Dr Philip Nto, former finance commissioner in Abia State and World Bank consultant in this encounter with Sunday Sun spoke on his worst fears for COVID-19 pandemic, lessons to be learned and the constitutionality of the lockdown.
He dissected challenging issues of the nations democratic process, the National Assembly and its rubber-stamp perception, the judiciary, and loss of confidence, political party de-registration and his transformation secret at Abia State College of Education Technical, Arochukwu (ASCETA) where he is currently the provost, among other national issues. Excerpt:
How would you assess the Federal Government approach in the containment, management or otherwise of COVID-19?
Well, my worry is not about the Coronavirus, the steps taken by the government to contain it, but I am more worried about the aftermath of its consequences. Of course, while death casualty is expected, but my greater worry is that those that will survive it, how will they survive the hunger that will follow suit. That is the major problem and my concern also. So, some well-thinking Nigerians should think along that line, how are we going to survive after the corona pandemic? For me, that is a major issue. You see that the price of crude oil is now about 20 dollars per barrel and we are 80 or 90 per cent dependent on the revenue from crude oil. The budget was a little above 50 dollars per barrel, so now it’s far below or about 30 per cent of estimated revenue from crude oil, so how will the budget be funded? So, it will have a serious impact on the economy of the country, it will have an impact on the purchasing power of the citizens because a situation the government will not be able to pay salaries how will the citizens survive? So, you see the effect is more on the aftermath of the pandemic. That is why some of us are more worried. Of course, people will survive the pandemic, it is an era that will come and go, but what will happen given that companies are closed down, those that are running small and medium scale enterprises, micro-enterprises they are all closed down, so how will they make it after this period? America that is the major buyer of our crude oil, their economy has been shutdown, so how do we survive after this era because it will take a whole lot of time for the American economy to pick up before they will start to buy our oil again. It will take some time for even America to recover? So, that is my concern, survival after the corona pandemic and that should be the concern of government and well-meaning Nigerians.
Looking at your background as an economist and World Bank consultant, what do you project or suggest that the government should be doing to arrest the situation so that it will not get out of hand?
For me, this is far beyond the economic theory some of us have been postulating as regards the diversification of the economy. Assuming that you talk about diversification, this disaster so to speak affected all aspects of the economy, all aspects of the society, so we can’t talk about diversification, but it will only tell us that we should always be prepared for unforeseen occurrences, uncertainties that may likely come one day, either now or in the future, it means we should always be prepared at every point, everybody should be productive in any aspect of life one finds oneself, be productive, that is what it should teach us. But as per diversification of the economy, even the theory of diversification is affected in this situation. At the moment, the government should endeavour to provide palliative to ameliorate the level of suffering, of hardship occasioned by staying at home. The target should be daily income earners.
Some critics have condemned President Muhammadu Buhari for the lockdown arguing that it is unconstitutional?
In an emergency you adopt an emergency approach, I cannot condemn the president for taking such an action because if you check, even the National Assembly before now was closed down because of the ban on gathering and most of them were even accused of being affected by Coronavirus, so how will Mr. President approach such a lawmaker or lawmakers under such controversy? And because it is an emergency, a national disaster, he cannot continue to wait also. I think he simply adopted an emergency approach to serve an emergency situation and for me, there is nothing wrong about that. You cannot continue to be legalistic in certain emergencies, you save the lives first. Let us not forget that the president also has some emergency powers and I think even constitutionally, there is nothing wrong.
What other lessons do we have to learn from this incident?
A whole lessons, for instance in the health sector and in our research institutions. You see, many universities all over the world are in their laboratories researching on how to contain this virus; our universities are shutdown which means it’s also a lesson for us to learn. It’s a wake-up call to look into our health sector. Just check what has been happening, if the president develops a headache or running stomach, he will travel to America or the United Kingdom, and this is the same with some members of the cabinet, so this is a lesson that a day shall come when you will not be able to travel to America or UK or to anywhere as we are experiencing it now to handle your health situation. It is something that calls for a sober reflection, something that calls for serious discourse, that we should look into our health sector, look into our university system, in fact, look into the entire education system. It is a wake-up call for the government not to continue to neglect critical issues when in office.
Now that there is lockdown in the entire system what will be your recommendation to the education ministry to do bearing in mind that the children are at home?
If you go to America now their education system is still intact, working as if nothing is happening because they have a developed on-line system, their lecturers, teachers are still busy teaching online. Researchers are still busy doing their work online, but on our own, check our Internet facilities, check our communication system you will find out that we cannot do much, so it’s a problem, we have a systemic problem in the country. As I said earlier, what is happening will bring to the fore certain things we have continued to ignore and neglect over the years. It is time for a total overhaul, a time to place our priorities right, time for proper leadership recruitment, those committed in the building of a great nation. We have all it takes to be a great nation if we put our acts together.
Some critics say that the National Assembly is simply an appendage or a rubber stamp of the President. Do you share in such a view?
I know that the legislators have their constitutional roles, there is no way they will abandon their constitutional role and then turn themselves into a rubber stamp. If there is anything they should approve for the president that will make his work easy for him or that will make governance easy for him they should do it. So, I don’t think the legislators should turn themselves into social critics for the operations of the government. That will not be proper, rather they should look at themselves or see themselves as partners that are expected to complement the ideas and ideologies of each arm. So, it should not be an opportunity for undue criticism or to mess up what one arm is doing rather the purpose should be to complement each other and ensuring that the best is achieved for the country. We should not have this attitude that the National Assembly must always be at loggerheads with the executive to prove that they are working rather they should disagree when it is proper and agree when the executive also got it right. It should not be an endless cantercarous relationship rather any decision must be in the best interest of the nation and its people. Inasmuch as I don’t support conflicts between the executive and National Assembly, but principles of separation of powers must be adhered to. Both the president and the National Assembly should work together to ensure good governance.
What is your take on the de-registration of over 70 political parties by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)?
I am totally in support of it. All these proliferation of political parties is not healthy for our political development. I believe INEC acted within its constitutional provision. If a political party cannot win a seat in the local government legislative arm, I don’t know how such a political party should exist.
Most Nigerians have come to the sad conclusion looking at recent happenings in the judiciary that it is no longer the last hope of the poor masses, but for the highest bidder?
You know that our democracy is still evolving and developing, but over time it will mature like that of America. It is not something you expect to develop overnight, I believe that the process will change from one stage to the other and it will affect all organs of government, the judiciary, legislative and the executive. So, I don’t think it’s peculiar to the judiciary alone. Of course, the judiciary has not done much as is expected from them, but I believe that with time it will mature to the point where they will perform the role expected of them.
There is this report that ASCETA, the institution that you are in charge of, is performing excellently well, what is the magic for such transformation?
Well, I do not see it as magic. It is just that I insist on transparency in the management of resources, transparency in the running of the institution, transparency in the system of administration. Once you are transparent to the people you are leading you will find out that everybody will contribute their best to see to the success of the place. We have achieved a whole lot in the institution within the last four years that I have been there and that I think is what necessitated the governor to re-appoint us for a second term and this second term will offer us an opportunity to consolidate on the gains we recorded in the first term and they are so many of them. One thing that makes the institution unique is that beyond any course that you are studying in our college we expose our students to practical areas in technical and vocational courses so that our graduates turn out are job creators and not seekers.