GUEST COLUMNIST BY JOE KESHI
The much-anticipated Atiku Abubakar policy document to make Nigeria Work Again has been launched and now available for public scrutiny.
Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, a former customs officer, a consummate politician and successful businessman was for eight years, the Vice President of the federal republic of Nigeria (1999- 2007). Atiku has been a constant feature in all-presidential elections since 2007 but this is the first time l can recall him issuing such an elaborate and detailed policy statement on his dream of making Nigeria work.
The document, perhaps first of its kind by any presidential candidate, is a work of many months by the former VP and his team of advisers and consultants. It is quite an interesting document, well-written, easy to read and comprehensive in the sense that it covers or laid out policy objectives on all sectors including and remarkably enough, sports and culture, which are not often government priorities.
Its introduction is a strong compendium or a detailed analysis of the problems confronting the nation. As it is said in base ball, it is a home run, and l have no doubt that Nigerian desk officials at the IMF, World Bank and the ADB would be glad to read the document and perhaps be comforted that a presidential candidate in Nigeria has shown deep understanding and knowledge of the country’s myriad of problems and indeed supervised strategic sessions to lay out what he would do as president if elected, including identifying the imbalance in the relationship between the federal government and the federating units as well as highlighting, the absence of justice, fairness and equity as the bane of the Nigerian society.
Indeed, our refusal as a nation to imbibe and uphold these values remain one of the greatest challenges facing us and perhaps the main source of the many angers and divisions in the country. About three years ago, then General Buhari, as the presidential candidate of the All Progressives Congress, of which Atiku was a major supporter and financier, penned a set of promises all of which began with “We will”. They were all repudiated as soon as he won and became president and for over a year the APC government was struggling to put in place a discernible and credible economic policy. In the process, the economy went into recession. The clear message from Alhaji Atiku Abubakar both from the document and the video launching the document is that he is ready and prepared to be president from day one. His policy document is his affirmation
The document as stated above is divided into various sections dealing with each sector of our national life. On every sector, there is an overview, which summarily and in bullet forms restated the problems facing the sector.
This is followed by the policy objectives and of course, what we shall do. Interested readers are best advised to pay more or greater attention to this section as it states what to expect from the Atiku presidency, at least in term of deliverables. This is where you find all Atiku’s promises and solutions to the economy including, privatization, job creation, infrastructural development (including power and roads) agriculture, manufacturing, poverty eradication, monetary and fiscal issues human capital development (education, health and ICT) and of course corruption. There are about 45-50 on the WHAT WE SHALL segment. This is where l foresees some difficulties in what Atiku proposes to do to make Nigeria work again.
Apart from the familiarity of the promises, to ensure that Nigeria works again would require bold and innovation initiatives on all fronts and a courageous leader with ambitious policies and programs and also prepared to take some hard decisions to move Nigeria forward. That did not come out strong or clearly enough in the policies outlined in the document and regrettably that’s what Nigerians are hungry for. In a fast moving world, driven by technology, which changes rapidly and in a world in which we are not pioneers, we cannot wait endlessly to see Nigeria progress to becoming an advanced nation in its own right.
Taking tentative steps is not what is required in a country with very high youth employment and increasing population, high infant mortality, 10 million children out of school, power output about 4000 mw for a population close to 190million or for a country which has been recently declared the poverty capital of the world, taking over from India, which built 44 million toilets throughout the country and in the process took twenty million people out of poverty and changed Indians sanitation behaviour
I believe strongly that despite our negative feelings about our country, the fundamentals for Nigeria’s greatness are with us. What is missing is a conscientious leader or a leadership with the right vision to take the country across the finishing line. This where, the Buhari foundational argument is unacceptable. Thus, l urge Atiku and his advisers to revisit the document and engage in some serious critical and out of the box thinking. Something are clearly missing and examples abound especially in terms of quick wins or low hanging fruits that could create hope and rekindle confidence across board and within the first hundred days of the administration
Let me highlight a few.
First, the decongestion of the Lagos ports. It appears the team is not too sure exactly what to do when the simple and long term solution is to embark on developing ports in other parts of the country, particularly in the Niger Delta that for years have been deliberately neglected. As far as l can remember, successive governments in Nigeria since the military have been dredging the Port Harcourt and Calabar seaports with both still not fully operational and functional. If we dare to do some calculations, it will not surprise us that the amount governments in Nigeria have spent dredging some ports in this country would have been enough to build many more and modern seaports.
Apparently too, the Atiku team did not consider it necessary or important enough to recognise the efforts of the Akwa Ibom state government to build a deep-sea port in the state. The planning, including the design of the lbom deep sea port are all in place and l believe some funding have been secured to commence construction of the port. What is wrong with the federal government under Atiku investing in the deep-sea port to accelerate its completion and insist as well, that the dredging of the Port Harcourt, Calabar and perhaps the Warri ports be completed in the first year of the administration? It is such dynamic decisions and a leader with such mind set and preparedness to act with military precision that will move Nigeria forward and quickly too.
