The Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria, Osita Okechukwu is a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress and very close ally of President Muhammadu Buhari. Although not a member of the economics team, Okechukwu, in this interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo dismissed the fears about the sales of national assets even as he painted a vivid picture of some of the challenges before the country. Excerpts:
In terms of the economic and political outlook, how would you assess President Buhari’s administration?
Let me start by saying that Nigeria and Nigerians, in the fullness of time, will not regret voting President Muhammadu Buhari as president in 2015. In the fullness of time, going by our constitution, at least we have a-four-year tenure, it will be glorious. What we have now is laying a foundation for a prosperous and progressive country. Yes, it has not been easy as President Muhammadu Buhari admitted himself.
He knows there is hunger in the land and he knows there is despair in the land too but the hope is that he is trying to couple back the Nigerian state by trying to look back and ask himself: why is it that the unprecedented oil revenue that came our way since 1999 wasn’t properly invested? Why is it that enough savings weren’t made? Why is it that we have decayed in physical and social infrastructure?
That is to say, electricity, transportation, deficit in housing, deficit in water for drinking, deficit in social infrastructure like health and education that today, Nigerian is still saying that out of over 100 universities; Federal universities, State, Private, that only one can be fingered as belonging to the first one thousand universities on earth. Mr. President feels bad about that but the way he is going, we are looking at going somewhere. By the time he finishes four or eight years, the prudent of management of resources will be one of the greatest legacies he is going to leave behind.
The little that comes in will be prudently managed and if he succeeds in borrowing, the little borrowed will be properly managed. Even if he sells some assets, the little that comes in will be prudently managed. That is going to be the greatest legacy that he is going to leave behind. It is no more going to be business as usual and he has demonstrated that. Even the little expenses we run in an agency like the Voice of Nigeria when I came, there has been a shift in that in direction.
It is no more putting your hand in the pocket you must also advertise contract jobs. You must follow the procurement Act and if you do a story of what led other countries to greatness, the foremost was the prudent management of resources, however small or ever big because if you start by prudent management of resources, you are going to succeed in killing the culture of impunity and also dovetail into obedience of rule of law.
Many Nigerians didn’t celebrate the recent independence anniversary because they believed there was nothing to celebrate. Do you agree?
Yes, you are not wrong! They say a hungry man is an angry man. People are hungry but do you know the irony of the whole thing is that a lot of people don’t want us to look back on why we are hungry, even to mention it. A lot of people do not want to do that. All they are saying is ‘fix it’. Yes, that is the wish of the president. In fact, in one of his statements, if you can remember, he said why is it now that I am coming that the oil price nose-dived? Why is it now that I am coming the reserves that could have helped the regime to pop up isn’t there? A lot of people forgot. The totality of the major contracting firms: Julius Berger and others are owed about N1.5 trillion because for a long time the previous government stopped paying contractors.
The joint venture oil companies, which they call IOCs since 2012, stopped paying our joint venture contribution and do you know how much we owe them?
As of today, it is about $7billion and they said Mr. President, we want to stop work. That you didn’t pay us when your product was sold high and now we are here and Mr. President said believe me. So, we are hoping that gradually he will start paying back and try to build the confidence because he is talking of confidence. The confidence is not there and why is that so? Because promises were made in the past and those promises made in the past were rubbished under impunity.
In fact, if you know what the English man called impunity; the English word was borrowed from Igbo language, the Igbos call it ‘Impo’ and they have the same meaning – going out of your way to recklessly manage affairs as if it belongs to nobody except you. They asked us ‘please don’t mention it, just fix it! Even those who joined us in clapping hands on May 13, 2010, when the then President Jonathan signed contract with the Chinese firm to build three refineries for $3 billion. One of those refineries was to be in Lagos, one in Kogi and the last in Baylesa and their time line was for three years, so which means by now the three refineries could have been in place and guess what if it had matured?
It could have employed over a million people directly and indirectly and each refinery you know in the world manufactures about 34 products which is called the derivatives outside the PMS which includes fuel oil that is used in the textile industry but those opportunities were lost and when you look at it in 2010, Nigeria has about $17 billion excess crude account because President Obasanjo left about $23 billion in the excess crude account. But it had a depletion till President Muhammadu Buhari came. It was less than $10 billion, in fact, the record shows that it was about $4billion left when President Muhammadu Buhari came to power and guess what? The first problem that confronted him was the salary arrears at both the state and federal level.
