Mr Osita Okechukwu is the Director General of the Voice of Nigeria (VON). He speaks on the APC government and the journey so for the country as it celebrates its Independence Day. ANDREW ESSIEN brings the excerpts
How do you assess President Buhari’s administration so far?
Let me start by saying that Nigeria and Nigerians, in the fullness of time, will not regret voting Muhammadu Buhari as President. Going by our constitution at least we have a four year tenure and it will be glorious. What we have now is the laying of a foundation for a prosperous and progressive country. Yes it has not been easy as President Muhammadu Buhari has admitted. He knows there is hunger in the land and he knows there is despair in the land but he hopes that he is trying to couple back to the Nigerian state by trying to look back and ask himself why is that the unprecedented oil revenue that came our way since 1999, wasn’t properly invested. Why is it that enough savings weren’t made. Why is it that we have decayed physical and social infrastructure. That is to say electricity, transportation, deficit in housing, deficit in portable water, deficit is social infrastructure like health and education such that today, Nigeria is still saying that out of over 100 universities; Federal universities, State, Private that only one can be fingered as belonging to the first one thousand universities on earth; Mr. President feels bad about that. By the time he finishes four or eight years the prudent management of resources will be one of the greatest legacies he is going to leave on ground. The little that comes in will be prudently managed and if he succeeds in borrowing, the little borrowed will be properly managed. Even if he sells some assets the little that comes in will be prudently managed. That is going to be the greatest legacy that he is going to leave behind. It is no more going to be business as usual and he has demonstrated that. Even the little expenses we run in an agency like the Voice of Nigeria where I come there have been a shift in that. It is no more putting your hand in the docket you must also advertise. You must follow the procurement act and if you do a story of what led other countries to greatness the foremost was the prudent of the management of resources however small or ever big because if you start by prudent management of resources you are also going to dictate killing into culture of impunity and also dictate into obedience of rule of law because when he told all the ministries, department and agencies please don’t award any contract without following the procurement act. We told him that it would be very slow. The procurement act provided a minimum of 6 weeks after advertisement before projects can be awarded. He said yes but that is the law. Until that law is repealed or amended please follow the law. We told him that why many projects failed is because when you get the contract you are not paid more than 15 percent as mobilization and he said yes but that is the Procurement Act. For instance, since 1999 the budget of the NNPC which is the cash cow and Federal Inland Revenue and co; some of those cash cows were never presented at the National Assembly since 1999. This is the first year. When they came to him and said ‘sir this is our budget’ he said take it to the National Assembly and they said ‘no, no’ but that is the provision of the law. If you know how rattled those that were in charge of the NNPC, the Federal Inland Revenue and the customs or so they didn’t believe anybody can do that. Those are the signs but like I normally say democracy isn’t a revolution so he lost the capacity of a military head of state to apply immediate effect. He now has to go through the laws before he takes any major decision. So that is part of what we are witnessing but before long the proceeds of the projects been awarded will start trickling down.
Up till now many Nigerians don’t believe the country has any reason to celebrate independence. What do you think might be responsible for this notion and what do you think this government can do to change such notion?
You are not wrong! They said a hungry man is an angry man. People are hungry but the irony of the whole thing is that a lot of people don’t want us to look back on why we are hungry, even to mention it. A lot of people do not want to do that. All they are saying is ‘fix it’. Yes that is the wish of Mr. President. In fact, in one of his statements if you can remember, he said that why is it now that I am coming that the oil price nose dived? Why is it now that I am coming that the reserves that could have helped the regime to pop up isn’t there? A lot of people forget. The totality of the major contracting firms; Julius Berger and co are owed about N1.5 trillion because for a long time the previous government stopped paying contractors. The joint venture oil companies which they call IOCs since 2012 stopped paying our joint venture contribution and do you know how much we owe them? As of today it is about $7bn and they said Mr. President we want to stop work. That you didn’t pay us when your product was sold high and now we are here. So we are hoping that gradually he will start paying back and try to build the confidence because he is talking of confidence. The confidence is not there and why is that so? Because promises were made in the past and those promises made in the past were rubbished under impunity. In fact if you know what the English man called impunity; English as a language was borrowed from Igbo language, the Igbos call it Impo and they have the same meaning; going out of your way to recklessly manage affairs as if it belongs to nobody except you. They asked us ‘please don’t mention it, just fix it! Even those who joined us in clapping on May 13, 2010 when the then President Jonathan, wonder what they called the three great refineries; the Chinese firm threw in $3bn. One of those refineries was to be in Lagos, one in Kogi and the last in Bayelsa and their time line was for three years so which means by now the three refineries could have been in place and guess what if it had matured? It could have employed over a million people directly and indirectly and each refinery you know in the world manufactures about 34 products which is called the derivatives outside the PMS which includes fuel oil that is used in the textile industry but those opportunities were lost. In 2010, Nigeria had about $17bn in the excess crude account because former President Olusegun Obasanjo left about $23bn. But it kept depleting until President Muhammadu Buhari came. It was less than $10bn, in fact, the record shows that it was about $4bn when President Muhammadu Buhari came to power and guess what! The first problem