‘You Cannot Achieve Economic Development Without Investing in Infrastructure’

Lai Mohammed

Olawale Ajimotokan holds a discussion with Mr. Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture on the achievements of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration in the first year of its second term in office

How would you assess the Muhammadu Buhari administration’s performance in the last one year in the fight against insecurity?

Sometime late last year, the Federal Government took some decisions- what we call border drill- which many people called border closure. One of the major successes of the border closure is that it drastically reduced the importation of small arms into the country and that has also impacted on the incidence of armed robbery, banditry and kidnapping because before then our porous borders were veritable avenues for smuggling of arms and drug trafficking. You will also notice that in the last couple of weeks and months, our armed forces have taken the battle to the Boko Haram insurgents and the combination of the air force, air fire power and the new morale of the army have resulted in not just routing of the Boko Haram insurgents but in the surrender of many of their commanders. I think clearly the last couple of months has witnessed a lot of success in our battle against the insurgents and then of course the bandits, the kidnapping is also being checkmated. Yes it might not been completely eradicated but compared to what it was this time last year to what it is today, there are some isolated cases of bandits and kidnapping but the kind of cattle rustling, the kind of kidnapping that was rampant a year ago, is not what it is today.

What of infrastructure?
I think the government remains focused and convinced that you cannot achieve economic development without investing in infrastructure and I will start with power. Government took one of the boldest moves to improve power situation and banish power cuts, when in July 2019, it signed agreement with Siemens of Germany to give us in the first instance by the end of 2021 to ramp up our power supply to 7,000megawatts, by 2023 to ramp up power supply to 11,000 megawatts and there after we would have addressed the challenges of transmission, distribution, scale it up to 25,000 megawatts. If you don’t take it into context you will not appreciate that these are landmark achievements. Although, we have capacity to generate 13,000 megawatts but in truth, what gets to our households and factories is about 3,400 megawatts. With the agreement we signed with Siemens and the cooperation of our discos, we are confident that by the end of next year power that will reach our homes on a regular basis will be about 7,000megawatts, that is more than double what we are having now and it will impact on our economic and social lives, create more jobs and at the same time improve outputs of our factories and manufacturing.

Of course you are aware that even before now we have always pride ourselves as the administration that has delivered most on infrastructure, either you are talking about roads, bridges, power and despite COVID-19, I know that we are resuming work in 50 sites in 26 states in the next couple of weeks, directly by the Ministry of Works and Housing, including the Abuja-Kano roads, Port Harcourt – Enugu expressway, Lagos – Ibadan among others and similarly the Federal Roads Management Agency (FERMA) is also resuming work in 92 locations spread across to 24 states in the federation and work has already resumed on the laying of rail tracks on the Lagos-Ibadan standard gauge, as a matter of fact we have already started test run.

What is your take on job creation in the last one year?
One of the major things about the economy is job creation. The N-Power is being upgraded and only recently the Federal Government directed the Ministry of Labour and Employment to engage 1,000 workers from each local government of the federation, making 774,000 young men and women for the initial period of three months. They will be earning a salary of N20,000 a month for those three months. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic which has actually affected not just health but also the livelihood of Nigerians, government has put in place some palliatives meant to cushion the effect of the pandemic ranging from interest reduction to interest waiver, to providing bulk sum to cushion the effect of the pandemic on Nigerians, there is the N50 billion fund that the CBN has put aside for households and the SMEs, another N1.3trillion put aside for pharmaceutical companies and manufacturing. And I think one of the first things Mr. President did during the lockdown was to engage the Minister of Industry Trade and Investment to ensure that industries, manufacturers operate without any hindrance and that raw materials, both agriculture and otherwise, reach the factories in good time. Like every economy in the world is affected by the pandemic, I don’t think there is any aspect of the economy whether it is travels, whether it is the oil industry that is not affected but despite that government has taken steps to ensure that the impact would be not as devastating as it would have been and that’s why the government had to rejig, bring down the size of the budget to a level that would be manageable with its resources because we all know that the price of crude went down to almost $10 at a time, fortunately for us it is climbing up again to $40 a barrel. This is a time that we need very astute management of resources.

