Dr. Umaru Abdul Mutallab is a renowned banker and industrialist. In this interview with AMINA ALHASSAN, Mutallab who is the Chairman of Equatorial Marine Oil and Gas Ltd, concessionaires of the Funtua Inland Container Depot says the Dry Port which is conceived to be ‘the biggest and the most strategically located for export’ will give 10,000 direct jobs and tens of thousands of indirect jobs upon completion. Excerpts:
How does it feel clocking the age of 78?
When one remembers old friends, classmates and those who have preceded us, I can only give thanks to the Almighty God for giving me long life to live this long, and reasonably well in a sense that I’m an old man and I’m not expected to be 100 per cent well.
At the age of 36, you became Minister of the Federal Republic in charge of Economic Development by the Military regime of late General Murtala Muhammed and later as Minister of Cooperatives and Supplies under General Olusegun Obasanjo. Looking back at those days, how would you compare the economy then and now?
The administration of General Muhammed inherited resources from the preceding administration. There was a big save by Muhammed’s predecessor, General Yakubu Gowon. We had a lot of money from the oil wealth. It was at that time that the country initiated so many projects, many of which we shouldn’t even have embarked upon. I was in charge of Economic Development, having taken over from Professor Adebayo Adedeji, who was in charge of Economic Development and Reconstruction because we just came out of a devastating civil war at the time. My first task was to review the federal budget so that we could identify areas that needed to be attended to. Soon after that, I was moved to the Ministry of Cooperatives and Supplies where I was in charge of commodity boards. At that time, the states had what we called marketing boards comprising Cotton, Cocoa, Groundnuts, Palm Oil, Rubber, Roots &Tubers and Grains. All these were set up and we chose the major centres of production of those commodities to be the headquarters. For example, Minna was headquarters of the grains board, while Makurdi had roots and tubers. Ibadan had Cocoa, Benin had Rubber, Funtua had Cotton and Kano had Groundnuts. The whole idea was to encourage farmers to grow these commodities at what was called the ‘Guaranteed Minimum Price’. The essence was that if you produce, you should sell to end users, consumers, factories among others. And if you can’t sell, the government guarantees that it will buy them at a certain minimum guaranteed price. In fact, due to bumper harvests, we could not do anything but export many of the crops. I was also in charge of the cooperative bank among other things and we set up cooperative societies all over the country. It was a very challenging moment but I must say that I enjoyed that role for the stint that I was minister.
Of course, the economic situation is quite different now. It is completely upside down, with inflation, lack of security and so many other things going on. Those were the peaceful days and we hope to get back to those good old days in the not too distant future.
You have been described by reputable newspapers across the world as one of Nigeria’s successful bankers who made a name in banking. Now you are venturing into shipping and transportation business. Readers would like to know what informed this diversified interest?
It was just to pursue other objectives. Ours is not a static world; people keep moving. Maritime is something that I have looked forward to venturing into. So, it is just to try and see how things work out in that direction. As far as I am concerned, the banking sector has changed and will keep on changing because the banks of yester-years are not the banks of today. And the future of banking is more technology-based, where one does not need to visit a bank to carry out transactions but can do so from the comfort of your home or from the office. It is already happening. That could be the reason I am looking at maritime, coupled with the fact that I have experience in the commodity board system. The Funtua Dry Port could very well be a stepping pad because we can do an export processing zone to export processed commodities, minerals and other goods, which have gone through inspection for the world market. As you know, we have very rich mineral deposits in the North West, with Zamfara State as an example. So, one is thinking of Funtua Dry Port to be a pedal for the improvement of these various commodities.
Talking about changes that have occurred in the banking sector, you led the biggest banks at a time when the sector was going through a turbulent period and banks were finding it very difficult to capitalize. Now that we have very strong banks, do you see our financial institutions making tremendous progress or do you foresee a likely return to those turbulent days?
