The Chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, Mr. Asue Ighodalo, in this interview expresses belief that with the right dose of policies, the Nigerian economy will recover. Ighodalo, who also spoke about the forthcoming 2019 Nigeria Economic Summit, advised governments at all levels to ensure that civil servants under their employment are well trained and motivated to meet the tasks of the 21st century. Obinna Chima presents the excerpts:
President Mohammadu Buhari recently constituted an Economic Advisory Council. Do you think this set of economist he has assembled can make any difference from what we have seen in the past four years?
Yes, there must be a reason why Mr. President decided to have the advisory council at this time. You know historically, most presidents when they come into their second term they are able to reflect on what they did in the first term and how they can do better. They also begin to think about their legacy. The issue of the Nigerian economy not doing as well as it can, has been on everybody’s mind. So I am sure it is on Mr. President’s mind too. I was involved in a group and I spent two days with Mr. President, where we talked about the economy and private sector. So I think Mr. President is trying to ensure that he leaves a strong economy behind after his four years. And that is why he has called on seasoned economists. It is a powerful and a great team of economists. People have said will Mr. President listen; I think he will. I think he set up the team for a reason. You know, it is the prerogative of every leader to determine the advice they take, so their role is to analyse, sit with him, advise him and tell him why. His role is to look at the big picture and to determine what he thinks is in the best interest. So I think it is a good step and I think if the council stays focused and do what they need to do for the people of Nigeria, it will be a great thing.
But in terms of the economy, what do you think we ought to be doing as a nation that we are not doing presently?
Nigeria even from where I sit is a slightly complex country in dealing with many things and sometimes if you are not in leadership, sitting down with other leaders, you don’t get to see the full picture. So it is good for us to criticise and it is good for us to sometimes complain than to sit in our sitting room and say what we think should be the appropriate things to be done. Sometimes, I like giving leadership the benefit of doubt because I have been close to many leaders over the years and I know many leaders, particularly at the presidential level mean well. There is no leader that has gone into governance to make the people worse off, suffer more. No, they all mean well and they want to leave a good legacy. Now, how it is done is different. Part of the problem we have had in Nigeria has been the issue of effective implementation and there are many reasons for that. People blame civil servants, but if you go back historically, you will see that there was a time that civil servants were dealt with in a way that made them start losing self-esteem. If you go back to the 1975 retirement of civil servants, the best of civil servants were summarily dismissed from the service. That caused a major disaffection of more civil servants at that time. And there is no civil servant that works well if not motivated. If you look at 1975, civil servants, maybe a permanent secretary used to earn about N14,000 per annum. N14,000 in those days was about $16,000 dollars. So today, compare what a permanent secretary earns. So what is the motivation for the civil service? For you to get an effective support system, they need to be well trained, well-motivated, trusted and listened to. So we have a civil service that is not fit-for-purpose because of historical issues. So, that is why we need to deal with the civil service. So even when you have politicians and leaders who have great programmes, great ideas, the capability to implement and delivery is not that strong as it should be. I remember when Nasir El-Rufai was in the FCT, he worked with minimal civil servants. I told him at the time that that is not the answer as not everybody can work without civil servants, and he did very well in the FCT, extremely well. But it is not everybody that can work without civil servants. So, what I think we should do is we look into the civil service, motivate the civil service, train the civil service, make them fit-for-purpose, and it will be easier for the politicians to implement their programmes. That is number one when you talk about things we are not doing well. I also think that we need to engage the private sector a lot more from the perspective of creating an enabling environment. Patient capital only flows to where it is welcome. If you look at the total government revenue, it cannot meet our needs, so money from somewhere else has to make up. Now, where is that somewhere else? It must come from internal savings, internal and external investments. So for people to put their money here, it must be worth the while. They are not charity, we still have a few charity organisation that bring their money, but for those who put their real money here, they need to make some profit on it, they need to know that the environment will allow the money to grow, so government should try and work harder. I know the government has been looking at it, but I think government needs to create an enabling environment where anybody that brings his or her investment into this environment feels secure and safe and they know that their investment is secure and safe. And they know also that they won’t return until they reap proper returns from those investments. Now, our body language cause those that are not in this environment to worry. So, I think there are a few things we can do differently. If our environment is attractive to that kind of capital, then you will find capital supporting government expenditure. So government can then focus on those things that are real social issues for the real poor people and create the inclusive economy that we need and private sector money will flow into other areas of infrastructure like roads, creating jobs, so that government money can then concentrate on things like social security issues, hospital and some part of education. So, I think government is realising that and government needs to work on that.
