Dr. Simon Okolo is the President, Nigerian Association ofÂ Chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture
(NACCIMA) and in this interview with Franklin Alli, he says political will is needed to diversify the economy from total dependence on oil to agriculture and industrial goods production.Â Excerpt
As a medical doctor and an industrialists, what do you think government should do to stimulate a productive economy?
Government can stimulate Nigeriaâ€™s industrialization by taking pragmatic and decisive steps to address the nationâ€™s deficit infrastructure especially electric power generation and the transport sector â€“ road, rail and water ways.
Government has to engage in further economic reform to transform the economy. The almost daily reports of our leaders in one form of graft, or the other do not portray the countryâ€™s leadership in good light. If government can stem the tide of corruption and trim the bloated cost of governance, the money so saved could be directed towards addressing Nigeriaâ€™s infrastructure decay to create better conditions for industries to thrive. Also our people must work harder like the Asians do if we want to industrialize.
We must have to expend more energy in planning and ensure maximum resource utilization. When you realize that some of the companies in Nigeria owned by Asian nationals (India, China) are doing very well amidst Nigeriaâ€™s deficit infrastructure, you will not but wonder whether the problem is in us or in our stars.
Since the eras of Operation Feed the Nation (OFN) and Green Revolution, there has been no new agricultural programmes. Would you say the Federal Government is paying enough attention to agriculture?
Nigeria did not start on the miserly note of the present experience. Before the advent of oil and its emergence as the mainstay of the nationâ€™s economy, Nigeria was on record as doing very well economically. It maybe true that it did not have the bloated population it has at present but it was able to manage its modest wealth to take care of its citizens.
At that time Agriculture was the mainstay and pillar of the economy.
The Eastern, Northern and Western regions of Nigeria sustained themselves through palm products, groundnut and oil and Cocoa, and there was enough left over to run efficient bureaucracy, compact armed forces, good and functional education, sustainable healthcare delivery, good infrastructure etc.
Then standard of living was high and comparable to what obtained elsewhere in the world. The ethos of the time revolved around handwork and frugality and food was in abundant supply. For instance, in the then Eastern Region, it was the period when the University of Nigeria Nsukka, the African Continental Bank, the various farm settlements, the durable secondary schools, hospitals, road and bridges were built.
Also, it was the time the region embarked on the training of its second generation of graduates, after the era of the legendary Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Dr. K.O. Mbadiwe, Dr. Ikejiani, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, Prof. Kenneth Onwuka Dike, Prof. Eni Njoku, Dr M.I. Okpara, Dr Akanu Ibiam, Dr. Alvan Ikoku etc.
These played pivotal and central roles in the quest for Nigeriaâ€™s freedom as well as the evolution of tertiary education in the country. It is germane to mention that all these great minds were trained through scholarship schemes financed by the agrarian economy of the period before the advent of oil. As we have these people trained by the agrarian economy of the eastern region so also we have hordes of such men in the Western and Northern Nigeria educated with the groundnut pyramids of the North and the cocoa produces from Western Nigeria, among them are the late Sunday Awoniyi, Chief T.OS Benson, Maitama Sule and others too numerous to mention.
It is important to note that the pioneer role these great minds played in the evolution of modern Nigeria remains unparallel and has hardly been replicated in the history of Nigeria.Â So, looking back, if this initial effort were sustained till date, the countryÂ would have become a world power instead of a crumbling midget it is today.
What would you say have been the impacts of oil wealth on the economy?
The advent of oil spawned a huge oil chain that grids all sectors of our national wealth.This warped chain has rubbed off negatively on all spheres of national life, be it educational, value system, economic system, cultural system security system, politics etc. Ask an average school child what he or she would like to do after school and the ready answer would certainly be â€œto work in the oil companyâ€.
As you are probably aware, the oil chain accounts for the present worsening security situation in the Niger Delta, it accounts for the unending hostage taking and kidnapping in the Eastern part of the country; it accounts for most of the heated contentions that have put the economy on the paths of perpetual crisis. It accounts for the destructive corruption that has completely over swayed all sectors of the countryâ€™s formal and informal lives.
