THE Speaker, Delta State House of Assembly (DTHA), Engr. Victor Ochei, recently fielded questions from The POINTER crew of Monday Uwagwu, Sam Ijeh and Iteveh Ekpokpobe, in which he responded to legion of questions, including the House’s activities, especially in relation to the 2014 Appropriation Bill of the state. His responses to our questions are in paraphrase.
Mr Speaker, recently, the Governor of Delta State Governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan, as the head of the executive arm of the state government, presented a proposal of the 2014 budget proposal to the Delta State House of Assembly. On that occasion, you gave the assurance that it will be speedily completed in terms of consideration. What will be the factors that will guide your speedy action in this respect?
Well, I think that, basically, many principles guide every budget process and its consideration. On top of them is that what is being planned for now is to ensure that even when the House is on a short recess, the Finance and Appropriation Committee will be at work and go through budget defence and also assess the performance of the former budget with a view to assessing what factors are due for review in considering this year’s appropriation as well as to ensure that some key projects are accorded priority, if not appropriately funded before.
In giving speedy consideration, many people have expressed their fear that the state legislature, being what they say is an attachment to the apron string of the executive arm of the state government, is more often than not, incapable of objectively assessing in details, some of the proposals, the result of which is said that, most times, the budget runs out of scale and is hardly implemented.
If they say so, who, then, has the constitutional power to do it? Sometimes, people know only how to criticize and never belong to part of the solution. That criticism, without being immodest, is unfair to the legislature; I say this because, basically, the ingredients of budgeting are very standardized. In other words, they are not mere wishes or the result of the rule- of- the thumb decisions. Well, whether anyone thinks we are an appendage of the executive or not, whichever way you deal with the budget, it is still going to be the executive that will do the implementation. That does not take away the fact that we still have to do our work, though the public must also understand the very clear difference between a state budget and a Federal Government budget. A Federal Government budget is based on a fixed benchmark price per barrel of oil and the estimate of the barrels of oil to be sold in the fiscal year and the proceeds will be shared among the stakeholders-the federal, state and local governments; that is why they stick to bench mark and all of that.
As for the state level, the government picks a bench mark, possibly the one of the year before and produces what we call a budget estimate. It is more or less a proposal. In other words, it is near what is expected as income. By the time they take cognizance of internally- generated revenue, statutory allocation from the Federation Account (FA) and other receipts which include the Value Added Tax (VAT) and some other receipts that may come in, they have a fair idea of what should be the budget proposal. That is how you have an estimate, based on the idea of how much that they are expecting in a fiscal year in the state; thereafter, they tailor their expenditure along that terrain.
As Speaker of the Delta State House of Assembly, from your vintage point, as leader of the first arm of government, are you satisfied with the level of performance of budgets held under your watch as Speaker?
Yes, if you ask me; the extent that the budget performs is the function of the receipts from the Federation Account. Last year, we had a proposed budget of N472 billion. Now, for 2014, we-that is Delta State Government- have proposed N391 billion, which is short on last year’s estimates by about N80billion. And the reason is obvious; what they received last year fell far short of what was expected. So, the state government, quite wisely, felt the best thing now is to budget close to what is more realistic so that where there is deficit, it will be minimal, and there can be public confidence restored in our budgeting system. When you budget for N472b and, at the end of the day, your receipts, statutorily and through Internally-Generated Revenue (IGR) fall short of that by almost close N80b, (even though the fault may not necessarily be that of the state government), then you know that there is a problem and you cannot continue to budget like that any anymore. You now have to tailor your coat according to your cloth and not your size anymore; and that is what the Delta State Government is trying to do.
But, so far, in terms of performance, in spite of the fact that we have a big short fall, performance has been tailored along the line of priorities. Whenever you have a short fall of the expectation, the only thing you have to do in the strictly economic sense is to have a priority scale or scale of preference or opportunity cost, so to speak. In following that, I will say the state government has done well in line with the budgeting process.