If you look at it, the Nigerian is one of the most hardworking and one of the most entrepreneurial person I know. Everywhere a Nigerian goes outside Nigeria, they excel. I have immense optimism and faith in the Nigerian capability to turn the country around. China did it, other countries did it, we can do it. It is just to put in place and start implementing some of the policies that we know are the right ones.
But what do you think is making the private sector lag behind in terms of investments?
There are two things, indigenous and exogenous, that is internal and external. I tell people everywhere I have the opportunity to speak that the private sector has a major role to play in the development of this country. So people that run businesses, no matter how big or how small, should run their business extremely well. They should be-cost efficient, they should train their people and businesses should be properly governed and you should look at growing your business, so it becomes a big business, a big state business or a big country business. It should be a big African business and it should be focused. So if in our own areas, we are doing excellently well, we train our people and keep our best people, then you will see an aggregation of great companies, institutions, even at the small and medium scale level. Anywhere in the world, companies start small, then the business multiplies, that is how economies get built. That is how productivity is made stronger and that is how our GDP grows. So my talk and my comment to the private sector every time is that private sector needs to be focused. Do the things you need to do efficiently because there is still manpower regardless of where technology is going, I believe in the human capacity. So train your people, support your people, build your company, trust your people, keep good people and then incentivise them, make them part of the business and then remunerate them properly. So the businesses grow, the businesses multiply and we have a lot more Dangotes and we have a lot bigger companies. It is in my lifetime that we have a Guaranty Trust Bank, a Zenith Bank and a Dangote. So imagine if we replicated 20 or 30 of those, imagine all the people that would have been employed, all the lives that would have been touched. In Nigeria, for one person that earns salary is taking care of 20 other people at the very least, directly or indirectly. So, imagine the effect of that. So, if we kind of multiply those kind of institutions, everybody that has a good idea is able to build on their idea, one way or the other. Secondly, the government needs to create an avenue, apart from the enabling environment, where we can find easier capital. I know the central bank has a lot of intervention fund that it is trying to do, but I think we should spread it around a bit so it is easier for them to access. So, that when you are starting at a lower level, whether you go to the Bank of Industry or Development Bank, you are able to access. And you are able to identify people that would genuinely use the capital that comes to them and find a way to ensure that they pay back. I ran a scheme in my village a few years ago, where I gave N150,000 to a few market women and it was a no brainer, they went to multiply their businesses, gave me my money back and at the end of the day, I gave the money back to them to continue with their businesses. I know that there is a lot of thrive in the environment. So, on one hand, there are few things government needs to do, but on the other hand, there are many things that we also need to do in the private sector and we need to collaborate and work together, which is also the essence of what we do at the Nigeria Economic Summit Group (NESG). Our work is to speak with government, supporting government, researching, providing data and talking, so that we all can have a better economy. For instance, I am too old to go to Canada or anywhere, I am no longer interested. Over there, you will find that our children are doing better than Chinese children in school. The Nigerian child is excellently gifted, so why don’t we channel that gift to building a very strong and viable country. It can be done with good leadership at every level, national level, state level, local government level at the business level, even in the home. I keep talking about the home because the home is where the values are built. We need to start from the home -leadership at home, at the state level, even at the village level. There is leadership at every level and we need to concentrate on them. We shouldn’t point fingers in one direction. Everybody has a role to play and we should play our roles very well.
Do you think the government is doing enough in the area of domestic revenue mobilisation?
Again it depends on the tools available. I think the government truly wants to jack up the revenue base and government is doing as much as it can at this point in time. But the way I see things is that if you don’t make a bigger cake, you are not able to cut out bigger piece and what many Nigerians should start looking out is how we are going to bake a bigger cake so that we can all have bigger pieces. We need to widen the scope of the economy so that the base for revenue collection is much wider. There are many ways by which we can do it and one of the things I said is that we should build a bigger, stronger, more viable economy. Let us make it easy for people to want to do businesses in Nigeria, and then we widen the base. Once we widen the base, it is easier for you to then mobilize revenue at the domestic level. We need to support businesses, there is no other way out. There is no economy that has been built where businesses haven’t grown in every level. A man or woman that doesn’t have a job has a fallen self-esteem. Once you have a fallen self-esteem you can’t think. When you are broke, you can’t think. So, I think we need to widen our revenue base. Government is trying, it is focusing on infrastructure, but a lot more has to be done. I am a chairman of a manufacturing company. We have had a nightmare trying to clear our equipment from the port. So turn around cycles that are probably five to six days before, is now one or two months, imagine what that does to our economy? It doesn’t make sense. Now, see what that has done to the value of properties in Apapa. I was really disappointed that we didn’t resolve the Apapa port issue faster than it should have been resolved because the problems were not problems that couldn’t be resolved. So sometimes I think the response time is not as great as it should be, we’re not responding as fast as we should to things that come up. The power sector, in 2001, I was appointed during President Obasanjo’s government into the Power Implementation Reform Committee. That was when we started looking at the reform of the power sector. Our first chairman was late Chief Bola Ige, the then Minister of Power; then our next chairman was Chief Agagu. We had in that committee, Nasir El-Rufai and Liyel Imoke and some others. We were looking at the totality of Nigeria’s power problem. Then we came out with a power policy for Nigeria and we also came out with the draft of this new law. What was the issue again? Full implementation of the policy. We found ourselves today still with the power sector problems. So, if you go through any ministry, go through any departments in Nigeria and you dig up old files, you will find out that same recommendations that could have solved that problem are in place, it’s just the implementation. So we just need to take a seat back and ask ourselves, what we really want.
