Supreme Court Verdict, Big Blow to Imo Economy – UCHE UWALEKE

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UCHE UWALEKE

Renowned professor of finance and capital market, Uche Uwaleke, was until recently, the Imo State Commissioner for Finance in the administration of former Governor Emeka Ihedioha. In this interview with Ndubuisi  Francis, Uwaleke submits that the January 14 Supreme Court judgment which ousted the elected governor has grave consequences on the state’s economy

What’s your reaction to the recent judgment of the Supreme Court, which abruptly truncated the administration of Hon. Emeka Ihedioha in which you were serving as the commissioner for finance?

It was quite shocking to put it mildly. No right-thinking, well-meaning Imolite, and I dare say, Nigerian saw it coming especially after the Election Petition Tribunal and the lower courts had done justice in the matter.

I am a bit surprised when you say that no one expected the judgment to go against the former governor. But Fr. Mbaka, a few days before, made a prophecy to this effect that enjoyed wide publicity.

I am not too sure any of us in government took that prediction seriously chiefly because we couldn’t fathom how that was possible given the facts of the case which are now in the public domain. With due respect to the hallowed institution, I think that that ruling by the apex court, as attested to by many a learned gentleman, defied logic, is incomprehensible and at variance with good conscience and natural justice. I am aware a number of pastors made predictions concerning Imo State but you would be distracted as a government the moment you begin to pay attention to every prediction concerning your state.

We understand that an application has been made to the Supreme Court to review the case, are you optimistic about the outcome of such a review considering that the apex court’s decision is supposed to be final?

I am positive the outcome of the review will set the records straight and establish the right judicial precedent. Quite frankly, on what constitutes justice, I think there is a minimum standard: it should not only be dispensed but be seen to be served. This cannot be said of the Supreme Court judgment that removed the Governor of Imo State. The basis for this assertion is already in the public space which is why the ordinary Nigerian, whether in Sokoto or Calabar, Maiduguri or Lagos would readily tell you it was a clear case of miscarriage of Justice.

And I can tell you that a majority of Nigerians, including the international community, anxiously await the outcome of the review which they hope will redress the injustice done to the good people of Imo State, capable of reversing the gains already made by the Ihedioha administration especially in the area of the economy which has suffered incalculable damage since the Supreme Court judgment.

Incalculable damage in what sense?

In many respects of course. I doubt if there is any genuine investor that will be thinking of Imo State given what has just happened. So in a sense, investors’ confidence in the state economy is now dampened with adverse consequences on jobs creation and IGR effort. Only a few days before January 14, 2020, the day the Supreme Court made that pronouncement, the state hosted an economic summit followed by a very successful summit of Imo citizens in the Diaspora the day after. Not a few Imo professionals and entrepreneurs residing abroad made firm commitments to invest in the state especially in the area of human capital development that is talking about education and health.

With the present level of uncertainty in Imo State and the general unconducive business environment occasioned by this unfortunate ouster of a governor who, through sheer hard work, has gained the confidence of development partners, I doubt if Afrexim Bank will still be interested in committing about N70 billion in a mega project in the state, a deal which Hon Emeka Ihedioha had signed and sealed with the potential to open up investment opportunities in industrial parks, cargo terminal, entertainment city among others. As a matter of fact, I was putting finishing touches to a concept paper for an investor interested in establishing a commodities exchange in Imo State when I was hit by the sad news.

So, whichever way you look at it, it bears repeating that the judgment is a big blow on the economy of the state.

But don’t you think the adverse effect will only be temporary as the state economy is expected to pick up as soon as the new government settles in and begins to implement its own policies and programmes?

You can take this to the bank: So long as this injustice goes unredressed; so long will real economic development elude the state and the reason is not far-fetched. Dividends of democracy can only be dispensed by a government put in place by the popular will of the people.

So on the contrary, the negative effect will be long-lasting. Hon Emeka Ihedioha has done so much in a few months in office that a sudden reversal portends grave danger for the people of the state. From my vintage position as the Finance Commissioner, I can tell you that the state was on the path of becoming one of the top three developed economies in Nigeria riding on very transparent structures. Now this trajectory is about to be altered.

It may interest you to know that one of the first things the governor did on assumption of office was to issue an Executive Order 005 which brought into place the Treasury Single Account with its attendant benefits, including blocking revenue leakages. This rubbed off positively on internally generated revenue which exceeded N1 billion as of December last year. The successes recorded in our IGR effort, with a focus on widening the tax net including through the deployment of ICT to capture the informal sector, is significant against the backdrop of over-reliance on Federation Account. As a matter of fact, total recurrent spending swallows nearly the entire N4.5 billion average monthly net Federation Account Allocation  Committee  (FAAC) revenue to the state, leaving little or nothing for capital projects.

