Zainab Ahmed: We Do Not Have Debt Problem, What We Have is Revenue Problem

Zainab Ahmed: We Do Not Have Debt Problem, What We Have is Revenue Problem

She wasn’t uncomfortable saying she was the shy type. But that took nothing away from the content of her character. Patient, articulate and sound with dignified carriage, you can only underrate the Minister of Finance, Zainab Shamsuna Ahmed, at your peril. For a woman in power, especially one with a major portfolio, her mannerisms and courtesies would cause even a stone-hearted person to thaw out. Disarmingly simple, charming and immediately likeable. She had no hesitation giving us an appointment. Business-like and time-conscious, the formalities were measured as much as the pre-interview familiarity exchanges. And as she took on the innuendoes, numbers, facts and figures, the almost two hours’ interaction with THISDAY became naturally animated, dwelling on those issues that currently define the nation’s political economy. Excerpts:

Recently, the Federal Executive Council approved a five-year National Development Plan (NDP) for the country and a lot of people have said the target of N348 trillion investment in five years was overambitious. What’s this plan about and how do you intend to implement it?
The new NDP is a medium-term plan of five years. It is a successor to the Economic and Recovery Growth Plan (ERGP) that has expired since December 2020. Well, we are actually working on two plans – we are also working on the Nigeria Agenda 2050, which is a longer term plan for the country. What we have as objectives of the NDP are to ensure that the diversification of the economy is concentrated, more inclusive and sustainable. I hear people say we have not achieved diversification, but that is not true. The Nigerian economy is truly diversified. People say we are dependent on the oil and gas sector, but how much is the oil and gas sector’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? It is probably about eight per cent. The whole of the 92 per cent is the non-oil sector. So the economy is truly diversified. But we would need to deepen that diversification; we need to support micro, small and medium scale enterprises (MSMEs) to grow, so that our GDP growth would be more sustainable.

Another major objective of the plan is to create jobs, reduce poverty and also deepen the development of the agriculture sector and enhance food security. How are we going to do this? It is by concentrating more on developing agri-business. Our agriculture over the years had been largely subsistence until 2015, when the president took over power and decided to select some parts of the agriculture value chain to concentrate on. In the ERGP, we selected three crops that we said we were going to achieve self-sufficiency and self-sufficiency is very important, because a population of 200 million people should be able to feed itself.

When we were doing the plan, we asked Mr. President for his guidance and he just said, we must grow what we eat and consume what we produce. And every time we sat down, what we needed to do to achieve that just kept expanding.
Of course, agriculture and food security are obviously key priorities for Nigeria’s government today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and whichever government comes must concentrate on agriculture and food security and then the improvement of the welfare of its citizens, which is the third key objective of the new NDP. These are basic things that any government that comes into power must do. We set out this plan in a manner that produced a fully developed NDP. We were accused that the ERGP was a federal government plan and so we wanted to change that. We did this by putting together a very broad spectrum of multiple stakeholders; so it involves the federal, state and local governments. The steering committee is chaired by myself and Atedo Peterside from the private sector and there is a strong private sector representation in the steering committee, the central working groups and the 26 technical working groups that we have.

In each of the technical working groups, we have representatives of six states, we have the local government representative, youth representative, women, people with special needs and different spheres of businesses. And this plan was built by both top-down and bottom-up approach. The concentrations were wide and what we want is for every Nigerian to actually own this plan. There are some countries, if you enter a taxi and start talking about the country, they would tell you the priorities of that country. That is what we want. We want every Nigerian to feel that they have a responsibility to contribute towards the development of this country. What is different about this plan compared to other plans? We took the pain to cost the plan and even though you have said the N348 trillion is large, we made the costing to be very pessimistic.

