Alhaji Sarafa Tunji Ishola,

A former Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Alhaji Sarafa Tunji Ishola, recently spoke on the APC-led administration of President Muhammadu Buhari and was of the opinion that it was still too premature to criticise a government that is less than a year in office. Femi Ogbonnikan presents the excerpts:

There is a general feeling amongst the people that President Muhammadu Buhari does not have a clear cut economic direction and is merely covering up with the fight against corruption. Do you agree?
I don’t share that view. You see, the easiest thing that anybody could do is what I call armchair criticism. The task of governing Nigeria is a complex issue because Nigeria is a nation of many nations, with its diversities. People must appreciate that the view of the road changes when you move from a passenger seat to a driver seat. What I understand from his programmes, as he outlined, are four points Agenda.

He pledged to address the issues of security, economy, unemployment and corruption. The President is less than one year in office and it is good that Nigerians are giving him wake-up calls, but we must appreciate the circumstance in which he operates.

The global economy is gloomy and Nigeria can’t be isolated from the rest of the world. I will give you an example. I took a flight from London to Frankfurt, and half of the plane was empty. Those are the signs to know whether things are really working or not. And even on my return from Frankfurt to London, almost half of the plane was also empty. And that really tells the situation. So, the thing is, the world economy is not looking too good.

What you do when you get to a government for four-year tenure is to spend the first one year laying the foundation. I am going to assess President Buhari whether he has done well or not after two years, because our constitution gives a four-year tenure to an elected President. If it is a task that can be performed in six months, may be, the tenure would have been one year. However, I appreciate Nigerians for putting the President on his toes, because this criticism will help him to rejig, to look at issues, and lay a solid foundation and hearken to the yearnings of Nigerians.

One would be able to do a correct assessment by June 2017, God willing. But for now, it would be premature to start saying, whether he has done well or not. But without prejudice to the steps taken so far, that I see him using his moral uprightness, which nobody has been able to fault till date – making sure that corruption is minimised in government because it can’t be eradicated. If President Buhari spends 20 years in office, corruption would not be eradicated in our polity. Even in advanced democracies, one form of corruption still exists. So, the issue is, at least, he is laying foundation to minimise corruption.

That’s number one. Number two there, is unemployment, I have not seen any road map, and I have not seen any concrete action. But like I said, by June next year, I would be able to assess him. On the economy, there are challenges. There is the need for a coordinated action through an economic team. It is not sufficient to say, yes, the constitution has created a national economic council. He needs a team including additional stakeholders that can add value to a solid economic blue print and courses of action out of this doldrum.

So, it is not sufficient to say, yes, we have all the governors there, we have the VP and some ministers there. We are not looking at the constitutional creation, we need an economic team that understands the vagaries and the complexities of the Nigerian economy, and they abound all over the world. So, Nigerians, those based here and in the diaspora, that can add value, can be put together in a brainstorming session. When you bring VP, governors, some ministers together to come and discuss the economy, what has changed? Nothing has changed. We have to look at it from different perspectives, and I think that is the area that the President should focus.

In the area of security, the President said before he came into power Boko Haram was in control of 14 local government areas and right now, they are not in control of any local government area. That’s commendable. But I have said one thing and I will continue to repeat it for the umpteenth time, even when President Goodluck Jonathan was in the saddle, that security is a local issue. We have the aspect of security that borders on national security, and that is the one that concerns the President, security of tenure of government falls into that and political instability falls into that.

But if somebody is being kidnapped in Delta state, how is that an issue for the President directly? Indirectly, yes, but he can’t have primary responsibility. People may say all the forces are being controlled from Abuja – the IGP, the DG, DSS, etc – all of them report to the President, maybe through that you can say, the President is involved, but the primary concern of security in that community, where kidnapping takes place, rests with the people in the community, rests with the Local Government Chairman, rests with the DPO in that area and so on and so forth.

