Buhari’s economic team, square pegs in round holes – Ango Abdullahi

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•We cannot continue to issue foreign exchange on irrelevant things
•No justification for Naira devaluation
•Militancy is a threat to national unity
•Gowon last Head of State that made a difference

By Chioma Gabriel, Editor, Special Features

P rof Ango Abdullahi, Spokesperson of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF), the former Special Adviser to President Obasanjo and ex-vice-chancellor, Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, has blamed the current problem in Nigeria’s economy on past administrations. Abdullahi also maintained that President Buhari’s economic team as presently constituted cannot do anything as it is made up of square pegs in round holes. He also spoke on other economic and monetary issues.

Excerpts:

Poverty is ravaging Nigeria. Just recently in Niger State, there was protest against the Buhari administration due to increased hunger. Some blame the APC regime for the development while the APC blames the previous Jonathan administration. What’s your take on the current situation?

Professor-Ango-AbdullahiProfessor-Ango-Abdullahi
Professor-Ango-Abdullahi

The problem of the economy did not start today. It started long before the Buhari administration. Even before the Jonathan administration, there was problem with the economy. After Obasanjo, the economy has suffered gravely. But things continued to deteriorate and honestly, the revenue of the country continued to deteriorate because of the problem of the oil price especially in the last one year.

What really heightened our problem is the fact that we are dependent on one resource which is oil. And since the oil price has gone down and there is problem in the production itself because of militancy in the Niger Delta and so on, things have gotten worse. The economy has gotten worse and there is no doubt about that. The question now in the minds of everyone is what are we going to do so that people will no longer suffer the way they are suffering.

What then is the panacea?

There are so many factors involved. One, we cannot continue to spend money particularly on matters that are not of crucial importance to this country. We have to cut down on our luxury consumptions in the country because we are a consumer country. We buy things that we do not produce and a lot of the things that we buy involves foreign exchange and these affect our economic development. So, we have to look at things carefully and critically. We cannot continue to issue foreign exchange on things that are not critical to the economy.

That’s number one. Secondly, we have to re-examine this country’s wealth, our expenditure should reflect the wealth that we are able to generate. I believe that this budget is not being implemented successfully but if we are able to reduce substantially on our recurrent expenditure, things will be better. We have to cut down on unnecessary things, in terms of what we use in our offices. Secondly, the government may find it difficult to continue to pay the kind of salaries it was paying when we were getting a lot of money.

There is need for all the leadership of the country to sit down and look at the income of the country vis-a-vis the demand on salaries and allowances and if our revenue cannot support the traditional way we are spending money on salaries and allowances or personnel, I think there must be a serious conversation between the government and labour and decide on what ways we can cut down costs including reducing salaries, particularly salaries that are very, very high.

There are certain salaries and allowances that this country cannot afford and these should be reviewed immediately. Some people earn as much as N30million per annum and that is besides other allowances. Such salaries should be cut down especially when in the same country, government cannot pay N18,000 monthly minimum wage.

The value of the naira has affected the value of salaries of the workers; while workers are hardly getting salaries, the value of what they are getting has reduced drastically due to the exchange rate of the dollar.

I agree with that but what you should remember is that as long as we are consuming things we do not produce, and people are importing , then there will be no end to our problem. That is the more reason it is critically important that we avoid expending the scarce foreign exchange on things that are not absolutely crucial to the needs of the country. It is so bad that people are expending our scarce foreign exchange on holidays, on luxury goods and so on. People are eager to buy cars that are not made in Nigeria and even in the country where these cars are bought or manufactured, you don’t see the kind of luxurious life that people here are living.

So, we must come back and look at what we can produce within the resources that are available to us. This is the only country we have. We have not been able to think of things that we can produce. This country does not produce anything. We buy virtually everything and this was not caused by this government or the previous government but by government over the years. We have lost track of what we can do for ourselves. If you look at our budget or look at the value of the naira, vis-a-vis dollar, it is so incredible.