Secondly, on manufacturing, there are four action points on the what- to – do segment of which l welcome the decision to review import duty on raw materials available in the country and on imported machinery. Beyond that l am sceptical about the efficacy of delaying all major economic policy formulation until consultation with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, Chambers of Commerce and all stakeholders are completed. For goodness sake, it would have been helpful if members of the bodies mentioned were among those invited to Dubai where the document was finalized. I honestly hate to believe that a number of the advisers have no idea on how to address Nigeria’s poor manufacturing capacity to the extent that the document failed even to identify manufacturing entities that the country urgently requires. What would have been appropriate and indeed what is being suggested is reflected further in the document in the health segment where it was noted that the Atiku government would “encourage medium and large scale pharmaceutical industries for the local production of essential drugs.”
Thirdly, on Agriculture, you see the same lack of dynamism, definitiveness and focus on the things we should be doing. There is the need for broader policy beyond the promised financial incentives that includes identifying the products the nation should focus on in order to achieve its dream of becoming an export nation.
If we really want to improve agriculture and its contribution to the nation’s GDP we should focus on reviving Nigeria’s traditional cash crops like cocoa, oil palm, cotton, rubber, timber, groundnuts, etc. To be successful, the federal government under Atiku would have to work in concert or compel the states to focus on developing agriculture something most of them currently do not show much interest in. In most of the states, funds are voted annually for agriculture with very little spent often times, on the purchase of tractors that are never used. A few years ago, the Akpabio administration in Akwa Ibom, voted N11 billion on agriculture but spent only N900, 000 on some empowerment programs which had little to do with agriculture. The middle belt or north central which should be surviving as the food basket of the nation, given its great agricultural potential is perennially engaged in either indigene – non indigene conflicts or indigenes and herdsmen war of attrition and a region so blessed, wallows in poverty. Edo State was advised in late 1999 to focus on growing rubber across the value chain in order to become a global supplier of rubber products. Rubber like oil palm takes about five to six years to mature and produce raw rubber, but almost produces for life. Eighteen years later no successive regime in Edo has given thoughts to that suggestion.
l mentioned oil palm not only because of the domestic and global shortages but because it still holds a lot of promises for the south -south and south- east which in the 1960s survived on it. Indonesia and Malaysia with annual production of 45,000 and 40,000 metric tons respectively are the major producers in the world and both survive on it. They are followed by Columbia, with a million metric tons and Nigeria at 900,000+ metric tons and high domestic shortage.
As a result, in 2011 at the directives of the then governors of the six south –south states, the BRACED Commission, working with the states and a number of local and international experts and agencies, came up with a regional policy on agriculture which essentially asked all the six states to develop oil palm throughout the region in the first instance, and to choose, two other products from cassava, cocoa, rice, rubber, timber, banana/plantain and aquaculture in which they have comparative advantage and develop across the value chain. Instead the emphases of successive governments in the states have been on projects, essentially roads, building or rehabilitating a few schools and hospitals.
In highlighting these examples, it is simply to say that the states hold the key to the success of any diversification efforts with agriculture and industry as priority. It is also to emphasize as much as l can that to succeed the federal government as a matter of national interest or deliberate state policy must find ways of persuading states to put agriculture at the top of their agenda. If states are encouraged to focus on one or two major crops, significant progress will be made. Let us bear in mind that a number of countries in the world still depend on these primary agricultural crops to survive. Somewhere in the Atiku document it was outlined that states that are progressive in teams of development or doing well would be financially compensated as a form of encouragement.
This, however, should not be open ended, but should be qualified and limited to states that are doing well in agriculture and human capital development, particularly education, health and ICT. The criteria and evaluation must be stringent, high standard performance and evidence based to encourage seriousness and focus. It must not be federal characterised, as that remains the source of the injustice and unfairness in this country.
At this juncture, may l propose to the Atiku team to give serious and reasoned consideration to encouraging the creation of zones of economic development to promote regional economic cooperation and integration. This enables states to pool resources together for the development and prosperity of the regions. In the south west and south- south where this is being attempted, it is just the absence of the knowledge of the benefits of sub regional cooperation and lack of political will that continue to hinder progress.
Besides, governors in this country have the mindset of local champions.
Third, very few would quarrel with the priorities in the document, which includes infrastructure.
Again l return to the need for quick, bold and decisive actions that can resolve problems that appear intractable. I do not like tentative steps when the problems are obvious. On power for example, there are those who find it worrisome that the focus is on the Discos to the detriment of the Gencos or off/ mini grid solutions and the metering gaps. The way forward is to review and resolve all the problems post privatization including government doing its own bits with transmission or increasing gas supply. Besides, we need to build more power plants. It is encouraging to read in the document that a number of roads would be concessioned. While this is welcomed, it is important to observe that the first major concession, the Lagos Ibadan road, has been the subject of bitter legal disputes and this must be avoided going forward. Anybody who has travelled around the country in recent times would not only be disturbed by the magnitude of the deterioration of the roads in Nigeria but also by the realisation that at current budgetary allocations, there is absolutely no way any government can guarantee good, all year round roads throughout the country whether now or in the near future.
