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May 29, 2024

Musings on 2024 Vanguard Economic Discourse

At Vanguard Economic Discourse: Govt, private sector men clash over reform policies
By Precious Okolobo

Vanguard Newspaper prides itself as a crusader “towards a better life for the people.” It did that last week, making news instead of reporting it. The 2024 Vanguard Economic Discourse, the eighth in the series, held May 23 in Lagos to a packed hall of government officials, economists, labour leaders, industry chieftains and undergraduates. Yours truly was one of them. The topic was Reforms in the era of Global Economic Uncertainty: Whither Nigeria. The timing is significant for many reasons. May is the first anniversary of the Tinubu administration. And 2024 marks the 40th year of the founding of Vanguard Media itself.

I congratulated myself as a proud witness of history as I drove to the venue. In a case of perfect timing, I stumbled on a call-in programme on a radio station on the performance of the Tinubu administration. I couldn’t have asked for a better appetizer! One caller said on the ills facing us: “The problem did not start today.” Another said on the way forward: “It’s everybody’s fight.” You would see later why these callers made my day.

Uncle Sam, as the proprietor of Vanguard Media is fondly called, sat quietly along with the Publisher of Guardian Newspapers, Maiden Ibru, as the proceedings opened. “He’s speaking even if he’s not,” I said to myself, on the visibility of an institution that still shapes views and opinions 40 years after it was set up by a group of friends. Mr. Eze Anaba, Editor, Vanguard Media Ltd opened the event by saying: “There can be no better life without economic wellness,” in apparent allusion to the relevance of the theme to the vision of the newspaper.

Vice President Kashim Shetima who has been leading efforts to turn around the economy in the public sector and also heads the National Economic Council was represented by his Special Adviser, Economic Affairs. Having become so familiar with the direction of such speeches, I can summarise this one in six simple words: Our reforms are painful but necessary. “We’re heading somewhere,” he assured. I was keen to hear the CBN Governor in respect of the value of the naira in my wallet. Represented by Blaise Ijebor, CBN Director Risk Management Department, he said the apex bank was working hard to ensure the “long-term stability of the Naira,” but acknowledged that efforts to tame inflation would only succeed when wider structural reforms are implemented.

The discourse was timed to begin with general presentations and then the panel discussion, but the chairman, Dr. Ayo Teriba somehow blurred the line as he launched into what seemed like a panel presentation while delivering what were meant to be his opening remarks. We shifted uncomfortably in our chairs as the anchor and electronic time keeper tried to alert him to the time allotted. Regardless, the eminent economist made a lot of sense in his remarks. His submission: Nigeria’s GDP can grow sustainably if we move our economy from depending on income to assets. “We must connect global liquidity to domestic assets, as Saudi Arabia, India and Qatar have done.”

But all the qualms about timekeeping were quashed when the President of the Nigeria Association of chambers of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NACCIMA,) Dele Oye came up to speak. The lawyer struck familiar chords in the audience with his down-to-earth style, ignoring his prepared notes and regaling us with ad lib remarks and anecdotes. “Every country defends her currency. But in Nigeria, there is nothing for the Nigerian businessman. The private sector is not the problem of inflation, we all know that. If you check, none of us has any money anymore. They have collected it through tax. The truth is, the biggest driver of inflation is the value of our currency. So we must make sure we stabilise our currency, which is the beginning and end of our problem.” At a point, sensing that he was taking too long, he said: “I was brought here to talk so I must talk!” He shredded his timesheet and we rewarded him with a standing ovation when he finally finished. Mr. Oye climbed down from his lawyerly pedestal and spoke like the man in the street!

With a few more remarks, the keynote presentations gave way to the panel discussion about two and half hours later, chaired by Dr. Teriba, and featuring the earlier speakers as well as the Managing Director of Financial Derivatives Company, Mr. Bismarck Rewane, the NLC President, Comrade Joe Ajaero and the President of the Association of Bureau De Change Operators of Nigeria (ABCON,) Alhaji Aminu Gwadebe. It was an opportunity for the speakers to reiterate their points or give explanations, but Ajaero, Rewane, and Gwadebe, haven’t spoken before, offered fresh insights.

Comrade Ajaero who had earlier made a noisy entrance into the hall with a contingent said the reforms of the government were punishing, rather than helping people. “One of the eight-point agenda of Mr. President is to eradicate poverty but how many people have descended into poverty between May 29th last year till date?” he asked, and answered: “Much more people. So the policies we are having are leading more people into clear cases of poverty.” I’ve often watched Mr. Rewane discuss finance and economics on TV and was pleased to see him in the flesh. The man has the air of a university don and delivers in a tone that requests you to listen and not interrupt! Among other things, he had words of caution to the NLC in their demand for higher minimum wage. “Dollarisation of the minimum wage would put more pressure on the private sector, which is a major employer of labour, and would eventually result in job losses,” he said.

Alhaji Gwadebe was not happy about the challenges facing BDCs, particularly the hike in capitalisation and renewal of licenses, and he wore his heart on his sleeve. “A BDC is not a deposit taking institution. We are raising the capital base of a BDC from N35 million to N500 million, that is Tier 2, the Tier 1 is to N2 billion. This is highly against global standards. We are not against reform. Reform is to put in place orderliness, sanity, transparency and so many other things. We appeal to the Central Bank to review the minimum capital requirement in order to reflect global standards and also address the deadline as it is too short.”

The discussion wrapped up five hours after we started; our investment in Nigeria’s future.

Vanguard Media Ltd has acquitted itself as a responsible corporate citizen of Nigeria by creating a platform for exchange of ideas on our pains and as a gateway to our gains. The subject matter was relevant just as the panel was distinguished. The audience was engaged and lively. But there is room for improvement. The discussants were all men, without representation of women and youths to better reflect the audience make up. And the hall became so packed at a point that guests had to stand or look for seats making it all rowdy. Vanguard will also do well with active time keeping to keep speakers in check.

Chewing over the discussions, I agree with the caller on the radio programme that we didn’t get into the jam overnight so things must take time to turn around. The search for solutions is not “the other person’s business” only. It is everybody doing their bit in their corner to see the desired change. Be the change you wish to see. For the Federal Government, the only barometer to measure the success of a policy is the eventual impact on the lives of citizens. If the promised paradise seems unreachable, then excuses and promises will ring hollow over a period of time. Perhaps, as VP Shetima said, “we’re heading somewhere.” I pray we get there in my lifetime!

Precious Okolobo retired as Media Relations Manager of Shell Nigeria.

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