…Says party is in transition
Iheanacho Nwosu and Magnus Eze, Abuja
Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu served as governor of old Abia State in the 90s. He played key roles in the formation of the now ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). Shortly before he traveled with President Muhammadu Buhari to China, the former national chairman of the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) shared his thoughts on happenings in the country. He posited that the current economic hardship would give way as soon as the implementation of the 2016 budget commences. Beyond that, Onu spoke on the state of affairs in the APC, his ministry and diversification of the economy.
Do we say so far, so good or what?
President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration is working extremely hard to diversify the economy. I am sure every Nigerian knows that there has never been any single administration that has not talked about diversifying the economy and no one has succeeded so far. And the reason is that we had excluded science and technology; research and innovation in the process of building a sustainable economy. So, we were building a mono-product based on Agriculture, we exported cocoa and imported chocolate, we exported wood and imported toothpick. And when we came to the mono-product of crude oil, we export crude and import petrol, kerosene and diesel. We inherited it and still have it; at a point, we were even the sixth largest exporter of crude oil.
The president is committed to using science and technology to diversify our economy. So, if you look at even the oil sector, there is no reason why we should not be one of the largest producers of petrochemicals; we should be able to refine all that we need here. The same with solid mineral; we should add value. There is no sense in taking your solid minerals and export in raw forms. But when you bring in technology, you add value; new skills, talents are needed, you create new jobs.
In specific terms; what were the targets given to you by the president?
The nation has a science and innovation policy that has been there since 1986; it states in very clear terms what the mandate of this ministry should be: helping in building a sustainable economy so that our healthcare services are made in such a way that our people don’t need to travel abroad; our hospitals are made to work and our industries too.
But for the APC government, the new direction is to diversify and grow the economy, create jobs, ensure food security, fight corruption and secure Nigeria and Nigerians. So, for us in the science and technology ministry, the mandate is to ensure the proper application of science, technology and innovation in achieving these objectives.
You recently talked about setting up technology village and having a bank for science and technology. How far have you gone with all these? Are you not worried that many now accuse the Buhari government of talking so much and doing so little?
The science, technology and innovation policy has been there since 1986; but let me tell you that the National Research and Innovation Council met for the first time in 30 years on January 7, this year. You can see why in the past, it was all talk-talk. And once we have the research and innovation council chaired by the president; there will also be the National Research and Innovation Fund. But Nigerians must be aware that as we talk now, this is early April, the Buhari administration is still running the 2015 budget; we don’t even have the first budget.
But the administration caused the delay…
When is the Science and Technology bank coming on stream?
No, the National Assembly passed the budget but only transmitted the Bill to the President for him to sign last week . So, saying that he caused the delay is far from the truth. For us in the science and technology ministry, we are very serious, trying to make sure that we bring change that is permanent. And that is why we will be sending a Bill on the National Research and Innovation Council to the National Assembly to institutionalise the council. The draft Bill is now with the Federal Ministry of Justice; after their work there, it will be sent to the Federal Executive Council before it is forwarded to the National Assembly.
Going to the point you raised, the technology village is dear to us. When I was a governor, I started it but my tenure was short-lived. We have it in the budget, so when the budget is functional, I believe it will still be there. Though technology village is capital intensive; the money available will determine the speed with which we would proceed. We will want a situation where we would have one in each geo-political zone. But we would be starting with one; ultimately, there should be at least six technology villages in the country.
With respect to the science and technology development bank, it is vital because one limitation that entrepreneurs have is access to funds with reasonable interest rate that you can have for a long time without crippling you. We are looking at next year because we have to put it in the 2017 budget. We believe that if you provide a very suitable environment for people who are creative to do their research and innovation work and you don’t back it up with proper funding and financing, then you won’t be able to achieve your aim. So, both of them are important; we will pursue them.
Nigerians are still waiting to see the result of your trip to China and Indonesia or was it all about globetrotting?
We are very serious minded people. My visit to China has started yielding result. While in China, I visited the Minister of Science and Technology; a man who has done so much for his people. I understand by this year he would be 10 years as Minister of Science and Technology. I discussed with him that there was need for government to government agreement between both countries. His ministry will implement in China; my own ministry will implement here in Nigeria. The essence of this was that before this time, agencies under the ministry would have agreements with agencies or companies in China; but anything could go wrong any time. But if you have such an agreement, it will help you to make sure that whatever you have with an agreement would be implemented. You can’t believe the Chinese Government has sent a draft agreement; it passed through their system. The same way it passes through our system here. We have vetted it here and passed it on to the Ministry of Justice; from there it will go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; after that it will be ready for signing. If you look at how government functions, achieving this in less than five months is like working almost at the speed of light.
But what does Nigeria stand to gain from this?
