Laolu Akande, Senior Special Assistant to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, addresses some concerns about the activities of the present administration in this interview with select journalists. LEON USIGBE brings the excerpts.
The vice president is doing a lot on the economy and apparently, the impact of this administration’s Economic Management Team has not been felt on the nation’s economy, one year after. What will you tell Nigerians?
The Economic Management Team started taking shape after ministers were inaugurated. That means it is not up to a year. That was October 2015 or thereabouts. We have to understand that the attitude of this presidency is to consider the management of the economy as a government responsibility. It is not something that this government believes should be done by bringing in some of the private interests into the economic team to take a decision that they will be directly involved with.
So, our stand is that the management of the economy is a government responsibility and we engage the stakeholders in the economy. For instance, we have started meeting on a constant basis with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN). There have been meetings with arms of the economic sector of the country. There have been meetings with the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) and some other economic interests with companies making presentations. But generally, this thing is a government team and the team has been able to set out before the budget trying to figure out what the budget ought to focus on. After the budget was presented and eventually signed, there was also the publication of the strategic implementation plan which was produced in a reader-friendly format. All of these are the outcomes of what the Economic Management Team does and it is also in the team that you have the heap of the whole physical and monetary policy and don’t forget that the monetary policy is always the duty and responsibility of the Central Bank which is an economic arm of government.
At times, more than once in a week, almost certainly most of the time, the team meets every Monday and make proposal and suggestions to the president but then the team is actually like an ad hoc committee of the Federal Executive Council and that is why we don’t throw a lot of media around it because it is a committee that is meant to advise Mr President.
So, the team, for instance, defined six themes around the economy and used that to build the budget and reflate the economy. The first is policy, governance and security, which includes issues such as ensuring a stable and predictable exchange rate and securing the nation. The second one is economic diversification, which includes achieving targeted self-sufficiency in agricultural produce and increasing private sector investments. The third is infrastructural development, which includes the completion of several NIPPs and the Lagos-Calabar coastal railway. Oil and gas reforms is the fourth one and it includes privatisation of refineries, PIB and ensuring gas availability to power the plants. The ease of doing business is the fifth one. In this regard, the president has constituted a presidential council headed by the vice president to look at fast tracking pre-investment approvals across the country, eliminate bureaucratic delays and so on. The last one is the social investment meant to assuage unemployment pains, development of human capacity and improve school enrolment
Nigerians out there tell you that the economy right now is not in a good shape. How do you convince them that the government is working towards ensuring that the economy is boosted?
As much as we try not to say this, we know as a matter of fact that members of the past administration, most of them have come out to say they did not save for the rainy day. So, we are dealing mostly with situations that have been caused even before this administration took over power. The president and his team have worked hard and planned not only to save cost, not only to tighten public expenditure but to also diversify the economy like never before.
So, we believe that going forward, things will begin to pick up again. It is taking a while because of the extent of the damage. If the country took a sharp drop, as much as 70 percent drop in its foreign earning, you can begin to understand some of the difficulties that the country is going through, where states used to share a huge sum of money but which has come down incredibly. For instance, in April, I think, the whole foreign earning was just about $550 million, which is low. So, these are the problems and a lot of what is happening right now in the country is as a result of some of the decisions that were taken in the past. But the administration has clearly changed the direction of this country and going forward, we expect better things.
This is the second year of the administration and it is the same song of what the past administration did or didn’t do being responsible for where we are. When should Nigerians expect the first fruit of this administration’s efforts?
The first fruit is already in place because we have started rebuilding. I believe that a huge factor in the way Nigeria is today economically is corruption. We can’t run away from that and the president has made it clear and I think everyone in the country now understands that and it is not going to continue. Effectively, he has reduced the corruption in Nigeria. Look at what the TSA, for instance, has managed to save, I think, in the region of N3 trillion, which would have been lost if we didn’t have the TSA implemented. I think he tried to cut cost with many ghost workers in the federal payroll detected and I understand that the process is continuing. So, one of the things that the president has delivered is that the bleeding has stopped and that is so important.
The constitution requires that whatever is made is deposited into the Federation Account in which case, you can’t keep aside any money. So, how can this government accuse the past government of not saving?
