By Charles Adegbite
Chief Sarafa Tunji Ishola, a chieftain of the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP), was the Minister of Mines and Steel Development during late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s administration. He was before then the Secretary to Ogun State government. In this interview, he examines Nigeria’s economic crisis, and says the situation is beyond recession. He speaks on other issues and what the government should do to get out of the mess.
Looking at the present economic situation in Nigeria, a lot of people have been wondering why the government has been talking of recovering a lot of money from those who looted the nation’s treasury, but they have not seen the impact of what Buhari administration is doing with the money, what is your take on this?
You see the view of the road changes when you move from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat, because the easiest thing to do is criticism. Now, you are in the saddle. But I always say something. A year is not enough to assess an administration. The minimum time to assess an administration is mid-term. Yes! If you have four years to spend and you have spent two years, then we can say, “How far have you gone? What are the prospects for the next two remaining years? This is because you have the mandate to spend a term of four years. To really say whether this government has put into use very well or not the resources put in its care, it should be two years which is midterm.
You know, Nigeria has almost 100 million economists. Everybody will tell you do it this way, turn this way or turn that way. Nigeria runs a complex economy. It’s a complex economy in the sense that the economy runs more on the informal sector than the formal sector. The formal economy, like in Europe, you can predict outcomes. In your remote village, can you accurately predict economic behaviours? And Nigeria is an amalgamation of ethnic nationalities, with each having its peculiarities. It is a complex economy. But there are some fundamentals we have to look at: Investments, savings and consumption. Those are really the indices that will determine gross national product and other economic parameters. But so far, we are witnessing negative economic growth.
And I always tell people who care to listen that Nigeria is not in a recession right now, we have stagflation. Stagflation is a simultaneous movement of recession and inflation. In a recessed economy, prices are supposed to be going down, industrial output are supposed to be going down. And purchasing powers are supposed to be going down. But when you have an economy that is going down and prices going up through inflation, that is a simultaneous movement of inflation and recession, and that is stagflation. And some people will say, “We are in a recession. “ This is not recession, it is stagflation. It is even more complex than recession, because if it is just recession, you have to boost production, raise the level of investment, savings and so on. But with stagflation, you are confronted with more complexities, though surmount able.
A lot people have been complaining on the proposed increment of ICT tariff and personal income tax, expressing concern that while salaries are not increased, the government is talking of increasing PAYE, what is your take on this?
I think what the government was talking about was the deduction to National Housing Fund, and instead of deductions being based on consolidated, they are now being based on gross. I’ve told you that one of the instruments of slowing down a recession is savings and investment. So, many of these tools should be available for economists to really look at; what the workers put on pension is a saving that is being put away instead of the money being reflated into the economy. The National Housing Fund too is also a savings programme. It is not as if the government is taking the money away from the workers.
And then given the fact that a lot of government budget is on personnel recurrent, there is no way you can have these savings except making use of some of these tools. So, I’ve told you we are in a nation whereby we have almost 100 million economists. When something is done, people should try to find out why it is done instead of politicising the issue. As far as some of us are concerned, I’m more concerned about my country, Nigeria more than my personal beliefs. The people of this country expect much from the leadership. And I have said it before, immediately after election, it is our nation that should be the centrepiece of our policies. We should be concerned about the average man in the street and everyone of us and forget about APC and PDP. We run a presidential system and not a parliamentary system. It is a parliamentary system that gives opposition as a perpetual thing. The presidential system is the kind that, after the election, it is the nation. And in most cases, we look for a bi-partisan approach to solving problems. This is because when you use a bi-partisan approach, the common man would benefit from your policies and programmes at the end of the day.
You know if there is economic hardship, it is not PDP members that will suffer alone. It will affect both the PDP, APC and non politicians, because we all go to same markets. You don’t have separate markets, schools and roads for APC and PDP members. The issue now is that at the end of every election, leaders who emerge should look forward to using bi-partisan approach to solving security, economic and other issues bothering the people.
What do you have to say on the 2017 budget proposals and a lot of complaints people are making over the financial and other economic crisis in the country?
The truth is we must admit the fact that as far as an average Nigerian is concerned, to put food on his or her table is most important. To get this, affordable prices and availability of funds are very important to him. Once they cannot afford to feed themselves, then there will be serious problems. And this is not peculiar to Nigerians alone. All over the world, human basic needs are very crucial to everybody. Feeding is the number one basic necessity of life. Once you have a situation where people cannot afford three square meals, there would be problems. And if you have a situation whereby there is scarcity of funds in the system, there will always be noise. And that is what we are witnessing. Even the President has acknowledged the fact that the situation is bad. The statistics is not showing a rosy picture.
I strongly believe that one thing still needs to be done by Mr. President, that is, there must be a roadmap. Let him come out and say, “Nigerians please bear with us. In the three next three or six months, things are still going to be difficult, but after six months, things will be better because of these following things we are doing”. With these he will be able to move Nigerians away from state of hopelessness to hopefulness. So, once there is a document containing what he is already doing that will get the people out of hopelessness, and the roadmap is able to show the people where he is taking the country to and how he intends to get there, people will be able to buy into the vision and get the courage to follow and support him. Such document must be given to critical economic stakeholders for buy in. Nigeria can endure if you tell them what to expect and how you intend to get to where you are going. Nigerians should be told what to do and not to do. Tell them, don’t spend your money anyhow now. In six months, these are the things we will do to get you out of the crisis. These are the kind of things they will want to hear now because they know that in other countries, the economies are gloomy. The citizens’ buying-in, is very important.
You have been a chairman of a local government area, you have served as Secretary to Ogun State Government and you have been a Minister, which means you have served in all the three levels of government in Nigeria, what actually prepared you for these life challenges?.