Is it surprising that at the period Nigeria is making so much money from oil, the roads are in all time terrible condition? I wonder how many of us have travelled through the Benin-Ore road or through the Onitsha-Owerri road in recent times. These are viable metaphors for the worsening condition of Nigerian roads at this period of unceasing oil wealth. What about the intractable security situation in the country where armed robbers, kidnappers, hired assassins, drug addicts, con men popularly called 419, etc.
What of the power system that has defied the capacity of successive governments despite the free flow of oil wealth? In a nutshell, the negative effects of oil on Nigeria can be summarised asÂ follows: oil has interred the great prospects agriculture offered the country in the first republic and the period before its advent as the mainstay of the countryâ€™s economy. Oil has come to sever the chain that binds the nation together as the various entities that make up the country jostle for prime position to partake in the sharing of oil wealth.
If you are to advice the Presidency on the way forward for the economy, what will you be telling them?
Today with the slump in crude oil prices in the world market and the western industrialized nationâ€™s current efforts to seek cleaner energy to replace fossil fuels, nations like Nigeria that depend solely on oil wealth are faced with the grim task of diversifying their economy from total dependence on oil or face economic and social upheavals. This therefore presents Nigeria with the golden opportunity and mixed blessing to go back to agriculture that have been the mainstay of the countryâ€™s economy in the early days before oil came on the scene. If the successive governments in the country have really made use of the huge amount of money budgeted for agriculture from the federal, state and local government levels yearly to really work on agriculture, Perhaps the woeful state of the agricultural sector today may not have arisen.
The era of paying lip service to agricultural production by our leaders must be replaced by serious and concrete investments in agriculture through reactivation of our various research institutes to produce improved crop varieties and livestock to farmers. It is quite disheartening to witness the sorry state most of our research institutes have degenerated to, due to neglect. For instance, the horticultural research institute at Umulolo Okigwe in Imo State, a cereal research institute at Amakama -Umuahia, Abia State.Â As you have these decaying research institutes in the Eastern part of the country so you have others like them in other parts of the country still struggling to keep alive.
If you recall, Malaysia which today ranks as the world largest producer of palm oil took their first palm seedling from Eastern Nigeria.
Therefore, the way forward is that our leaders across the 36 states of the federation should come together with the Organised Private Sector (OPS) to work to return the lost glory of the oil palm, groundnut, cotton cowpeas ginger cassava, cocoa and other cash crops and use them both to empower the people and sustain the economy.
You donâ€™t give people fish rather you teach them how to catch fish, this our leaders can do by providing freely to the people, improved varieties of cash crops on yearly basis plus fertilizer as sure dividend of democracy. This way the people will replace the old palm trees with new improved yield varieties.Â Also, governments of northern and western Nigeria must equally do same and revive the production of their cash crops.
The Federal Government recently built fish hatcheries across the country. Do you think that is enough to boost fish farming?
What Nigerian fish farmers really need is fish feed not fish hatcheries. Fish feed is so costly in this country that the average fish farmer toils only for the foreign fish feed producers. And we have the where withal to address the problem if we can install the proper machines within the precincts of the various on â€“ going cassava processing plants in the country to dry the cassava on which the proper chemical nutrients will be added to produce fish feed that will be affordable to the farmers in the country. This will help our fish farmers reap the fruit of their labour instead of toiling for foreign fish feed producers, and in time, Nigeria will become a great producer of fish for both local consumption and export.
The hatcheries you talk about have been politicized and most of our fish farmers who went through the recent World Bank training for fish farmers in the country know how to hatch fish fingerlings for their fish ponds. What the government really need to do is to empower the private sector to enable them go into fish feed production to save Nigeriaâ€™s fish farmers from perpetual slavery for foreign fish feed producers. Unless this is done all efforts to increase fish production in the country will come to naught.