•It’s statistical deception for FG to claim Nigeria is out of recession
Former Finance Minister and one-time Presidential aspirant, Chief Olu Falae, in this interview with OLUYINKA OLUJIMI tells President Muhammadu Buhari to roll up his sleeves and stop talking about meeting an empty treasury. He argues that the situation in Nigeria today is not markedly different from that of the Ibrahim Babangida military regime which, according to him, equally battled low earnings from oil sales but left huge signature projects.
Sir, what are your views on the new budget estimates submitted by President Muhammadu Buhari to the National Assembly?
What happened to the balance of last year’s budget? You will expect the unspent balance of last year’s budget to be the opening balance of the new year’s budget. If it were so, our budget this year will be three-quarters of the new proposal. Unspent balances cumulated over the last 10 years are so enormous. As a former Minister of Finance, I don’t understand what they do any more.
After over 30 years of intervening in public affairs, pointing out how the nation can be put on a sound economic path, how do you feel that the economy is still in tatters, going from bad to worse, then recession?
It is inevitable that when you don’t do the right thing at the right time, you pay the price. At times I feel as if we are suffering under a curse. At a time we had revenue in times of Naira and dollars, relative to our capacity to manage it judiciously. You know you can spend trillions of dollars in three months, recklessly, unproductively? But, you know, the capacity to spend judiciously and productively is limited by time. During General Gowon’s time, government endeavoured to make a dent on the nation’s infrastructural deficit. For example, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway, the Lagos ring-road, the Lagos-Apapa road network, and the 17 international airports, several universities over a period of seven years. Since then, I don’t know if any government has done a fraction of what he (Gowon) did. We no longer sit down together to look at the economy holistically. In education, where are we now? Where should we be in education? What’s the deficit and how do we make up the deficit? We look at primary education nationwide, and you will see statistically that the enrolment ratio of children who are in school as against the number of children nationwide. Let’s say 65 percent of children in Ondo State, meaning that there is 35 percent not in school. That is where to start; from the base of educational planning. You then draw out a plan. First thing you have to look at is classroom space, both private and public. What is the number of pupils that should be in a classroom? What is the ideal number? UNESCO says 25. Okay, what is the number of children in Ondo State, in absolute terms? Say, 435,000. Divide that by 25. So, should we go for mega schools, or something more reasonable? How many schools do you need? Where are they located? You don’t just build more schools in the urban centre where the number is nearly fully captured already while those in the rural areas have no access. You distribute the classrooms to meet the deficit. We are not planning our education. And you do that number, not in one year but over four years. What kind of classrooms do you want to build? Is it the type of ramshackle classrooms that I attended in 1944? That is the type of planning that can transform a nation. You do that at all levels of education and in every state of Nigeria. Then you move into health. There are parameters for planning health. The Ministry of health should have data on epidemiology and incidence of preventable diseases, the people to be immunized. There should be planning for that, in details. The planning will result in either building more hospitals, or entering into partnership with the private sector. You will do that in every sector and you get good data for planning. Like the rail system, you assess your road network. How many kilometers of road and different categories do you need? In the next four years, do you need to just rehabilitate them, or do you need to reconstruct them to new and higher standards? You put all these together in one book, so that you know what you need to do, where and how? So that no area is neglected; so that they complement one another. This is the kind of comprehensive planning that we are talking about, that has been abandoned. What we are doing now cannot add up.
Sir, but the problems you are raising predates the Buhari administration…
Yes they do.
At the last election, you supported a party that had been in power for 16 years, that is most guilty of the issues you are complaining about today. Buhari has been there for only two and a half years. Is it not self-indicting?