The NESG launched a report on taxation in the first quarter of this year, what were the recommendations and how are you working with the government to ensure that it is implemented?
We are still working on it because we have a fiscal commission and we are working with government and some Foundations, but the work isn’t complete. We know that we need to raise the tax base. We also need to look into certain areas; those things that if we increase tax may affect consumption, investment and those areas in which we think if we increase tax, they will be more revenue positive than consumption negative. So, we are still working on it and we haven’t come out with a full answer. When we complete the work, we would make it public.
If you look at some of NEITI’s report, you will notice that a lot of the states cannot survive on their Internally Generated Revenue alone, they are not even to pay salaries and the standard of living in those states have remained low. How do you think they can overcome this challenge?
You know I have never been a chief executive in a state before. So, I really don’t know all the problems that chief executives face. But from where I sit, I can say a few things. If you look at some states today, let us take a state like Kebbi State – I know a bit about what is happening there because governor Bagudu is my friend and has paid attention to my bank, Sterling Bank in Kebbi state. I think the governor and his cabinet would have asked: ‘where do we have comparative advantage? We are not going to sit down and wait for Abuja to bring money. We need to do something for our people. So what can we do? Rice, agriculture,’ and he focused on it. Regardless of what anybody says, the rice revolution in Kebbi state is real. And a few other states. If you go to Kaduna state, despite the occasional threat issues they have, there is an industrial revolution going on, there is focus on education. If you go to my state, Edo, since governor Oshionhole’s investment in infrastructure and a continuation by Obaseki, who also is my friend, there has been a continuation regardless of what the political issue people are talking about. In five years’ time, both Edo and Kaduna will have a highly literate children getting ready to become workforce. People will start picking their workforce from those two states very soon. And because of peer pressure, I suspect a few more governors will start copying those two governors. I hear about the things governor Makinde is doing in Oyo state, I don’t know him personally but I have read a lot about what he is doing. So if we have 10 governors, and my brother Fayemi is always thinking about what to do in his state, then if you have 10 states who are running at that pace, who can develop revenue for themselves using comparative advantage that they have, there will be peer pressure on those governors who are not doing very well. I also say Nigeria will develop from its sub-sovereigns. If the sub-sovereigns develop properly and strongly, the country will develop properly and strongly. If you look historically at Nigeria, it is unfortunate that we have the problem of 1960s, and got derailed by civil war and military takeover. But if you look at it, western region was ahead economically and politically, possibly through their introduction to western education before the rest of the country. But between 1951 and 1960, free education, the first TV station in Africa, universities, all of the infrastructure. What was the response from the east and the north? They too did education for their people, television stations, universities, industrial parks. If we had continued at that pace in the 60s, Nigeria would have been a first world country today. So if we come back today through peer pressure, the days of sharing FAAC money would be gone. People are becoming more inquisitive, they are asking more questions, so at the state level I hope it brings peer pressure and more focused people who know that they have to deliver to the people, and they will be called to account, we would have development at the sub-sovereign levels which will aggregate into sovereign. And I think it will be good for the federal government. So, the federal government should truly support what is happening at the sub-sovereigns and there should be some ranking for governors, just like being in class. It is evolving slowly and that is why I remain optimistic; the crop of governors we have now are better than the ones we had before. There is an improvement and I hope that improvement affects the legislatures. What I just need is that Nigerians themselves should force government accountability. So I am optimistic.
The recently NESG recently unveiled a new brand. What inspired that?
