By Omeiza Ajayi,
Elder Statesman, Obong Victor Attah, is an architect was governor of Akwa Ibom State from 1999 to 2007. In this interview with Vanguard, Attah who had since resigned from politics, and now a leader of the Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF, expresses concerns that Nigeria could be heading towards another recession due to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
He speaks on the several lessons that the pandemic has taught the country and added that the monopoly of fuel importation currently wielded by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation NNPC should be broken. Excerpts:
What is your take on the appointment of Prof. Ibrahim Gambari as the new CoS?
You know, I can be very personal about that, because I knew Prof. Gambari way back when we were in Nigerian College Zaria together. I have known him for quiet a long time and he has had a phenomenal career.
I think the best way to look at it is to ask how have recent appointments by President Buhari been received by Nigerians? There is always controversy, criticisms and people talking about nepotism and all that, but since the appointment of Prof. Gambari, everybody has heaved a sigh of relief, thanking God.
There has not been one voice of criticism not to mention opposition to his appointment and that speaks a lot to who the man is and the wisdom the president has applied in filling that position. I am very happy.
So, you see him as the right person to fit into the late Abba Kyari’s shoes?
Most certainly. In fact, I can say it could not have been better. He fits the bill and I have no doubt he is going to do the job to the satisfaction of not only Mr President but Nigerians.
There are those who have constantly advocated that the office of the CoS be scrapped seeing as the late President Yar’Adua did not even have a Chief of Staff. Do you agree with them?
I am not even going to speak about Yar’Adua having or not having a CoS but if you asked me, I would say God took his life when He did but maybe if he stayed longer, he would have found a need to have somebody in that position. I do not believe that it should be scrapped. I think there is a need for it particularly when you have the right person to do what that office demands.
Let us look at the COVID-19 pandemic. Till now, some people do not believe that there is COVID-19. Do you align with those who think that the government is only trying to scam Nigerians?
That is the danger. Most people do not want to believe. They are seeing the evidence but they still do not want to believe. People die from this and they keep denying, saying they didn’t die as a result of COVID-19, that they died as a result of something else and therein is the danger because unless we “research” into this particular virus and know that it can cause a lot of damage, then it would do a lot of damage to ourselves and our society. Are we saying the entire world is playing a game about COVID-19? The sooner we realized it the better.
What is the way forward? Should we continue with the lock-down or not?
Government has a real problem on its hands and it is not peculiar to Nigeria only. I do not know what it is but I feel sorry for President Buhari. When he came in the first time, within a few months, because of the condition created by others, there was a recession. And then he comes back the second time and the next thing that you would find is a virus that is devastating the whole world.
These are circumstances that are entirely beyond him or anybody’s control for that matter. But the biggest problem is how to balance the economy, the health and social consequences of the lockdown. There is no doubt that it is absolutely necessary to have a form of containment but for how long? And when you relax the lockdown, to what extent? And how long should we relax it?
There is no denying the fact that it needs to be a balancing act and that is what you see everywhere, not just in Nigeria, people are trying to balance the consequences of keeping the lockdown and making it total or keeping it for some time and so on. You have most of the industries dying because of this kind of situation.
But then, the government must eventually decide, as I said, to balance the economic and healthcare consequences. There is no magic. It is almost like trial and error.
However, certain things have been brought home to us very strongly. One is that we should obey the government directives on this matter. When I see people trying to be so stubborn or doing “oversabi” (let me use that expression) and accusing the government of various things, they should just obey government’s instructions because we have to trust that the government knows what it is doing.
The most capable hands that we have in the NCDC and the Presidential Taskforce should be trusted. But one thing that has also come to us is how foolish we have been to think that we can rely on one commodity, oil in our economy. You can now see that those of us that have been shouting diversification were not talking nonsense.
If they cannot see that it is absolutely necessary for us to diversify this economy and go into other areas of productivity, then the economy is just going to die. They are talking now about certain states, up to 16, that may not be able to pay salaries as from July. Why? It is because the dependency was entirely on oil and so certain things should begin to happen even with the oil itself.
I think it is clear now that we should allow others, not only NNPC to import the fuel that we need into this country. It has become very clear that we should very much increase our refining capacity and set up those modular refineries that we were talking about in the Niger Delta and that will create employment for the people instead of the one they call bunkering and illegal refinery. They should set up these modular refineries within the Niger Delta and then they should in fact remove the subsidy.
Let people buy and sell at market prices. Today we have a situation whereby government brings down the pump price and people begin to argue that it should be higher or lower. Just sentiments, Let the economy determine what it should be.
When we talk about diversification, what in fact are we diversifying into? We need to diversify the economy into mining other solid minerals but our big problem there is illegal mining and the people are being protected by godfathers which is very wrong.
We have to be serious about our solid minerals, we have to make sure that it is properly done so that whatever revenue comes from it gets to the government and for the benefit of everybody. And when you look at agriculture, who is going to have the confidence to go to the farm now when there is a risk of bandits or herdsmen going there to kill or abduct people?
So, we must guarantee the security of the people because one thing has an effect on the other. If we do not have security, we are niot going to have the kind of farming that we expect and we are going to have great famine in this country.
On the modular refineries, we do not have to be scared that people will not have the capital to buy them. What I did in Akwa Ibom, I could not convince anybody to come and set up the Le Meridien Hotel in Uyo. Nobody would believe that it is something that would make money.
So, I used government money, I set it up and then I put it up for privatization. Government should be able to set up this refinery and get people to take them over and pay the government. Government should help set them up, get maybe AMCON to be managing it and then later privatise it.
Do you see Nigeria going into another recession seeing as it has become difficult to sell off most of our crude oil in the international market?
This issue won’t be there if we were refining our own crude. We are having this problem because we are waiting for somebody to come and refine for us then we go and import. First, there is a need to increase the refining capacity in the country and we will be selling it in the country at the appropriate price, not at a subsidized price.
Recession stares at us
The risk of going into a recession is not only staring Nigeria in the face. It is everywhere as it is staring other countries in the face. If they do not manage the economy well, we will go into a recession. It should be expected because if nobody is buying our oil, what will happen? But on the other hand, oil will still continue to sell.
Look at Europe, one week of relaxing the lockdown, the Bonny Light began selling at $24 having gone down to $12. For a long time, there will still be need for oil but we must move fast, not gradually, to diversify from oil.
Do you think state governors, especially the Northern Governors who are now repatriating almajiris have handled this pandemic well?
I think the northern governors met among themselves and took a decision which is commendable that the almajiri system must stop. It really must be discontinued. How can we bring children into the world to be roaming the streets and begging and then after that what do they become? The Almajiri system must stop, but I think the timing is so bad.
The timing is so wrong. What should have happened should have been for them to say ‘every state, accept your almajiri. Take them off the streets. Those that are Covid-19 positive, make sure you put them in isolation centres, keep them and when they come out, you must find something for them to do’.
And as soon as the lockdown is over, you can now send them to their various states. Every state must take responsibility for its children but it is not at this time that we should be moving them up and down. And now, there is another phenomenon of moving them down south. I do not know if any of those almajiris come from any state in the south.
So, why are they being moved to the south? That is something I do not understand.