Well, there are several ways of managing your resources adequately in a prudent way. Firstly, when a barrel was being sold for over $100, what did we do with the money? And as much as some of our friends in the media will tend to say what is up and down, there is no way you won’t have to look back to look forward. That is the point. How many of the infrastructural projects that were made have been implemented for the betterment of the people? How many were delivered? And how many roads were built, for instance, in the last eight, nine, 10 years? These are the ways you manage your resources well to take care of the future. And when you look at the idea of the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF), it is also a good idea which this country needs. That is why we say Nigeria would have safeguarded much more than what we have. So, when you spend your resources adequately on your people, when you spend your resources on infrastructure, in essence, you are saving. What I am saying is that we had a lot of wrongs in the past.
Let’s look at the government’s social welfare scheme. Many would have thought that with the media hype that characterized it, by now, you should have been able to point to a certain number of people that have benefited from the scheme.
You have to agree that we do have some delay in the whole process because of the timing of the budget approval. For instance, when we came in at the end of May, there was no way the government could implement some of those social welfare schemes because it was not budgeted for. So, we had to wait for the budget process to kick in so that we can begin to put our ideas forward, which was done and since the budget has been signed now, we are taking off. For instance, we have started the 500,000 jobs for unemployed graduates and people have been applying and I can tell you that the project will continue for the rest of July and the application process should end sometime at the end of this month and we will go to the next stage of picking the 500,000 unemployed that have been selected. The school feeding is also in the process. We are in the process of sitting down with the states that will start the first phase of it, trying to work out the modalities of how that is done. I think we can identify the states that would start. The states where the register has been developed are already working with the World Bank to start the conditional cash transfer. So, that is also in progress. As soon as funds become available, we would begin to announce very soon the commencement of these programmes.
What is the time frame for these projects? Besides, do you think that the N23,000 earmarked as the salary can sustain a graduate, considering the current harsh economic realities.
I believe the intention of the president is to make impact in the lives of Nigerians. The 500,000 jobs for unemployed graduates is a continuous programme. So, we expect that the people are going to exit after two years and I also think a new set of people after the two years will come in but it is going to get to a point that the economy would have picked up and sufficiently advanced to create private sector jobs. So, yes, we can’t begin to talk about the termination of the programme now because it is just starting. Hopefully, it is something that is going to go on for a while.
On the issue of the N23,000, the way we conceived the allocation of 500,000 jobs for unemployed graduates, especially teaching, is not so much to see it as a full time permanent job. It is like a volunteer job and then people get paid. The idea is to intervene. The idea is to say that N23,000 is better than nothing. They will stay in their community and help to teach, help in health sector. N23,000 is not a lot of money but it is an intervention to reduce the situation. We believe within two years, all things being equal and by the grace of God and all the programmes of this government in the economy, technology, agriculture, more jobs, real jobs, better jobs would be created. One thing that you are also not taking into consideration is the fact that we planned to pay N30,000 but an idea came that why don’t we actually do more in terms of preparing and equipping those selected 500,000 graduates by giving a laptop or an iPad that would be equipped with different kinds of Apps that can help them to develop new skills. So, N7,000 would be taken out of the N30,000 and would be used to give them, maybe, an iPad or a laptop. We are working with Microsoft and some technology firms abroad on how to give a good and useful skill that people can be empowered through and by that, even though he or she leaves in two years, he or she would take away that iPad, that laptop and be allowed to continue to improve themselves. So, we are looking at it as something that is a little bit more exciting than just those two years. We intend to create conditions that would give opportunity to people to actually discover their hidden talents, some of their gifts, by exposing them to better technology in different aspects of life.
Some people had the impression that the recruitment would have been better handled by the NDE or ministries instead of the office of the vice president. Their belief is that the exercise will not be transparent under the current arrangement. How will you react to this?
The first thing about this process is that it is transparent and that is why we are using a platform that everybody can go and check. That is the first thing. That is why we are insisting on applications. NDE is involved. The ministries are involved. When we have a project that cuts across ministries, we need coordination and that is what the presidency is doing. So, it is for the reason of bringing about effective coordination that Mr President has asked the vice president to coordinate this programme to bring the ministries together. It is not just something that is done by one ministry and you don’t want a situation where everybody would be going in different ways. The presidency exists for the purpose of coordinating the job of government. So, that is why it is being coordinated. So, each of these programmes has inter-ministerial interactions and working effectively and efficiently to deliver on the plans of Mr President.
The vice president coordinates the economy under this administration. Is he not concerned about reports of illegal recruitments in some government agencies such as CBN and FIRS?
Some of these reports are inaccurate. What we heard is that government is working to ensure that we develop going forward in more transparent process. We are committed to going forward to ensure that some of these procedures are refined, fine-tuned and made more transparent.