We had an identity logo created in 1996, at the time, we were Nigeria-centric. We are having the 25th, technically the 26th, because it started in 1993, but it is 25th summit because we missed one year. So we felt it was a time to take stock. To sit back and say where are we and where do we want to go. So our new logo reflects where we want to go. If you look clearly, you will see that there is some disguised map of Africa there, so it shows our intention. Our intention is to be the foremost think-tank in Africa and one of the foremost think-tanks in the world to focus on growing and supporting the growth of economies of Africa and also contributing our quota to speaking about the development in Africa at the world stage. We are going to be the foremost think-tank and research institute. We are spending a lot on strengthening our research capacity so that we are in a position to sit with government and talk to government and we would then translate that to sitting with government in Africa and talking to them. We are talking to some state governments, the federal government and governments outside Nigeria. So we want to step on the world, but our focus will remain Nigeria to support the process of moving Nigeria to the first world, but then we would also engage with international players. We are strong at the World Economic Forum (WEF) level – WEF on Africa and international WEF. And we are involved in lot of international donor agencies like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation, and they are supporting us. We are very active in what is happening in the north-east and we are supporting the humanitarian needs.
The issue is we are not just Nigeria-centric anymore we are looking at it from a bigger stage. And also if you look further in the logo, you will see something around knowledge, which also shows that we are focused more on research. So we are an advocacy unit, a research unit, an engaging unit and our role is to support government at every level to do better, and we will continue engaging them. People have accused us of being a talk shop and we smile. If you don’t keep talking, keep engaging, keep persuading because you are not the politician, somebody won the election on some manifesto. If you want to get them to change direction into an area you think will be better for the country, you have to engage. When people know you don’t have an agenda and your agenda is a better Nigeria, they will listen to you. Sometimes people get the feeling that the government doesn’t like business people, I don’t think so. I think it is just that sometimes when the seat where they are, they have had their advantage on what some business people have done, they then say this is not the way an economy should grow. But I say to them that they should not throw away the baby with the bath water, the majority, 95 per cent of the Nigerian business persons are hardworking, focused and honest.
What policies or recommendations of the NESG have been adopted by government over the years?
Again, the leaders or politicians must take the glory. All I can say is that there are certain things that we suggested to government and overtime we see them in policy, whether it was because we suggested it or because they knew about it, we are glad that it has become policy. For instance, if you look at the telecoms revolution, you look at privatisation, the attempt of power reform, attempt at energy reform, oil and gas reform, the time to broaden the tax base. There are many things over the last 25 years that we have been talking about and after we talked a while, some of those things found themselves into policy and law. So we are not laying total claim to be the proponents and advocates of those things, but we are glad that they were the things we had talked about over the years. If you look at our first green book, you will see the similarity in some of our recommendations and some government policies. We are not interested in taking glory, we are interested in making sure that things we recommend, things we suggest, things we beg, get done.
In the last five to six years, we have also been working with legislature and our focus and goal here is to ensure that laws that will create an enabling environment and help businesses are enacted. So we have worked with the National Assembly and the NBA in that regard. Some of those laws have seen the light of the day, others are awaiting assent. Ours is to stay under the radar and support the process. If our support yields fruit, then let somebody else take the accolade. We are not in the business of taking accolade we are in the business of making sure that we build a viable economy.
But why did you choose, “Nigeria 2050: Shifting Gears,” as the theme for the 2019 Nigeria Economic Summit? Does the NESG want to set an agenda for the government with this year’s summit?
We are not setting an agenda for the government. What we are doing is engage to start the process of a conversation to help put in place a long-term development for the country. We just want to start a conversation that we think, especially if you look at it from the point that Vision 2020 terminates at the end of 2020, the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) also terminates at the end of 2020. So, we think it is a good time to start looking at a holistic development plan for Nigeria. Where do we want to be in 2050? Let us look at those that are in the top, where will they be in 2050, how do we get to whether they are in 2050? Those are the things Nigerians should be think of, not what Nigeria should be at its current rate of development in 2050. It is where those who are in the first world would be in 2050 and how would Nigeria plan to be there. People have said we have the plans before but it didn’t work well. True, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. We think that we can try again and we see the ingredient of focus for these plans to work well. Everybody is tired of Nigeria being a third world country especially when we have the resources and the capacity to be a first world country. Our focus is to have plans that will be in periods of five years. So after years, years we ask what have we achieved? We take stock. Do another five years, take stock. And if you look back historically, in the early 60s, late 50s, we always had development plans in Nigeria and it helped for the initial development of Nigeria. So we think it is a good time to just initiate the conversation and try to create the template for what a development plan should look like for Nigeria if Nigeria wants to be a first world country in 2050. So we are just starting a conversation and we are hoping that government will take and own the conversation.