So what? I was not part of that government. My party supported him for the future, not the past. They came here on the eve of the election, six weeks to the election. We were not part of the government for five years. We cannot be held accountable for the action of the party. We were not in alliance with the party. Let us see what is wrong with our country and say so. Not think of who am I blaming. No! Jonathan was in government for five years, they came here and asked for our support. We gave them six conditions. One, he must renounce corruption, it must become public policy. Two, you must end the Boko Haram insurgency. You must have a good and credible programme to tackle unemployment; you must take planning and development very seriously, spend only the money that you earn; support capital investment. We are not pretenders, we are not hypocrites. We are saying that what should have been done was not done. We have been misled by capitalist ideologues who say that in a free enterprise, government’s role should be minimized. That is in a well-developed system that runs itself. Government cannot be building bridges, roads and university in America. Those are already built, anyway. But for his tweeting every day, if you grab Donald Trump and lock him up in a room, the American system will still be running. The system there is private sector-driven. People from that background cannot come here and preach to us to behave like America of today. It will be disaster. Look at India today. India is one of the major economies of the world today. Thirty years ago, India was almost a basket case, but the government was doing everything it needed to do to give India solid infrastructure, over a very vast territory – railway, air travel, good roads, water, education, iron and steel. They provided the infrastructure. In the last 10, 15 years, India has been thriving. You can’t fly if you have no infrastructure. Roads, we don’t have them. We will go nowhere. Your goods can’t move, your people are locked down at bus stops. So, don’t let anybody deceive us that we should behave like Americans. America did not behave the way they are behaving now when they were at our stage of development. Even in more recent times, when crisis came, at the beginning of the Obama administration when there was a terrible economic depression, America provided money to General Motors, aviation, banking system. They said these corporations are too big to fail. If they fail, they will take the American economy down. America still heavily subsidises agriculture; even Europe. The government has a major role to play in a developing country like ours where infrastructure, both social and physical, still need to be developed to provide the foundation on which the economy can be based. Succeeding governments have refused to complete the Ajaokuta Iron and Steel project. I heard some idiots saying recently that we don’t have to build that iron and steel industry. To me, that is a crime against the Nigerian economy. We have spent billions of dollars on that project. All the raw materials you need are here. The iron ore is here, we have gas, they say our ore is fairly poor, we can set up a beneficiating plant near Okenne, that can raise the ore content to about 60 percent. Even if Ajaokuta is not ready to use it, we can decide to be exporting it. For as long as you don’t have an iron and steel industry, your manufacturing sector will be consumer-driven. The refrigerators we are using are made of flat sheets, the roofing sheets, your buses, railway wagons, your cars. How can you say you are comfortable importing them from other people when you have the iron ore? Hundreds of thousands of people will be employed to bring it out, beneficiate it, turn it into flat sheets and other products, generating two, three million employment and people say we don’t need it?
That is not the most important component in educational system. I cut my professional teeth in the civil service on my submission on loan financing for university education in 1965. It is a subject with which I am very familiar. The most important component is the subsidy that the government must provide. The last general election in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party promised to make university education tuition-free. If Britain is emphasizing making education tuition-free, then the way forward here is not loan. Education loan will help some people, but the vast majority of our people don’t have to pay for tuition.
How will education be funded if it is completely free?
What is the source of the billions that are being stolen and wasted? It’s because they don’t think they have a programme of financing education. They see that money is surplus. When you have no project, everything looks like surplus to you. You earn one million naira a month. You live in a rented house, fuel your car. Your wants are limited. You believe that money is not a problem. But if you are also building a house in your hometown, you will not say you have surplus. You will avoid any further capital commitment. In my view, education is the key to the future. If you must fund education properly, you will have less funding to buy cars for legislators, ministers’ aides, or send people on holy pilgrimages. Apart from power, education is the most important single sector that guarantees the survival and prosperity of any nation. When Tony Blair was UK Prime Minister, I remember during one of his campaigns, he said: “Our priority is education, education and education.” Britain that has been up there for four hundred years is still saying that. We must heavily subsidise education, so that most of the children we see roaming the streets, some of whom may be geniuses, can change not only Nigeria but the whole world as well. After all we ran education free in 1955. Where did we get the money from? Other regions said, no, it was not possible. The Eastern Region was making a lot of money from palm produce. The Northern Region was making a lot of money from groundnut, hides and skin, and cotton. But they said that it was not possible to do free education. So, we must be committed. Once it’s your priority, it’s feasible. It means, you fund it first, then reduce your spending on other areas. As Permanent Secretary, I got Lagos State to stop having night soil men.
If I become President today, I will have money for all those things. I will not do many things that they are doing. To me, those other things are not as important for this nation as what I will be doing.