Taking consideration of the fact that the state IGR is likely to rise on the platform of the fact that the Ground Rent, which is expected to generate more funds for the state government, will come into operational effect in 2014, would you not say this is a deliberate policy of under-budgeting?
No, because it is better to under- estimate and later resolve the positive difference with a supplementary budget, than to over -estimate and not meet your expectations. In budgeting, it is better to shoot to aim at the roof top so that when you hit the sky, you would have recorded some appreciable progress in terms of surplus, rather than do otherwise and suffer the loss of the differential. What happens in relation to deficit budgeting arising from poor receipts is that, after having a lot of expectations and aspirations but cannot meet them, hopes are dashed, you are going to have problems with prioritization and then political interests start coming in; that is where you begin to see failures.
Assessing the legislature on how strategic it is to the growth and nurture of our democratic sector, would you say it is strictly relevant?
To ask that question will be to undermine democracy because the legislature is the symbol of democracy since the constitution is supreme. The legislature is the only place on account of which the constitution comes into play and we are guided by the law as enshrined in it as every other law is derived from it. Without the legislature, it is like having a lawless democracy.
If democracy is all about the rule of law and democracy is of the people, by the people and for the people, then the very imperative of the legislature becomes expedient. So, if you take out this all- important arm of government, will you still be running government, since government is anchored on the law? Will you be implementing policies that are not bound by law? At the end, if you want to raise IGR when there is no law, it will be at my discretion to pay or not and if it comes by use of force, we are going to resort to a chaotic and crazy society. So, I don’t imagine anyone talking about democracy and removing the legislature which is the back steam. The place of the legislature cannot be over -emphasized. It is one very more than essential ingredient in the process of democracy.
You have, by the grace of God and support of the people, especially your co-legislators, become the longest serving Speaker under Dr. Uduaghan administration and even the youngest Speaker so far. What is responsible for this, in the light of the fact that the legislature is at its most complex stage (multi-party)? Or, is it the silence of a grave yard?
I am sure you know that no one can make himself or herself Speaker in any state, not talk of a complex state as Delta. So, anyone who is Speaker has some measure of support from other legislators. That I was elected Speaker was by the goodwill and support of people, because, in a very vibrant legislature as DTHA, every member is equal to the other, and there is equal opportunity for all to become Speaker, depending on the level of support among the members/stakeholders. Having said that, I hasten to tell you that there is no grave yard peace situation in the DTHA. If it was the silence of a grave yard, it would not have lasted long. First, it is by the grace of God and the understanding and cooperation of my colleagues that I have been sustained as the longest-serving Speaker in the Uduaghan administration, especially in a multi- party House as we have in DTHA. It has been a situation where your traits and qualities as a leader are constantly being put to test in the sense of your ability to relate with your colleagues.
First, you are only a first among equals. There is hardly anything that I have done that has not come to the knowledge of the house. If you want to get greedy, you are going to make a lot of mistakes, so, you should run an open door policy for them to see and understand whatever you do. When you let them know that, “look, these things cannot be like this”, they will appreciate it than when you shroud facts in secrecy. So, if anything has kept me on as Speaker, it is probably the fact that I keep my colleagues adequately informed of goings-on, and without sounding immodest, I strive to be transparent and even-handed, at least, to the best of my ability as a human.
Some persons talk of my age; age, for me, is but a number. Of course, people credit me with wisdom and,if that be true, it has nothing to do with age because it comes from God. So, if I have applied wisdom at my age to be able to manage a house were about 50 percent of persons are older than I am, it is by the grace of God and the support of my colleagues.
It may also be that my colleagues see something in me which they appreciate and believe in. Besides-and I must say this categorically and I must give it to them- that in them, I have seen the most understanding set of colleagues. By just looking at your face, they know when you are sad and they bear with you because they know that if the reverse was the case, you would always be there for them. Mutual trust has been established and it has been working well for us.
As a speaker and an inner caucus member of the PDP in Delta state, to what would you attribute the simultaneous numerical growth of the PDP and the dwindle of opposition parties in the state?
