Buhari has done more than past leaders to develop Nigeria — Laolu Akande
Senior Special Assistant to Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo on Media and Publicity, Laolu Akande, speaks with SEYI GESINDE on developmental activities of the government in the last four years, especially in the areas of economy, job creation and infrastructural development.
Nigerians have been complaining about the biting economic situation in the country and with the vice president as the chairman of the National Economic Council, what do you think is responsible for this and what is the government doing to address it?
The particular situation of an economy at any given time is an accumulation of some previous decisions, events, actions and inaction of the past. What has become clear since President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration got into office is that we are addressing some of the more fundamental aspects of the Nigerian economy. By that, I mean in the last four years, we have seen the diversification of the economy like never before. The farmers will tell you that since we came in, things have changed. They said there were five million farmers then and now they are about 12 million. It is not my own claim, they said it themselves. And you can see with the Anchor Borrowers Programme; it has empowered over one million farmers to whom we give very affordable loans. This will be taken to the Next Level. And we are moving steadily into the diversification of the economy.
Experts have said that if agricultural development is encouraged, it could leverage on oil, job creation and national development, how far has government gone in this direction?
In the area of importation of rice where we used to spend over $5 million daily on rice import, the situation has changed due largely to the deliberate policy of the Federal Government in agricultural production, especially in prioritizing local rice production with the target to attain self-sufficiency. The government is very serious about diversification this is because some of the problems we have are as a result of the over-dependency on oil. When oil goes down, everything takes a tailspin. We came in and took serious attention to the diversification of the economy.
But there are still unemployment and infrastructural issues; do you think the government has done enough in these areas?
We are spending a lot more on infrastructure at a time when we have a lot less. When oil was sold for over $100 in the international market, we spent only about 10 to 12 per cent on capital. But we have started spending not less than 30 per cent on capital so that in every state today, there is an ongoing road project. We are building rail across the nation. The point is that these will not only set a stage for economic growth but it will also create jobs as we go along. We have spent more on infrastructure than what was spent in the decades before we came here. Our last two budgets recorded actual spend of over a trillion naira on infrastructure.
Aside from this, we have started the implementation of an ambitious Social Investment Programme including the N-Power where we provided post-secondary school job programmes in the entire country. We have hired over 500,000 unemployed graduates. We are feeding about 10 million pupils once daily. We have given affordable interest-free loans to over two million small scale traders across the country. The point is that the extent of the problem is that more than what we can immediately due to limited resources. But we are on the right path. No government has done more than what we have done on diversification, infrastructure and social investment. By the grace of God, we will do more to ramp up these programmes in the next four years.
Even though the economy of this country seems slow in growth, we just want Nigerians to be patient. We are looking at the private sector, we are meeting on a quarterly basis with those in different sectors to see what we can do to create a favourable environment for business to thrive so that local and foreign investments can come. We are currently sorting out the issues of licenses and permits, like visa on arrival, and we are doing a lot with technology. It is going to take a while for it to complement the economy effectively because of the damage that was there previously.
With all you have said, people who also follow the government’s programmes are fond of asking, ‹when will all these translate to putting food on the table of the average Nigerians› as many still cry of hunger? How will you answer them?
Food prices have actually gone down. If you look at the inflation figures, you will see that it is going down. The pupils we are feeding in public primary schools are also Nigerians. The 500,000 unemployed graduates in N-Power who are also Nigerians will tell you the impact of these policies on their every day lives. They are part of the average Nigerians on the streets whose lives have been changed. This was done such that they will have something to do before they get better, more permanent jobs. From 500,000, we are going to go to one million in the next iteration of N-Power. The over two million petty traders and small scale business owners we have given loans to are also Nigerians. All these social investment programmes are meant for Nigerians on the streets. And these Nigerians have the success stories to tell.
When you compare that to the extent of the problem we have and the number of Nigerians that are poor but we have only touched a part of it considering the direct and indirect beneficiaries. And yes, there is still a lot of work to be done but if you look at the figures empirically, you will see that we have done so much in four years better than what previous governments have done in the area of poverty alleviation. We will soon be releasing an empirical survey showing that about 70% of Nigerians support the progress so far recorded with the SIPs.
The TraderMoni generated a lot of controversies during the campaign for 2019 general election. Critics are of the opinion that giving N10,000 to petty traders seems too cheap, what’s your view on this?
If you go and ask them, over two million Nigerians who have benefited from this loan, they will tell you a different story. The petty traders whose stock is mostly valued at N3,000 or N2,000 and if they get N10,000, it is a significant change to their trade. And when they return the N10,000 which they are doing already, by the way, they get another N15,000. If they return the N15, 000, they get a fresh N20,000 and so on like that up to N100,000. You should go and ask them, they will tell you that the money is not insufficient. Those people sitting down doing armchair criticism should go out and ask them. A good percentage of them are returning the money today but a few ignorant people will be making noises over the place.
Those big guys who took loans in those big banks, we are still trying to get them to repay after several years and we are here talking about these petty traders. We have recorded over 60 per cent returns from these petty traders and they are getting more. I don’t know of any government that has touched the lives of the people like this government is doing and this is a fact that can be crosschecked.
