By Salisu Suleiman
In addition to her intellect, Oby Ezekwesili, former vice president of the World Bank and Nigeria's minister of education is known to speak her mind – regardless of who may be at the receiving end – and backing her position with facts and figures.
Understandably, when she stated publicly in February this year that the federal government had squandered about $67 billion from our foreign reserves and the excess crude account with little to show for it, the reaction of government was to try to trivialize the matter by saying she was the minister of education when the sector received 458.1 billion naira between 2006 and 2007 - also with nothing to show for it.
Instead of responding to her statement with facts and figures, an army of government comics tried to create the impression that she simply walked home with the entire amount because they could find nothing to pin to her. When Ezekwesili called for a public debate on the issue, Labaran Maku, Rueben Abati, Doyin Okupe, Ahmed Gulak and other defenders-in-chief of government promptly took off in a search for smaller battles.
Anyway, Ezekwesili has again made another important contribution to public policy and governance in Nigeria by advising President Goodluck Jonathan to stop presiding over meetings that involved award of contracts. She also urged members of the National Assembly to kick against the proposed amendment to the Public Procurement Act (2007) to make the president chairman of the National Council on Procurement, NCP.
According to Ezekwesili, it is against global best practices in procurement because the world over, presidents and ministers had no business awarding contracts to citizens. In her words, “I learnt that there is a move for an amendment of the legislation, Public Procurement Act, in order to give the chairmanship of the council to the president. Why would anybody do that?”
She explained, “The man who is carrying the elephant cannot be using his feet to look for a cricket. To make the president chairman of the National Council on Procurement is not the most effective and most efficient thing to do in the arena of public policy”. She argued that President Obama does not call cabinet meetings to discuss contracts. ”What business does a president or minister has sitting with a contractor in a meeting? “The leaders of other nations spend their times thinking about vision, strategy and policy, the others spend their time haggling over contracts. It is time for FEC to let go of spending its time on mundane things.”
Ezekwesili’s observation and call could not have come at a better time. Granted, President Jonathan did not begin the practice of gathering members of the highest executive body in the country to merely share contracts to persons and companies that in typical Nigerian practice, might have been predetermined. Granted also, part of the functions of government include the allocation of resources for public good, but considering the immense existential, security, political and economic challenges confronting Nigeria, surely, the job of awarding contracts can be handled at lower levels?
Unfortunately, that is not the case. As a newspaper put it recently, “from local government chairmen, state governors and presidency, the story is the same: elected executives sit atop the allocation of contracts to themselves and their party faithful. This has helped to promote the culture of galloping and water-tight corruption in the country as contracts awarded by politicians to politicians are never conscientiously executed even as those contracts keep reappearing in budgets every year”.
The duty of the executive arm of government is not the award of contracts but the formulation and implementation of credible policies and programs that would uplift the well-being of citizens. If any issue relating to award of contract is to be debated at the presidential level, one might expect the president to ask his ministers how many jobs the various contracts awarded by their ministries have created and what the multiplier effects are on the economy. They (the president and ministers) should discuss the implementation of policies to improve security, reduce poverty and strengthen democracy and the rule of law.
It is not an accident that as a matter of policy, every agency of government has supply departments and procurement officers, leading up to the Bureau of Public Procurement (BPP) which has the technical skills to evaluate bids and make appropriate recommendations. Why must the Federal Executive Council meetings be reduced to awarding what we all know to be grossly inflated contracts to friends and cronies? Perhaps the irony is lost on the president, but the BPP recently announced that it had saved over 420 billion naira for the government from contracts awarded by federal agencies within the last 15 months by applying prudence in public expenditure.
Unless one is mistaken, or there is a role reversal somewhere, is that to say that a relatively lowly bureau now vets contracts that the president and the Federal Executive Council has approved? Nigeria has more pressing challenges than to have its president poring over who supplies table water to the presidential villa.
This article was first published on the author's blog