Like a sore thumb, the controversial issue of the Sovereign Wealth Fund popped up again at the just concluded South-south Economic Summit with the Governors’ Forum confronting the federal government eyeball to eyeball
The three-day South-south Economic Summit hosted by Delta State has come and gone but some contentious issues that gained ascendancy at the meeting still resonate. One of such vexed issues was the controversial Sovereign Wealth Fund, SWF, a creation of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, coordinating minister for the economy and minister of finance. An issue she apparently thought had been settled with the 36 state governors suddenly assumed a life of its own and became a subject of altercation between the minister and Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, Governor of Rivers State, the chairman of the Governors’ Forum.
A seemingly innocent question by a member of the audience drew the ire of Amaechi, sparking off a controversy between him and Okonjo-Iweala. A lady wanted to know from Amaechi why the governors were not favourably disposed to the SWF, which was meant to save for the rainy day. Apparently piqued that critics of the governors failed to grasp the real issue, Amaechi said it was a constitutional matter and the governors would not take part in an illegality. In his words, “The Excess Crude Account has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court and nobody has power to kidnap states’ resources as if governors are students as to say ‘I will save it for you, my child. When you grow up, I will give you the money.’ No! And the governors opposed it and we told them ‘don’t let us come to the public’.”
According to Amaechi, “We have allowed the discussion because we are the same government. But the truth is that the constitution declares that once you’ve paid the revenue of the country, put it inside the same account and we share, take your own and I take my own. Federal government receives 52 per cent of the money, we receive 26 per cent.”
The Governors’ Forum chairman explained that in February, “we received N460 something billion. The federal government took N300 and something billion. All the states put together took N118 billion. And they want to grab our own and save? Is that right? Will you support them? (addressing the audience to which there was a thunderous no) No! So, they cannot.” Turning to the lady who asked the question, an apparently angry Amaechi warned her not to “ask that question again,” adding that “if there is need to save, let the states save their money.” He said there is no scientific proof that a 90-year-old is more responsible than a 40-year-old, asking rhetorically if there was any.
“For instance, in Rivers State, we have N37 billion saved. Every month, we save N1 billion. By then, the minister of finance was not here when we started that process. So, allow the governors to save their money. Like Oshiomhole (Edo State Governor) will argue, how do you save money when you don’t even have roads, water? If you don’t have water, you will have water-borne diseases. If we all die, what will the savings be doing?”
After the outburst, it was a visibly embarrassed Okonjo-Iweala who mounted the rostrum. According to her, “I think I must say a word about what my brother, governor of Rivers State, my much younger brother, said about the Sovereign Wealth Fund, because you were saying it on live television. You know I have a part in my speech commending the governors for their support for the SWF. So, I’m quickly taking out those lines. But I’ll put them back because I know there’s no one who cannot support the idea that the nation makes some savings. It does not stop states from saving. Any state that wants to save from its own resources can also do so.”
The minister contended that even though we live in states, “We also have one national economy, don’t we? So, at the end of the day, we have to decide and put in place instruments that will help us manage it, and one of those instruments is the SWF.” While admitting that the Excess Crude Account was not underpinned by law, Okonjo-Iweala explained that “that’s why the Sovereign Wealth Fund was created and the governors have agreed to have $1 billion deposited in this fund.”
At this juncture, addressing Amaechi, the minister said, “If you disagree with that, Governor Amaechi, you have to come up and say it because we need to reassure the people that this SWF really exists and is going to be managed.” As she observed, “If we don’t correct the impression that you have made a deposit of $1 billion, that will be serious. So are you for it or you are against the $1 billion SWF?”
Once again mounting the rostrum, Amaechi, still as militant as before, said authoritatively and unequivocally that “I speak as the chairman of Governors’ Forum. The Governors’ Forum’s position is, we have approved a $1 billion investment. After that, No! After that, No! Let the federal government use their money and invest for all of us. Are we not all Nigerians? One billion dollars from us is enough for you.”
Now satisfied with the governor’s clarification, a relieved Okonjo-Iweala stated in conclusion that, “so, everybody knows we have a SWF that starts with $1 billion. And what happens after that, we will see because when we start investing that money and it starts to yield, it will give us a cushion that is very important for this economy.”