Corruption remains endemic in the society. What did the administration do to put it in check?
Our fight against corruption remains very much on track, the major anti-corruption agencies- ICPC in particular and the EFCC- have continued to do their work. And in the last one year alone the ICPC in particular has been able to recover over N81billion. And the breakdown is as follows; they have been able to recover about N42billion, money restrained when they reviewed MDAs personnel expenditure and capital development fund; they were able to confiscate lands, buildings and vehicles worth about $35billion; they were able to retrieve about $1.2billion cash from the Single Treasury Account (TSA); they recovered about $770 million from constituency projects, which they tracked; recovered N81billion from the completion of constituency projects when the contractors returned to site. Before now the contractors had abandoned the projects, but when the ICPC started what they called the constituency project tracking group, they were able to get at least almost 400 jobs done when the contractors returned to site. Another N1 billion was recovered from completed constituency projects and another N865 million cash from other accounts. What they actually did was they established what they called constituency tracking group which they renamed the constituency and executive project tracking group to track performance of contracts that impact on the lives of average Nigerians, and 424 of such projects were tracked in the last one year and this led to the completion of several projects amongst them. As of today we have about 400 of such projects completed in the areas of health, agriculture, educational and water resources.

In the areas of persecutions they have received about 1,934 petitions, they have investigated about 588 of those petitions, they are currently pursuing 105 of those petitions in court and they have secured 25 convictions in the last one year alone. The ICPC has also escalated the use of administrative sanctions in public service by periodically submitting to the executive arm of government officers that are facing sanctions or officers that are being charged to court and at the last count, I think 62 names were submitted for sanctions by the ICPC and the federal government obliged them, so today unlike in the past it is very unlikely for the public servant to be charged for any criminal offence and still be in office.

The commission now reviews the personnel and capital fund expenditure of 201 MDAs and it has restrained about N42billion on inflated personnel cost which would otherwise have been diverted.
EFCC on its part has secured 1,270 convictions in the last one year and has recovered N42billion. In addition they recovered $10,348, £758,155, €183,475, 294,950 Saudi Riyal, 2,800 Chinese Yuan, 300 Canadian Dollars and 500 CFA.

The important thing about the EFCC conviction is that it includes several high profile people, it also succeeded in getting P&ID Nigerian Limited, which was fingered in the massive scandal in which Nigeria was being told to pay $9.6billion. We were able to persecute them, convict, not just the directors, but the company itself and today the entire company has been forfeited to the federal government and liquidated.

In the area of executive orders because this government wants to further deepen democratic practices, on May 22, this year, Mr president signed another executive order which gave state legislation and judiciary financial autonomy. This is very important because not only does it further deepen the separation of power doctrine, it also allows for speedier delivery of justice. By lack of funds because they don’t wait for the centre to release funds to them.

Can we look at food security. How would you assess the administration performance in agriculture in the last one year?
In agriculture, I think this is another area where the government has taken very bold initiative. Three weeks ago, the Federal Executive Council approved what is called the Green Imperative, which is the biggest agricultural revolution we will witness in many years. The Green Imperative is a Nigerian-Brazil bilateral agriculture development programme, a culmination of four years of very painful negotiations, including technical and diplomatic visits between Brazil and Nigeria. This is a programme that has been very successful in Brazil, it is actually called More Food International Programme (MFIP). Between 2016 and December 19, several high level ministerial technical visits and exchanges between Brazil and Nigeria and during one of such visits in March 2017, the protocol of intention was signed with the government of Brazil. In January 2019 his Excellency the vice president, in the presence of the representatives of the Deutsche Bank, Brazilian government as well as the Islamic Bank, launched the Green Initiative in Nigeria with Brazilian and Nigerian private sectors in attendance.