For example, when we were costing the revenue for oil and gas, we used $40 per barrel across the five years and the reason being that crude oil pricing is not something that you have control over. It is completely out of our control and it has this impact on the government, because even though our economy is diversified, crude oil is still the largest earner of forex. There is a strong focus on the plan to diversify the economy to support exports so that we can also have alternative sources of forex from oil and gas. Of course, the most likely sectors are agriculture and solid minerals, which involves the mining sector. We see a great potential in the mining sector and also greater potential in the agriculture value chain. When we were doing the plan, one of the issues we found out was human capital.

In every sector of the economy, there is the consideration of the kind of skill set you need to develop in the various sectors to be able to realise the objectives that we set. So capacity and skills are cross-cutting issues. Other cross-cutting issues for us are innovation and technology. That is because for us to make a quantum leap, and increase production, whether in the oil and gas sector, agriculture, mining, education or health, you have to use ICT. Then, based on the directive of the president, there is a serious attention on education and health. Why? That is because Nigeria still has one of the poorest human capital development indexes and we need to continuously look at how to improve the health and education sectors. We took the pain together with the Ministries, Departments and Agencies and the states to cost the plan, which is something that has never been done before.

So the N348 trillion was actually a line by line costing of programmes and projects in each of the five years that we put together. The plan is in three volumes. There is the policy itself, which is the plan; there is the costing and there is a third volume, which contains reforms that must be undertaken as well as legislations that may either be amended or made, to make sure we are able to achieve the targets. We also had representatives from the three major political parties as part of the process, because we wanted the plan to be beyond the ruling party. We had the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), All Progressives Congress (APC) and the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). The truth is that the PDP didn’t show up for one day, but we made sure we invited them to every meeting.

But for this plan to really be effective, is there a plan to sensitise members of the public and how are you going about that?
There is a communication plan that is just like an outline, but needs to be developed. Why it has not been developed in full is that we realised that we need more consultations on that aspect of the plan itself. The communication plan would be able to educate everyone on specific responsibilities. That is, everyone would know the responsibilities of government in the plan, that of the states, businesses and citizens. Citizens have the responsibility to pay taxes, to hold the government accountable and to obey the laws. So there is a communication plan that would identify every stakeholder and their responsibilities in the value chain and also the method that would be used in communicating the plan to the various groups and stakeholders.
You said the economy is diversified, but why is Nigeria still heavily dependent on oil revenue to the extent that once there is a shock in the oil sector, the impact on our economy is always immediate?

The economy is fully diversified, but we need to deepen that diversification; we also need to enhance our alternative exports to oil and gas. Right now, the oil and gas sector still earns like 90 per cent of the forex for our economy and that exposes us to different kinds of fragilities and any hiccup in the sector affects. Forex has effects on so many things, including production, because of inputs that need to be brought into the country by the manufacturers.

Are there milestones that have been set in this new NDP to measure achievements and successes in different sectors?
There is a robust monitoring and evaluation framework that has been set. There is a national steering committee that would be headed by the Vice President, with some ministers. The secretariat would be the planning arm of the ministry. The costing also included clear key performance indicators that needed to be tracked and measured on an ongoing basis. There is a Project Implementation Unit, that has been set up, whose sole responsibility is the tracking of performance of the plan on a daily basis. The unit will be tracking not just the federal government component, but also the states and private sector performances.

Federal government’s revenue projections have always missed targets. For 2022, 34.9 per cent of projected revenue is to come from oil-related sources while 65.1 per cent is expected from non-oil sources. Is there any reason for optimism that the country might have a break from the past?
The 2021 budget has 55 per cent revenue contribution from the non-oil sector and 45 per cent from the oil sector. From 2019, we were able to turn the tide such that the greater contribution to our revenue is from the non-oil sector. The actual performance of the non-oil sector as at the end of August 2021 was 116 per cent. So it is not true that we have never reached the target; we have actually gone above the target in terms of non-oil revenue. It is the oil and gas sector that is actually lagging behind and when we prorated the total performance as of August, it was 73 per cent. So revenues have picked up generally, because in 2019, we put in place the Strategic Revenue Growth Initiative (SRGI), which is an initiative of our ministry that was designed to enhance the existing revenue streams, to also identify and put in place new revenue streams. Since then, we have seen our revenue increase on an incremental basis, but the problem is that our expenditure has also been increasing and much faster than the revenue.