The issues that really propelled me to serve has to do with my pedigree. My grandfather, Buraimoh Tairu was the Otun of Egbaland between 1907 and 1913. And he was a member of Egba United Government. That was before the amalgamation of the Northern and Southern Protectorates in 1914. My uncle was an Action Group Councillor in 1952. My father on his part, devoted his life more to religious duties. He performed his Hajj in the year 1919 and returned in 1921.
On my maternal side, my maternal grandfather was Amodu Ejalonibu. He was a member of Kila Society. It was a society of notable Egba indigenes. And because they were notable indigenes of the land, they were very influential in the affairs of Egbaland . Up till today, the photograph of my paternal grandfather is adorning the Centenary Hall of Fame in Abeokuta, as one of the people who held position with dignity in Egbaland. With that pedigree, and because you can’t build something on nothing, I started showing leadership right from primary school; I was also a member of dramatic society at the school level. All these were the experiences that really prepared me for the challenges. But I must equally thank my parents for giving me education, without which one would not have been able to attain the capacity of today. I lost my father at the age of 14, And that really was a turning point in my life. I have to acknowledge the support of my mother and my sister who saw me as a brilliant boy that must be supported in all ramifications.
You said earlier that your father died when you were just 14years old, and you also said you served your father well, what was your experience like and what kind of service did you render to your father?
Let me tell you that at a point in time, it was very funny, I mean the first experience I had making ‘Amala’ for my father. It was when I was asked to make Amala ( a Yoruba food made of yam flour)for my father, when I made it, the thing was too soft. Instead of using hot water and turning it more on the local stove, I decided to put the Amala in a tray and then put in the sun so that the Amala can become more solidified. It was my step mother who saw the Amala and exclaimed what was I doing in the sun with Amala and I told her the thing was too soft and I wanted it to be hard. She smiled at me and then showed me how it should be properly done. Thereafter, for the next four years before my father died, he would say nobody could prepare Amala for him than Sarafa because of the way I used to prepare it. He would say “Amala Sarafa is superb.” despite the fact that my sisters and others were available. The second thing is that anytime my father wanted to eat, he would ask me to stay by his side. And sometime he would send me to some of his friends. And he had quite a number of notable friends. The father of the present Alake of Egbaland was his close friend. He would send me to him. We had Chief Ilori, who was then the Aare of Egbaland, who was the Chief Customary Judge of Abeokuta then, And we had Laisi Agbogunleri from Owu; and many of his friends. I really served him.
What happened thereafter, were you in politics between 1999 and 2003 when Obasanjo became president?
Yes! When I was local council chairman and I was chairman of local government chairmen in Ogun State, when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo was released from prisons, the lot fell on me to relate with him as the chairman of the local government area where Obasanjo hails from. As the chairman of his local government, I mobilized all the council chairmen to pay him a courtesy visit. OBJ advised that we should be closer to him and update him with developments. That actually put me in a position to be closer to and continuously update him.
At times I would call in the night, and he would say where are you? And I would say at home, and he would say I should come over to his house.
At a time we were there to urge him to vie for presidency of Nigeria.
Which of you people went there to urge him to vie for presidential ticket?
The JMK (Jubril Martins Kuye) political family. That time we were called New Era Movement. So I was so close to Baba, updating him with the developments since he had not been around for a while. So we needed to update him. And I want to proudly say that when the journey to the presidency started, I was one of the people close to Baba Obasanjo.
But we gathered that General Ibrahim Babangida (rtd) was the one who led a few people from the North to ask him to contest. And that Pastor Enoch Adeboye actually went to him to anoint him and assure him that God said he would be the next president?
Well Baba Obasanjo is the one that can tell the whole story. I’m just telling you a bit of it from what we did. Of course, there was also the PDM (Peoples Democratic Movement), the Shehu Musa Yar”Adua Movement, that was led by Chief S. M. Afolabi to him, urging him to show interest as well. General Aliyu Gusau too, came to Abeokuta, urging him to show interest in the presidency. The urge to show interest was just coming from left, right and centre.
That means you know him and you were close to him?
Yes! From then and up till now
What kind of person would you say Obasanjo is, or what kind of impression do you have about the man ?
The best period that prosperity was brought into the country were those years when he happened to be the Nigerian leader. If you look at his achievements between 1976 and 1979 when he was Head of State, you can see that. But if some of our younger ones were very young then, between 1999 and 2007, you can well say that there were a lot of prosperity. The Issue of 13 per cent derivation was started by him to appease the Niger Delta after the killing of Ken Saro Wiwa by late Gen. Abacha.
After the death of Abacha, the country was so polarised, with the East wanting to go their way, people from the West believed that the annulment of the election of Chief M.K.O, Abiola as president of Nigeria was an injustice to their region. So he had the opportunity to weld Nigeria together. That time the OPC (Oodua People’s Congress) was raging in the South West. The Arewa boys were doing their own in the North. The Egbesu militants were in the Niger Delta. There were a lot of arms struggle. That was the first challenge that Obasanjo faced when he came. That was the challenge of political stability. And he did that. Number 2, when Obasanjo came, Nigeria’s debt profile then was about $38billion Us and he inherited a reserve of $3billion. But he reversed the debt within the period of his eight years. And there was prosperity in the land. We began to hear “Gbemu Aremu” (that means Surplus of Aremu-Obasanjo-) from teachers then. Teachers began to buy cars. Police salaries were also increased. Investors began to come into Nigeria. Policy of monetisation brought development, reducing overhead expenses by government. Politically, he was able to weld the country together. The country was more united under Obasanjo, it is still second to none.