A lot. Already, China has promised to build a ground receiving station free for Nigeria. I mean free; at no cost. With that ground receiving station, we will be able to receive data from Chinese satellite free, for agriculture, our universities etc. Two, we will be able to train our people in some areas that China has advantage and also we will be closing technology gaps within the country. It’s not easy for an agreement like this to come in; if you talk to people in foreign affairs, they will tell you that it’s a major achievement that we’ve already got.
What is the ministry doing to use technological applications here to curb medical tourism and save the huge foreign exchange being expended?
The ministry has a very important role to play in ensuring affordable healthcare delivery in the country. Though under-reported, quite a few Nigerians have died in transit before they get to the hospital; either in the air ambulance or shortly after they got to the hospital. And don’t forget that there was a time people came into Nigeria for medical attention. Ours is to make sure that the appropriate technology which our medical personnel need is available. That technology once it’s there and the requisite skills are available, our hospitals would be first rate. Two things will happen; one, all people who would travel abroad for medical treatment will stay back; then people will come from other countries to receive medical attention. It will happen; the process is on.
There is serious hardship in the country and the image of the government keeps going down by the day. For those of you in government, how has that affected you?
I can understand that Nigerians are worried; but also Nigerians know that just about a year or two ago, the price of crude oil was as high as 140 dollars per barrel. Just about a month or two ago, the same crude sold for as low as 26 dollars. With such a sharp drop and we didn’t diversify our economy, and that is why science and technology is vital. We have neglected science and technology and we are paying a very big price. If our economy had been diversified, we would not feel it this way. And I tell you something, if there was no change in direction by May 29 last year, if the country was still moving in the same direction that they moved earlier, the situation would have been very terrible. So, right now the president is working very hard and we are assisting him to make sure that this new direction that the nation is taking that we do everything to make sure that the economy will not only grow but it will be sustainable.
The budget we are operating is still the 2015 budget. The budget that this administration put before the National Assembly will help to soften the pains and hardship in the country because there are so many programmes in the 2016 budget that will help Nigerians to cushion the effect of economic hardship.
And for the first time, you will see the capital allocation is as high as 30 per cent. You know it has not happened in many years. Even though there is near collapse in the price of crude oil, there are so many programmes. I can mention a few, like the school children feeding programme; that will give some relief to parents and the students alike. Also, we’ll create jobs to put money in circulation. Many people will be given new skills and they will be assisted to start businesses. All these will help to further reduce the stresses and strains we have right now.
Why has it been difficult for government to address the energy crisis? Secondly, why does the administration keep blaming past administrations for all the problems afflicting the country?
The present administration is fixing the problems. If somebody has a deep wound, you don’t expect it to heal overnight. Nigeria had inflicted on herself very deep wound. For so many years, our refineries were not working, we were importing refined petroleum products. There is no way you can solve the energy problem in the country if you don’t produce. When we were producing enough, we didn’t have the queues. Even if there is a problem in one refinery, you make up with what you have from others. And Nigerians don’t expect that the problem will be resolved in less than one year, it’s not possible.
Look at the power situation; check the amount of money spent on the sector in the past 16 years with nothing to show for it. Again, you don’t expect that problem will be fixed in one year. So, the kind of problems that we have requires a lot of planning and enough time for implementation. The process is on.
This administration is working very hard, but because the problems inherited were enormous, it will take time.
For instance, when I came in, the agencies briefed me and I said their mandates are wide but they should concentrate on one or two items so that we can monitor. I said to them from now on, whatever findings you get, go for patent so that you can commercialise. We are getting result. The High Nutrient Density biscuit from the Federal Institute of Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) is there which NASCO Foods has entered into agreement with the ministry to mass produce. If it were before, it would just go like that. There are so many others in the pipeline.
I don’t want to go into other areas, but the administration has achieved a lot. If you look at security, though we still have problem of kidnapping, but the Boko Haram has been degraded. It’s a major achievement. In the past, all you hear every day from radio and television is that this town or that local government has been taken over.
We are all Nigerians; we know that there is much pain. But you know that there is no way you were selling crude at 140 dollars and you reduce it to 26 dollars, the effect must be there.
In the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, we are working hard to make Nigerians recognise the importance of science and technology in nation building. We believe that when that happens, it will help our children in primary schools to be comfortable to study arithmetic. It will also help our students at the university level to want to read engineering and their parents to encourage them. Right now, if you go to many primary schools and mention arithmetic, pupils run away. People want to study engineering and the parents would not agree.
Also, we want to make sure that our research is market-driven. That is that we are meeting the needs of Nigerians by making sure that some of the things we import as of now, that we produce them. Very soon, the ministry will champion the case of promoting made-in-Nigeria goods, also to help the growth of technology, help local capacity and ensure that we reduce this pressure on our currency.
