A political economist and former presidential candidate, Social Democratic Mega Party, Prof. Pat Utomi, in this interview, he speaks on a number of issues that should engage the attention of the President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration
Nigerians expect President Muhammadu Buhari to hit the ground running in order to address the socio-economic and political challenges confronting the country, which specific areas do you want him to concentrate on?
President Buhari needs to channel his energy in the reconstruction of a number of things that brought a lot of pressure on the country. Those things must be put in the context of a clear strategy with the mind that this is going towards achieving a long term goal of superior performance that will improve the quality of lives of Nigerians across board. To be able to do that, the President needs to, first of all, make the point that the ability to get more things done is a function of the legitimacy of the regime and legitimacy is earned everyday by the things the President does, which inspires more confidence in the people and essentially make their goodwill available to him so that he can do more. The critical areas that must attract the attention of the President, if that legitimacy is to be earned, include things that deepen the misery index of the Nigerian condition, such as the recurring queuing for petrol by Nigerians. There are challenges around that problem that need to be confronted headlong. There should be a decisive move on this problem. In my mind, Nigeria can deal with two critical problems at the same time – unemployment and the recurring petrol issue. If the country earns $100 from a barrel of crude oil, it actually forgoes the possibility that it can earn $3,000 from a barrel of crude oil if the value chains were developed. So, how can we create job massively and make fuel available at the same time? We need to liberalise the process completely by removing the petroleum subsidy, which is majorly a scam by few rich individuals. We need to provide incentives for those willing to build refineries. Let us dot the entire coastlines of Nigeria with refineries to process our crude for export. With this approach, we would be able to take thousands of youths off the street and also stop the persistent queues in filling stations. Taking the employment issue further down, we need to create massive entrepreneurship orientation in small and medium scale enterprises that will result in the creation of new jobs. My view on how to do this is to look at the abandoned mining sector. In the 1950s, Nigeria was a global leader in mining. Attention should be focused on this sector to drive the job creation agenda and diversify the economy.
What do you think the new President should do in his first 100 days in office?
The 100 days mantra does not mean anything to me personally, but the earlier the President sets down to work, the bigger the cache of the legitimacy he will earn. If enough is not done during the honeymoon period, the people will begin to ask questions. It is important that the President should work to convince the people that they have made the right decision.
Past governments in the country have failed to address the problem of unemployment among Nigerian youths. How should the new President tackle this?
We have a population that is growing at a significant rate. The issue is that we need to respond rapidly so that this number will not become a time bomb, but a demographic dividend. What it takes to create a demographic dividend is to make the people human capital, instead of just statistics. If you look at the current situation in the country, one will tend to say it is almost a time bomb. If one looks around, he will see many young school leavers and graduates who don’t have anything to do and are easier to recruit to cause trouble like kidnapping, insurgency and armed robbery around the country. To manage this challenge properly, among the things we need to do, in my view, is to create massive conversion education programme by taking unemployed graduates and giving them vocational skills in plumbing, tiling and entrepreneurship training. One of the things I hope will happen is the massive public work programme in the short term designed to take care of the many bad roads in the country that will put many unemployed youths to work. Imagine if Nigeria is implementing the Niger Delta coastline refinery project and implementing a system to build the railway from Lagos to Calabar and from Lagos to Kano, it will take a large number of low and even highly skilled people off the street. When you employ these agile people to cut down the bush for a new railway to be built from morning to 2.00pm, they can be engaged in that job, but from 3.00pm to 6.00pm, they can be learning vocational skills and by the time they are done, you have a generation of skilful people. Closely related to this is to employ hundreds of thousands of young graduates to essentially codify all government’s documents for e-Governance. Everything is now computerised. With this, one would have temporarily created massive millions of jobs and by the time you finish codifying government documents within three years, the people employed would have acquired new skills that will help them to become entrepreneurs.
Buhari is believed to be surrounded by perceived corrupt people who may not allow him to deliver the change promised Nigerians. Do you share this view and how should the new President handle such a situation?
I don’t have any particular measure that says that statement is correct. The people are entitled to their opinions, but my view is that when a country decides to make a turnaround, it can do so no matter who and who are involved in the government so long as the leadership is committed to do something differently. The leadership will need to build strong institutions to check the behaviour of corrupt people and ensure that the boundaries are very clear.
Can you be specific on the institutions you want the new President to build?
About 15 years ago, former President Olusegun Obasanjo set up a panel to look at the existence of integrity in government. The panel made certain recommendations which were never implemented. To tackle corruption, the important thing the people want to see is good examples by the leaders. The second thing is to have a system that will enable you to make the right decisions to reduce the use of discretion because the use of discretion leads to impunity and abuse. So, these institutions will be very helpful if they are used properly and making a couple of good example of those who are caught out of line will be very helpful.
Nigerians have yet to see the result of the huge resources invested in the power sector by successive governments in the past 16 years. How can the Buhari-led government change the story?
There is a problem of project management in Nigeria. Much equipment was imported for IPP and the equipment is still lying at the Ikorodu terminal. Why? They planned this programme without considering the fact that the bridges along that axis could not carry equipment of that nature. We must therefore courageously switch to decentralisation of power generation. The Electricity Regulatory Commission will probably say that it is aware of the need to become more flexible and therefore allow more intense in terms of projects. Also, proper competition will lead to cost being driven down. Private sector investment should be encouraged across the value chain whether in power generation or transmission or distribution.
At what point do you think the administration of Dr. Goodluck Jonathan missed the opportunity to develop Nigeria?
I was clear in my mind right from the inception of Jonathan’s administration that there was no framework for progress or development of the country. Nigeria is confronted by power, possession and predation. What is required is purpose, but we are obsessed with power, possession and predation, which are parts of the impunity that we see around. I saw these very early in the life of the Jonathan’s administration. The people complained correctly to an extent that Nigeria’s politicians are not good for administration, but are only good in winning elections and that professionals are needed to run the country. However, the obsession with certificates is also not the solution. What is required to run a country are managers who are passionate about service. They may not have 10 degrees in their assigned areas, but they can do better than those who have 20 degrees in the areas because they have a passion. What I saw very early in Jonathan’s administration was that there were a lot of people who were obsessed with power, possession and predation. There were not too many people who were leaders or managers with the heart of service.
Buhari has singled out insecurity, corruption and economic mismanagement as the major issues that brought Nigeria to its sorry state. What are the ways out of the woods?
We don’t seem to understand the impact of corruption in Nigeria. For example, we may call it petty corruption; policemen collecting N500 at the roadblock will stop a van or lorry bringing perishable foods from Yola to Lagos. The vehicle will spend more hours than it should spend because of the number of policemen on the highway trying to extort either N500 or N1, 000 from the driver. Sometimes, the police will delay the driver for six hours until he is able to raise as much as he can. By the time the vehicle reaches Lagos, the items would have gone bad and because the owner does not want to lose his money, he will sell the bad items to the people who don’t have the capacity to detect that they are consuming bad foods and will therefore fall sick. The hospitals that are poorly equipped are put under greater pressure. What we can infer from this simple analysis is that the attempt by the police to force the driver to part with N500 has caused a lot of setback for Nigeria. So, Buhari should involve bold initiative to tackle corruption. On insecurity, Nigeria needs more intelligence than before.