In 2020, when we had the COVID-19, we ended up going out to borrow more money. We were on a growth part for about 12 quarters and our revenues were increasing reasonably. When this administration came into power, the Revenue-to-GDP was six per cent, but we were at nine per cent at the end of 2019, but now we are down to eight per cent. But our target is to get to 15 per cent by 2025. So the SRGI has helped us to not only increase revenue, but to enforce necessary reforms that have helped us to reduce leakages, cut down costs that are necessary, introduce the Finance Bill that we have so far done in 2019 and 2020. The Finance Bill was part of the initiatives that we have in the SRGI and through the instruments of the Finance Bill, we have been able to do so many things in terms of improving the fiscal space across several sectors of the Nigerian economy by changing and amending laws. Every year, we continue to tighten those gaps that were resulting in wastage within the economy.

One issue that keeps coming up is Nigeria’s debt. The Senate recently approved fresh borrowing for the federal government, are you not worried about the country’s rising debt profile which the Chairman of the President’s Economic Advisory Council recently warned was unsustainable?
On revenues, we can look inwards and we are looking inwards and also a lot of the things we are doing in terms of enhancing revenue are working. Every Nigerian is right to be concerned about borrowing. Even as a household, if you are borrowing continuously, you should be worried about it, because the thing about borrowing is that you need to repay. So while we have been borrowing, we have made sure that we apply what we borrow to critical infrastructure necessary to enhance our business environment. If we don’t invest to make sure that we have adequate power, good roads and also that we have rail lines that are able to move cargoes, not just people and that our airports are of international standards, it would cost us in terms of growth and we would be regressing. It is not fun for us just going out to borrow. We are also not borrowing irresponsibly. We have a Debt Management Office and there is a lot of rigour that goes through the borrowing process.

First of all, there is a limit to borrowing that was set by the Fiscal Responsibility Act. The limit today is three per cent of the GDP. In 2020, we exceeded three per cent, because of the national emergency. In 2021, we also exceeded it slightly, but in 2022, we have been able to come down to 3.05 per cent and in subsequent years, we are reducing. I say it again today, that we don’t have a debt problem, what we have is a revenue problem. At about 23 per cent of GDP, Nigeria’s debt level is one of the lowest amongst its comparators. It is the revenue that we have to concentrate on, working on and also we have to be vigilant as Nigerians to make sure that the borrowing is applied to important projects that would enhance the growth of the economy. And for our revenues, we have taken a lot of measures. The Finance Act has helped us to tighten a lot of the gaps that used to exist, especially the provision we made in the Act that limits government-owned enterprises to 50 per cent expenditure of their revenue. In the past, we had agencies that would spend 95 per cent of their revenues and either very little or nothing came to the government.

Are they complying?
Yes, it is working even though it is very difficult to enforce. People are not happy about it, but it is a law and we are enforcing it. In the 2021 budget, we have been able to bring all government enterprises into the budget and now, we have 64 agencies and that gives us control, to be able to see even from the budget level that the expenditure budgets of those agencies are limited to that 50 per cent. It is a struggle, but we have the National Assembly behind us and they understand the importance and the president has directed it. And in doing that, the revenue from the government-owned enterprises tripled. In the 2021 Finance Act, we are also going to compel every government agency to comply with the provisions of the constitution that states that every revenue that they generate must first of all go to the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Right now, we have several agencies of government that have different provisions in their Acts that empower them to use their revenues in so many different things. So what we are planning to achieve in the next Finance Bill which is major, is to make sure that every revenue goes into the pool and then what is due to you would be given to you, instead of the agencies spending and then deciding what goes to the government. We believe that also, would be a game changer for us in terms of revenues.

