures, public servants lack the political will to match words with actions.When you allow sentiments, when you allow certain exigencies that might not necessarily be convenient to you to affect your judgement in deciding  your official duties, these are the kinds of things you see. Because, in situations where persons that are close to you are involved in corrupt practices one way or the other, you are supposed to act unbiasedly.You are supposed to act, irrespective of who is involved.But in this case, that is not what happens,we still see a lot of political expediency being placed above national interest ad the interest of the common man.