But can your ministry still achieve all these when electricity supply keeps going down and fuel scarcity remains unabated?
On the issue of fuel supply, the Minister of State for Petroleum has assured the nation that enough supplies are coming in. And I believe that once they sort out a few issues, there will be adequate supplies.
I don’t really want to talk about that because we have a minister for that. But as an engineer, I can tell you that the power sector has suffered the same fate that our economy suffered. We failed to diversify our economy and we remained with a mono-product economy until today. We started with agriculture and even when crude oil came on board, instead of adding crude oil to agriculture, agriculture was set aside. The same thing in power; most of the power used in the country is derived from natural gas, so if there is any disruption in supply of natural gas, there will be crisis. So, if there is a basket; so many sources, which is what the Buhari administration is going to do now; to have a diversified and stronger base of natural gas, hydro, coal, renewable sources, solar, nuclear, wind. These were things that should have been done for over 50 years, and they were not done. That is the thing that will solve this problem permanently.
I want to assure you that as soon as the first budget is born, by the time that budget is fully implemented; and another budget comes on, things would start changing.
There are stories about ministers not enjoying free hands. To what extent has such gagging affected your own assignment?
Am I talking like one who is gagged? Don’t listen to all those things people say. We have a good President who means well for Nigeria; who has been around. He was a minister, a governor and later Head of State. He is highly experienced. But if you think that I talk like someone who is gagged, then you can believe anything.
As a leader of the APC long before being appointed into the cabinet, does the crisis in the party not distract some of you who have interest in how the party runs?
APC is a very big party. It started as an opposition political party and now the ruling party. Look at the number of governors; number of senators, members of House of Representatives and so on, it is a very big party. But we don’t have problems in the party. You know when you transit from opposition to ruling, it cannot be too smooth. There is a period of transition and that is what the party has gone through in the past one year. With time, the party will adjust more and more to its new role and leave behind the role that was for yesterday. But when people say friction; people left the party and all that… Okay look at Governor Segun Osoba; he was my colleague when I was in Abia, he was in Ogun. He is my friend. We maintain relationship. I am sure you know that he’s fully back.
So the party is strong and the party will do a lot of good things for Nigerians.
You had earlier expressed the optimism that the South East will move to APC, but such hope seems to be fading away. What is happening?
You should look at the future. The President Buhari administration is under one year; in fact, will be one year end of next month and he still has three years. So, we shouldn’t judge what will happen in the next three years with what is happening now.
But increasingly, the South East leaders have said that the body language of this administration shows that it has nothing in stock for the region; don’t you hear or see some of these comments including the handling of the Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) issue?
The most important thing is that this administration is still in its first year. It is still implementing the budget of the previous administration. So, why not let us wait until the first, second and third budgets of this administration are implemented. You are going to see a shift; at least some of the concerns that we have will be properly accommodated.
And I believe that there are so many reasons why the South East will finally go APC, but I don’t think we should discuss all that today. I believe that, give a year or two more, then I will tell you that and you will begin to see that movement. Don’t ever feel that because the movement has not started that it will not start.
Do you feel that those who criticise the president are unfair to him?
It depends on the kind of criticism. The president was elected as president by the people of Nigeria and knows that he will be criticised. But for me, I cannot have blanket statement and say those who criticise the president are unfair. If you criticise the president in a way that shows patriotism on your own part, the president will be very happy. But if you criticise for the sake of criticising him, even when what he has done is in the best interest of Nigerians; that will be completely wrong.
I want to let Nigerians know that this administration inherited a very serious affair of the nation. I say this because I worked in the interim committee that worked with the then out-going administration.
You talked about cleaning up the system; but people believe that even the anti-corruption fight is just targeted at members of the PDP…
Any unbiased observer, not even a Nigerian will know that the fight to clean up the system has never been as thorough as what is happening and also firm. You have to look around and see that nobody is being witch-hunted. But cleaning up the system is not fighting corruption alone; it’s making sure that there is enough reform; that things go the right way. We were really moving in the wrong direction.
In the next one year what do we expect from your ministry?
As soon as the budget is out, we will look at what is there. We will want the world to know all we have; all the research we have done, the ones that need commercialisation. We will let the world know that. We will do more of commercialisation; letting the good works into the market. We are going to start work in the technology village; that’s if the money is there. We are going to start with one, at least to give the people in the informal sector the enabling environment for them to have a place they can come in to develop their creative ideas. There is also the science and technology museum; we want to do it if it’s still in the budget. We want to make Nigerians know that when you see a finished product, it’s just a matter of work and the first one you do is not normally as beautiful as the ones that come later. We want our young people to get that process; it will help them to become more creative, more inventive and that is how we can rebuild our nation. These are just some of the areas in our budget.