• Friday, July 19, 2024
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I don’t believe the budget is ambitious enough – Bassey

Senator Gershom Bassey (PDP, Cross River South), Vice Chairman, Senate Committee on Petroleum Upstream, in this interview with OWEDE AGBAJILEKE, speaks on the 2016 budget, renewed pipeline attacks in the Niger Delta, Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) and other sundry issues….
Why is the 2016 budget debate tailored along party lines to the detriment of national interest?
I don’t think there’s anything unusual about what you are seeing on the floor. Expectantly, you would appreciate that the government in power and senators would extol the virtues of the budget. But what you have seen is that yes, a lot of them have extolled the virtues of the budget, a few of them have been critical of certain processes and areas of focus. So, even though the criticism has been gentle but you have seen that that has also happened.
For us in the opposition, we don’t have a problem with the budget. But we believe that our role is to make sure that we point out areas where there may be problems in implementing this budget. And we hope that the Federal Government will take note of some of these areas. Because these are areas that even as we go into budget defence, all of us are going to focus on. And so, when you take what the APC senators have said along with what the PDP senators have said, I think you have a very holistic critique and praise of the budget. So, it’s not unusual.

Budgets in the country have never been implemented fully. What should the Senate do differently to ensure full implementation?
This is what we are saying, particularly those of us in the opposition. We are saying that the first step is to be realistic about the budget. When you have a realistic budget, then implementation becomes easy. But when it is difficult to understand how you are going to fund the budget, then implementation becomes difficult.
So, while we want to believe that the Executive has ways of funding this budget, we want to know what those ways are. Because here you have a N2trillion funding gap ab-initio. But by the time you look at the drop in the price of oil, you begin to look at probably a N3trillion funding gap. How are we going to fund that? These are some of the discussions that we in the PDP believe we should be having with this government. They talked about foreign and domestic borrowing in the budget but let’s have more details about this. How is this going to work? Answers to these questions will give us more confidence in the budget.

What is your perspective on concerns in some quarters that the budget is over-ambitious, especially in the area of projected oil revenues and Internally Generated Revenue (IGR)?
Personally, I don’t believe the budget is ambitious enough because I’m a great believer in deficit budgeting. I have seen a lot economies recover using deficit budgeting as a tool. The classical example is always with the Great Depression in the United States. Franklin Roosevelt recovered the US economy using deficit budgeting and the same thing with President Obama. So, deficit budgeting is not something to be afraid of. I have no problem with that. But it must be rooted in reality. We need to deepen the conversation with the Executive. How are you going to fund this budget in the face of the type of huge economic headwinds that we are facing worldwide? And they need to come and answer that question in a way we can understand. There may be things they have in mind that we are not aware of. We need to deepen that conversation in other to have confidence in this budget.

What are your suggestions on strategies to fund the budget?
As opposition lawmaker, we will make our suggestions but we need to listen to them first. Because it may be that they already have the answers. So, we are asking the questions, they should give us the answers. Then, if the answers are not satisfactory, we can now contribute.

In view of the drop in global oil prices to less than $30 per barrel, would you suggest a downward review of the benchmark of $38 per barrel approved by the National Assembly?
This is what I’m talking about; deepening the conversation. We all know that the $38 benchmark is an average. It is an average over 365 days. So far, we are still in the first month of 2016. We cannot have a knee-jerk reaction and just assume that because the price of oil has gone down in January, it will continue to go down. We need to understand from the Executive what they are projecting. What gives them confidence that in the face of these economic headwinds, they can still maintain $38 dollars per barrel? From everything we see with the kind of oil glut – so much oil on the market now – and with the reduced demand on China transiting to a service economy, hence the requirement for oil is not that much. We can see a huge drop in demand for oil and yet there is an increase in supply with Iran. Iran has an OPEC quota of 4million barrels per day, twice the quota of Nigeria. And they are yet to come into the market with all that oil. But the Executive may know something that we don’t. So, we need to first of all find out from them where they are going. Why these projections? And why the confidence in these type of projections? When we hear from them, we can now have a deeper conversation. But for now, we shouldn’t panic.

