National assets: Going, going, going…

Saraki, Ekweremadu, Dangote, Sanusi and Ayuba Wadda

For three days last week, the Senate debated the current economic recession, with no fewer than 60 Senators offering possible ways out of the economic quagmire. Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA highlights the key components of Senate’s anti-recession pill.


A number of opinions called on the National Assembly to suspend its annual recess when Nigeria eventually plunged into recession in accordance with statistics released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). Some had expected that the lawmakers would call an emergency session to address the situation and take bold steps to support Federal Government’s economic policies.

But as a result of what was called legislative realities, the lawmakers kept to their holiday schedule and were even forced to add a week due to the public holidays declared by the government.

Thus, on resumption on September 20, there was no pretense as to the urgency of the matter at hand. The Senate, which sat on Tuesday, launched out at the problem, beginning with a long speech by its President, Dr Bukola Saraki. The next legislative day, a full-scale debate unfolded. The debate on the floor on Wednesday and Thursday can only be likened to what is usually witnessed on two other

critical occasions in the legislature. One is when the lawmakers debate the annual budget speech and the other is when a debate on constitution amendment is afoot. Almost all the Senators that attended the sittings spoke on the matter at hand, proffering solutions they believed could help Nigeria out of the doldrums.

Saraki, who kicked off the debate on Tuesday, made some 14 recommendations which he said the government could adopt to shore up its finances. He said that the National Assembly was ready to take every legislative measure that would facilitate Nigeria’s quick recovery from recession.

Saraki told the nation that he interacted with members of his constituency during the break and discovered that Nigerians were finding things increasingly difficult. He said while he attempted to explain to his constituents that the economic hardship must have been caused by the past administrations which refused to do what was necessary, the consensus among the people was that they were not interested in how we got to where we are but in government’s plans to get the country out of the predicament.

“To them, the only explanation that makes sense at the moment is that which puts food on the table, reduces price of rice, garri, salt, sugar, meat and saves jobs,” he said.

Saraki then reeled off his recommendations one of which advised the executive to put in place a pro-business leadership-level engagement platform in link with the private sector to show its readiness to partner with the business community towards economic revival.

He also advised the executive to raise funds from asset sales and other sources to shore up foreign reserves. According to him, this will calm investors, discourage currency speculation and stabilise the economy. One of the measures, according to him, should include part sale of NLNG Holdings; reduction of government share in upstream oil joint venture operations; sale of government stake in financial institutions like Africa Finance Corporation; and the privatisation and concession of major/regional airports and refineries. Saraki also asked the executive arm of government to consider tweaking the pension funds policy and ensuring its usage for investment in infrastructure and mortgages.

Other measures highlighted by Saraki include easing and harmonisation of monetary and fiscal policies to stimulate the economy while ensuring the local borrowing does not crowd out credit for the private sector; re-tooling of export promotion policy scheme and resumption of incentives such as Export Expansion Grant (EEG); engagement of the restive youths of Niger Delta to shore up oil production; immediate release of funds to ensure short-term injection of money into the economy; directly support for the agricultural and the agro-allied sector; evolution of immediate strategies to ease the suffering of the ordinary people; passage of priority bills such as the Petroleum Industry bill by the National Assembly, among others.

According to the Senate President, those bills can ginger economic reforms, free up capital and provide the opportunities to get the nation out of recession. He also mentioned the need to explore the possibility of backing certain key government policies with legislations to give confidence to investors

He concluded: “It is clear to me that when people are desperately hungry, what they need is leadership with a clear vision; leadership whose daily actions reflect the very urgency of the people’s condition. Therefore, our response to the current challenge must be dictated by the urgency of the hardship that the people suffer on a daily basis.”

There is no doubt that the most contentious suggestion by Saraki is the call for sale of critical assets to shore up foreign reserves. On the same day, business mogul and Chairman of Dangote Group, Alhaji

Aliko Dangote and former Central Bank Governor and the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi were quoted in the media as expressing similar sentiments to help the nation come out of economic recession. A number of commentators also joined the fray on either side of the argument. While some expressed support, others disagreed and some others stayed in the middle.

But within the National Assembly itself, there is a divided view on this matter.

On Wednesday, when some 24 Senators took the floor, opinion expressed was divergent. Deputy Senate President, Senator Ike Ekweremadu led those opposed to the sale of national assets, insisting that there were other ways the government could raise capital. Ekweremadu opined that selling national assets would further impose economic woes on the people, adding that the idea must be viewed with caution.

“I have heard about the issue of selling our assets. I need to caution that other countries are not doing the same. The United Arab Emirate does not even allow people to have access to their oil wells, let alone selling them. And of course, in a country like Saudi Arabia, their budget each year is run by investments from their oil revenue not even the earnings from other sources. So, if we must sell we have

to sell the non-performing assets so that people can turn them around and create employment.”

Former governor of Benue State, Senator George Akume, also spoke in similar vein insisting that those calling for the sale of assets might be those with “deep pockets.” He said: “I am worried because people who are telling us to sell these assets are people who have huge pockets. Our assets must remain for us: even Saudi Arabia didn’t sell part of their national assets as alleged. There are other areas that we can tackle.”

