Obun: Cross River will soon go into depression

Obun

With Cross River State’s voracious appetite for obtaining loans, former lawmaker and chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Cletus Obun, told ANIETIE AKPAN that the state Assembly was either too timid to monitor and superintend the executive and make it accountable

The debt profile of Cross River State is quite high, yet the current administration is getting more loans, how would the state cope going forward?
Well it is a tradition that has been entrenched in the state since the era of Donald Duke down to that of Liyel Imoke. Between 2003 and 2007 we were owing in excess of $11 million (N16 billion then) on the state water project, and we were already in excess of N300 billion as debt in 2003 from different sources for different projects. As at 2008 Cross River was listed as the third highest indebted state in Nigeria.

By 2012, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), listed Cross River State as one of the states that is no longer strong enough to get loans. This was in Imoke’s second tenure. Rather than deal with the debt profile, what we are doing is piling up more debt through invisible and white elephant projects, and this is a dangerous trend. In 2002, I had predicted that in eight years, the state’s debt profile would rise in a manner that it will be a thing of fear and dread for any body to serve as the governor of the state because of its debt profile.

Today the reality is that going by, the Paris Club refund to states, Cross River is among the three states, whose accounts have been frozen by the Federal Government on account of not being accountable. Unfortunately, we have a State House of Assembly that either lacks the capacity or the will to carry out its oversight function, monitor and superintend the executive and make it accountable.

The public has never been invited on the merit of a particular loan. As at now, we do not have any major project to show that this is where these loans are going. By the time Imoke left office, our indebtedness in terms of salary payment was very low, so we were one of the least owing states in terms of salaries and emoluments. But don’t forget the Paris refund and the bailout fund was directed to take care of pension and salaries, yet as we speak, you are aware that the last strike was about salaries and an unpaid promotional emoluments to civil servants in the state. I think one has to introduce a human face and some level of accountability in this era of change and recession. For me, it is a sad commentary that we are into this, in spite of the advantage we have to be out of the debt trap.

In other words, given the state’s huge debt profile, it would have been great if the Ben Ayade-led administration had not incurred fresh debts since coming into office in 2015? 
In fact, the state government got three loans from UBA and Fidelity bank to the tune of N30 billion in the last 24 months with the approval of the State House of Assembly. Only N5 billion was said to be for the purpose of personnel overhead cost, while the rest was said to be for the development of infrastructure and the other one agriculture. UBA gave N20 billion out of that sum, Fidelity Bank gave N5 billion and another N5 billion came from another bank. As we speak, I don’t know where the infrastructure or agriculture projects are going on, or anything tied to these loans that we can point at today. Cross Riverians must come out and condemn this habit of their government, and demand to know what these monies are used for because these funds would be refunded with taxpayers’ money.

For instance, these loans I have just told you about are to be repaid between 2035 and 2045 that is 11 years after the governor might have left office, that is if he succeeds in doing a second term. So, even a boy who is born today will start paying taxes by 2035

Given this scenario, what do you expect from the State House of Assembly?
The Public Accounts, and Finance and Appropriation committees of the House should see it as a matter of principle, and constitutional duty, to proceed to look into the books and also advice. I remember in 2001 when the issue of the oil wells between Akwa Ibom and Cross River states cropped up, the then state governor, Donald Duke, went to court, but we in the Assembly then asked him to seek for political settlement, rather than legal settlement with the state then governed by Obong Victor Attah. Duke listened to us. The first thing he did was to ask the Federal Government for monies accruing to those oil wells to be kept in an escrow account until the matter is settled politically or legally.

So in this case, the Assembly must rise up to its duty and not see itself as a department in the Governor’s Office and that is the only way we can get out of this scenario. Unfortunately again, we have an Assembly that members were hand picked, an Assembly that lacks capacity, the will and the courage to perform its own constitutional duties, and elementary duties of oversight function and giving direction to the executive.

The constitution is so framed in a manner that the three arms of government are overlapping with each other. The Assembly serves as a balancing rod that must keep the judiciary and the executive in order. But do we have that kind of Assembly that can carry these out irrespective of party coloration and platform? We must learn now because the Assembly is the live wire of our democracy in all spheres and in all matters of our life. The parliament as at now, is the only single agency we have to checkmate this drift into a depression because from this recession, we are going to go into depression as a state if the parliament does not rise to the occasion and give direction and assistance to the government.

Economically speaking, it is believed that a government must incur loans to survive and do projects. Do you think the state government would not survive without taking loans?
You see, loans are not taken because there are loans to be taken. In the case of Cross River State, if we ignite our investment drive well, Ayade can do without collecting loans, but if those loans are invested in a manner that over time they yield enough interests to run other things and key issues, why not? What we are asking is, in all these loans, where are the investments? We are told that the Calabar Garment Factory is not funded by government, the super highway and deep sea port will not be funded by government, so what are loans meant for, are they to be used for the payment salary? That is retrogression. You cannot develop an economy with loans if the loans are not invested in profitable ventures, and in this case we have not seen where these loans are being invested. We should be transparent enough to say this is where this loan is being invested in. I am aware that because of the huge debt profile that we owe, most of the monies are taken offshore to pay those loans. But I also know that there are other sources of inflow like the Paris Club refund, which was not anticipated. So, it requires the discipline of the governor and the monitoring insightfulness of the Assembly for us to get that done, in order for us not to run an economy that is just in the business of refunding loans.

The state government should henceforth publish all the loans it has so far collected and what they have done with it. Loan application/usage should no longer be a secret because it is in the interest of the public. It is even to the credit of the state to do that.

Ayade soon after taking over said he was running the state with money from his pocket. Would such monies eventually be refunded as loan?
I think that was a very preposterous comment to make. It was very unguided to say that he was a facility to loan Cross River government. It is illegal and unconstitutional to do so. Even Donald Trump, who is a business mogul, cannot claim to be funding America with money from his pocket. I think that was an alarming statement to make and for me, I think it was a joke.

In your estimation, what is the total debt burden of the state as at now, and how can we get out of this situation?
With the continuous voracious appetite for loan, you cannot put your finger on any figure because as we are talking, several MOUs have been signed, several applications have been made for loans, and don’t be surprised as we are talking now, another draw down is taking place on another loan, but I think it is in the region of half a trillion.

If you are aspiring to be governor or senator, you must inherit all these mess. We must speak out on these matters without sentiments or party coloration. We must speak out for the state and take away politics in the cause of our development… Senior citizens of our generation should come out and give direction on a developmental master plan for the state, and we must have people with clear head to execute the master plan.



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