The programme is unique because it’s a $1.2bn loan in kind over a period of five to 10 years and the funding is to be provided by the development bank of Brazil and the Deutsche Bank, the insurance for the funding is provided by the Brazilian Guarantee and Management Agency and the Islamic Cooperation for Export Credit. The programme is unique in the sense that it is the first attempt and successful one at mechanising agriculture in Nigeria. For the first time, we are meaningfully moving away from the hoe and cutlass farming. We are going to be importing annually for the next 10 years, knocked down parts of tractors and farm implements, which will be assembled in Nigeria. Already the technical committee on the Nigerian side have inspected six assembly plants in Nigeria, one in each geographic zone where these tractors and farm implements will be assembled. Five of these assembly plants have been reactivated and they are waiting for the completely knocked downs to arrive to start work. So you see that in one breath, we have revised otherwise moribund assembly plants, in the process creating more jobs and transferring technology in the process because they are now going to be involved in tractors assembling. But the great story here is that unlike other programmes of agriculture, this is going to be completely private sector driven, apart from guaranteeing the loans, federal government has no role to play in this. It has spent the last four years negotiating the technical and financial sides but the implementation is going to be completely private sector and it starts first with the revamping of the six assembly plants, which will assemble not just the tractors but other farm implements. Then it will now establish 142 agro processing service centres which is meant to add value to the raw materials where processing and value will be added to the products. And the way it works is that we look at aggregate of local governments, about four or five and we determine which is the major produce. The programme will also establish 632 mechanization service centres, which would support primary production in the 774 local government areas of the federation. The mechanization centre is where tractors would be serviced, parts would be replaced and while it is difficult for a small holder farmer to acquire a tractor because he doesn’t have the means but he has at his disposal now the service of tractor owned by the private sector, which he can hire to clear his land and that is the difference between this programme and other programs. The programme will create about five million jobs and inject about $10 billion into the country in the next 10 years. It is going to revitalize our research institute because there is this technology package between Brazil and Nigeria and the programme benefit will include the transfer of knowledge from Brazil to Nigeria. It is probably one of the most important decision and steps taken by this government. It took four years of very painful negotiations but it was only passed two and half weeks ago.

In the area of agriculture there is no turning back, right now what we are waiting for is for the national assembly to approve our request to take the $1.2billion loan and we were assured that within four weeks of approval the Deutsche Bank is ready to disburse but the unique thing with the loan is not a loan where $1.2 billion will be paid to Nigeria to disburse. The loan is in kind so the Deutsche Bank, the Brazilian bank would deal directly with the manufacturers of the knocked down parts which they are going to ship to Nigeria and you can see that we have taken a lot of steps to ensure that this programme succeeds.

Also the border drill is also not about security, it is also about agriculture. With the border drill, we have been able to finally stop the bleeding occasioned by the regular smuggling of imported rice in particular. Before now, imported rice dominated our markets but with the border drill, it is rice like big bull, confluence rice, among others that is in the market today and what this has done is that it has not only led to almost food sufficiency but has also led to more integrated mills, at the last count we had about 34 integrated rice mills all over the country and today we produce about 150,000 bags of milled rice and there are about 35,000 million bags in a year. And this means more food, it means more employment.

How will the new visa policy launched this year encourage investment and promote tourism?
The new visa policy is a bold policy and today we have 79 category of visa, but the one that interests most is the one for ECOWAS, for Africans, for business men and it has been so simplified that with the new visa policy any member of ECOWAS does not need a visa to enter ECOWAS. All you need is your valid passport. Frequent travellers have a category also. The beauty of this visa relaxation is that it will encourage more investment in the country, make tourism easier and lead to better integration among Africans.