That is why we are even talking of borrowing to know whether we can get out of the recession and get people to be happy because Mr. President told us that he is acting like a father whose household is hungry and of course you won’t listen to anything else when your children are crying of hunger. The best is to put your hand into the bush that is why he had to run around. He went to South Africa, went to Saudi Arabia, and went to China. That is why he is going round and some people mistook him for going round and he said he is going round with the plate that his people are hungry.
APC has this ideology that would rather prefer government owning its public assets rather than privatising. How would you reconcile this with the recent move by President Buhari to sell off some national assets as a way of beefing up the economy?
To be honest on the issues of the sale of the national assets, if it is the President Buhari that I know, I don’t think he would sell national assets that are profitable. I haven’t discussed with him but the little I know of him for over a decade and his own disposition towards public assets, I don’t see him selling something like NLNG because luckily for Nigeria, we have 49 per cent and our partners – Shell, Eni, Total that are managing the process – nobody has accused them of mismanagement, so there is no justification.
My thinking is that those that are clamouring for the sale of such priced assets or our shares in Africa Development Bank are those people, who were chopped up by 1999/2015 nebulous economic policy. A policy that told us that government has no business in business. That ended up throwing up the richest African and producing millions of poor Nigerians which is a paradox as far as I am concerned. Don’t forget the history, if you look back, part of the reason President Buhari was overthrown in 1985 was because he opposed those policies like devaluing the naira, removing all the subsidies, get back to the private sector then we lost all that we have.
He asked himself if you forgot, I remember Alhaji Balarabe Musa, whose Conference of Nigerian Political Parties then led a delegation to Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who was then the minister in 2005 or thereabout and were pleading that the $12.4 billion they want to use for debt payment be used for infrastructure. Let’s continue paying annually, that the return from that investment of $12.4billion will be better than paying it out. The woman said there would be no more debt again, the accruals from the debt payment when even they were selling properties they said they would use the accruals to provide critical infrastructure but we didn’t see any.
The little we saw was the old single gauge of rail line between Kano to Lagos; 1,310 KM at $8.3 billion at a time when the Chinese awarded 4,000 Km modern standard gauge between Lasa and Beijing at $4.2 billion. So, this is the paradox of that era. They said we shouldn’t talk about that, we should forget it. Yes, but yesterday is today’s architecture. It isn’t easy for anybody that lost money not to talk about how he lost it or he won’t even know that is why President Buhari is left with options of prudent management, borrowing, begging for help by attracting direct investment because if you don’t borrow, the hunger will linger on and people will continue to be angry.
Unluckily for Nigeria, our population keeps rising and out of the 10 most populated countries in the world, we are amongst the three that have youths being 60 per cent of the population which is an advantage but if you fail to put them to work, it becomes a disadvantage. So, that is why Buhari is working day and night, looking for where to get money to take these people out of poverty because without it, the people won’t be happy.
The organised labour believes that one of the major ways Nigeria can get out of recession is through proper taxation. This is against the backdrop of the Lagos experiences, which has been able to meticulously collect tax. Second, what is your take on the agitation for restructuring of the country at a time like this?
I think labour is very correct and to be honest with you, those Lagos group that transformed Lagos are in charge of our Federal Inland Revenue today and so far, the result has been very encouraging. They are taxing even the rich you think they are abandoning. Don’t forget when you hear about VAT, VAT is about the man who is buying and if you don’t have money, you won’t buy and the rich man that buys, he consumes more toilet rolls in his household; he consumes more water in his household, consumes more electricity and consumes more food in his household.
So, one way or the other, the taxation in place has produced more money. If you know what they were talking about in the 2016 budget, if you look at the statistics on how to source the money, so what labour said is already being done and what Mr. President is saying is please try to avoid multiple taxation so you will also have leverage for even the rice sector not to be weighed down by over taxation because don’t forget Mr. President will tell you that the votes he had gathered had been from the base – the people. He is not so moved by the elite, it is the masses, so he bears them in mind whenever he makes policies, so we agree with labour.
