Jigawa State governor, Alhaji Mohammed Badaru Abubakar, recently spoke to journalists in Dutse on a number of issues. ADAMU AMADU brings the excerpts.
How would you react to the alleged poor socioeconomic policies of the Federal Government that are making life difficult for the citizenry, particularly the common man?
Well, I believe the Federal Government has done remarkably well considering the situation we found ourselves in after we were sworn in on May 29, 2015. People tend to forget that the economic downturn actually started manifesting in 2014 due to a growing mismatch between the profligate and reckless spending by the previous government, fuelled by high oil prices and the resultant shock to the system when prices started to fall. Nigeria’s case was worsened by the fact that with the falling oil prices, our production targets were affected by militants’ activities in the Niger Delta and outright theft of the nation’s crude on a massive scale, perpetrated with the full backing and sanction of government officials.
By 2015, the country’s economy was on life-support and was literally handed over to the APC government on a stretcher. If you bother to add up all the billions that were stolen in the name of security and the rot in the oil sector, you will appreciate the fact that these people were not running a government in the last eight years, but [were] simply supervising the organised sharing of public funds amongst themselves. It is actually a miracle that the Buhari administration has been able to come this far without a complete collapse of the economy and the government such as we are seeing in Venezuela, which had the same toxic combination of a collapsing mono economy and an uncaring administration. Without the massive operation to plug the leakages in the system and sending a signal that it’s no longer business as usual, Nigeria would not have lasted up to July 2015 with a 70 percent drop in revenue and the unsustainable recurrent expenditure that continues to take the lion’s share. President Buhari has very few options with the way he was dealt with the situation and the inevitable road to economic diversification that he is leading the country is the silver lining in the Nigerian economic cloud, because even if oil prices rebound subsequently, the commodity will only be one of the several pillars of a decentralised economic model. It has not been easy and nobody is pretending that it will be, but Nigerians have to understand that we must pass through this very difficult phase before things get better and macroeconomics is no respecter of persons or regimes. It took President Obama the whole of his first term to reverse the tide of the economic downturn brought about by the fiscal recklessness of the Bush administration to fund the Iraq war and the global recession, and it was only halfway through his second term that the outlook turned positive.
Even when people talk about the falling naira, exchange rates are largely a reflection of the confidence people have in any particular currency and rates are not dependent on what President Buhari or the CBN governor decrees them to be. The indices are your foreign exchange reserves, your trade balance or imbalance and the perception of future outlook, so there is no way to support a N160 to the dollar rate that was prevalent in a $110 per dollar oil price regimen and $60 billion reserve scenario with what we have at the moment. We need to diversify our economy and push towards a basket of export commodities that will shore up foreign earnings while concurrently weaning ourselves off foreign nonessential consumer goods that continuously put pressure on the naira, otherwise demand for dollar supply and perception will continue to hold sway in rate determination.
We are on the path to recovery and the outlook is very good, with focus and reorientation, we are seeing a three-fold increase in rice yield per hectare this harvest season and in a lot of states like Kebbi and Ebonyi, the story is the same, if dwindling oil prices force us back to the farm and this in turn ensures food security in two to three years, Nigeria will be back to the glory years.
But there are doubts from experts who question lack of any visible short, medium or even long term policies that they think could seriously guide this nation to economic stability. Do you think lack of these clear policies may not hinder this optimism you are expressing about the economy?
I just told you that with the best policies, economists and largest fiscal footprint in the world, it took the United States almost six years to turn the tide from the economic meltdown that manifested at the end of the Bush administration, the economy does not respond to lamentations or criticism or political chicanery and it took eight years of systemic maladministration under an atmosphere of unprecedented oil wealth to bring it to this sorry state, why does anyone expect Buhari to wave a magic wand and suddenly shore up the value of the naira, reflate our foreign reserves and crash food prices countrywide? Have you counted the zeros behind the numbers coming out of the reports on stolen funds? Are you aware that our inherited foreign reserves are only slightly more than the amount in private domiciliary accounts? Do you know that illicit funds traced to a few individuals can fund several months of foreign exchange auctions? I think we should thank our stars and heave a collective sigh of relief that a change at the helm has probably brought this country back from the brink of collapse, because a continuation of the former government would not have exposed the mess we were in; we would just wake up one day and find that they have taken their private jets and handed over what is left of the country to Boko Haram.
It is not a question of policy, the fact is the bleeding and wastage has to be stopped and a clear signal sent out that it cannot be business as usual and I think what has been achieved in that regard in the last 12 months is nothing short of a miracle and there was a simultaneous push towards a strategic refocusing of the economy back to the real sector which in Nigeria’s case is agriculture and manufacturing, both of which have suffered abject neglect because we chose to use the oil earnings to import everything, including ironically, petroleum products from countries that have no oil but have the refining capacity. It’s very sad.
