BY RUTH CHOJI
Sen Yahaya Abdullah represents Kebbi North in the Senate. In this interview with RUTH CHOJI, the pioneer permanent secretary of Niger-Delta Ministry spoke on the challenges in the region and the direction the country should go with regards to crude oil. He also gave insight into the 2016 budget.
The militants are threatening that they will start bombing again if their demands are not met. What is your view?
The threat could be as a result of the non- payment of amnesty stipends, school fees and the rest. The Senate did a supplementary budget last year and billions were appropriated for the militants. I heard that the presidential committee on amnesty is going round foreign countries to pay off the fees and allowances of ex-militants sent outside the country so that fees that are outstanding will be cleared. I am sure the funds have been released or else, the committee wouldn’t be talking about traveling around. The other issue is the question of engaging the leaders and the youths. I think the federal government has done a lot. What the previous government did was to pacify the militant leaders by bringing them and their group under amnesty. This government has gone a step further by engaging the major leaders, in a pragmatic way, to discuss all the issues. Look at the issue of illegal refinery; they are trying to give them necessary things they need so that, they could start refining officially under guidelines.
Do you think this move will stop the militancy?
It will because you can see how the joint task force has tried unsuccessfully to destroy the illegal refineries. But if the builders of the refineries are recognised and given the licence to do it officially under the supervision of laid down rules, it will be more productive. So instead of them bombing or vandalizing pipelines, the youths can come out officially to apply for licence and set up their small refineries.
As one who has experience in the Niger-Delta affairs, what do you think can bring lasting peace in the region?
The solution will be engagement with the local population. The only way to engage the population is by building necessary infrastructure. Of course it is going to be difficult because of the terrain but it is worth it because it can lay a sound footing for the development of Nigeria’s petrochemical industry. It is the basis that can provide you with the launch pad for developing the petrochemical industry. You need to make the people understand that government is interested in their welfare by doing projects there. So that once others come to tell them government is using their funds, they will look at their window and point out to the projects government has done for them. You also need to pay the NDDC all the funds meant for them by law.
Is NDDC under funded?
Yes, there is a certain amount proscribed to them by law. But because they themselves are not using the money properly, they don’t complain. The funny thing is that, most of the contractors that were given NDDC jobs are indigene of the Niger-Delta. Most of them didn’t finish all the contracts given to them. There are so many abandoned projects in the Niger-Delta and it is these same people that sponsored the militants to do what they are doing. Recently, I think the commission sent a message to all contractors to go back to site but I doubt if 50 per cent can do that because most of them will not have the funds to complete their projects. Something drastic needs to be done to ensure that, they finish those projects.
The world is moving away from crude oil, yet Nigeria seems to be putting all its eggs in one basket, so to speak. What do you think should be done?
The world is moving away from oil, the era of oil as major source of energy will fade but for now, it is still quite significant. Alternative source of energy is coming into play now. So we need to do more with the oil that we have so that we can become an industrial power base. We need to utilise crude oil by building a strong petrochemical industry that can serve us and the West African sub-region and then explore other alternative energy resources. If you are using oil as a primary product to earn foreign exchange like Nigeria is doing, then you might have problems. Besides, everybody in the world is exploring oil and the cost of producing oil in some places have gone down. If the oil prices plunge to about $20 per barrel, then those countries will stop producing. So we need to build necessary infrastructure around the industry.
Some have advised the federal government to sell the refineries because they have become more of a burden to the nation. Do you subscribe to this?
We have said that but a lot of people have this sentiment that we want to sell assets. It is simple. If you have a house and you spent more money to maintain it than the value of the house, why do you need the house? The best thing is to sell it and recover your money even if it is one kobo. What is frustrating the moves is people with personal interest like the PENGASSAN, union leaders and the rest. They are the ones making money there and so they will always put pressure not to sell the refineries. These refineries ceased being assets when they stopped producing to meet our needs.
Does this apply to Ajaokuta steel rolling mill?
What most people don’t understand is that Ajaokuta is a combination of about 43 different industries in one place. In fact, I don’t know anywhere in the world where they have such concentration of industries in one place, all related to another. They have four rolling mills in place, each bigger than any other ones in the country. You have a power plant that can satisfy more than half of the northern zone; you have a whole plant that can produce any factory. Like if you want to build a factory in Jos for example, the only thing to do is to design it, Ajaokuta will reproduce it and fix it for you in Jos. So all of them are concentrated in one place. The problem of Ajaokuta is the issue of corruption and lack of political will because once you can sort out the problem of Ajaokuta, you have solved Nigeria’s electricity problem. All the amount of resources required and the political will to do it is our problem. Right now, there are about eight industries there such that if you give them the go ahead, they can produce railway tracks. All the rail lines that you want in this country can be produced in Ajaokuta. You don’t need to produce anything from China or other countries. The entire northern zone is a hub of Iron Ore. All the mountains that you see there have Iron Ore deposit. One of the beauty of this country is that, the colonialist did not take Nigeria as a country for mineral exploration, they depended more on Central Africa. For us, they gave us the role of producing crops like cocoa and the rest except for Tin and Columbite.
Recently, the president announced an Economic Recovery Plan but some believe that it could be a bit late. What do you think?
I don’t think it is a question of time but commitment and how subsequent governments can continue from there. Our problem is that, we easily throw things away. There are certain things that are of minimal requirement for any government to do. There are things that any government must do immediately they come into power. Take the development of Nigeria’s port facilities and access road to Ibadan, Benin and Lagos. If you make investors to develop that corridor, it is not just the South-west that will benefit. You would have opened up the whole country and the economy. Moving goods and services will become easier. But some people will complain that you are concentrating development in South-West alone. But it has a high pay off. If you say we should tackle piracy, when you don’t tackle the Gulf of Guinea, then the entire shipping will be affected. So, if the government is pumping money there, it is not doing it for just the Gulf of Guinea but for the whole region. So, there are certain kind of projects that are sacrosanct. You can see what is happening in America. The president came on the agenda of ‘America first’ but the realities of power are now forcing him to go back to the same agenda the previous America government has done. In fact, he has now increased defence spending. Even their local infrastructure is crumbling because they are concentrating on defence. But our problem here is that, we have not developed a culture of nation building, people only come to steal money for themselves and because of this culture, necessary things are neglected. If you look at the economy in the last 30 years, no government has spent the kind of money this government has spent on capital projects. In fact, when you look at capital implementation in the budget, what this government has done in the last two years, no government has done it in the last 20 years. You can see all the federal roads have one contractor or the other working on them.
Talking about budget, what is delaying the passage of the 2017 budget?
Two things. We are trying to be transparent because 2016 budget was a nightmare. There were lots of disagreement on it. But with this one, there was some sort of engagement between the National Assembly and the executive before the budget was presented. The committees have been engaging the various ministries, department and agencies and as of now, most of the things that should have been done have been concluded. It is now left for the appropriation committee to harmonize everything together. Some of the problems can also be found in the ministries and agencies. The good news is that, nobody has shut down government. The 2016 budget is still operating.
But what is the level of the implementation of the 2016 budget?
I can say it depends on the ministry. But for capital budget, it is close to 80 per cent. The president doesn’t allow any spending outside the budget. So the government does not remove money to do things that are outside the budget. That is why you can hear the ministers complaining all the time that their monies are with National Assembly. It is because the president does not release money outside the budget. All the projects appropriated for is what is being done. So there is some measure of discipline in implementing the budget now.