When you talk of restructuring, there is a paradox as well on those canvassing for restructuring. I have talked to a lot of people over the matter. Let us even go by the official conferences that had been held recently, none of them has supported going back to regions. For instance, those who canvass that we should restructure into regions have failed. Even in the Jonathan conferences of 2014, regions failed. My state, Enugu, for instance and Ebonyi coming from the South-east voted against it. Lagos voted against it in the South-west. The South-South didn’t support it; majority of the states in the north didn’t support it.
I told all my friends in Enugu and I said with all these your agitation, what do you want? They said they wanted South-east as a region but I said our people said no because what is affecting the issue of restructuring is that most people that are agitating for restructuring are using what is called the clan-based agitation. They take it that it is only their clan that good people are; that corrupt people are not in their clan, thieves are not in their clan but when you ask them, is there any state in the country were the House of Assembly is doing oversight functions?
A lot of people don’t even know the name of the man in the House of Assembly because he never raised any hand. I said okay, if your clan is highly corrupted and there is no sign of democracy in your clan that is represented by the states and local governments, it is only the centre that is the whipping boy. Yes, the centre gets about 52 per cent of federal revenue but my brother, it isn’t good to neglect 48. There is no state in Nigeria, where local government election is free and fair so, which means the governors are in charge of the councils and there is no way House of Assembly is free and fair, so if you now tell me that you want to make Enugu State a country, I will start telling you about the crisis on ground because I don’t believe in clan thinking.
I know it is more cancerous than corruption because it stifles growth, it denies you confidence of the people to be at the helm of affairs. It blinds you from others, who are not from your clan. They told us in a Teacher’s Training College, when they were trying to teach intelligence and education, they said education is broad-based but intelligence is ability being tested and it is because of intelligence that there are different faculties in Universities, which shows you might know this and you won’t know the other one.
But if you are clan-based in your thinking, you are talking restructuring and if your people don’t go, nothing can move. If Yorubas don’t become themselves nothing can move, if Hausa people don’t go, Hausa people should agree to go or at least let us have a slim federal government that has no business. What you are saying is that there is no thief in your village but there are thousands of thieves in every village but it is an amalgam of collective of us trying to fix things the best way possible because if you don’t utilise the talent of the best, nature doesn’t lavish. The short man isn’t tall, the yellow man isn’t black but they need a combination for any country to grow.
For some time now, there have been activities of militancy in the Niger Delta with resultant disruptions on the economy. What is your take on how it is being addressed?
I condemn it strongly and I also understand what Mr. President’s thinking is; that it is very difficult to understand that we have an Army, Navy, Air-force that is almost going to 100 years of existence and you start paying some local warlords big money to guard. So, what do you do if another one comes to bring the same idea? So the Nigerian Police force will leave their territory and they would keep their own locality. These are the issues but I think as well that the government is also saying ‘look for the peace of the country, let’s try to extend olive branch’ so I think it is a middle course that the government is trying to draw into otherwise, some people have said that Tompolo did so well under Jonathan.
The millions he ran away with, what is the outcome? There is a road called East/West road that passes from one state of the Niger Delta region to the other that was started over 10 years ago but wasn’t completed. I talked about the three refineries, if I were the avengers when some of us were on the streets saying Jonathan should be confirmed as president, they were not with us. When even Jonathan was voted in 2011, they would have just called him and said by 2012 if you don’t complete these refineries, we will start avenging.
That could have been a worthwhile avenging but if you allow your money to be distributed recklessly and the next day you start grumbling, you see that their fight is actually not genuine. It is self-centred and poor in concept because at the end of the day, the Nigerian state and all of us both the avengers are the losers. So, it is in their interest and the interest of the government of Nigeria, more on their own side because if you blow up the pipeline, the pollution increases and it is your neighbourhood.
So, what is the way forward to taking the country to the next level?
The three level of laying the foundation: prudent management of the little we have. When we asked President Buhari, why did you take Colonel Ali to Customs, he said ‘look with all these problems, we need someone that can prudently help us to manage one source of the revenue and if you notice with the little importation, the custom has been tidying up better than they did before. There is dwindling importation because there is no money on the ground but in spite of that, the little that comes in from that axis is being better managed. Like we said earlier, the Lagos group that transformed Lagos is in charge of the Federal Inland Revenue and they have also shown improvement. But what Mr. President is doing that I think, is the greatest armour is the prudent management of that little because before you even borrow, how did you manage the little that comes in?