But for how long will Nigeria continue to use more than 90 per cent of its revenue to service debt, which you know is unsustainable?
That happens when revenues are underperforming. When you look at the budget, the revenue-to-debt service ratio is 40 to 45 per cent. In 2021 budget, it is 45 per cent. If the revenue underperforms, then you now have that ratio climbing high. In 2020, we had a challenge, when revenues were very low, we had some months that the ratio was up to 90 per cent revenue-to-GDP. In that case, we had to get a short-term facility from the Central Bank, to be able to support the government in terms of running its day-to-day expenditure. But we are no longer in that position. From March this year, we didn’t have to borrow from the CBN and we were able to use our revenues to service debts. Also, we have also been able to raise funds in terms of borrowings as approved in the national budget, both from the domestic market as well as the external borrowing sources.

You have always blamed much of Nigeria’s fiscal challenges on revenue shortfall, but some hold the view that the public service is bogged down by wastages.
It is a combination of both. We are now investing in automation as the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), for example, has been doing a lot of investments on automations, supported by some of the provisions we made in the Finance Act. For example, the FIRS has the authority to go into any system, government or private business and interrogate the numbers such as the turnover. We also have support from several sources such as the National Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU), the CBN, with data. With data, we have been able to identify people that are either not paying taxes or are underpaying and we are going after them one after the other, conducting audits.

So how realistic are your assumptions in the 2022 Appropriation Bill, especially, when you consider oil production?
Oil production estimated in the 2022 budget at 1.8 million barrels per day is less than the 2.5 million barrels per day installed capacity that we have. When we make the budget assumptions, we try to be pessimistic on the price and optimistic on production. The price, because we don’t have control, but for production, we do have control and we do it to incentivise the oil and gas sector to be able to produce more.

But the nation has been lagging behind in the OPEC allocation quota for some time now and hasn’t that also impacted revenue?
That is something that is of great concern to us. The explanation that we have from the national oil company is that at some point, we actually produce more than the OPEC quota and the regulator would authorise production to be reduced and in reducing production, it means some wells were shut down. The moment you shut down an oil well, in bringing it back up, you might not be able to get to the same level of production it was before. We were told it was a major part of the problem. Also recently, we have seen reports that there were losses that occurred due to oil theft.

A few years ago, your ministry launched the Whistleblower policy as a tool to fight corruption and it was widely celebrated then. Today, there’s hardly a word about that policy. Was it just an idea for the moment?
No, it wasn’t meant to be an idea for the moment. In also trying to reinvigorate it, we have had a stakeholders’ workshop to ask how best this could be utilised for us to be able to do more than we had done so far. Also, there is an aspect of it that requires legislation to protect the whistleblower. A lot of people are not willing to come up, because there is no protection for them. So there has been a bill submitted to the National Assembly, but somehow the process was stalled.
Some people have the impression that the whistleblower policy was actually targeted at political opponents, especially those in the past administration. Yet, things are happening in this government and when the whistleblowers come up with information, nobody acts on them.
No, it wasn’t targeted at the past administration. It was meant to improve reforms and also enable citizens to provide information to help the government in recovering either funds or assets that were illegally acquired. Again as I said, the issue of a lack of protection is usually a disincentive for citizens to act. So it is not political.

You have genuine reasons to stay away from the Value Added Tax (VAT) debate, but are you not worried that if the pending court judgment goes in favour of the states, it might affect the federal government’s revenue base badly?
No, it will not affect the federal government, but it would affect a good number of states, especially those that have minimal contribution in terms of the derivation. Why did I say that? It is because currently, the federal government’s share of VAT is 15 per cent and from what the states are advocating for, if the VAT case is decided in favour of States, then we would have the Federal Capital Territory, which is a federal government body, that currently contributes 20 per cent of the VAT. And also, you will have imports, which is a major component of Customs revenue will also go to the federal government, that’s about another 15 to 20 per cent. So the federal government might end up with 40 per cent or even more. But we don’t want this to happen. Why? That is because the fiscal federalism that is instituted in our constitution was designed for the strong to support the weak and that is what keeps us as a nation. So at the federal level, we are open to engaging with the states so that what is being advocated by the states that went to court doesn’t happen, because it hurts federalism.

