Retired Permanent Secretary and diplomat, Joe Keshi, is the Director-General of BRACED Commission, which was formed to promote the economic cooperation and integration of the South-south region. He spoke with Goddy Egene on various issues. Excerpts
As the Director-General of the BRACED Commission, a body set up by six South-south states including Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta (BRACED), can you tell us more about the commission?
The BRACED Commission itself was one of the outcomes of the Calabar summit in which the South–south states agreed to form a regional cooperation. And they also decided to create a commission to drive that aspiration of a regional economic cooperation and integration. Therefore, the BRACED Commission was created to drive the region’s desire for economic cooperation and integration.
So far, how has the commission fared?
Well, the journey has been interesting and gradually we are beginning to find our feet. Gradually, we are beginning to do what I believe we need to do. That is to establish, first the framework, which will define our policy statement and possibly implement the strategies that the six states (Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta), working together within the framework that we are trying to put in place, and religiously implement some of the recommendations that are being made by a collaboration between experts from the region, universities and research institutions and various sectoral ministries. It will add a lot to some of the efforts of the various governments of the region to increase the economic development in that part of the world.
We are focusing on agriculture, the environment, infrastructure, education, human capacity and development, which is very key. These are the areas the commission is currently focusing its attention on.
What are the strategies you have been adopting to discuss these issues and harness them so as to achieve your objectives?
We have been having a couple of meetings of experts, commissioners and institutions. Some of our Nigerian development partners have also been on board with us. We have done some meetings on environment and at present, we have a team of experts visiting each of the states to collate data on some of the environmental issue. The experts will also look at the oil spills, so that we can have regional document that attempt to detail all the oil spill centres in the region and also to begin to look at what, collectively, the region can do to protect its environment. And one of those things we are beginning to think is that the South-south region that produces the bulk of Nigeria’s oil and gas resources, and yet is also suffering from pollution, needs to do more than it is doing today to protect its environment.
So the chances are that we may also be proposing a regional law to the state governments, designed essentially to protect the environment of the region. This has nothing to do with challenging the federal government’s responsibilities in terms of licensing people to do oil and gas business. But whoever gets licence will have to comply with possibly, if the governors agree with us, with the law to protect the environment of the region. That law will also seek to build the capacity of the region to monitor, supervise and protect the environment. That is very key if we are to address and stop the excessive degradation of the South-south land.
In all of these, are you collaborating with the Federal Government?
Yes, we did invite a number of institutions from the federal government level. We have just finished a meeting on agriculture and couple of meetings we have held, we had people from the minister’s transformational team coming to work with us. We had people from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) at the last meeting we just ended on agriculture. We had people from all federal government agencies that deal with region. Like the rubber institute and others. These are Federal government’s agencies. We also had directors of agriculture in each of the states working with us.
It is collective effort trying to work together so that we can be able to key in and buy into some of the transformational agenda of the federal government in agriculture even though some of us believe that the government should only be setting the policies and allow the state governments to do agriculture because the Federal Government does not own any land. The bulk of the agriculture in this country is at the state level. So the federal government needs to work closely with the states to ensure that a lot is achieved in terms of agriculture.
Specifically, how do you think the states in the region can transform their economy through agriculture?
I can take you through history of these states, which I think most people also know that in the 1960s, this country survived on agriculture. The West was basically producing cocoa, the East was palm oil and North was producing groundnuts. And each of them was making money. We were number one in palm oil in the 60s. But today we are number four and if you look at the statistics where you have Malaysia with about five million acres of land of oil palm, we are talking of thousands. What we are trying to say is that, look the comparative advantage in each of the states. Today from our meetings, it looks as if the region has a far more comparative advantage than anywhere else.
So what we saying to the government is we need to expand the land and if you now decide that over the next five years, you plant about a million palm oil trees, that is giving you a significant progress in moving from number four to around number two. And if you do that for another 10 years, you can certainly be able to match Malaysia in terms of agricultural development. We are also trying to do the same in cocoa. Cross River produces a lot in cocoa. Therefore, if you can expand its production, because there other one or two states that are doing well in cocoa, that impact positively on the economy. Also, cassava is another product because we have comparative advantage in growing cassava.
So if they focus on these key crops, they will do a lot. And that is just a part of the story. The other side is that we are also working on how to make agriculture attractive in order to attract young people to the sector. We are thinking along the way the federal is thinking. In other words, we want to make agriculture a business rather than rely on subsistence farming that our fore parents did and as you know, are still doing. The federal government is doing a good thing in the area of agricultural transformation. Everybody is now thinking how do you take agriculture to the next level and that was the essence of the meeting we held recently.