Before the 2019 elections, there were rumours of a strained relationship between Buhari and Osinbajo, even that Buhari considered to drop him as running mate, is it true?
I don’t think there has been a better match in the history of this country as president and vice president than President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo. In terms of the chemistry and in terms of the fact that these two gentlemen share a common commitment, personal integrity and how they balance each other out in different areas of leadership. I don’t think there’s been a better pairing. And it is not true that there was a time the president considered replacing Professor Osinbajo as running mate. That is completely false. I can tell you that very clearly.
It was also said that the vice-president was not allowed to play his constitutional role as the VP and particularly when he was the acting president, that certain forces hindered him from performing his roles as acting president. Was there a time like this?
Again, just give this president the credit. Since we started this republic in 1999, how many people in power ever handed over power to their deputies when they were on vacation or out of the country? None of them. President Buhari is the only one that transfers powers to the vice president whenever he is on vacation. As a matter of fact, some former presidents have actually given kudos to the relationship between President Buhari and Vice-President Osinbajo. When the president hands over power to the vice-president during his vacation, the acting president gets the job done because he has been given the power to be in charge.
We should not dwell much on speculation that someone is stopping him from doing his job. How can you stop me from performing my constitutional duties for example? This is a duty I have sworn under oath to do. This is irrelevant, misleading and, at time,s baseless and a waste of time. This vice-president is not someone anyone can just stop from doing anything. I have not met someone as calm, yet as resolute. You can’t stop Yemi Osinbajo!
During 2019 elections campaign, the vice-president was involved in a crash while on his way to Kogi which also made people ask why he took a private helicopter on an official trip instead of taking one from the presidential fleet? The insinuation was that if he was given access to the president, he won’t resort to using a private chopper for an official trip. What do you say to this?
That is another laughable claim. The president and the vice-president meet several times in a week at home and in the office. The presidential fleet has a limited number of planes. The president flies with some so does the vice-president with the ones dedicated to him. At times, when the vice-president is running a busy schedule and the presidential choppers are being used by the president and the vice-president needs to travel, the vice president resorts to the use of private choppers. It is as simple as that and it happens regularly. That was what happened before that incident. I am on virtually all these trips, so I know what I am talking about. I was on the Kogi trip myself.
In the last four years, would you say that Nigeria is better, considering the insecurity challenges in the different parts of the country, including herdsmen crises, Boko Haram insurgency and kidnapping cases we are still facing in the country?
When the president came in 2016, about 18 local government areas in three states in the North-East were under the control of Boko Haram. They’ve hoisted their flags, imposed taxes on people. They were completely in charge but that is not happening anymore. The terrorists attacked the UN headquarters in Abuja. That is not happening anymore. In Borno, people are now living their lives unlike what we met on ground. As for the current security challenges, we will overcome them as the Lord lives!
On the farmers and herders clashes, many will ask what the government is doing about it?
On these crises, we have set a bar for law enforcement to arrest the perpetrators of the killings and there are a lot of arrests going on in different states. This is same for the kidnapping cases. That is progress on one side. We have also gone to see the root causes of these crises and that was why the vice-president and the National Economic Council made up of the state governors came up with the idea of National Livestock Transformation Plan. What we need to encourage is the federal and state governments working together potentially to encourage ranching. The NEC set up a working group with governors of Ebonyi, Plateau, Zamfara and others to consult with the state having this issue and they came back with a report which was endorsed by the NEC to encourage ranching.
We wanted to address the fundamentals of the crises and the issue is the problem of access to pasture. Federal Government is not interested in taking the lands from the state. By the extant laws of the country, the lands belong to the state governments. It was with the state governors at the NEC level that we tried to solve the problem and not at the Federal Government level, only.
Then, what is the government doing to intensify efforts in securing the country?
Talking about security, we felt the time has come for us to take the bull by the horns and promote State Police. You can’t have a country as wide as Nigeria and you’re running a federal policing system. It does not make sense and that is why we are advocating state police. However, it will take an amendment of the constitution but in the meantime, we devised the community policing and presidential orders have been given which the police force has started working on. This means the police officers in the community will be people who belong to the community. They will go and train them and when it is time for deployment, they will be deployed in their communities where they are known and where they grew up, where they understand the people and the language. It will be a game-changer. I am fully convinced this will be critical in helping us better secure our communities.
Any focus on the South-West to curb the recent kidnapping and banditry challenges?
When the president met with the traditional rulers from the South-West, he said this and that he was going to make sure that the police are well equipped. He said there will be CCTV and other technologies so that the communities are well monitored in order to tackle the insecurity bedevilling us. The government is working to ensure that we have peace and tranquillity in our communities. We will continue to fish out the evil perpetrators and punish them.
Aside the security issues where there are corresponding terrestrial police, how do you tackle cyber insecurity, when even; recently, the Twitter account of the vice president was tampered with?
There are institutions of government that handle cybersecurity and I know they are developing strategies to tackle the challenges. The account of the VP was not hacked but there was an attempt to illegally operate the account and it was stopped and the account was properly secured.
How has it been managing the vice-president in the last four years?
This vice-president is somebody that understands the media and the Nigerian people and his goals, he works hard for them. He is competent and resilient. It is not very difficult to manage somebody like that because he manages himself very well.