He said there is a law that you can’t spend money that is not appropriated, however, when the National Assembly came with their padding, he rejected the first document and even the Minister for Budget planning said ‘oga sign it let’s move ahead’ he said this is not the document I gave them. He is not an economist but he took time to dust it. The naira fall was envisaged because if you don’t have inflow of foreign currency and we are importing everything, naturally the Naira will crash but now, there are programmes in agriculture.
There is a group today – they have about 250 hectares in Enugu cultivating pineapple, banana and vegetables. They have had a meeting with Minister of Water Resources and Minster of Agriculture if you see their plan, they have mapped out where they would participate with banana and pineapple and some areas in the north with rice, wheat. All they are looking for now is to dust up the paper with the government of the federation and usher farmers, who are also taking up some portions.
If you see the game plan they have, immediately the Minister of Water Resources launched his roadmap on water resources, they said is it because they saw that there is a plan for 100,000 hectares irrigated farming lands and they said it is worth the while. We can be partners. He is not going to work in a day and that is why I said in fullness of time. In the first four years of President Muhammadu Buhari those who are today calling for his head will be clapping for him.
What gives you this confidence, considering what is happening in the country and the instability in your party?
First, my party isn’t unstable. What is happening in my party is just like what happens in the secondary school, when perfects are chosen. Those made prefects, for example, there was a guy in my school – close to me that was made food prefect, we discovered sometimes that he would stay back till everyone would finish eating and the cook will bring him better meal than all of us and some people said they won’t be senior prefect, they want to be food prefect.
So, those are the kind of issues that happen in parties. We have won power and there are some people that would even say why was I put in Voice of Nigeria, why not in the Petroleum industry? Those are the things that happen when you gain power, so it is a natural tendency for people to aspire to get to where they are not and some to change where they are, to go to another place and some also have their own godfathers but they want to liberate themselves. So, in the process of liberating themselves, they have more friction with their godfathers and some new godfathers also want people that they would start mentoring. So, it is natural.
Let’s talk about your office as the Director-General of the Voice of Nigeria, what is your experience so far and how do you think VON can assist changing the image of Nigeria for the better?
You are very correct because all said and done, we have to talk about where I found myself in the past four months. I assumed office exactly four months today and as I said earlier, I know that there was a time when I was a teacher about 1978, when I was listening to Voice of Nigeria and at a certain time I was asking myself what actually happened? Just like I said about President Muhammadu Buhari, little did we know that there were some rot but that it also had some effect on the Voice of Nigeria but I didn’t know it was that deep.
Today, we have 8 transmitters but only 2 are working and when you go through there you will see something I pasted there. I pasted it because I found out that the place was highly indebted. A small agency owing N1.2 billion to contractors even some flimsy clams and the first job I have here is to articulate and beg and beg. So, I now told them to bring the totality of all monies released to the agency from 2009, till date and some were owed in 2013, some in 2010 and some 2011. So, when you come, I would take you there and show you that money was released then, that someone ate your money or misappropriated your money but I am aware that government is where you hold the assets and liabilities but now that we have little funds, I will find time and gradually try to attend to our liabilities.
What did I do when Mr. President Invited me to know what is the position there, I explained everything to him and he promised to be of help and he said 2017 budget let’s pray we have money that they should go and articulate what they want to do and they have been friends. Consultants are coming and colleagues of yours have been very helpful. So, we have started a programme, we are trying to have a model online platform like the BBC. So, it is part of what we are canvassing for in the next year budget.
The little we got from the 2016 budget, we want to repair some of the transmitters, so we can still remain on the short wave but we want to go online because in North America, very few people use short wave in fact they don’t use radio. Mostly what they use is their handset. The little radio they use is radio inside their vehicles which is FM. In North America, Europe, China, India, Brazil, Japan amongst other places, they have existed from the short wave model so because of that, we have to set our transmitters so that people can access us streaming online.
If it is the President Buhari that I know, I don’t think he would sell national assets that are profitable. I haven’t discussed with him but the little I know of him for over a decade and his own disposition towards public assets, I don’t see him selling something like NLNG because luckily for Nigeria, we have 49 per cent and our partners – Shell, Eni, Total that are managing the process – nobody has accused them of mismanagement, so there is no justification