FORMER Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF, Alhaji Aliko Mohammed has taken a critical look at the nation’s economy and concluded that the country is in trouble. “It’s about time Nigerians realise that we are in trouble. First of all, as I said about rice, we just can’t sustain it. You don’t buy it with naira. So, you buy it with dollars. You have to earn the dollars before you can spend it. Oil is not being bought and you are not exporting anything. So, where are you going to get the dollar?”
Aliko, former Chairman of Nigerian Stock Exchange also offered what he considers a reasonable explanation for the rising political tension among the zones in the country and concluded that the South–east zone has lost out in the political equation of Nigeria. He called for the convening of a conference that will enable Nigerians determine how to live together.
Aliko, former Chairman of Bank of the North, BON, former Chairman, Daily Times of Nigeria and a presidential aspirant on the platform of the National Republican Convention, NRC spoke on sundry national issues in this interview with KENNY ASHAKA. Excerpts:
People are worried that as one of Nigeria’s finest Economists, Chartered Accountant and politician, you have kept silent for in spite of what is going on, rightly or wrongly. Why the silence?
First of all, age is not on our side. And normally, after reaching a certain age, you should start watching and seeing what is happening. If there are things you want to see looked into, you have a channel of where and whom to speak to. But, actually, at my age now, it would not be prudent for me to go on air or Newspapers saying this and that. We have done our part and right now, it is for us to see what is being done and to advice when necessary or when asked to do so. Otherwise, you keep quiet.
What have you seen all these while and what advice can you offer?
It is that the country has been run down so badly. Corruption has passed where people are asking for bribe to outright looting of the Nigerian treasury. It is alleged that during the last regime, the oil money that was being brought in dollars ended being distributed to Nigerians. So, actually, it is not a question of somebody bribing another. It is the money of the government being taken. As you have seen now, things are coming out. Some people have been asked to refund money.
What do you have to say about the threat by militants in the Niger-Delta and the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB?
What is happening is: this is the extension of the constitution. Instead of bringing us together, you are saying, go ahead and elect your people and let them come. The party must be national and so on and so forth. And all the parties are picking their people based on regions. They are not choosing people who should be looking at the national interest but those who will be busy looking at selfish interests. All the political parties have that. You have to get the leader of the party from the south, president from the North and so on. Now we have extended it to cover the six zones. We are not really sure how we want to do it. I think Nigerians will have to sit down… not the sort of conference that was done which actually was skewed to arrive at an answer. People must come together and say how we are going to… and then see how we are going to live together because this is going to go on.
Concretely, are you against zonal arrangement if we are to achieve national integration?
Yes. Integration will come when people want it to come. You don’t just come and say this and that. You have to do it according to the zones. To start with educational balance is different. Actually, if you look at the civil service, you will find that people from certain areas are more than all the others. So, zonal arrangement is not the best thing for Nigeria.
What other arrangement would you recommend if we are to do away with the zonal structure in order to achieve national integration?
You have the zones. This one has no political position to it. You have the states which should be the federating units. I know the figure 36 is too many. But states should be the federating units, not zones. This is because you have state governors, legislature and judiciary of a state. That should be the federating unit. And then you have the federation at the center. But what you have now are the states, zones and federal. These zones have no position. It was actually an idea brought by our former Vice-President, Alex Ekwueme. So, that is the way to do it. He also was looking in terms of how to integrate his people.
As an Economist and a personality with insights into many forays of our economic endeavours, I wonder if you will agree that we are going through the worst economic downturn since 1999 with falling exchange rate, rising inflation and unemployment?
You have to understand, first of all that Nigeria does not produce anything. We like importation. If you look at the latest model of cars in the world, you will find them in Nigeria because once Nigerians make money, they go for the best. But if you import, you are importing the inflation of other countries because they are selling the goods to you at their own price. Even now, Nigerians are using clothes that are imported. They are not importing the end result. They import the raw materials used in the manufacture of such a thing. We cannot maintain it. When we had oil, we can do it. But we don’t have it now. Take rice, for example. Nigeria can grow rice and export it. But we import N1million rice every day. We cannot sustain it because we don’t have the foreign exchange. You cannot buy it with naira. You have to buy it with dollar. A bag of 50kg rice was N5,000. But now it is N15,000. We are not even producing the food that we are going to eat. And we are not buying Nigerian rice because it is not de-stoned. But what we can do is to get de-stoning machine, take away the stones and eat the rice. This is much cheaper than going to import. Nigerians like the rice from Thailand because you just buy it and boil.
