Osinbajo , Udoma Udo Udoma

A two-day summit of the National Economic Council on the economy identifed challenges militating against development in agriculture, power, manufacturing, housing and healthcare sectors, and proffered solutions. Tobi Soniyi, in Abuja, reports

These are indeed challenging times. The economic situation is giving everyone, including policy makers, a sleepless night. Whoever you talk to, the reaction is the same: there is no money in the system.

More agonising, however, is the perception in many quarters that government is not doing enough to find solutions to the myriad problems bedeviling the economy. Whether this perception is right or not is arguable but one thing that is clearly beyond debate is the fact that government has not done enough to engage with the people and communicate to them what it is doing to make life better for them and the constraints it is facing. Government expects the people to know.

Perhaps, its desire to address these shortcomings and to chart a way forward necessitated the just-concluded National Economic Council (NEC) Retreat on the economy held in Abuja. The council, which has as its chairman, the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo also comprises of all states governors.

The purpose of this retreat as outlined in the Retreat Concept Notes is to generate immediate, medium and long-term viable policy solutions to the economic challenges facing the country at both the Federal and State levels.

In his opening remarks, President Muhammadu Buhari demonstrated a good grasp of what the problems were and also came up with what, in his views, should be the solutions. This point is important because many people out there have been insinuating that the president does not appear to understand what is needed to be done to revamp the economy. From his presentation, it became obvious that Buhari not only understood the challenges, but also possessed the capacity to solve it.

Few instances from his opening remarks will suffice. The president said: “From information at my disposal, if we aggregate public views from the grassroots, city dwellers, the economic managers, consumer groups, the unions and other stakeholders of the economy, there is near unanimity about the ills of our economy. But naturally, there are divergent views about solutions.

“I am going to throw at this gathering some random policy options filtered from across the spectrum of our stakeholders on four selected sectors of our economy.

These are agriculture, power, manufacturing and housing.” Buhari eventually added the fifth: healthcare, which we all agree is critical to the nation’s development.

He repeatedly emphasised the need to reduce our ostentatious life style and voracious consumption of everything foreign and look inward.

Buhari said challenges militating against development in agriculture, power, manufacturing, housing and healthcare sectors must be squarely addressed to lift many Nigerians out of poverty.

The president expressed regret that despite huge oil revenues, the nation’s health sector remained undeveloped forcing Nigerians to spend $1 billion yearly to get medical treatment abroad.

The president, who noted that inadequate power supply undermined the country’s capacity to develop in all sectors, said his government would generate 10,000 megawatts in the next three years. “In 2016 alone, we intend to add two thousand megawatts to the national grid,” he added.

The president ordered a fresh campaign to patronise Made-in-Nigeria goods. In this regard, he said that, all uniforms in government-sponsored institutions should be sourced from local factories.

On agriculture, Buhari said that both the peasant and the mechanised farmers agreed with the general public that food production and self-sufficiency required urgent government action.

However, he noted that, “for too long, government policies on agriculture have been half-hearted, suffering from inconsistencies and discontinuities.”

According to him, the country’s real wealth is in farming, livestock, hatcheries, fishery, horticulture and forestry.

In order to address some of the challenges facing the agricultural sector, which he said included rising food prices and imports of subsidised food products, the president directed the Central Bank of Nigeria to mobilise banks to make credits available to farmers.

Buhari said: “First we need to carry the public with us for new initiatives. Accordingly the Federal Ministry of Agriculture in collaboration with the states should convene early meetings of stakeholders and identify issues with a view to addressing them.

“Inform the public in all print and electronic media on government efforts to increase local food production to dampen escalating food prices.

“Banks should be leaned upon to substantially increase their lending to the agricultural sector. Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) should bear part of the risk of such loans as a matter of national policy.”

On power, the president promised to complete the privatisation of the sector. He said: “We are facing the classic dilemma of privatisation: public interest vs. profit motive. Having started, we must complete the process. But National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), the regulatory authority, has a vital job to ensure consumers get value for money and over-all public interest is safe-guarded.”

He said the government would fast-track completion of pipelines from gas points to power stations and provide more security to protect gas and oil pipelines even as he called on power companies to replace obsolete equipment and improve the quality of service and technicians.

On the manufacturing sector, the president said: ”It grieves me that so many manufacturing industries in the country today are groaning and frustrated because of lack of foreign exchange to import raw materials and spare parts.

“Painful though as this is, I believe it is a temporary phase which we shall try to overcome but there are deeper, more structural problems bedeviling local industries which this retreat should identify short and long-term answers to.”

To reduce the problem associated with high cost of borrowing money, Buhari directed CBN to create more incentives and ease credit terms for lending to manufacturers.