Faced with this situation, every kobo had to count. Value for money was the administration’s watchword while enthroning due process. We carried out pensioners’ verification prior to the introduction of the Contributory Pension Scheme and commenced the biometric capture of all civil servants in order to clean up our payroll. These measures helped our finances and so enabled genuine pensioners and workers to receive their pay as and when due.

At the same time, infrastructure received attention with many road projects, including critical federal roads, going on simultaneously and we also met our counterpart funding obligations with respect to World Bank projects in the state. The Economic team was also working out alternative and innovative funding sources for capital projects including leveraging opportunities in the area of public private partnerships in respect of which we were already considering a number of proposals.

Expectedly, these modest efforts at transparency, accountability and economic development didn’t go unnoticed. Recall that a few weeks ago, the National Bureau of Statistics rated Imo State as the least corrupt state in Nigeria while the reputable BusinessDay Newspaper ranked Imo as the fastest growing economy.

We hear the former governor did not hand over days after Hope Uzodinma was sworn in as the new governor. How true is this?

It is not true. If you read the statement released by Rt. Hon Emeka Ihedioha immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, you would have seen where he directed all his appointees to turn in their handover notes without any delay. In it, he even directed the Secretary to the Imo State Government to coordinate the process. It is remarkable to note that this was coming from a gentleman who received no hand over notes from his predecessor but who, out of respect for the institutions of democracy and despite circumstances many consider abnormal, directed his appointees to cooperate with the new administration in the state in order to ensure a smooth transition in the overall interest of the state. I have since complied with this directive.

Can you provide an insight into the contents of your own handover notes with respect to your accomplishments and what you expect your successor to do in the spirit of continuity?

First of all, talking about my successor, I have strong faith in our judiciary and I am confident our revered Justices of the Supreme Court will sooner than later carry out a review of the case with a view to correcting anomalies and reinstating the people’s choice, Hon. Emeka Ihedioha, as the Governor of Imo State. When this happens by the grace of God and His Excellency’s kind consideration, I hope to return to Owerri to help bring to fruition the many initiatives we started, especially in the area of instituting public financial reforms. So, I am most likely going to succeed myself, if you permit that statement.

Having said that, at the State Ministry of Finance, we were neck-deep into the implementation of a World Bank initiative known as the State Fiscal Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) programme for results in which every state in Nigeria stands to get as much as USD18 million by way of grant from the World Bank. It is instructive to note that since the inception of the programme, Imo State has not qualified for the grant owing to non -compliance with the SFTAS requirements many of which are actually what I consider low-hanging fruits. So we took it up as a challenge and have been working faithfully on each of the nine Disbursement-Linked Indicators.  For instance, we had developed and uploaded on the State’s website a Cash Management Strategy and Domestic Arrears Clearance Framework in line with SFTAS requirements. By the same token, we had completed work on the Treasury Single Account Operations Manual and were awaiting its launch by the governor before the end of January 2020. Also, the biometric capture of all civil servants in the state was in progress. We were in the process of repositioning the office of the Accountant General which before our assumption of office lacked the capacity to function effectively including preparing final accounts of the state in line with best practice. To this end, we had concluded arrangements to train relevant staff of my ministry on International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS). Part of SFTAS requires that we publish IPSAS-compliant audited financial statements before the end of February 2020 and that we were set to do.

We set up an Efficiency Unit in the Ministry of Finance akin to what you have at the federal level with the primary aim of reducing recurrent expenditure, ensure value for money and plug leakages working closely with the State Bureau for Procurement and Price Intelligence which ensures due process in the award of contracts. This Unit is expected to swing into action with the implementation of the 2020 Imo State budget, which is the first by the Ihedioha administration and a product of a participatory process.

Furthermore, in recognition of the need to get a firm handle on the huge debt problem of the State inherited from previous governments, we began developing a medium-term debt management strategy and with help from the Debt Management Office Abuja upgraded the Loans desk in the Ministry of Finance to a Debt Management Department with full complement of qualified staff.

All these are consistent with the World Bank programme on transparency and accountability. As the Chairman of the SFTAS Steering Committee in the State, I can tell you that Imo State was poised to meet all the conditions. Given what has happened, I cannot guarantee that these initiatives will be carried through especially as new people who are not conversant with the programme are now on the driving seat.

Notice that I have taken some time to talk about this World Bank SFTAS programme because if you look at it critically, you will agree with me that the major functions of the Finance Ministry revolve around it. Unfortunately, these activities are time-sensitive and as things stand now in the State, most of the deadlines for eligibility cannot be met. My worry is that even after the mandate of Hon Emeka Ihedioha is restored, getting to recover lost grounds will be a herculean task. Therefore, it goes without saying that time is of the essence in the effort to heal the deep economic wound already inflicted on the State as a fall-out of the Supreme Court judgment.

May God grant wisdom to the Justices of the Supreme Court as they revisit the matter. God bless Imo State. God bless Nigeria.


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