By Hector-Roosevelt Ukegbu
Early last year, in the run-up to the 2015 general elections, this writer argued in two newspaper articles that Nigerians should vote for then presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari and against Dr. Goodluck Jonathan and the then-ruling PDP. I pointed to the massive systemic corruption in the Jonathan government and how this was seriously impeding economic growth and miring the hapless citizens in poverty. I called the entire Nigerian government system a vast criminal enterprise. In truth, my whole premise of advocating support for Mr. Buhari was not for his vaunted economic management skills, but for his self-discipline, for his circumspect way of life, for his nationalism. My belief was and still is, that Mr. Buhari was the lone person in Nigeria’s political firmament capable of slaying the hydra-headed monster called Nigerian corruption. My belief remains that if corruption is crushed, economic recovery will come, and so will improve all other indices of human growth among the people.
The crash in world oil prices has thrown a wrench in the wheel of Nigeria’s economic recovery even as the battle against corruption proceeds. It pains me, as I am sure it pains lovers of the Nigerian people, that the Buhari/APC government appears to be willy-nilly trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The people are groaning under the unfamiliar burdens of severe fuel scarcity (something that the Jonathan government had largely gotten rid of in the recent past). They also contend with declining electricity generation, making worse an output that was already abysmal (reportedly from sabotage of gas pipelines that send feedstock to generating plants), and serious shortages of hard currency (due to reduced oil export revenue inflows).
Which way out now for the Buhari/APC government? What to do so that this new government does not continue to fritter away this golden opportunity it has to turn around the fortunes of Nigeria, to return the country to the greatness that it has not had since the military-rule era of the 1970s.
In 2005 (I apologize if this makes me sound like a broken record), I submitted a paper to the Obasanjo government, a paper that was recycled to the Umaru Yar’Adua, Jonathan, and now the Buhari government. That paper started off by saying that Nigeria should operate as an economy that has no oil. That all oil export receipts should be devoted solely to economic and social infrastructure, security, and to fuel an export drive. The paper detailed a plan to achieve the massive export of manufactured goods within just four years. The paper advocated that Nigerian governments should operate their non-infrastructure and non-security budgets only on what they receive as taxes and fees from the citizens and companies.
The paper made the point that if Nigerian federal and state governments depended only on income taxes and corporate taxes for their operations, it would be hard for any politician or government official to steal those monies. I warned that there will come a day when oil prices will get too low, or oil would be substituted with other products (think: electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.) and Nigeria would be suddenly deprived of its lifeblood – petroleum earnings.
None of these governments took my advice, preferring to borrow one or two things from the strategy and going about their business as usual. My suggestion? You have just got to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. There are some real talents in that government, notably Works, Housing and Power minister, former Lagos governor Mr. Babatunde Fashola, and Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, the de facto oil minister. The problem is that the two men are working on a faulty governance infrastructure. Another problem is that Buhari appears to be his own economy minister.
Manufacturing for export
The APC government of President Buhari cannot fulfill its promise of a change of Nigeria’s fortunes the way the whole thing is set up. You cannot hope to succeed if you don’t completely trash the infrastructure of the previous governments and start on a new platform. You can’t follow the old paradigm and expect to succeed in a transformative way. What to do?
The government should maintain the policy of not selling foreign exchange to any company or individual not importing a product or commodity that could be used for manufacturing for export or for import substitution.
Which brings us to the question of governance infrastructure. This policy outlined above cannot work with the present setup of governance in Nigeria. President Buhari has to go before the Nigerian people and make the case that things have to change so that he can improve the lives of Nigerians. He should tear up this 2016 Budget or operate it by omission. Mr. Fashola should only be the Minister for Power, and ignore Works and Housing. For the next one year all the money allocated to his ministry should be spent only on electricity. Indeed President Buhari should devote his attention to only three areas: Electricity, Defence and Police.
The government should build no railways, no roads, no bridges, no houses.
The nation can manage with the present roads, but can’t do without electricity to power households and industry. The government should not give any money to help the unemployed, the government should not spend any money training people to become entrepreneurs, the government should not spend any money to revive any economic sector, for instance textiles.
There is no reason the government if it forgets about every other thing in that … 2016 Budget cannot in one year raise Nigeria’s electricity output from the current 4500 MW to 20,000 MW. Because once there is enough electricity to power industry, manufacturing companies will return, those still in the country would revive on their own, people will create jobs on their own, people will get jobs. Banks will begin to lend to manufacturers, and not simply use their deposits to buy government treasury bills and bonds.
Knowing now the overarching importance of electricity, the Buhari government should as Nigerians refer to it: “do the needful.” The needful is cancelling the privatization of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, repaying the so-called Gencos, Discos and Transiscos the money they invested.
As I wrote last year, the whole privatisation exercise is bogus. Before world companies that understand electricity could be attracted to come to Nigeria to get involved, the Jonathan government had sold off Nigeria’s electricity assets to novices, who had neither the electricity business experience nor the financial wherewithal to develop the sector. And now the country is suffering the consequences.
Ukegbu is director at International Research Group, a division of Accrezion Corporation, in the United States.