Across the six states, from your calculation, how many jobs do you think can be generated from this agriculture sector alone, if it is well reformed?
So many jobs would be created. I cannot give any exact figures. But the good thing about agriculture is that it has a long value chain. When you produce you will need the industry to process. When you process, you will need the market. So when you begin to take a look at not just how many farmers are going to be on the farm no. But, you also have to look at the industry that has been created from the processing; those industries would have to take in people; those who will do the marketing itself.
So it is a whole chain and as these things happen, there are agricultural-related industry like the fertiliser industry that also come to complement the activities. So agriculture has a huge potential to create jobs and for now that is what we have to do before technology has to make it better and move forward like other countries have done.
Still talking about the environment, have you have been working with the Federal Government, because a report may be produced and implementation would become an issue like the recent United Nations report?
Actually, the commissioners in the South-south met to look at the UN report but because it was launched by the Federal government, they could not do much. But what that report tells us about the environment is to take the issue of environment seriously. If I were to advise the federal government, I will say you need to work more with the states. Rather than create many agencies at the federal level that also suffers from funding and capacity issues and the issues they are addressing are not in Abuja, it is those on ground that virtually live with it. Rather than expand this, they should use those structures.
And what the federal government can do is to create the policies and try work with the states to see that the issues are generally resolved. And in the case of the South-south, the federal government has extra responsibilities because they are the ones issuing out the licences. It is those unveiled to extract oil that are polluting the environment. As a result, both the federal government and the oil companies should bear the responsibility of helping the states to clean up the environment.
What the BRACED Commission is doing is laudable but you have to bear in mind that this present administration will leave office one day and realising the fact these are long-term projects, what is the commission putting in place to ensure that these ideals are sustained?
When you create strong and sustainable institutions, you have to encourage people buy-in. Encourage people to appreciate why the institution or organisations were set up. I do not think today that there is any political leader in the South-south or South-west that is not aware of the aspiration of the region to work as a unit. Already, that is taken care of and the fact that we have held one meeting with a number of political leaders like members of the National Assembly from the region, the speakers and state Houses of Assembly, all are aware of the fact that the commission exists.
So there is virtually nobody today who is going to run for any political office in that region, in my view, that is not aware of the activities of the BRACED Commission. Another thing that I think, perhaps, makes our region luckier than others, is that in our case our governors will not be leaving office at the same time. There will be one or two who will remain in office. I give you a very good example because it has played out very well for us. When the former governor of Bayelsa, Timiepriye Silva left, it was very easy to invite the new governor to meet with his other four counter-parts and introduce him to the whole concept of the region. He had heard of it and the details and how it works became apparent to him when he came to that meeting. Besides, I have gone to see him and we talked about the things he expects also from the commission. So the next time around himself and governor of Edo State will not be leaving office about the same time their counterpart in Delta, Rivers and Cross River will be leaving.
So we will have two who will be providing leadership to a new set of governors and by the time we will get to that level the commission would have been well established. The people would have seen the level of work we have done and begin to buy in into the vision. So we are very confident that there will not be a problem of continuity or sustainability.
Still on environment sir, what are the lessons learnt from the recent flood that hit part of the South-south?
The flood issue has thought the commission some lessons and the key one is that we need to do more of advocacy. Because I was looking at one of the reports on the environment from the Nigerian Economic Summit, and I discovered that the flooding was predicted. One or two speakers drew our attention to the possibility of flood as time goes on in the whole of that region. When I distributed this document to commissioners of town planning of the six states, they were surprised to discover that some people predicted the flooding.
I told them that we need to pay a very close attention to those documents and the voice of the experts and begin to amplify them in their various states and begin to take measures. It also shows that we need to develop ability to predict these occurrences and prepare for them. Even though you can really prepare against some of these natural happenings, we should be able to take some precautions and do more advocacy.
Looking at the vision and mission of BRACED Commission they are very good. People have good visions and business ideas but one big challenge is funding. In all of these, does the commission have a plan to fund its operations beyond what the states are contributing?
Yes, of course. We are not planning in isolation of funding. When I was talking about what we are doing in the area of agriculture and the meeting we just concluded, apart from the state ministries of agriculture, agricultural institutions and experts, we also invited the banks and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) because today the federal government is establishing a number of financial instruments that people can tap into and develop agriculture.
It is not that when you go out you will not get funding, the banks are looking for bankable projects. But they want to see that the concept of what you are bringing makes sense to them before they can really put in their funds. That is why we are developing this framework. We want to ensure that anything we put on the table can be easily funded. If we can develop the framework we want to work on in palm oil and cassava, banana through the value chain, I am sure that when we sit down, with states, CBN and the banks, we can easily find the resources to begin to fund agriculture.