Last week, I had to buy dollar and I had to pay N400 for one dollar and you can imagine, if you want to spend $10,000 to import farming equipment, that means I’m looking for N4 million. And only some years ago, my N2.00 was equivalent to $3.00. Two naira in 1986 when I was Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University was equivalent to three dollars but today, my two naira cannot buy even one cent. We have really destroyed the economy buy adopting policies that are injurious to the economy of Nigeria and some of these policies were imposed on us by the IMF and the World Bank and it is the IMF and the World Bank policies that we are still operating.

Now, talking about the exchange rate, the former CBN governor, Lamido Sanusi recently warned President Buhari to be careful lest he becomes worse than former President Jonathan.

You mean His Royal Highness, the Emir of Kano?

Yes.

I read his comment in the newspapers and he is absolutely correct. The fact is that all these so-called rich people particularly those who are working in banks are not productive. They are only trading in dollars vis-a-vis the naira. They sit down because of their connections with the banks and get foreign exchange allocated to them and they come to the bureau de change and sell.

And if you get $10,000 and come to the bureau de change to sell $10,000, you are getting almost 200 per cent profit. And you get another $10,000 and the same thing happens. I think so many things are wrong in the system and except the government is willing and puts its foot down and insists that only very essential things can be used with foreign exchange, then , we will never get out of this problem.

Does that mean that the problem of naira versus the dollar is caused by Nigerians who buy at a cheap rate and sell at a very high price?

Yes and that is the problem. Why should we devalue our currency? I disagree completely with the devaluation of the naira. There is no reason for it. You devalue your currency only when you are competing to sell certain things. Nigeria is not selling anything outside the country. So, why should you devalue your currency if you are not competing to sell any goods? Why not produce your goods for sale? We are not competitive with other countries, in terms of goods and services. Let me give you one example that would frighten you.

A labourer in London today earns 10 Pounds per hour as his wage. If he works for five hours, he gets 50 Pounds. Within hours, he earns N250,000 . You can imagine a labourer in UK earning fifty Pounds for five hours. But in Nigeria, it is going to take a labourer so many months to get N250,000. So, we are actually slaving for countries that are developed and countries that are dumping their goods and policies on us. And if this is the way we are going to continue, our economy is very unlikely to survive, or to recover.

But if those who made the hajj got the dollar for N197, it means the galloping price of the dollar is being manipulated?

It wasn’t just those who made the hajj. Christians got a similar treatment when they made the pilgrimage. But I don’t understand why a government will fix an exchange rate and then derail from it . Whether Christian pilgrimage or hajj, if government has fixed the price of the dollar, it should stay with the fixed price and not give concession to anybody or groups especially on a matter like this.

President Buhari recently asked for emergency powers in tackling the economy and so far…

Don’t waste your time on the question. I do not support it. What emergency powers is he looking for? Some of the decisions taken by his so-called economic team are taking us backwards. The economic team of Mr president is taking us back to a situation where some people in high places are awarded contracts in a hurry without following due process.

Secondly, which I disagree with completely is the fact that it is government money that would be given to these contractors to execute the contract for which they are going to get profit. A real contractor should go to the bank, take a loan and execute his contract. If the government insists on deregulation of banks, or of the economy, meaning, market forces and so on, the contractor who should get the contract should go to the bank and borrow money and pay the current interest rate of 20-23 per cent.

Why should a contractor who gets a contract of N1bn be given N500 million, that is fifty per cent advance? It’s practically free. He should go to the bank and borrow the N500 million. Why should our public funds be given for free? While we are saying that this is a free-market economy, and anybody who is going to run a business must run from the basis of free market economy, then he should go to the bank and borrow money and pay the interest rates which are applicable.

If you look at the situation we are now, companies are folding up and graduates who are leaving schools are not getting jobs…

This is the more reason we should sit down and look at ourselves. Are we realistic about our economic policies? Are we realistic about our status in the world economy and be able to adjust because until we are able to adjust, there is no way we are going to get out of this? How can you insist in a country where you cannot pay a minimum wage of N18,000 to a worker when someone can earn N30 million plus other allowances?

