After refusing to change his mind about some core economic issues since his inauguration a year ago, President Muhammadu Buhari has signalled a readiness to shift his ground. Buhari gave the indication last week during an interview with journalists to mark the first anniversary of his administration.
The president said, though, he was still not really persuaded of the merits of naira devaluation, his government was open to the option owing to pressure from experts. He maintained that Nigeria did not have a strong manufacturing base to reap the benefits of increased export, which proponents of devaluation are wont to associate with the policy.
The president said the government would not sell the country’s petroleum refineries as scrap, in a shift from his seemingly tough stance on privatisation of national assets.
In a related development, the ruling All Progressives Congress said yesterday that Buhari had acquitted himself well as president in the last 12 months. APC stated this in a goodwill message to Nigerians by its national chairman, Chief John Odigie-Oyegun, ahead of today’s Democracy Day celebrations. Odigie-Oyegun said the current economic difficulties were necessary, but temporary, hurdles the country must overcome on the road to national development.
Buhari recalled his enduring opposition to currency devaluation, saying, “In 1984, we were advised to devalue the naira and withdraw subsidy, whatever their perception of subsidy was in Nigeria. We even had subsidy on flour. The IMF and World Bank talked about subsidy removal. My argument has been that those who devalue their currencies have developed economies, where there is local production and they export the excess. They have good infrastructure. So they devalue their currencies to sell their products outside their shores, and employ their people. People just take the money out of the country. How many factories have we built? So I refused to devalue the naira.”
Buhari, who was Commissioner for Petroleum in the former military government of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, said at the time he left the post in the late 1970s, the “naira exchanged for three dollars. Now you need N350 to get a dollar! I challenged Nigerian economists to tell me what benefits Nigeria has earned from the devaluation so far. How many factories have we built by killing the naira?
“I have to reluctantly give up because the so-called Nigerian economists come and talk things to me, and when I raise issues they talk over my head instead of inside my head. For us to lose over N300 (every year we’re losing the value of the currency by N100), what for?
“I find myself in a very difficult state because the economists cannot tell me why we should continue to devalue our naira.
“I’m still agonising over it, that the naira should be reduced to such a disgraceful level over the last 30 years. I need to be educated on this.
“But I’m not ruling this country alone. I’m under pressure and we’ll see how we can accommodate the economists.”
On the privatisation of the refineries, Buhari said, “We want to make them work so that we don’t sell them as scrap. We can’t spend so much money to put up the refineries just to sell them as scrap. I think that will be disservice to the country. Let’s repair them and negotiate with them to sell them at good prices. We don’t want them to dictate how much we sell fuel in this country after we’ve sold the refineries to private investors.”
Meanwhile, APC praised Nigerians for “unprecedented confidence and trust” in Buhari, in a statement by Odigie-Oyegun. The party said despite enormous problems inherited from the former Peoples Democratic Party federal government, the Buhari “government has courageously faced these challenges by taking tough decisions necessary to bring our economy back to buoyancy and self-sustaining growth.”
•See full interview on pages 111-115