•At town hall meeting, participants lament Nigerians suffering hardship, hunger
NINE ministers present at the town hall meeting held in Abuja, on Tuesday, made strong defence of the economic recovery plans of President Muhammadu Buhari’s government.
The ministers also defended the conservative borrowing by the administration to invest in capital projects.
Leading them were Ministers of Finance, Kemi Adeosun; Budget and National Planning, Udoma Udoma; Agriculture and Rural Development, Audu Ogbeh and the Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed.
Others at the meeting, organised by the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, in collaboration with the Alumni Association of National Institute, were Ministers of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed; Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola; Solid Minerals, Dr Kayode Fayemi; Health, Professor Isaac Adewole and Foreign Affairs, Mr Geofrey Onyema.The Sultan of Sokoto and chairman, AANI Heritage Council, Alhaji Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar, chaired the meeting and was accompanied by the Etsu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar.
The ministers rose in vigorous defence of the Federal Government in its plans to provide answers to the current economic hardship at the town hall meeting.
There were, however, altercations between seven ministers and members of the audience, as a number of them joined issues with the ministers over perceived incongruity in their claims with prevalent stark socio-economic realities in the country.
Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma, had set the ball rolling, when he gave an insight into the whopping sums of fund so far released to breathe life into critical sectors of the economy.
He said aside from the N102 billion given to the power, works, and housing, defence got N50 billion; transport, N23 billion; agriculture, N21 billion; special intervention programme, N15 billion; Niger Delta, N9 billion, while water received N5.9 billion.
While confirming the receipt of the allocation, Fashola described the amount as nothing compared with the huge expectations of Nigerians from his ministry.
Most federal roads remain in a deplorable state, while power outage has become a recurring decimal across the country, with its heavy toll on the productive sector of the economy.
Fashola said he inherited 206 federal roads, which were under construction and valued at N2.1 trillion, noting that N700 billion had, so far, been paid to contractors and other allied interests who received nothing in two years out of the amount before July 29.
According to him, the release of the fund was why the contractors returned to sites on the Lagos-Ibadan; Port Harcourt-Enugu; Ilorin-Jeba; Kano-Maiduguri and Kano-Katsina roads.
The minister noted that the government had moved from spending between 10 to 15 per cent of its annual budget on capital projects to 30 per cent.
He also stated that fiscal discipline and increased budgetary size remained the way out for improved infrastructure in the country.
Fashola disclosed that the contractor had already returned to site at Damboa power transmission site in Borno State, which was abandoned as a result of insurgency and promised to deliver the project by December.
Replying a question from the audience as to why the president combined the three departments under one ministry, Fashola said the plan was to reduce the cost of running government, adding that works and housing had worked together, while what was left for him to do in the power sector was to complete the privatisation as well as work on the transmission sub-sector.
“My job in the Ministry of Power is supervisory and directional. The sector is no longer government-driven but government-regulated.”
He, however, said anyone who had complaint should rather ask the president who merged the ministries and assigned him to head them.
Minister of Finance, Adeosun, said that the ministry was on the verge of releasing additional N100 billion to the various sectors of the economy.
She said the fund was, nonetheless, not enough, leaving the government with an option of looking for ways of attracting private capital for development.
She lamented that the country was behind in infrastructural development and the fund available to government was limited and as such, the government could not afford to waste money.
Adeosun traced the journey to the current state of economy to more than seven years ago when successive government gave more premium to recurrent expenditure to the detriment of capital spend.
She said, however, that government had decided to reverse the trend with increased capital expenditure and diversification of the economy from the current mono-product status.
She alluded to the fact that about N165 billion was expended monthly to offset salaries of workers with only about 10 per cent of the 2016 budget voted for capital projects, noting, however, that despite cutting down the amount being spent on salaries from the N165 billion to a bout N159 billion, she kept signing memo on removal of more ghost workers from payroll each month.
Insisting that the country could not afford to waste money at this time, Adeosun lamented that it spent a meagre N90 billion on roads and did not operate producing economy.
According to her, the ways to come out of the present economic recession was by being disciplined in expenditure, investment in capital projects and diversification of the economy.
We’re not thinking of budget review —Udoma
The Budget and National Planning minister, Senator Udoma, ruled out an immediate re-working of the 2016 budget despite current economic realities.
So far, he said government had released more than N330 billion for capital projects, inclusive of the capital in statutory transfers.