that confronted him was the salary arrears at both the state and federal level. I remember one time we were telling Mr. President why don’t you go to roads and he said if you get a file that says some states haven’t paid for 18 months, some 12 months, some 7 months, some 3 months and some federal ministries and agencies were not paid so the monies were not on ground so would you go and start constructing roads instead of taking care of the children and the families affected by such long non payments of civil servants and public officers? They called it bailout funds if you remember. Nobody remember that billions were pushed into that and when we now said Minister Fashola please could you let us know how much completed projects genuinely accessed. Those were the times people who were thinking that they were wasting time, documents were being exchanged and consultants were going on ground to know actually which projects were concluded. It turned out that genuinely, the Federal Government of Nigeria was owing over one trillion Naira to major contractors over finished projects. A company like Julius Berger is being owed over N200bn and when payment came, when it was spread out, Julius Berger got less than N20bn and they said you people should go back to work and they said with what? That we are owing banks and these monies were paid into banks because if you are owing the bank immediately the money enters, the banks sits on it and you can’t remove the money. So this is where we find ourselves. That is where we are even talking of borrowing to know whether we can get out of the recession and get people to be happy because Mr. President told us that he is acting like a father whose household is hungry and of course you won’t listen to anything else when your children are crying of hunger. The best is to put your hand into the bush that is why he had to run around. He went to South Africa, went to Saudi Arabia, and went to China. That is why he is going round and some people mistook him for going round and he said he is going round with the plate that people are hungry.
Looking at where we are coming from, your party, APC, declared that it would rather prefer government owning its public assets than allow the form of privatization that had gone on in former regimes. How would you compare it with the recent debate from some of your party leaders to sell off some national assets as a way of reviving the economy?
To be honest on the issues of the sale of the national assets, if it is the President Buhari that I know, I don’t think he would sell national assets that are profitable. I haven’t discussed with him but the little I know of him for over a decade and his own disposition towards public asset I don’t see him selling something like NLNG because luckily for Nigeria, we have 49 percent and our partners; Shell, Eni, Total that are managing the process nobody, has accused them of mismanagement so there is no justification. My thinking is that those that are clamouring for the sale of such priced assets or our shares in Africa Development Bank are those people who were chopped up by 1999, 2015 nebulous economic policy. A policy that told us that government has no business in business. That ended up throwing up the richest African and producing millions of poor Nigerians which is a paradox as far as I am concerned. If you look back, part of the reason President Buhari was overthrown in 1985 was because he opposed those policies, devalued the Naira, removed all the subsidies. I remember Alhaji Gbariba Musa who, at the conference of the political parties, pleaded with a delegation, led by Dr. Ngozi Okonji (who was then minister in 2005) that the $12.4bn they want to use for debt payment should be used for infrastructure, he said let’s continue paying annually, that the return from that investment of $12.4bn will be better than paying it out. The woman said there would be no more debt again. Even when the acquirers of the debt payment were selling properties they said they would use the proceeds to provide critical infrastructures but we didn’t see any. The little we saw was the old gauge of railline between Kano to Lagos; 1,310 KM at $8.3bn at a time when the Chinese awarded 4,000KM modern standard gauge between Lasa and Beijing at $4.2bn so that is the paradox of that era. They said we shouldn’t talk about that, we should forget it, yes but yesterday is today’s architecture. It isn’t easy for anybody that lost money not to talk about how he lost it or he won’t even know that is why President Buhari is options left; prudent management, borrowing, begging for help by attracting direct investment because if you don’t borrow the hunger will linger on and people will continue to be angry and as Bode said you won’t leave the people out of poverty. Unluckily, for Nigeria our population keeps on rising and that out of the 10 most populated countries in the world, we are amongst the three that have youths being 60 percent of the population which is an advantage but if you fail to put them to work it becomes a disadvantage. So that is why Buhari is working day and night, where do we get this money to work these people out of poverty because without it the people won’t be happy.
First the organised labour believe that one of the major ways we can get out of recession is through proper taxation that we have had experiences from Lagos where it has worked. They believe that the rich in Nigeria don’t pay tax only the working people who earn little stipends are the ones paying tax here and there. I want your take on that and secondly this agitation on restructuring of the country at a time like this what is your take?
I think labour is very correct and to be honest with you those Lagos group that transformed Lagos are in charge of our Federal Inland Revenue today and so far the result has been very encouraging. They are taxing even the rich you think they are abandoning. Don’t forget when you hear about VAT, VAT is about the man who is buying and if you don’t have money you won’t buy and the rich man that buys he consumes more toilet rolls in his household, he consumes more water in his household, he consumes more electricity, he consumes more food in his household. So one way or the other the taxation in place has produced more money. You will know what they were talking about in the 2016 budget, if you look at the breakdown on how to source the money. So what labour said is already been done and what Mr. President is saying is please try to avoid multiple taxation so you will also have leverage for even the rice sector not to be weighed down by over taxation because, don’t forget, Mr. President will tell you that the votes he had gathered had been from the base; the people.