Do you subscribe to the idea of increasing taxes to fund the budget as being suggested by some of your colleagues?
No, I am not a great believer in that; not in the situations that Nigerians are in now. I don’t believe that we should increase taxes or anything by a dime. Rather what we should be talking about is broadening the tax base and increasing the tax net. The whole philosophy of taxation is that they shouldn’t be punitive. So, I think that Nigerians are at the point where they cannot afford to pay more taxes. They are taxed enough. Already we are talking about removing fuel subsidy. Now if you remove fuel subsidy and tax, that will be a bit punitive. And I don’t believe in that.

What about luxury taxes for wealthy Nigerians?
What is luxury tax? Should we tax your trousers because it is made in England? The whole concept of luxury tax doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities. I think that what you can do is not tax them but slam huge import duties on them. At the ports, where they are coming into the country, if you want to bring in a Rolls Royce to Nigeria, then you can pay 500 or 1,000 percent duty. That is better than saying that I will be roaming the streets of Nigeria looking for who is driving a luxury car. A Camry is a luxury to the man in the village. To him, any car is a luxury because he may be riding his bicycle. So, where do we start and end with the luxury tax? To you and me, private jet is luxury but there are other people that are looking at this shirt you are wearing as luxury. I don’t think it’s workable.

What about the introduction of stamp duty tax of N50 for every bank transaction?
I don’t think we should have isolated discussions about these things, we should have a consolidated discussion. When I made my presentation at the budget debate, I said we need to sit down and talk about how we are going to fund this budget. And it has to be a holistic approach to it. These are all good ideas but all these ideas have to come into one holistic solution.

How realistic is the payment of N5,000 to unemployed Nigerians by the Buhari administration?
There is a provision for it in the budget for the school meal programme and what they call the conditional cash transfer programme. But the question you are asking is the same question we are asking, which is: how are you going to implement this? We need to see the details. Because we have seen this type of social welfare programmes in this country before and they did not achieve the desired impact. Government is continuous and my expectation is that governments learn from what their predecessors did. Nobody started any social welfare with the intent of it failing or not achieving its results. So, we need to go back and see how we have implemented social welfare programmes in the past and how we can use it to deliver on this proposed social welfare programme. But I don’t have any problems with that.

Don’t you think the reduction of the budget of NDDC and Presidential Amnesty Programme may have informed the recent blowing up of pipelines in the Niger Delta?
The budget is just on the table. So, nothing has been reduced. The budget hasn’t even been passed. So, there is no way this budget that has been presented could have impacted on anything because nothing has happened. We haven’t approved it, we haven’t passed it. Let’s be careful about that. My quick answer to you is: please inform the public that nothing has happened; budget is just a proposal. And we are treating it.

The issue of diversification of the economy has been on the front burner since 1999 but appears to be a mirage. Is it feasible to do so now in the face of dwindling oil prices?
Of course, it’s feasible. This economy can, should and will be diversified. Because eventually, we are going to run out of crude oil. 20, 30, 40 years from now, it’s going to dry up. So, any responsible government must focus on diversifying this economy. Other countries have done it, it’s not magic. Malaysia has done it. Their dependency on crude oil, which is almost the same as ours has gone down as a percentage of the entire national income. So, we must diversify this economy. And it is not only going to be diversified for social reasons, it will be diversified for economic reasons. It is profitable for businessmen to go into other areas of this economy because there is a lot of profit to be made there. All we need to do as a government is to create the environment that enables private sector to go into other areas of this economy. So far, where we are having problems is that we have not packaged those areas in ways in which the private sector can access them.  And that is a challenge before us a government.

The House of Representatives has commenced legislative initiative on the Petroleum Industry Bill. Are we expecting similar thing in the Senate?
Yes, we have gone very far. You know I am Vice Chairman of the Petroleum Upstream Committee.

What stage are you specifically?
We will let you know once we are done. We are in the kitchen, we are still cooking. Once the soup is boiling, we will come to you.