And how do they do that? They do that towards ensuring that effective management of security is put in place. It is much easier for the Chairman of a local government to say ‘I am the Chief security officer’ of a local government. What have they done in terms of duties and responsibilities? They must ensure that the regular meetings of the security and Intelligence committee of that local government area take place. When I was a Council Chairman, I did that and we didn’t have any issue.
In that security committee, the representative of the Army, the DPOs in my area, the representative of the DSS, the local government officer in-charge of the Immigration Service and other relevant agencies, traditional rulers, the highest ranking Chief Imam in the local government area, the highest ranking CAN Bishop in the local government area – all these people put together. You would have to task your councillors. Councillorship is not only about sitting down and approving contracts. If you see any strange movement, because all these miscreants live in various societies, they must report it.

The councillor must be sufficiently grounded with the people. In a nutshell, the local government has its own responsibilities. Governors of the states are the Chief Security Officers of the states and when it is time to deal with the opposition, a governor would remember that he is the Chief Security Officer, but if it is to secure the entire citizenry they would then say it is the President in Abuja.

Again, as once the Secretary to Ogun State Government, the lot fell on me to supervise the bureau in the Governor’s Office that was in charge of security and we made sure that the State Security Council – Commissioner of Police, Director of DSS, Brigade Commander and others met regularly to discuss security situations. They provided intelligence because security is not fire brigade; it is the ability to neutralise a threat. You can only do that by having credible intelligence. If intelligence is provided and an identified threat is neutralised, that is security. Security is not after it has happened and you start carrying guns and making arrests. On the issue of Boko Haram, yes, we are not yet there, but I strongly believe that President Muhammadu Buhari, is a man of his words. So, I don’t have cause to doubt him, right now, there is no territory that is being held but all we are seeing are pockets of resistance.

Also, what we are seeing are the terrorists looking for soft targets. Look at what happened in France. Look at what happened in Belgium, recently. Would it be right to say that security is lacking in these two advanced countries? When you have security challenges and this is also what I use to tell our people when Jonathan was on the seat, if there is threat to security please, rise above partisan interest because if these elements terrorise the people, they don’t discriminate between APC or PDP members. So, the President should also look into a bi-partisan approach on security and economic issues because they affect Nigerians and both parties are Nigerians. That is the way to better leadership.

But, it is believed in some quarters that the President has lost focus?
Lost focus in terms of what? No! I don’t agree. What is the basis for saying that? I don’t agree! Lost focus in which area?

In terms of governance, you don’t think so?
He is having challenges, no doubt about that. And people talk about low price of crude oil. President Olusegun Obasanjo said when he came in, the price of crude oil was $9 per barrel and when it got to $20, he was dancing. And President Obasanjo inherited $3 billion foreign reserves. What he did not even add is that he also inherited about $38 billion foreign debts. No matter what anybody may say, President Obasanjo’s administration was PDP government and so, the 16 years nobody can really say the 16 years was rot, no! It wasn’t. The PDP government inherited $38 billion foreign debt and may be, left $3 billion foreign debt. It inherited a reserve of $3 billion and handed over $ 36 billion. And what are we talking about?

How about those who say the president had no economic blue print before taking over the mantle?
Don’t forget, that APC didn’t come into the government as a party; APC came into government as a political movement – Jonathan and PDP must go and in order to go – let us have a vehicle to drive them away. The legacy parties, CPC, ANPP, ACN, part of APGA, part of DPP and eventually, the New PDP, so, if you look at it from that perspective, you would know, there was no party. The manifesto that was brandished was hurriedly put together. If you say, he has lost focus, he has said, “I promised Nigerians four things, and on the four things, I am working”. As at now, he has implemented the TSA, from which he said they now have about N3 trillion and so, there is a lot of money. That has also drastically reduced corruption in the system.

They have also embarked on the fight against corruption. So, to say, the President has lost focus, I don’t agree. That there was no blue print, no doubt. If there was a blue print, he would have shown us the way to go. And for me to properly assess the President, it would be the end of June 2017. Then, it would have been two years. If you use one year to lay foundation, what have you been able to build on the foundation?

From your experience as a former Mines and Steel Development Minister, how can government tap the potential in that sector to augment its earnings?
There are two issues that are involved. A lot of people don’t appreciate the fact, that governments all over the world do not get directly involved in business activities anymore. So, gone were those days, when the tin mining in Jos was a government thing and other mining activities were more of government activities. The world has since moved away from that, into mining by the private sector. In 1960s, oil exploration was being done by government, but as at today, it is done along with oil majors and others.