But they argue that it promotes it?
So, you would have states that have a large contribution to the derivation getting more revenue; but you might have some states that have very little or nothing. So, how does that encourage fiscal federalism?

You said last month that the fiscal authorities were working with the Central Bank of Nigeria to close the gap between the official and unofficial exchange rates and of today, there are some improvements, with the parallel market rate appreciating to about N525/$ from as high as N575/$ about a month ago. What measures did you introduce to achieve this?
I would like to say that it would be good for you to hear from the Central Bank about that. All I can say is that I am in support of the work the CBN is doing and Nigerians should realise that you don’t achieve results in one day. You set up policies, a lot of them very well intended, sometimes you get immediate results and a lot of time, it takes time to get the results. We hope that within the medium term, the gap that exists within the NAFEX market and the black market, which the central bank does not agree with, narrows. This is because it is important for businesses and the government. So the measures the monetary authorities are taking were designed to control price, to control inflation and also to better manage the exchange rate.

But one other thing that would also support exchange rate stability is the government’s ability to attract FDIs. The president has been travelling in recent times trying to woo foreign investors, what is your government telling potential investors about Nigeria?
The president’s message is that Nigeria is open for investments and also sitting one-on-one with investors, trying to know what they expect from us. That is why we are investing in basic infrastructure that businesses require. That is because no investor would want to go to a country, where they would still have to provide their own power, roads, and others. The investments we are doing in infrastructure are designed to bring in FDIs that would bring in long-term capital that would stay in this country. Recently, we went to the international capital market to raise Eurobonds of $3 billion, but we ended up with $4.2 billion in terms of interest. That shows you that discerning investors actually see the great potential that we have in the country and are willing to stake their resources in this country. As a people, we oftentimes do a lot of disservice to ourselves.

While there are things that are not working well, there are some things that we have done well, but we don’t talk about them and we just concentrate on the negative things. People might think they are hurting the government of the day, but what they are actually doing is hurting the nation. This is the only nation that we have that we can call our own. I just wish we can be a little bit more patriotic, knowing that this is our country; this is where our children are and we all have the responsibility to make sure that our nation continues to be stable.

One of the complaints from foreign investors is the ease of doing business. There is the issue of multiple taxation and it scares foreign investors away. What is the government doing to address that?
Really, that is a problem. But we’ll continue to work with the states to make things better. At the federal level, through the Finance Bills, we shall continue to improve the fiscal laws to avoid those duplications as well as block leakages and to provide incentives that are meaningful and that would help the investors. There are some states that are reforming their tax environment. I know of two states that have been able to repeal all laws and levies and they have just one tax law and one tax authority collecting all taxes, be it company income tax, property tax, or whatever. And when that state did that, it saw its revenue grow astronomically. So there is a benefit in doing that. The state governments are being supported by the federal government to enhance their public financial management. One of the ways we have done this, apart from supporting the states, is that we have also put in place the States’ Fiscal Transparency, Accountability and Sustainability (SFTAS) programme, which is funded by the World Bank.

It is a performance-for-result programme, whereby every state was asked to list key reforms that they would undertake. If they do that, they earn some revenue and it is not a loan. So SFTAS became so popular and we saw the states competing against each other, because it is a pool of funds. Also, we saw states becoming up to date in the audit of their financial statements, publishing their budgets so that it is open and doing a number of things that needed to be done that were not being done. This programme became so popular that we are doing another round of it, which is $750 million. We’ll continue to find ways to incentivise as well as encourage the states to do more.

