President Muhammadu Buhari
  •   In U-turn, says Nigeria is a member of Islamic coalition against terror

Tobi Soniyi in Abuja and Obinna Chima in Lagos
President Muhammadu Buhari has said that banks, importers and individuals involved in round-tripping of dollars they buy from the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) official market and resell in the parallel market will be made to face the law when caught.

The president gave the warning in an interview monitored on Al Jazeera television at the weekend.

Forex round-tripping or arbitrage refers to a process whereby funds obtained from the official forex market (at lower rates) and diverted to other markets and sold at a higher rate by forex dealer, banks and end users.

There has been strong suspicion that some banks and other end users that get weekly forex allocations from the CBN divert some of the dollar cash to the parallel market because of the wide gap between the official and parallel markets.

In his response to a question on alleged round-tripping in the forex market, the president said: “I agree with you, but we are going to check that and we are going to apply sanctions to anybody that is given dollars by the central bank for the importation of essential raw materials, for example pharmaceutical products, and because he can make N100 more, goes to the parallel market to sell it. We will pursue them and obviously would punish them.”

The CBN Governor, Mr. Godwin Ifeanyi Emefiele, recently said the central bank was on the lookout to penalise banks found in such unhealthy practice.

He also warned that if any bank was caught in the act, it is not just the institution that would be penalised, its management would also be severely punished.

Continuing, Buhari reiterated his stance against the devaluation of the naira, maintaining that “countries that play around with their currencies are countries that have enormous production capacity”.

“They have factories in place, they have infrastructure in terms of power, and their communications and security are actually perfect,” he said.

According to him, Nigeria virtually imports everything, from rice to toothpicks, adding: “If we don’t have the money for importing those things, what is the value in further devaluing the naira?”

He pointed out that in terms of the country’s exchange rate policy, national interest supersedes the interest of multilateral agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF)?

“If it is against our national interest, why can’t we go against the IMF’s advice? Nigeria can only afford to live within its means. If we don’t have the money to back the naira for people to buy the dollars and import toothpicks, chocolates, rice, glamorous dresses,” he said.

When reminded that there were some essential items such as the importation of pharmaceutical drugs that are also being starved of forex, he said: “We have pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria.

“Once upon a time we did what was called institutional strengthening by giving them monies to import machinery and essential raw materials.

“We have already given instructions for the ministries to find out which industries need foreign exchange on a quarterly basis to produce those items that are essential, like pharmaceuticals as you said, but certainly, not to import rice.”

Responding to a question on the anomalies detected in the 2016 Appropriation Bill, the president, who pointed out that drawing up budget estimates involves technocrats, did not rule out the fact that there could be men and women in some ministries, departments and agencies that are working against his government.

“Basically you know producing the budget involves technocrats. I would like people to assess Nigeria, especially this government on where we found ourselves.

“When we came in, there were 42 ministries and we found out that the economy cannot take all 42 ministries and we reduced them to 24. The permanent secretaries, who are the heads of the ministries as technocrats, 21 of them were removed.

“So, people who want to be fair to us should sit down and reflect – the ministries, the permanent secretaries were taken over after eight successive administrations.

“We cannot assume that from the permanent secretaries downwards, they are 100 per cent loyal to the new government. But we would apply sanctions. But since the budget is at the National Assembly, I don’t want to talk more about that now,” he added.

He also urged member countries of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to work together to save oil producers from the present situation in the market.

“OPEC has to work together to save the situation. If you can produce less and earn more, why produce more and earn less? I have never been able to understand that, but the market forces are influenced by a lot of political decisions, both regional and global, and we have to live by it.

“OPEC as an organisation has to be mindful of the economic conditions in each member country because that is what will influence that country’s ability to go along with OPEC’s decisions.

“For Nigeria, we were unable to diversify our economy, hence we are much more disadvantaged by the low oil prices. OPEC may try to help us, but clearly, it was basically our fault.

“In OPEC, there are individual national interests: there are regional interests and there is OPEC’s interest. On top of that there are global interests. Large producers like Russia, which are not in OPEC are swing producers. If Russia decides to go flat, it can disorganise OPEC’S principle of controlled production.

“Certainly, under my leadership, Nigeria will not withdraw from OPEC. Between 1976 and 1979, I served as petroleum minister and I valued OPEC as an institution and I think Nigeria will make the necessary sacrifice to remain in OPEC,” he said.