Thus, l support concessioning of all federal roads but to a consortium of foreign and Nigerian companies, which should raise the funds to build, rehabilitated and maintain the various roads for about 10 to 15 years and allowed to toll the roads. First, this is the only way the nation can simultaneously and within the next four years have good and durable inter-state motorways. Most of the roads awarded by the Buhari administration if you check were awarded and rewarded by previous administrations. Secondly, there idea of involving foreign companies, possibly apart from access to some cheap funds, is to ensure quality and durability especially in difficult terrains. Thirdly, one corruption driven/ riddled sector and of which no attention is paid to, is the construction industry. At current budgetary level the close to N900 billion to over trillions of Naira that would be saved can be poured into reforming, rebuilding, strengthening and improving our education and health systems.
In an age in which a number of states in the federation are building and maintaining their airports, including “poor Jigawa” why do the former Vice President think that building airports in states that have no airports is the right thing to do. I vehemently disagree. Instead, the Atiku team should privatise or sell off all airports in Nigeria except four to interested parties with the states where there are located having the first right of refusal. The four are Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and Kano airports, which should be modernised, and technology driven. You cannot see and behold the airports in Singapore, Paris (the modernized Charles
d Gaulle airport) or the new Turkish airport in Istanbul and not wish one of such for your country. I also think that decentralizing the management of the ports and leaving NPA as a regulating organ is the way to go or think in an age of restructuring and decentralization.
There is no section l find as confusing as that of the Niger Delta, more because of the confusion in the document. In one breath, the document speaks of relocating the Niger Delta ministry to the region so that it could be closer to stakeholders and in another breath contemplates merging the ministry with the NDDC. I do not think any of these and the “firm commitment to implementing the Niger Delta master plan” are the real answers to the motley collection of problems facing the Niger Delta especially the south- south, but the document would appear to reinforce not just the general attitude towards the Niger Delta but the lack of or general refusal of Nigerians to understand the problems of the region.
Since the 1940/50s the region, which over the years has become the cash cow of the nation has been demanding for fairness and development. Let me make it as simply as l can, if successive FGs had completed the NLGs, including the Brass NLG, built dual carriage freeways linking all the states of the Niger Delta region, developed about four seaports, built or engineered the building of more oil and gas facilities or infrastructure, encourage agriculture and education, the narratives of the region and the nation would have been different. The region by now would be growing like Lagos. The Atiku team may therefore wish to rethink its strategy on the Niger Delta as l am confident that the commitment to incentivizing those interested in building modular refineries in the north to process crude oil from the Republics of Niger and Chad while there is no such firm commitment for the Niger Delta where there is abundance of oil and gas could be a source of potential disagreement and anger in the Niger Delta.
Frankly, I see no difference between this and what the APC Buhari administration has been trying to do for three years with no remarkable success. Oh, by the way if the focus is to make the NDDC effective, efficient and accountable, then stop appointing politicians as managing directors or as board members as they all see the NDDC as stepping-stones to state mansions or to the National Assembly. The Atiku team may wish to ask for the document on the Niger Delta Energy Corridor, designed to host all oil and gas installations and runs from Calabar to Lagos. There is also the Lagos- Calabar railway, which has been on the rail master plan, which has been deliberately neglected. Just do a few of these and see how the region would respond.
Going through the whole document, you experience the same concerns indicating that more work are still required if the dream is to be realized. In a country where it is reported that over 60% of academic work by both lecturers and students is plagiarized, where facilities are poor, classrooms overcrowded, the quality of staff is low or poor, products of the universities unemployable and where among other problems, public universities have become graveyards of uncompleted or abandoned projects and unable to attract expatriate lecturers, that not enough attention was paid to our universities. There is so much to be done to achieve the dream neither of quality education where our situation is precarious nor to health, which is becoming increasingly expensive and public health institutions decrepit. Our education and health sectors would benefit from some extensive reforms but special attention should be paid to the training and retaining of teachers at all levels and health workers to acquire modern skills and competences. Our nurses if you have been to some hospitals of recent have lost the caring touch of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.
Any reform of the public service must also take into consideration why previous reforms failed. The new set of reformists must learn to be humble and not run down or talk down on civil servants to promote themselves. Above all they should know that for any reform to be sustainable, it needs champions from the inside not outside. Even corruption can be addressed without the hypocrisy and grandstanding we have witnessed in recent times. Atiku’s reform of the EFCC may wish to consider not making the leadership an all police affairs
Finally, it is clear the Atiku presidency will be friendlier to business and we are likely to return to the refrain of the OBJ era about the private sector being the engine of growth or to the Jonathan era of agriculture being business. This should be balanced by government playing its role as a catalyst, a stimulator that also protects the people. The welfare of the people must not be sacrificed on the altar of market forces. That’s why the Atiku campaign cannot and must not maintain any splendid silence in the NEMA scandal, the crisis in the NHIS and the labour demand for a new minimum wage.
That said, it’s a document worth reading, if for nothing else, it offers us the opportunity to engage a presidential candidate and help him reshape his dream for us.
*Ambassador Keshi is a retired Federal Permanent Secretary