Sen Ayodele Arise was a member of the 6th Senate. In this interview with RUTH CHOJI, the senator argues that President Muhammadu Buhari does not need emergency powers to revive the economy.
Does the state of the economy worry you?
I am not worried because the policies the executive is pursuing seems to be in the right direction. We have a troubled economy, everybody should recognise that. The president should diversify the economy in the power sector so that businesses and ailing industries will be recovered. The fact that the government is looking at revamping the economy and getting money into the hands of the ordinary man on the street through infrastructural development is gratifying and I believe that this policy will work in the long run.
But some foreign bodies have described the policies of the Buhari administration as foolish and yet here, you are saying the policies will work. What entails your belief?
Some of the policies might not have been well thought out particularly as they relate to the foreign exchange. It is not all the policies that have got high marks. I have criticised the idea of the central bank coming out to say that, the banks should not accept dollar deposit. I think that policy was foolish because if you say nobody should deposit dollars, then where do you get dollars to buy for your business? The economy, by and large runs on the success of demand and supply in which case people who go to the bank to buy dollars can’t access it. The gap between the official rates and black market is wide. I suspected at that time that, they were trying to use that to control money laundering or determine people who had dollars at home. They should have given them a window to deposit their money into the bank so that the economy will keep moving. We have heard that, some people dug wells to hide money and other things because of that policy. If that policy had not been introduced, the rate of the devaluation of the naira wouldn’t have been this bad. By now we would certainly not be to keep our currency at N300.
But do you think we can still salvage the Naira?
Nothing is impossible. But once this thing goes that high, if you try to force it down, it means you are giving some people windows to commit worst crime. If you can buy money at the official rate and the black market rate is that high, it will not take a rocket scientist to know how to make fast money. At N300/ to $1 official price, that will give you lots of money if you are into the business. It is a window that we need to find a way of eradicating otherwise the gap will continue to be there. It is this window that is discouraging people from going into things like agriculture because you will have to wait three to four months for your crops to grow but with this window, within a week or two, you will make millions of dollars in the black market. Unlike crops that can get damaged or lack of customers to buy your goods, with the dollar, nothing will go wrong. I think concerted effort should be made to ensure that we quickly give a number of incentives to encourage manufacturers and put up task force to ensure they are doing what they are supposed to do. We must have single digit interest rate.
There is no way we can be running at this twenty-something percentage and expect that, we will compete with Chinese products or manufacturers who get loans from the government at next to nothing. They still bring their goods to compete with us. So we must be proactive to ensure that we can compete very well. We have to revive our manufacturing base to shore up our reserve base because right now, we are in serious trouble with what we have.
The mistakes of the past have been made. Now we need to move forward. Although some of those indicted are releasing small tokens, it still does not convert the magnitude of the money stolen. The FG has also focused on only one area because if they pursue many areas, they might be stuck and we won’t achieve anything. Corruption did not start and end with NSA office. This is a very complex country, this is a place where one will gather government resources and put it in his pocket rather than use it to develop the society. Look at the condition of our roads, they are impassable.
What advice would you give the president on the economic turf?
He has the powers he needs to change things around. He doesn’t need any state of emergency, we are already at a stage of emergency. The only thing he needs now is may be the need to borrow in excess and he will need the national assembly to approve that. We need to develop infrastructure like airport. Most of our airports are in deplorable states. Even though there has been a semblance of sanity in some of the airports, we cannot compare our airports to those in developed countries, we are still far behind. Now that the government is developing rail lines, it will help us grow more and better. It is unfortunate that we are hearing of a governor who couldn’t pay salaries but has gone to buy vehicles worth about six billion naira. It means people are not sensitive.
Some have advocated for a return to regionalism because they think federalism has failed us. What is your take on this?
Well, federalism is not working as it should. The first sign of federalism is state police, even LG should have its police. In every country that practices federalism like America, the state governors control their police and it is the judge that determines whether it is a federal offence before they hand you over to the federal officers. Federalism in Nigeria is not working because the FG wants to usurp the powers and this is one of the genesis. For example, any mineral deposit found in any state, should come under the state’s authority which then gives the FG a percentage. Typically, these taxes can be huge. It could be 40-50 per cent. There is no point in a person who wants to blast stone in Ekiti, coming to the FG to get license because these are things that are required to build houses. The problem with federalism is also our inherent attitude like the way we do things, like not believing that things should be straight and then looking for short corners in doing things. We have allowed fraud to rule our lives so much that if you are not participating in it, people see you as not being smart.
Look at the British parliamentary system for example, do you think Nigerians will allow one person to rule for life? Nobody is advocating for that style of government, but I use that as example that there is no system you bring to Nigeria that people will not criticize. It is we, the people that don’t obey the rule of law. Look at people like Fashola, if not for his reputation in Lagos State, people would have started insulting him since he became minister but he did a good job in Lagos State. But is he going to use his mouth to tar the roads? They are talking about houses, right now they are still in the process of bidding and if you don’t bid, then somebody can go to court that you have broken the law of procurement act. These are areas that I think there might be some need for the president to use his powers to reduce the long process of doing things in Nigeria.
There should be a portal where people can go and submit their bid on line. But a situation where somebody from Maiduguri will have to come to CAC to register his business does not speak well of the system. We are supposed to have CAC offices in every state so that everybody can register in his state and do his business there. In America, you don’t require a lawyer to register a company for you. You just go to the state’s website and register your company and the maximum they charge you is $100 and when the man does the contract, the tax is deducted from source. Unlike here that they will tell you to bring lawyer, bring this report and that. This kills people’s morale. It is good to have experience. When I was in the US, I used to bid for contracts on line before I came here. I would just talk to the manufacturer and they will supply everything. The FG will pay everything into my account without me talking to anybody or giving anybody anything. This was just before 1999 when I came back home.
Some have also called on the president to sack some of his ministers who they believe, are not active. Do you share such views?
Who among them is not active? Is it Fashola or Udo Udoma who has hired a professional as director of budget, a first class brain who has been a banker? Is it the minister of finance? I have listened to her, she is not a dull person. She is smart. They are comparing Okonjo Iweala with Adeosun but Okonjo Iweala has been in the World Bank all her life and we have been renting her from them. The difference between the two of them is that, Iweala can pick up the phone and talk to the president of World Bank or other world leaders but at the end of the day, how did we get to where we are today? Was she not the one authorising all the releases of the funds that were mismanaged? They should let Adeosun do her job. As far as I am concerned, she is competent, she was with a big firm before she became a commissioner and with this economy, I think she is on the right track.