We hope that, with the various measures that the monitoring authorities are taking, the turbulence will be minimized. As you know, there are very stringent conditions that have been set, not only within Nigeria but globally. The various institutions have made laws and regulations meant to safeguard the collapse of banks because they have to have a minimum capital threshold. That is why they are very strict in terms of provision. So, every year, each bank, both Nigeria’s national and international banks, have to have a certain percentage of provisions to make in order to avoid wiping out their capital because of non-performance and so forth. I believe the authorities are taking very good steps to prevent these banks from going through the same problems they went through years back.
Banks have been accused of so many infractions like aiding money laundering and terrorism financing. What do you think is the way out?
Most of the banks involved in those things are not Nigerian banks. Just recently, a drug addict was caught in Mexico and it was discovered he had accumulated millions in dollars. This is just next door to the USA. So, these are things that usually happen in that part of the world. That money is going to be laundered into the US and European banks, and Nigerian banks will never benefit or experience it. They make a lot of noise as if we are in the same boat but we are not. Our banking system is relatively transparent.
Why has it been difficult for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to access loans that will help them grow?
Perhaps, the way to do it is to ensure that they get a more disciplined system with a financial system, counter system and stock system, including all the necessary financial information that needs to be recorded and monitored. One of the things that SMEs need most is good record keeping. I believe that any company, medium or small, has a lot to benefit from that. They will be able to provide the latest information to the banks whenever they need it. There is a bank already set up by the international community, which is financed by international financial organizations to assist the medium and small-scale institutions. So, there are a lot of efforts to assist the SMEs in this regard.
Only recently the federal government said that Nigeria is out of recession but some have debunked that claim, saying it is not over yet. Is Nigeria out of recession and if no, what are the ways out of the current economic problems the country is facing?
I believe the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari is doing a lot to reposition the economy and it needs all the support it can muster. That said, we must ensure that we consume what we produce. We must not continue to import those things that we do not need. You know that a substantial part of the country’s foreign exchange is used to import fuel. So, if we can get our refineries working that will certainly minimize the amount of money we need to buy fuel because we have the raw material and the refineries; we only have to get them repaired.
The dry port, which you are building in Funtua, Katsina State is conceived to be the biggest of them all, when it is completed. What in your estimation should Nigerians be looking at in terms of number of jobs that will be created and the revenue that will be generated?
Obviously, the revenue is incalculable and cannot be imagined. The number of people that could be employed within the periphery of the port could range between 8,000-10,000 and you can well imagine the various ripple effects of those employees and the economic advantages, including the tax they have to pay, local government and state as well as companies’ income tax for federal government. It is going to be a big revenue-generating cash machine for the government because anything you do, you have to pay charges and fees. We are very anxious to commence and see the benefit of this very laudable project we started about 12 years ago.
Given your track record as a go-getter and the strategic location of the Funtua Dry Port, should Nigerians be expecting the best dry port in the country?
Certainly Funtua dry port is going to be an ultra-modern port with state of the art equipment available in the industry. Like I said earlier, the area is endowed with rich agricultural and mineral resources and we feel that that will be an advantage. We will also apply for export processing zone (EPZ) from the Nigerian Export Processing Zones Authority (NEPZA) to be called the Funtua Export Processing Zone, so that farmers who have products to export do not have to go far. Within the premises of the port they could process the product, bag and weigh it, get it into good quality form ready for export. These are some of the advantages that farmers will benefit from.
How do you intend to take advantage of the proximity of the Funtua Dry Port to Niger Republic, and also being the only dry port around Zamfara, Sokoto and Kebbi axis?
We have visited the people of that area and we intend to invite them to participate in the equity of the dry port. It will be a great advantage to Nigeria and Niger since this dry port is next door. We have also been talking to Chad, which has a lot of export/import commodities and we have entered into some kind of MoU with them. Presently, when they import their goods through Nigeria, they will offload in Lagos and get open trailers to take them to Chad. If this particular arrangement can work, it will be of great benefit because, as it is now, they carry the goods with the whole container to Chad, empty it and then bring the containers back empty. So, you can see that even though the Funtua Dry Port is far from Chad, there are lots of advantages that could come from it. And with the improvement in the security situation in the North East, we are good to go! Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso will also benefit from the port. All said, the Funtua Dry Port is going to be an Ultra Modern Port with state of the art equipment.
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