How would you assess the response of the administration to COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 took the entire world by storm and surprise but I will say one of the countries that was not taken by surprise is Nigeria, because a whole full month before the first incident, Nigeria had mounted vigilance on all its airports. I remember we came in January and from that point in time our temperature was being taken, we were being asked to fill forms when even most parts of the world did not take such precautions. By the 31 of January, the first inter- ministerial preparatory group was put together comprising of Ministry of Health, Ministry of Environment, Ministry of Industry, the UN, WHO, Ministry of Information to start preparing on how to contain this pandemic. And on the 9th of March, less than two weeks after the first index case in Nigeria, the federal government inaugurated the PTF and it immediately went into action. And one of the first steps it took was banning travellers from 15 countries that had high incident of the virus (have more than 1,000) you are not allowed to come into Nigeria, we didn’t know that 1,000 was a joke then we followed by closure of our international airports, suspended the National Council of State meetings, FEC meetings, federal government released N10 billion to Lagos, another N5 billion to NCDC to equip, train personnel and combat the pandemic; gave marching orders to Ministry of Trade Industry and Investments to ensure that free flow of manufacturing of essential pharmaceutical and medical products. The thing about our response to this pandemic is that we are guided by science, by expert advice because as a member of the PTF Covid-19, we meet every day and fortunately we have the UN representative so we are abreast with the latest developments in the world. We are guided solely by science and experts and our risk communication committee has done so well in enlightening Nigerians. But when the cases were increasing, we locked down Lagos, Ogun and the FCT for the first initial 14 days. It was renewed thereafter, the impressive leadership of President Buhari has not gone unnoticed, and has resulted in the ECOWAS council of State to name him as the champion in the fight against Covid-19 in the sub region. Nigeria was also the first African nation to separate the serum sequence of Covid-19 and this has helped alot in understanding the virus and trying to get the vaccine and this got the commendation of the WHO for this feat. The UN was also impressed about the way that the Covid-19 is being handled in Nigeria and did not hide its happiness. The PTF has continued to formulate and implement strategy to fight and checkmate the virus and to keep Nigerians safe. For me I will conclude by saying that the last one year has been very fruitful for government in terms of infrastructure, fighting corruption, power, agriculture, we are expanding.

Will you say that this administration has done well to inspire hope in the minds of the citizens, is there hope for the Nigerian girl child amid the rising cases of rape in the country?
On the contrary, we have received requests from trafficked girls wanting to come home as they many of them have realized that the situation there is worse than Nigeria. We received requests even before the pandemic from many of them, saying they were tricked. A decision of someone not wanting to come home might be personal, sometimes. I am told that before they go that they have taken a lot of money from their sponsors, who swear them to secrecy. Some of the things we are witnessing in Nigeria today are very strange developments. The Nigerian Society has a lot of respect for the girl child and the Nigerian government in particular, you can see that barely a week passes before you hear from NAPTIP on the efforts to rescue those who have been trafficked or to repatriate home some and in particular the Lagos State government have been very active in ensuring that not just girls but children, infants are not maltreated and there are enough laws in Nigeria to protect the girl child. But community must take ownership of this situation. Why crime management is more successful in other parts or the world is because they don’t leave policing to the police alone or security alone. The police is helped largely by information it receives from people so Nigerians should help us, when you see an uncompleted building you know it is a den, report to the police, take communal action. I’m not saying take laws into your hands but the police is not able to go everywhere and see everything. We all must take responsibility, parents in particular must take responsibility. We will continue to firm up laws and I think the various anti-juvenile crimes are working hard but let society also help.

You mentioned some of the benefits of border drill, under this administration, again people have recalled that the closure has led to crisis between Nigeria and some of its neighbors, Benin Republic in particular. We want to know what is the situation now in terms of relationship?
In any diplomatic relationship you take care of your own interest first. When we look on the balance, you ask yourself this decision you are taking how much does it hurt my country and its people. We cannot because we want to be nice destroy your own economy, destroy your security, allow drugs to enter your country. I think without prejudice to the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, I believe that as of today Nigeria’s decision in respect of the border drill is in the overall interest of Nigeria. And that is the first consideration in any diplomatic relationship and it is because we are surviving as a country that is why there is any relationship. And what Nigeria is asking Benin Republic is let us all obey the ECOWAS protocol on transit of goods. That is all we are saying, which means if they bring good into Nigeria through your country don’t open the containers, bring them to the borders, accompany them to the borders, we examine people will pay duty and go.