Now talking about some of these issues and one vital area is education, what is the commission doing in that area?
We are also looking at education because at the end of the day, everything we are going to do, everything that we need to do and we if we are very serious in this country, everything we are doing today education should be the number priority in this country and more resources should go into education. We talk of becoming one of the largest economies in the world by 2020 which is less than eight years from now. That is why I tell my friends we should not be saying by the year 2020, because it looks so far.
We should be saying in eight years’ time and next year we will say in seven years’ time and so on and that gives you a clear picture that you need to accelerate whatever you are doing to be successful. Therefore, for me and think the governors of the region are beginning to think that way too, it is through education that you can bridge the huge skill gap in this country. We are not doing enough studies on these issues. We are deficient in a number of areas in terms of skill gap. But at the same time we have thousands of people out of university that cannot find jobs. But there are some certain jobs they cannot do. So we need to focus on education and ask ourselves very critical question, which we are not addressing today. And that is, must everybody go to the university? If the answer is not really no, because I do not want say no before people begin to say these guys are elitists.
They have gone to the universities, their children have gone to the universities and they do not want us or our children to go. It is not so. In a country like Singapore, it is a clear policy issue that those with ability to do research and go to the university, should go to the university. And now, others go to technical institutions. Some of the technical institutions are almost at par with the universities. In Singapore, you are likely to see a taxi driver, who will say to you “That guy you are seeing in that newspaper you are holding was my classmate and when we were in class, was brilliant. That was why they sent him to the university.”
So it is not a surprise to see what is going on in Singapore. But here in Nigeria, it is like a conveyor. Whether you can make or not everybody wants to go to the university. We must understand that the way the rest of the world is going. I was watching a programme on television and learnt about the research and advancement Israel has made. It is unbelievable. We all know that Israel built its agriculture around land locked rocky land. We know Israel does not have water but they are not short of water at all. One of the most interesting things was to find out that no plant takes more water than is needed. That is skill, knowledge and research.
That is why BRACED Commission is taking the issue of education very seriously. And we are organising a summit on this from November 15 to 17 in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. We are getting the leading lights in industry to look at how we can they establish institutions that can train future managers, future leaders. Today in this country, true a number of universities have business school, but they do not enjoy global recognition. In this country only the Lagos Business School (LBS) enjoys ranking or anything and it was private sector-driven. Can we encourage private people from every region to see if they create more of such institutions that will train that high calibre of leaders and business people?
What we really want to do in the area of education is that the governors of the states are equally worried that though, they are doing the best they can in terms of building infrastructure, they feel they need to do more. So they have asked us to bring experts, policy makers together and let sit down and see what collectively we can do as a region to improve education. For us we are trying to even be bolder to say if you guys can work together as a team and do a couple of things, the South-south should become a leader in education and in number of ways, if they can improve schools, condition of teachers and so. And again given a time from five to 10 years, the region can actually reverse the situation in our schools.
That is why we are organising this summit and we hope to have the Education Minister, Minister of state for education, Minister of technology and a couple of other speakers. We have also invited Dr. Oby Ezekweisili to deliver the keynote address. We are also expecting minister from Ghana. We also have a leader of an educational institute from Finland because until recently, Finland was globally rated as number one in education quality. But I think they are number two now.
Talking about quality education, South-south used to be a leader in those days. What really changed the situation?
What is today the South-south, the economy used to be education. There were times, even in Lagos, some of the permanent secretaries were from there. It is not for nothing else but it was only because that was the industry they had. The more we are focusing on oil, the rest of the world is moving on, and moving away from oil. In the last four years, the United States, for instance, has done a lot on new sources of energy that within the next two years, the US import from Nigeria will begin to go down significantly. Why is everybody fighting, running here and there looking for oil?
We should be looking at something else. We must use the resources we have to develop the industries that will see us beyond 2020 and say even if all these countries are not going to buy oil from us, the good thing is that we have it, let us do what they are doing. That is, improve production and if you are going to improve production, if you going to have men to do new things, you have to train the people; the engineers, the technologist, the scientists among others. You must bring them on board. In terms of the economy, I think what needs to be done is gradually is being done today, the infrastructure is being put in place. But while infrastructure is key you must also begin to look at the possibility of ensuring that the environment is conducive for people to do business.
Because at the end of the day, if you have good infrastructure and people are not coming to invest, jobs will not be created. So if we create an environment that makes it very easy for people to invest, and to do business, if the tax regime is attractive, if the human element, which is very important, is good, you do not have to spend so much money retraining personnel. These are some of the things we are looking at the BRACED Commission.