As a businessman, are you then confident that these policies can reverse the mass loss of jobs and inject opportunities for the teeming populace who are struggling to have access to jobs?
Definitely, the current trend is paying off. Look at states like Jigawa and Kebbi and many others that are diversifying their economies through a complete restructuring of the agricultural landscape. The truth is, our only mainstay is fertile agricultural land, which, through a combination of archaic cultivation and production methods and a preference for importation, has remained stagnated. Nigeria is the only country I know that doesn’t place food security on the same pedestal as the security of its borders, and we have 160 million mouths to feed. The mantra was to import everything we eat using oil dollars to the detriment of local production so there is no incentive to localise production and increase our competitiveness. How do you expect a farmer tilling his land with a hoe and getting an average of three tonnes per hectare of rice per season to compete with his Thailand counterpart getting eight tonnes twice a year? By sheer dint of focus we have achieved a three-fold increase in outgrower farm rice production this season with farmers averaging 6 tons per hectre with less input utilization. We are expanding this program through harnessing 50 hectare clusters across 287 wards in the state. Our agricultural productivity has been so dismal that with appropriate focus and best practices we can double the output of almost every staple crop without increasing the land under cultivation and this is the only way we can throw away the shackles of food importation and provide employment opportunities through the complete agric value chain.
APC governors recently intervened in the seeming crisis within the party between the legislature and the executive. What is really causing these frictions within the party?
I do not see any serious crisis within the APC or between the National Assembly and the executive. People are just mischievously trying to blow things out of proportion and bring a political angle to every mundane administrative issue. We are running a presidential system of government with three independent arms whose roles have been spelt out by the constitution. Since the constitution cannot envisage every foreseeable scenario, the judiciary has been saddled with the responsibility of interpreting it in case of dispute or overlap and its decisions are binding and final. Because we are coming from an era of near anarchy where the executive had its finger in every arm and had bastardised the system, people were expecting business as usual. It is not fair to castigate the president for refusing to interfere in the process of the legislature choosing its leaders and then turn round to blame him for not intervening because they have issues with the judicial arm. The truth is that even those advocating the so-called political solution are asking the president to call the judiciary and instruct them to hands off. This was the order of the day in the PDP administration but it negates the rule of law and makes nonsense of the sanctity of separation of powers. The governors as leaders of the political space within their states need to ensure that sanity prevails and our role is simply to douse tension that is being generated unnecessarily by political pundits, especially from the opposition who will tell you that “during our time, oga would have intervened.”
Has your intervention settled the seeming crisis between the Senate President, Bukola Saraki and the presidency?
The relationship between the National Assembly and the presidency has always been cordial. There was, of course, some misunderstanding with the party when it sought to assert its supremacy on some issues but even that has been sorted out with the series of discussions held at the behest of the governors.
The APC governors have been working with some foreign countries on the issue of borrowing. What is the progress on this issue?
The efforts by APC governors to collaborate with some foreign countries to borrow is in line with our national borrowing plan and is being looked at by the federal budget office and the other relevant organs to ensure the plan is in line with our overall national plan and the projects that will come out from the states and the federation in general are in conformity with our collective short and medium term developmental plans.
How would you assess yourself in terms of performance?
Well, I believe I cannot assess myself but the best way is to go out there and ask people how they assess my performance since my inception. I really don’t like it when states are being benchmarked and assessed on their ability to pay salaries, which is a basic recurrent expense but the indices are so bad that a lot of states are technically insolvent and it’s unfair to blame a governor who found that situation thrown in his lap on assumption of office.
In Jigawa, we are trying to ensure that all recurrent obligations are met and not just state salaries but local government and teacher’s salaries, including all allowances, pension and gratuity liabilities, examination fees and scholarships including almost three years backlog we inherited and so on. There is no secret formula for this we simply borrowed a leaf from what the president was doing at the national level and cut all unnecessary expenditure, plugged fiscal leakage and put prudence and efficiency in the driver’s seat. You see just like Nigeria a state like Jigawa is a mono economy and if you disrupt the injection of the salary component on a monthly basis it will translate into a crisis. This is why our focus is to create an alternative economy that impacts on the entire populace and the Agricultural sector being the predominant activity has the capacity to achieve this. We inherited huge liabilities, especially infrastructure projects that have been committed but unpaid, but as I speak to you close to 80 percent of them are now re-mobilised and ongoing.