By Hassan Mohammed
IS the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari ready to walk its talk in the promise to give the Nigerian economy a new direction? This question will be answered if (or when) the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, ERGP, the president launched last year begins to bear fruits.
What may, perhaps, prove to a traditionally skeptical and cynical public that this government is truly committed to making the new economic plan work are the focus labs that were held in Abuja between March and April this year. Very little is known of the event that is a novelty in this part of the world. But from what one has been able to glean from newspaper reports, the focus labs, which were copied from Malaysia, were held to enable key stakeholders in the nation’s economy, including investors, financiers and government leaders, to sit across the table to discuss and agree on how to make ERGP work.
Reports say the focus labs, which brought together 300 participants representing 180 organisations, involved 67, 200 man-hours of 20 syndication meetings that had in attendance key government officials including ministers of the relevant ministries that are directly connected to the areas the discussions covered. These were agriculture, transportation, power, gas, manufacturing and processing.
At the end of the exercise, there was a consensus among participants that there couldn’t be a better indicator of the fact that the country is ready for the long journey out of the woods.
The ministers that participated in the exercise were selected because of the connectivity of their ministries to the main drivers of economic growth. For instance, the poor state and, perhaps, absence of rail transportation in Nigeria has continually hindered movement of agricultural produce that are sourced from the northern part of the country to the southern part where markets exist. This impacts negatively on the prices of such produce as yam, maize, onions, tomato, and livestock, etc. Chibuike Amaechi, Transport minister, was on hand to enlighten farmers from the northern part of the country on government’s plan for rail transportation.
The labs afforded Babatunde Fashola, Power, Works and Housing minister, opportunity to have firsthand knowledge of the power challenges manufacturers and farmers face in running factories and transporting produce from the hinterland to urban centres, respectively. Farmers were able to sit down with Audu Ogbe, minister of agriculture and his team to discuss their challenges and jointly proffer solutions to them
This is something that could have been considered farfetched, since it is not possible for the ministers to visit the participants in their locations around the country to know their problems. Nor would it be convenient for the participants to travel to Abuja individually to meet them. The event eliminated official protocols that are usually encountered in meeting top government functionaries at the level of a minister.
A major feature of the labs, which served to convince private sector participants of the government’s preparedness to assist in whatever way it can to make the sector, the main driver of the envisaged economic growth, play its role, was the introduction of ratings for projects that were presented by investors. Projects were rated in the manner hotels are rated – from zero-star to five-star – according to their feasibility and stages of readiness.
For instance, a project that was rated zero-star meant there was nothing to show that it was ready for implementation, while the rating progressed according to the state at which the project was, at the time the labs were held. A five-star rating for a project meant that it was good to go, and merely required, perhaps, moral or financial support to take off.
The good thing about the ratings was that nobody was dismissed because of the low ratings their projects attracted. In other words, whether or not an investor received any form of assistance had nothing to do with the rating of his project. If a project was given a zero-star rating, for instance, the owner was made to sit down in a one-on-one discussion with experts and bureaucrats from the relevant ministries who took him through every step that is required to make his dream project become a reality. He was given access to key officials in the ministries for follow-up meetings and discussions that would result in the project becoming attractive to would-be partners and potential investors.
Nobody left the event unsatisfied. There was something for everybody to take home. At the end of the day, the skepticism and doubts that may have existed in the minds of investors who were invited to participate in the labs gave way to belief, hope and optimism.
On paper, ERGP looks like what Nigeria needs to completely exit recession and begin the journey towards economic growth and sustainable development. The programme is designed to stimulate the economy, open up the non-oil sector that has remained largely untapped for diversification, invest in human resources and build an economy that is competitive, internationally. The long term objective of the economic programme is to build a Nigeria where every citizen would have a sense of belonging, live a more prosperous life and enjoy fundamental human liberties that include equal rights and justice. From the first outing, focus labs appear to constitute a major step in the process of making ERGP realise its objectives. But can the Buhari administration demonstrate the political will to follow through its implementation?
A 1.5 per cent GDP growth as at second quarter of 2018, and foreign reserves at a five-year high of $45.83 billion, as at August 31, 2018, should give hope of a renewed determination to chart a new course for the economy, as well as reason to believe that the federal government’s target of creating 15 million jobs by 2020 could be achieved.
If anything, the economy has demonstrated remarkable health as to enable the federal government to disburse over N1.91 trillion as bailout funds to states to pay salaries, pensions and other liabilities. All hope may not be lost, after all.