Although, the disparity between projected revenue and actual receipts in the last two quarters was obvious, the government, he said, was optimistic that the current situation would not prevail for long.
According to him, government would only consider a review when there were clear indications of persistent fall in revenue expectations.
While admitting that government was worried about the current trend, Udoma said government was keeping close watch, particularly on the economic indicators.
The minister said, however, that if the downward trajectory persisted, government might make reasonable adjustments to accord with prevailing realities.
He said in spite of the dwindling resources, government was determined to use the budget as an instrument to reflate the economy, which was why the budget was backed up with a Strategic Implementation Plan (SIP) to fundamentally address the challenges.
We are ready to engage Nigerians on govt’s policies —Lai Mohammed
Information Minister and moderator of the meeting, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said government was ever ready to engage with Nigerians and to explain its policies and actions as well as seek inputs from the people for the better governance of the country.
He was delighted that instead of joining the band of fault-finders and traditional critics of government, the alumni decided to constructively engage with government towards finding solutions and contributing to the growth of the economy.
He said by their decision to hear from the government, ask questions and also make their own input, the institute chose to be a part of the solution rather than to compound the challenges.
We are aware there is hunger in the land —Ogbeh
Minister of Agriculture, Ogbeh, said the government was aware of the cry by citizens that there was hunger in the country and traced the genesis of the situation to 1986 when he alleged that Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) midwifed devaluation and uncontrolled importation in the country.
He lamented that agriculture was abandoned to poor peasant farmers in the villages and expressed regrets that the country was working towards a situation where it had children whose brains were not properly developed with about 37 per cent of malnourished children.
Ogbeh disclosed that his ministry was working towards restructuring of the Bank of Agriculture, so as to bring down interest rate on loans to about five per cent.
According to him, the ministry was equally reviving ranches and raising grazing reserves where states agreed to them.
Lamenting the situation where over $1 billion was spent annually on importation of milk, the minister said as an informal trade, the country could not account for what was earned when it fed some African countries such as Libya, Algeria, Chad and Mauritania before the Boko Haram insurgency broke out.
“I don’t believe in devaluation but there are people who believe in it and that we should further devalue. We are watching to see how this goes and I hope it does not get to N1,000 per dollar
“Demand for dollars from Nigerians is $2.5 billionn a week, I was reliably told, but we don’t have it, we don’t print dollars and people are angry we don’t make it available,” he said.
This is an exciting time —Hajia Mohammed
In her speech, the Minister of Environment, Hajia Mohammed expressed surprise that many citizens “want us to have changed things yesterday, and not even today,” stating that “this is an exciting time.”
The minister said she was satisfied that President Buhari had created the kind of environment where people could no longer steal public funds and where nobody needed to give anything to get something.
Also speaking, Minister of Solid Minerals, Dr Kayode Fayemi lamented that $3.3 billion was spent on importation of steel annually despite the fact that the country was rich in iron ore which was left to waste away for reasons he said the current administration could not explain.
He disclosed that the country had one of the best mining codes in the world in terms of its clarity, incentive and focus, and expressed satisfaction that the country had achieved self-sufficiency in cement production and currently exporting same.
He, however, lamented the situation where the country, although a mineral-rich nation, was not a mining nation.
Participants at a the town hall meeting, however, stressed that there was hunger and hardship in the country, while asking for what government was doing to cushion the effects of the time.
Yar’Adua Centre, venue of the meeting, was filled to the brim, with many participants observing from the gallery and many others unable to find space.
Some participants who spoke at the event, including a representative of the National Council on Women Society (NCWS), said the people at the grassroots, including women, were yet to get adequate information on the efforts of government.
They noted that the stakeholders’ engagements had alienated the critical segment which they said had powers to effect a change of government as it focused on the elite.
One of the participants and former Nigeria’s permanent representative to African South American Cooperation Forum (ASACOF) based in Caracas, Venezuela, Ambassador Christy Mbonu, said the country needed to understudy steps taken by Brazil and Israel in boosting their power supply and focus on tapping the abundant natural resources in the country.
She asked for government’s intervention in the area of provision of infrastructure in the country as well as provide intervention to the flood crisis at Lugbe community.
Another participant observed that the country’s education system was in a total mess, wondering why the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu, was not invited to the meting.
The moment the event came to a close, some of the participants demonstrated hunger by scampering for food placed at the basement.
At a time, the situation became chaotic as they hit the door and pushed one another in the bid to grab food.