It is true that too many taxes and levies hurt businesses and the newest programme we have, apart from the SFTAS version two, is one we are designing with the states to improve the ease of doing business. We also designed it in the form of performance-for-result. For example, they are required to automate their land registration. Lagos and a few other states have done that, but a lot of the states have not. That is, if you automate your land registration, you get some points and you earn some money. So there is another performance-for-result programme that we are designing with the states and the World Bank that would help to enhance tax reforms, so that this multiple taxation you mentioned would be addressed.

Funding the 2022 budget deficit is to come from domestic and external borrowings. Is the $3.4 billion Special Drawing Right (SDR) of the International Monetary Fund going to form part of the funding sources?
Yes, the $3.35 billion SDR from the IMF would be part of our external borrowing for the 2022 budget.

Talking about revenue shortfall, how are you addressing wastage in public service?
We are doing that by the process of automation and the provisions in the Finance Act about state-owned enterprises and by monitoring and enforcing the law. The Treasury Single Account is one very important tool that we have put in place, that is helping us to enhance our liquidity management. Also is the Government Integrated Financial and Management Information System (GIFMIS). It is a system whereby all government payment transactions are processed. The Integrated Payroll and Personnel information system (IPPIS) is another tool that we are using. The IPPIS is being enhanced by bringing on board its HR component.

What was your experience with the Voluntary Assets and Income Declaration Scheme (VAIDS)?
The VAIDS was an incentive programme that was open for 12 months and then extended for six months. It was a period within which a defaulting taxpayer was given relief to come clean and file their taxes without any penalty. It worked at that time in terms of incremental revenue that wouldn’t have come if that programme wasn’t implemented. But what VAIDS left for us wasn’t just the revenue that we collected, but the data that we were able to get from it. We got the data of the taxpayers that were not in the tax net.

Are you likely to reintroduce it because of the benefits you talked about?
It is a double-edged sword. It is not something you want to do on a continuous basis. But there is a similar programme to VAIDS; it is called Voluntary Offshore Assets Regularisation Scheme (VOARS). Nigerians or businesses that have funds offshore can also freely declare their funds. But in this particular scheme, there is a cost, unlike VAIDS. There is a certain percentage of what they declare that would be forfeited to the government. Once they bring in that money, they are free to invest it in Nigeria. That is led by the Attorney General of the Federation, because there are several bilateral agreements and treaties that take place between Nigeria and different countries.

By the second half of 2022, fuel subsidies would cease to exist as the NNPC becomes a full commercial entity, operating in line with the Petroleum Industry Act. Have you started engaging the labour unions and other stakeholders on the proposed phasing out of fuel subsidy to avoid strike or any other distortions to economic activities?
There is a special committee that is engaging with labour that is chaired by the Minister of Labour, the Ministry of Finance, Budget and Planning, Ministry of Petroleum Resources and several ministers that are engaging labour on an ongoing basis. To implement the provisions of the PIA, we have made provisions in the 2022 budget that the withdrawal will take place from July, 2022. But what we are doing is to look at a situation whereby there is some kind of support that is provided to a certain pool of citizens. This involves providing funds to the citizens directly to act as a buffer and the period is part of the thing that is being negotiated. It may be a minimum of six months to nine or 12 months. It is supposed to be like an allowance to support citizens and we hope to be able to cover a minimum of 20 million, up to 40 million citizens. But the condition is that you have to be registered and you must have a national Identity card; you have to be under a certain income bracket and once you meet the criteria, the money goes to you directly in the form of transport.

Going by recent experience, there is a likelihood that the National Assembly might jack up the aggregate budget of N16. 39 trillion. In the event that this happens, is that not going to compound your fiscal challenges, especially, budget deficit?
I hope that doesn’t happen because we have been trying to bring down the budget deficit which is slightly above the FRA at 3.05 per cent. The National Assembly is also sensitive about the size of the deficit. Yes, I know that in the past, they have increased the revenue and at the same time, increased the expenditure. We hope it doesn’t happen, but if it does, we would try as much as possible to ensure that it is contained.