So, in the same way, for us to move forward in the sector, it has to be private sector-driven because all over the world, the government has no business being in business. If private capital would come, enabling environment must be created, because investing capital has competing demands from various countries. As an investor, two issues are important, security of capital and interest on capital. Whatever capital you have needs to be secured. Secondly, you cannot invest in a project that will not make profit.

In fact, in our economics class of those days, the interest on capital is profit. If your capital is secured and would not earn interest, that private capital would not be invested. There is also security concerns; I am quite sure nobody wants to bring his money here only to be kidnapped. So, there are issues. All the issues that relate to creating the enabling climate for the inflow of private capital in the mining sector must be well addressed. And when they are addressed, this private capital would be available.

Mining is neither an on-the-shelve programme nor quick wins. Some of the actions of this government in mining may not come to fruition in the life of this administration. Mining is in stages. Exploration may take many years. Mines development would also take years. Infrastructure to back up the mining sites, would also take some period. Altogether, the successful completion of mining sites may also outlive the lifespan of this administration. Nevertheless, it would be on record that they laid a legacy. So, these things do not come overnight, like many people think. Once the environment is not conducive, they would not come at all.

Would you subscribe to the sale or privatisation of Ajaokuta or Oshogbo Steel Rolling Mills, if that would address the problems?
I have told you that government has no business being in business. If the government should get involved, it can only be through private-public partnership. As a student of management, in taking decisions of this nature, there is what we call developing alternative courses of actions. Analyse the merits and demerits of possible alternatives. And then come to a sound judgment. Are we better off with private-public partnership or are we better off with commercialisation? Are we also better off through privatisation? Then, you will look at all available options before you decide on the best. It is not a street talk. It has to do with the provisions of relevant data. So, I am an apostle of government has-no-business-in-business. If government must have business in business, it can come through other windows, not monopoly, not absolute ownership.

When government has absolute ownership and control, the issue of inefficiency comes in, the issue of corruption creeps in and the issue of bureaucracy creeps in. And all these factors are not investment friendly. So, if government wants to do private-public partnership, government can take a percentage ownership. The government can allow an independent management to run, and government can earn dividends at the end of the year. It is happening in the NNLG now. That model can also work. But when government takes over the management of economic parastatals, it is back to ground zero.

Do you support continued devaluation of the Nigerian naira in view of the economic downturn?
When you say, continued devaluation, I don’t understand what you mean. I know that officially, the government has said severally, that it will not officially devalue the naira. What is happening now is simple: economics mechanism of demand and supply. The foreign exchange is not coming, because almost 80 per cent of our foreign exchange earnings come from crude oil. The demands for foreign exchange keep going up. When you have a higher demand and lesser supply, what are you going to have? Price would go up. And that is, what is happening.

So, to me, it is not devaluation because as at now, the official window market is still N197. But government, in its priority said this N197 official window would be open to A B C. However, when you embark on a policy, you should subject the policy to a review, may be quarterly and look at how it is affecting the people. The ultimate is for Nigerians to be better off. And when we are not better off, you re-examine the policy and fine-tune. You make sure that the manipulators of the system and the economic saboteurs are not allowed to overrun our economy. Your policies must not inflict pains on the innocent ones, who are many in the society.

What do you think that the federal government can do to make sure that the value of naira appreciates?
Well, I have told you, it is a function of demand and supply. So, to increase the supply, we can start looking at other non-oil foreign exchange earnings and that does not happen in six months or one year, but the foundation can be laid. In the demand for foreign exchange, we can look at items that do not come as priority to the nation, and I think, the government is trying to do that.

How can we provide foreign exchange to buy toothpicks, for God’s sake? How can you ask for foreign exchange for the buying of matches? How can you buy foreign exchange for the purchase of chairs and beds? How can you encourage the buying of foreign exchange for so many other items? So, items that don’t come as priorities to this nation should be determined. But there must be transparency in whatever we do so that we are not fighting corruption to create another set of corruption.

I appreciate Nigerians for putting the President on his toes because this criticism will help him to rejig, to look at issues, and lay a solid foundation and hearken to the yearnings of Nigerians…One would be able to do a correct assessment by June 2017, God willing. But for now, it would be premature to start saying, whether he has done well or not