What are those other things that you want the government to stop doing, so that there will be money to do such things as roads, health and education?
Do I know what they are spending money on? I will look at what I am doing, order my own priorities. My priorities will be in the area of ensuring that power is available, and affordable. In one, two, three years, 100 thousand industries will spring back to life. Tens of millions of people will go back to work. That to me is more important than anything. After all, when Babangida was in charge, I had the privilege of serving in that government. The government inherited external debt of $28 billion from the Shagari government, through to the Buhari government. We were the ones who hired Chase Manhattan Bank to even find out how much we were owing these foreigners, because nobody knew. We were just being harassed that we were owing money, they would not open letters of credit for us again. So, we hired Chase, which said the total that they accepted was $28 billion. The rejected claims were over $10 billion. And the price of oil dropped to $10 per barrel. With $38 billion debt overhang, yet that government still managed to run the economy. Yet a few things were still done. Egbin Thermal Plant in Lagos, Ugborode Generation Plant, the Third Mainland Bridge. Despite oil falling to $10 a barrel. And we had $38 billion debt overhang inherited from the previous administrations. So, when they say there is no money, it’s a relative term. My father told me, he didn’t have much education. He said, ‘no amount is sufficient for spending’; he also said that there is no amount that cannot be made sufficient. It depends on the person spending it. The Federal Government, not just this government though, has been wasting enormous resources. Agriculture is very important, for example, but there is no need for a ministry for it. When I joined the federal civil service, there was no federal ministry for agriculture. You know why? Because the regions would not allow it. No square inch of Nigerian territory is not in one region or the other. So we did all we needed to do within the regional ministry of agriculture. It was only in 1965 that they superimposed, during the military regime, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. Before there was a small unit in the Ministry of Economic Development which handled the disbursement of grants to agriculture-related research institutes, but they built in up into a ministry and that was when wastes started. River Basin Authorities, all over. Where are they today? Moribund. Extension service could only be done effectively at the local level, ideally by local governments. It is dead all over the country, but they still give a lot of money to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture. In those days, agriculture meant fertilizer importation. Huge areas of waste.
Given the quantum of fraud allegations against the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan …
Against Nigerians. The mistake you people make is not to look at corruption even at the state level, not just Jonathan. Don’t you know them? State governors stole money. Let’s criticize corruption at the state level, local government level.
But Jonathan was at the head of government. Don’t you agree that leadership at the very top is important?
I agree. I am not excusing him. I am just saying don’t let us make it a partisan matter. It is a general problem with Nigeria. Are people not stealing now? Are people in another party not stealing now? Let’s talk about government leadership at all levels.
Would you support the China option; anybody found guilty of stealing public funds to be executed?
No. That is barbaric. I will never support capital punishment for any offence. I believe that God is the only giver of life and He has not given to man the power to take life. Taking life is a crime against God. Lock him up forever. By locking him up, he won’t have the chance to kill again and his own life is all but over. Have you read some of the stories about hangmen in America, people who are paid to execute death sentences on prisoners. In their later lives, what they experience is terrible. No one should kill another on behalf of the state. States don’t kill, it’s people who kill. Two, how many people are you going to kill in Nigeria? Corruption is now institutionalized, down to local government levels. You know civil servants? You want to award a contract, all the five companies that apply for the job belong to one person who is a front for the civil servant in charge of the award. How many people are you going to kill?
If President Buhari seeks reelection, will you support him?
He is not in my party, Why should I support him? I supported him when my party had no candidate. I raised his hand at Adamasingba Roundabout. I supported him because my party had no candidate of our own and he appeared to us to be the best candidate at that time. If in the next election my party has its own candidate, that is the person I will support.
You will have a candidate this time?
We will, I can assure you about that.
What’s your personal assessment of the Buhari administration so far? On the scale of one to 10, how would you grade him?
It will not be a fair assessment because he has hardly had the time in office, because of long spells of ill health. Be that as it may, he hasn’t been sterling. I live in Akure, Ondo State. I don’t see what the Federal Government is doing here. The roads are bad, I don’t see anything being done about it. I know the economy, they say we are out of recession. That is statistical deception. If we are out of recession, the man on the street should feel it. Changes in oil price can account for the higher income they are talking about.