He also suggested that Infrastructure Development Fund be fast-tracked to unlock resources to address infrastructural deficiencies.

“There should be more fiscal incentives for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), which prove themselves capable of manufacturing quality products good enough for export,” he added.

On housing, the president put Nigeria’s housing deficit at about sixteen million units.

He said: “In our successful campaign to win the general elections last year, our party, the APC, promised to build a million housing units a year. This will turn out to be a very tall order unless:

“The Federal Government builds two hundred and fifty thousand units. The 22 APC States together manage another two hundred and fifty thousand units.

Buhari called for review of relevant laws to make the process of acquiring statutory right of occupancy shorter, less cumbersome and less costly. He further suggested: “Court procedures for mortgages cases should make enforcement more efficient. Ministries of Works and Housing should upgrade their computerisation of title registration system for greater efficiency.”

The president deliberately left out the roadmap to achieving his plans for the economy. He chose to leave this to NEC to decide. After all, the council is supposed to advise him and not vice versa.

Paragraph 19 of Part 1 of the Third Schedule to the 1999 Constitution as amended provides that, “the National Economic Council shall have power to advise the President concerning the economic affairs of the Federation, and in particular on measures necessary for the co-ordination of the economic planning efforts or economic programmes of the various Governments of the Federation.”

In compliance with the above, NEC came up with specific ways to achieve the government’s economic vision. Among others, the council recognises the urgent need to eject fund into the system. In this wise, it said that N350 billion would be pumped into the economy to stimulate it. After the two-day brainstorming, NEC set up an Implementation Steering Committee headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to ensure that the decisions reached were implemented.

The committee will oversee the work of the implementation committee and provide appropriate boost to the Implementation Monitoring Committee to ensure that the resolutions agreed at the retreat were duly followed up.

Other members of the committee are: Abdulaziz Y. Abubakar, Chairman, Nigeria Governors Forum and Governor of Zamfara State; Adams Oshiomhole, Governor of Edo State; Abdulfatah Ahmed, Governor of Kwara State; Rauf Aregbesola, Governor of Osun State; David Umahi, Governor of Ebonyi State; Badaru Abubakar, Governor of Jigawa State; Mohammed Abubakar, Governor of Bauchi State; Sen. Udoma Udo Udoma, Minister of Budget and National Planning; ‎Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, Minister of Finance; Dr. Okechukwu Enelama, Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment; Chief Audu Ogbe, Minister of Agriculture; Dr. Kayode Fayemi, Minister of Solid Minerals; Mr. Babatunde Fashola, Minister of Works, Power and Housing‎; while Mrs. Nana F Mede, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Budget and National Planning will act as secretary.

At the end of the meeting , the NEC retreat recommended ways to revive the economy and keep it going forward.

Among the decisions reached at the retreat is the need for “concerted and consistent efforts to diversify revenue sources” as well as expansion of compliance on Value Added Tax (VAT), adopting a gradual plan for rate increase.

The meeting also resolved to “increase expenditure through borrowing, which should be invested in infrastructure while advising the federal and state governments to focus on fiscal responsibility as a critical element in macro-economic balance.”

Similarly, the NEC meeting resolved to “increase investment in infrastructure through public private partnership (PPP) and develop financial inclusion strategies to cater for the poor and vulnerable population.”

Specifically, the high-level retreat agreed that “the federal government should maintain a minimum level of capital expenditure of 30 per cent in the budget.”

On‎ agriculture, NEC decided that, “the Federal Government should re-position Bank of Agriculture to enhance its capacity to finance agriculture; funding for agricultural sector is considered critical and sources of intervention funding from the Central Bank of Nigeria should be considered.”

The retreat also agreed that “a single digit interest rate for agricultural loans should be considered while duties and taxes for agricultural products and equipment should be waived.”

While NEC recommended “the development of strategic partnerships between Federal and State government”, it told “each state to make specific commitments to crops in which it has comparative advantage and request Federal Government intervention.”

Also, the meeting agreed that “the commodity exchanges should be established for price regulation and avoidance of losses due to lack of markets”, particularly it stated that “the Abuja Commodity Exchange should be revitalised.”

Other resolutions include: “Ministry of Solid Minerals Development to complete and present the solid minerals development roadmap. This framework should address issues of illegal miner, licenses, taxes and royalties by 31st March 2016; federal government to engage with state government on the roadmap and agree any amendment that may be required by 30th June 2016; initiate relevant legislative changes that maybe necessitated by the agreed roadmap by 31stJuly 2016; conclude the revalidation/recertification of all mining leases by 30th September 2016; and agree with states and local government on respective responsibilities for developing feeder roads and other critical infrastructure for solid minerals development.”