Another round of controversy was, however, ignited when Ekweremadu called on President Muhammadu Buhari to redeploy his Finance Minister, Mrs Kemi Adeosun and the Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma. Ekweremadu also suggested: “I think the best thing to do at this point is for the government to consciously release as much money as possible into the economy. Yes we are saying that there is no money; the oil price has dropped but we were also told that through the TSA we have about N3 trillion somewhere. We were also told that the former minister of petroleum returned $20 million. We were also told that politicians have returned several billions of naira, dollars and pounds.

“It is either that this is not true or that the money is somewhere and if it is not true, someone needs to apologise to us and state the correct thing. And if it is true, this money has to be released to contractors so that contractors can be able to go to work and those in the construction industries will be paid and then they will pay the school fees of their children and money will circulate. If we have money in the economy, I am sure that shortly we will also find some relief.”

On Thursday, more senators took the floor and brought forward their take on the recession. While Senator Sola Adeyeye called for restructuring of the polity to pave the way for development, Senator Ben Murray Bruce and a number of others advised the president against strong arm tactics in the anti-graft war. A number of senators also insisted that the government must release the funds locked up in the coffers of the Central Bank of Nigeria through the implementation of the Treasury Single Account (TSA).

Senate Chief Whip, Adeyeye, who strongly canvassed restructuring, said: “Many have asked that we must restructure and I agree that we must restructure. Let us to look at this current constitutional review,

check the exclusive list and the concurrent list. Let us look at where we have overburdened the Federal Government. Everybody wants something from the Federal Government.

“To save Nigeria, we must reduce the cost of governance. Nigeria’s estacode is the highest in the world. We must slash it to 50 per cent. Obafemi Awolowo campaigned in 1978 that he was going to slash it and it has now grown five times from what it was in those days. We must slash. When you go to our airports and you park your car you pay N300 that is 75 cents in all modern economies you pay per hour. If we are going to find money we must become creative. All of you with houses in Asokoro, Maitama and Apo  don’t pay tenement rate. All of us must pay.”

After listening to some 60 Senators in a space of three days, the Senate resolved to set up a six-member ad hoc committee to compile all suggested points for onward transmission to the president for implementation.

As the nation awaits the final recommendations of the Senate, the controversy already ignited by some of their submissions are already shaking the polity. On Friday, rival claimant to the Presidency of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Comrade Joe Ajaero insisted that Nigerian workers would fight the planned sale of national assets, saying such assets sold in the past never really benefitted the people.

He mentioned the case of Nigerian Airways, the Nigerian Telecommunications (NITEL) and a number of other corporations sold in the past years. According to him, workers will be badly affected if the assets are sold as it was bound to lead to loss of jobs.

President of the NLC, Comrade Ayuba Wabba, also rejected the call for sale of national assets and part of the nation’s shareholdings in the LNLG. Wabba, in a statement during the week, cautioned against the planned sale. He said: “For example, it was the accrued dividend payments from LNLG shares that provided the resources for the first bail-out to states when many states could not pay salaries under this present government.  It is on record that dividends, in excess of one billion dollars, have accrued annually to the national coffers from the gas company over the past twelve years.”

NLC president further said: “these calls are more worrisome when one considers the history of sovereign assets divestiture in the past.  Where are the proceeds from sales of the assets in the power sector for instance?  With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that these assets were distributed to favoured individuals and surrogates of the ruling elite without any appreciable benefits to Nigerians.

“There are lessons to be learnt from some other OPEC countries which invested their oil revenues heavily in the acquisition of sovereign assets, both domestically and internationally.  Such countries today are deriving a steady stream of earnings from those assets and are, therefore, less vulnerable to the fiscal crisis occasioned by failing oil revenues.”

The Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industries have also raised issues about some of the anti-recession recommendations.  The civil rights body easily sees a conspiracy theory through the lens of those calling for the sale of national assets. CLO’s Executive Director Ibuchukwu  Ohabuenyi  Ezike, had said last week that that the National Assembly and the Federal Government should reject the call for sale of national assets.

The Rights Group said: “The call for the sale of public utilities is absolutely uncalled for and worrisome. We warn the politicians not to take the patience of agonising, wailing and impoverished Nigerians for granted.

“Huge cut in the cost of running government, including reduction of aides, wages/salaries and allowance packages for both politicians and workers in the executive and legislative arms of government and across all the tiers of government.

“Begin immediate debate and implementation of the Report of the 2014 National Conference that points the positive way forward for Nigeria in all sectors and directions.”

That controversy notwithstanding, the National Economic Council(NEC) a body  headed by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and comprises the 36 state governors and the Minister of Federal Capital Territory(FCT) rose from its meeting on Thursday to endorse the call for sale of assets to shore up government revenue.

Governor of Kebbi State, Senator Atiku Bagudu, said in Abuja on Thursday that the governors agreed to plans by the economic management team to sell  some national assets. According to him, the economic management team briefed the body of its plan to generate funds through such means as including asset sales; advance payment of license renewals; infrastructure concessioning and use of recovered funds to reduce funding gaps.”

With that message coming through the NEC, it is apparent the highest bodies in the land are getting adapted to the call for sale of assets. That could create immediate confrontation with the Labour, which frustrated that sale of refineries to Dangote in 2007. But like some senators submitted, sale of some non-performing infrastructure could be contemplated if the target is to revive them and create employment.