There are different styles to market a product. The style with which you market your product determines the returns you are going to enjoy. In the state generally, the performance of the state administration under the watch of Gov. Uduaghan is a key factor, as is the role of the party leadership. In specific respect to the DTHA, we have complimented what the party leaders and the state governor are doing. The style we have used in wooing our colleagues who are in the minority party is simple: We run an open door policy and we do not segregate on the platform of political parties. We work and take decisions together like one family. The result is that the question they now ask is, “why were they opposing the PDP if, by the end of the day, what they (PDP) was doing was nothing wrong?”
On the other hand, at the state level, like I said, the performance of the state government, the role of the party leadership and the resolve of PDP stakeholders to set aside their differences and work together, has also been instrumental to the resurgence of the party and , by the same token, the dwindle of opposition parties, especially the DPP, especially in the Delta Central Senatorial District, where we won the recent bye-election.
How long will the budget consideration take the house before they remit to the executive for endorsement?
Well, we have given the Finance and Appropriation Committee the time up until the 28th of January to report to the House. And from then, the House will consider it in a committee of supply and when we find it okay, it will be ready for execution. I am sure that, by February, the Bill will be ready for assent (by the governor).
As 2015 draws near, do you subscribe to the power rotation principle, particularly as it affects Delta State?
Yes, I do, as it affects Delta State; Delta State stands on a tripod-the north, south and central- as its fulcrum. Since the central and the south have taken a shot at it, I believe, as a person, the north should have a go at it, to give a sense of belonging to every part of the state, because what makes one to say he is a citizen of this state, is the fact that he can aspire to the highest seat in the land, on the strength of his individual worth and merit.
So, Delta North is not excluded: as far as they can aspire to it, I think it should be encouraged and they should be given. Though people may say I am speaking sentimentally because I am from Delta North, I feel this is a positive sentiment that is becoming increasingly popular and common place among all Deltans.
The very idea of zoning, by virtue of it favouring Delta North this time around, has triggered a plethora of aspirants from the zone. Does it not bother you?
That is the beauty of democracy. It is everybody’s inalienable right to contest for any of these positions contained in the constitution, if they are competent and meet the requirements. At the end of the day, it is our right, as Deltans, to choose. It is about like different industries making the same product. It is the product that appeals to you most, in terms of value, that you purchase; you can’t expect equal sales from the market for the same product range.
Anyhow, the issue of legion aspirants is just not peculiar to Delta North. When Delta Central was to have their senatorial bye-election election in October, 47 aspirants came out. That is just the beauty of democracy; everybody has the right to aspire and you cannot disenfranchise anyone. At the end of the day, the choice will be made and I do not think that the plethora of aspirants has anything to do with the choice of the people.
If you were asked to give the criteria as to who will govern Delta State come 2015, what will you say it is?
I am just an individual, as you know, and I am not in a position to do so, on behalf of Deltans. But, as an individual, I think that, for me, the next governor should be that person who keeps Delta state as one indivisible entity, where, at the end of the day, ethnicity will not be the basis of our everyday relationship or judgment, and our differences and diversities will not count. He or she should be someone will push this economy from what it is now to an economy that is running along the Delta Beyond Oil as the current Governor plans, and, at the same time, with the oil .There are going to be too many virtues in the person that will be best suited for the job and I can’t tell you it is not a mean task.
You have always been a strong advocate of state police; are you still holding onto that?
Yes, very strongly; and for the same reason that I have always been an advocate of state police. If you keep saying Nigeria is not ripe for state police, why not go back to the military because, as some people say, we are too young for democracy?
So, let us start walking by having the state police in place. At a point in time, the state police will develop to the extent were they will become independent and all the fears expressed will wither away.
If you sum up the total support of state governments in the country to the Nigeria police, it is over and above what the Federal Government budgets for the force. So, why not leave it for the state to handle? However, I am optimistic that, as the argument is heating up, we shall get there someday.
2015: let us know. Are you eyeing the government house?
It cannot be ruled out, and, at best I am still consulting. At the appropriate time, my decision will be in the public domain.
*** Culled from The Pointer.