The public reward system is so inequitable that it does not encourage productivity. A person who earns N30 million a year is not more productive then a person that you cannot pay N18,000 a month. So, there is inequality in our public reward system and this has to be reviewed immediately if we want our economy to recover. People who earn millions monthly should get out of the system and create their own jobs and employ others.

We are facing militancy problems all Nigeria. There are issues with Boko Haram, Biafra, herdsmen attacks and now the most dangerous is Niger-Delta Avengers which are worse than Boko Haram. We are not serious in this country. The last president that made a difference was Gowon and after him things changed. Obasanjo did well with the economy but it was after Gowon that things began to go bad because those who said Gowon didn’t know how to spend Nigeria’s money now squandered it.

You have not concluded on emergency powers…

There is the reality that Mr. President and the National Assembly should be looking at. You saw the list of Nigerian states that are owing money. Why should an oil-producing state that is getting 13 per cent derivation annually be the highest debtor?

A lot has been wasted on the economy and this wasting is caused by the political class. Therefore, I cannot see how the political class can maintain their life style and coupled with the kind of expenditure that you see in government houses throughout the country, a lot of Nigerians will continue to suffer because this is what is happening. What we have today are two economies in Nigeria.

There is the economy for the rich and there is the economy for the poor. The leaders must accept that for this country to move in the right direction in a very peaceful way, they have to come and sit down and take a fresh look at the things that have gone wrong, and find out why this country is spending outside its means and find out how to adjust. We can do this sector by sector, for example. What we were told during the budget presentation is that we are going to move away from mono-product of oil to agriculture.

Look at the budget of 2016. See the paltry sum allocated to agriculture. This is the sector that contributes 35-40 per cent of the GDP and when I saw the Minister of Agriculture together with the Minister of Interior talking about their great ideas for Nigerian farms, I just laughed. These people are not even serious at all. Mr President does not need emergency powers and should not be given any.

The picture you have painted of the way we are says there is no way out?

No, there must be a way out. The way out is for the leadership to acknowledge that things are wrong and sit down and talk about what they are not doing right and correct them. They cannot just sit down there and think that things would work. Things don’t just work. You make them work. Things cannot work with the kind of resources that we have and the level of mismanagement that is going on.

I’m 78 years old. I know what happened in the first republic and I know what also happened in the second republic and I know what is happening now. There is no doubt in my mind, that things began to go wrong after the Gowon regime because Gowon continued with a lot of the policies of the first republic leaders. Then, the country was moving in the right direction.

But after Gowon, the slight began because we were getting money from oil. I remember in 1974 people saying that Nigeria was so rich but Gowon’s problem was how to spend the money that accrued from oil. So after Gowon, we applied our resources in a non-productive way.

We had a lot of white elephant projects that have not really resulted in the economic growth in the country and now that the resources are not coming, we are crashing and people are already used to spending money and they have to get out of this habit of spending money. We have to get serious with Nigeria’s problems and get serious with dealing with militancy because these are the things that are dividing Nigeria. Militancy is a threat to national unity.

What advice would you give this regime to avoid towing the line of past administrations?

This administration did not come into office with all the problems we are having today but now that they arrived and really have a critical look at the situation they found on ground, they should sit down seriously and look at all the options that are available and afterwards, they would have realised that this country is facing serious economic crisis to the point that we really have to go back to ground zero and start planning all over again. This country has been running without economic plan for years and this is time for us to go back to serious economic planning based on the resources that are incoming to the country otherwise, they would continue to touch and go, and grope in the dark.

How would you assess the current economic team of Mr. President?

This is what we are talking about. We are in a bad economic situation and our political class is responsible. Now, it is obvious that we have square pegs in round holes, otherwise, they cannot be sitting and be looking at our economy as if it is normal because it is not a normal economy at all and the kind of emergency measures they are trying to put in place will only split the economy between the rich and the poor and by the time we succeed in doing that, we are going to create a mess. Because by the time they succeed in doing what they are trying to do, hand over the economy to the elite and leave the rest of 80-90 per cent out there in the cold, then, we cannot expect a peaceful resolution of our social and economic crises.

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