Would you say this is not the problem of leadership because government is supposed to formulate policies that would make its citizens look inward?
Each country looks at how it is going to survive. Many countries in the world do not have oil. Japan, for example imports all the oil and gas. China, now getting to become the biggest economy in the world does not import even one bag of rice. It is the second economy now. If you can’t produce in the country, find something else to eat. What is happening in Nigeria now is because we have so much money concentrated in a few hands, we can import everything. So, every Nigerian wants to belong and therefore we import rather than produce. And even the products that we have, they are just substituting imported things. They bring in raw materials from abroad, process it and sell. You may be surprised to hear that Saudi Arabia is buying yams from Nigeria. But we are not fighting to export these things.
Are we really not in trouble?
We are in trouble. It’s about time now that Nigerians should realise that we are in trouble. First of all as I said about rice, we just can’t sustain it. You don’t buy it with naira. So, you buy it with dollar. You have to earn the dollar before you can spend it. Oil now is not being bought and you are not exporting anything. So, where are you going to get the dollar?
Can we share your thoughts on the recent government’s hike in fuel price to N145 per litre up from N86 or N86.50?
There is no way the Federal Government can continue to give subsidy on oil. They cannot sustain it. They claim money in billions and billions of naira. Government doesn’t have the money. I think Nigerians should begin to understand that Nigeria does not have the money. The price is there. If you can’t buy ok, just don’t buy the cars.
What would you say about the management of the economy when you talk about monetary policies like forex and the rest?
In this country, we have inherited the system of the British. They have parliamentary system where, actually, they can get the governor of the Central Bank to come and explain why things were done. Recently he made a statement and they said he should be sacked because he is expected to support whatever the government wants to do. Whatever the government and people of the country want to do, he would have to manage the economy the way it is and not to tell them what to do. Our problem, really, is: we took the British system of the Central Bank, but we have taken the constitution of America. Do you hear the Governor of the Central Bank of America making statements? No. This is because, she is the Chairman of the Reserve Bank and government will ask for her advice on certain things. She is the monetary adviser to the government. The British has their system. So, we have taken the system of one country and merged with the system of another country. Things don’t work that way. And the truth is to tell Nigerians we don’t have the money. We cannot sustain subsidy. We are used to being wealthy. Okay, something has happened now and we are not that wealthy. We have to cut our coat according to our cloth. I think the major problem of our economy is that we are thinking we are wealthy and we are managing our economy thinking that foreign exchange is going to come. Whatever you buy from abroad, you can only buy with the dollar. So, you have to earn the dollar to be able to do business. In this country, we rely on raw materials from abroad. If you don’t have the raw materials, what is going to happen? There will be no employment. They will have to sack staff. Now, you look around. There are so many banks in this country. The worst part of it is that all of them are relying on government. Government organizations will come and open different bank accounts and so on. And with the Single Treasury Account, the government has saved N3trillion because one department will have accounts in 10 different banks instead of putting the money in one account at the Central Bank.
How would you assess democracy in Nigeria today?
The thing is that Nigerians are interested in democracy because they will not like the other alternative, which is Military. They have gone through military and have seen that the best thing is to embrace democracy. It is ourselves that caused the problem. When the military said they were going to abdicate power, the right type of Nigerians who should really run the country and who know what to do didn’t believe them. So, they didn’t go into politics. How can you have a situation where in this country you have hundreds of thousands of graduates who are unemployed, you say you want a Senator to have a minimum qualification of School Certificate. When they did this, the people who went into politics monetized everything and made politics lucrative. The right type of people, therefore, could not go into politics because you need a lot of money to go into politics. They therefore, got third class people who have made money to run their legislature. The right type of people who are qualified to do it cannot compete with them because they have the money and politics has been bastardized. Try even now to be a Senator and see how much you will spend.
Nigerians seem to be getting worried that one year after the APC government came to power, they are yet to taste the expected change. They say instead, what they are getting is increased poverty, rising cost of living, plummeting intra-party squabbles. What do you think is the problem?
That is not true. You had a government that was sharing the money of the government. Now, somebody has come and said no, you can’t do that. That is a change. And those who were making money cannot accept to suffer. That’s all that is happening.
Would you say that is what is responsible for the increase in prices of commodities and consequently poverty?