The president also said high demand for forex by parents of students studying abroad had put pressure on the naira, stating that any parent who can afford foreign education, should go ahead to source for forex from autonomous sources.

According to him, “Those who can afford foreign education for their children can go ahead, but Nigeria cannot afford to allocate foreign exchange for those who decide to train their children outside the country. We can’t just afford it. That is the true situation we are in.”

The president’s remark on the possible review of forex sales for foreign tuition conflicted with the CBN’s statement three weeks ago when it allayed fears that it was going to stop the sale of forex for school fees.

The central bank’s statement came on the heels of the last meeting of the Bankers’ Committee where bank chief executives had expressed concern over spiralling demand for forex for school tuition oversees. However, no decision was taken on the issue at the meeting.

The statement by the Bankers’ Committee caused jitters in the forex market, as parents rushed to buy as much dollars as they could get, leading to increased pressure on the naira which depreciated by several percentage points to over N400 to the dollar in a space of one week and forced the central bank to issue the statement to douse concerns among millions of Nigerian parents.

Also, Buhari who less than two weeks ago turned down the invitation to join the Islamic Coalition against Terrorism put together by Saudi Arabia told Al Jazeera that Nigeria was in the coalition.

He had been asked whether Nigeria was part of it and he answered: “We are part of it because we’ve got terrorists in Nigeria that everybody knows claim that they are Islamic.

“So if there’s an Islamic coalition to fight terrorism, Nigeria will be part of it because we are casualties of Islamic terrorism.”
Asked whether he had spoken on Nigeria’s membership of the coalition during his meeting with King Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz during their meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia recently, Buhari said “yes.”

Asked to explain how the coalition would work for Nigeria, he said he could not disclose the details.

However, he added: “Well, we mentioned that under Lake Chad Basin Commission, our regional grouping comprising Cameroun, Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Benin, we dedicated a certain number of troops to be deployed in our own sub-region and I don’t think we have to tell the press the details of that.”

Pressed further on how joining the Islamic coalition would serve Nigeria’s security interest, he declared: “Certainly. I’ve just told you it is the Boko Haram itself that declared loyalty to ISIS.

“ISIS is basically based in Islamic countries. Now, if there’s a coalition to fight Islamic terrorism, why can’t Nigeria be part of it, while those that are fighting in Nigeria as Boko Haram claim to be Muslims. But the way they are doing it is anti-Islamic.”

When his interviewer pointed out that since Nigeria was roughly evenly divided among Christians and Muslims and that some Christians were complaining that he was giving an Islamic identity to Nigeria, the president wondered why Christians had not gone to fight Boko Haram in the north or the militants sabotaging installations in the south.

“Why can’t those Christians that complained go and fight terrorism in Nigeria or fight the militancy in the south. It’s Nigeria that matters, not the opinion of some religious bigots,” he stated.

On whether he was trying to change the religious identity of the country, Buhari noted: “How can I change the religious identity of Nigeria?

“No religion advocates hurting the innocent and just because the Muslims are the ones that claim to be Boko Haram and they are killing innocent people whether in the church, in the bus or in the market place, then I will just sit and look at them because I too I’m a Muslim? Islam is against injustice in any form.”

The president’s admission of Nigeria’s membership of the Islamic coalition came a little under two weeks after an official presidency statement suggested that Buhari had turned down the invitation to be part of the coalition.

A statement by his media aide, Mr. Garba Shehu, during the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia said that Buhari had pledged Nigeria’s support for the coalition, but would not be part of it.

The statement said that two leaders (Buhari and King Salman) who engaged in extensive discussions on regional and global issues also agreed that terrorism posed a common threat to their states and would require close cooperation to prevail over the threats.

It observed that Buhari who was making his first pronouncement on the invitation to join the coalition of Islamic states against terror spearheaded by the Saudis, congratulated the Kingdom on its formation.

The statement quoted Buhari thus: “Even if we are not a part of it, we support you. I must thank the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the recent creation of a coalition to address the menace of international terrorism. Nigeria will support your efforts in keeping peace and stopping the spread of terror in your region.

“This is in consonance with our own commitment and ongoing efforts seeking to stamp out Boko Haram terrorists from the West African sub-region and the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC).”