In the 2022 budget proposal, Defence, comprising the entire military and police, attracted the highest allocation. But the Nigerian Army has declared that its own allocation was grossly low. Are you likely to help?
There is nothing I can do about that, because whatever we provided is what is possible. Even if we give the Nigerian Army the whole of the N16 trillion budget, it still would not be enough. We also have to provide for education, health and other sectors of the economy –infrastructure. Yes, security is important, that is why it has the highest size of the budget.

During a recent public presentation, you did say the government would review sectors eligible for Pioneer Tax Holiday Incentives under the Industrial Development Income Tax Relief Act (IDITRA) as well as dimension the cost of tax waivers/concessions, and evaluate their policy effectiveness. Can you provide more insights into this?
There is a fiscal policy committee of the government that is reviewing the various incentives that the government has provided to businesses and Pioneer Status is just one of them. But what we want to do is to make sure that the incentives we are giving, that we are getting value from it. For example, the Pioneer Status is meant for businesses to plough back those taxes that were waived for them into the business, so that their businesses grow and they employ more people. In a lot of cases, that is not what happens. Some businesses would just repatriate that money that they would have paid as taxes. So we are reviewing and redesigning the incentives so that, once what we have on ground reaches their sunset date, the new ones that come into place would be more beneficial to the country.

This is the last full year budget of the Buhari administration as well as one preceding the election year. What are the unique features that the government has factored into the budget in line with these considerations?
Our view is that the government is a continuum and whatever government that comes into power would still need to provide a significant amount of its budget for security as well as health and education. So we don’t anticipate that there would be anything different from what we are doing right now. We are confident that whichever government comes would continue to implement the 2023 budget and also they would look at the NDP that we have started implementing.
What are your takeaways from the pandemic experience and do you think the country is in a position to withstand a similar shock in the future?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a wildcat that was never supposed to happen but happened across the world. I pray that it doesn’t happen again, because it is difficult for an African economy to experience that kind of shock.

As you recently alluded to, there is a direct relationship between governance, poverty, and insecurity. How realistic is the president’s target of lifting 100 million Nigerians out of poverty and how do you intend to achieve that?
The president has said he would lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next 10 years. We did a National Poverty Reduction and Growth Strategy, which has been commissioned by the president. There is a National Steering Committee that was set up, because a lot of the work needs to be done by the states, because the people are in the states. The major focus is to support MSMEs and to create jobs. So we are carefully selecting and providing support to businesses based on the number of jobs that they would create and to also reskill and up-skill our people, especially, the youth, mostly in the use of ICT, because that provides the best opportunity, even for self-employment and employment across board. We are also enhancing agricultural productivity by moving into agro-business – enhancing the value chain by processing more of the food that we produce and also reducing wastages due to post-harvest losses that we suffer.

You are the finance minister, under this government, Nigeria was rated the poverty capital of the world, how do you feel with such a label on your country?
I feel very bad about it. I feel it is an unfair label and I feel it has to do with not having enough awareness on the things that we are doing and also us not putting forward the data on what we have done. If what has been done by this administration was taken into account, then, we would not be labelled the poverty capital of the world.

Finally, as the Finance Minister, where do you stand on the proposed deduction of $418 million Paris Club refunds from states and local governments’ accounts to pay some consultants? Are you in support of it and if not, what is your position about it?
The position of the finance ministry is just to implement the position of the court. The court has taken a decision, the Attorney General and the President have directed that we pay and we paid through a promissory note, which is a debt instrument. If the states have a problem with that, the courts are there. As long as we don’t have a counter decision of a court of competent jurisdiction, we are compelled to implement the decision of the court.

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