You have to realize that as a country, you have to produce… Any country that cannot produce the food they eat is in trouble. China has 1.3billion people. They don’t import one bag of rice. And rice is their main food. If you can’t produce things in China, then you can’t eat it. But we produce rice in Nigeria. Not only that, we can export it. Instead we are importing N1 billion worth of rice every day. Can’t we understand that we are not wealthy?
You were Chairman of the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF. From the way things are going, it would seem the North does not have a rallying point because there are so many groups speaking on behalf of the region with some opposing the other. As it is, you do not know which of the groups is speaking the minds of Northerners…
(Cuts in) It’s not true. The ACF is still there. The Northern Elders Forum is political. They said ACF is not doing politics and therefore, they are the political wing.
What of the Northern Elders Council?
No elders council. Tanko Yakassai is someone coming directly from former President Jonathan. It is a political tool for the election. The election is gone.
But Yakassai is still using the Northern Elders Council to react to issues.
Do you take him seriously?
Why not? He is a northerner. Should I also not take Northern Elders Forum serious?
I told you the reason for Northern Elders’ emergence. They accused ACF of not doing politics and they, therefore, will be doing politics. And they are doing politics. The ACF says any Northerner of 18 years and above, if he is willing, could be a member of ACF. So, really, you cannot do politics because all the political parties are in ACF. And I followed that strictly. We won’t do politics because our members will start quarreling. So if they want to do politics, they can go and do their politics. And, of course, people who know the North know those who speak for the North.
Has the ACF not made political statements before?
They have. They do.
In that case, it would seem the Northern Elders Forum is the mouthpiece of the North. Would that be right?
No, not at all. You see that happened because of the height of politics. The ACF constitution while I was the Chairman, I followed strictly. You know we have three Boards, Board of Trustees, Board of Patrons of which Yakubu Gowon is the Chairman and one headed by Gen. Jerry Useni, now a Senator and then the Executive which I am the Chairman. Jerry Useni is a politician and a member of the PDP in the Senate. So, you can’t do politics in ACF.
Sincerely, what is the role of the ACF? Let’s get to understand the role of the forum.
It is to fight for the North.
Why do we have another forum when you can address all issues, including politics?
That is the issue. Ask him, not me. I have told you that the constitution says any Northerner above the age of 18 could be a member of the ACF. While I was the Chairman, we followed it up strictly. So, there was no politics because if you say politics, every political party is there. Northern Elders accused ACF of not going into politics and therefore, they said that they are going into politics. They, therefore, called themselves Northern Elders Forum. The Jonathan administration felt they also needed some elders that could speak for them and they got the Northern Elders Council. So, the rivalry is between Northern Elders Forum and the Northern Elders Council. As far as we are concerned, we encourage all of them. Tanko Yakassai is a member of the Board of Trustees of the ACF. Certainly, as far as the ACF is concerned, there isn’t any problem.
The Northern Elders Forum say the North was shortchanged in the budget and are demanding an upward review of the capital allocation because of what they termed the absence of equity in the allocation of capital spending. Do you align with their view?
I will not talk about politics. I will talk about the budget as an Accountant, but I will not talk about the politics of it. I am not a politician. I went into politics for 40 days when Babangida said that he had banned all the former politicians, people like Adamu Ciroma and so on. Six weeks later, he said they could come back. And those of us who had gone at that time thinking that the promise would continue withdrew. In any case, they were really on ground. How can you compete with them.
Northern Elders Forum wants an upward review of the capital allocations for projects in the northern part of the country. I want your views on this.
Well, they must have given their reasons for doing that. I will not talk on the politics of the budget.
It is people like you who should talk about this because if people are making a claim that there is no equity, I do not see why you will not talk about it as a professional who may have gone through the budget
I told you I fully support this budget and particularly expressed support for what she said concerning the release of N350 billion.
What is your impression of the capital allocation?
I haven’t studied it. I told you I don’t believe in the zonal system. You now want me to start talking about the zonal system. You want to arm twist me. This zonal system was created for some people to get something out. And, actually, that is what is happening now. The South- East has lost out in politics.
Yes, they have. Of course.
South-South is PDP. The other, South-West is APC. Now, look at it. All the other political parties are also in the North. The APC is more of the North and PDP is in the South- South. South-East is also PDP.
Then, how have they lost out?
They have lost out because, actually, the Ministers they got are not the ones the South-East would want. In politics, the party that wins is… it is the winner takes all. Is that not what they do?