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Presidential economic blueprint: How Nigeria Dresses in Borrowed Robes, by Atiku Abubakar

Presidential economic blueprint: How Nigeria Dresses in Borrowed Robes, by Atiku Abubakar

…Promises to return Nigeria to the path of prosperity

His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar, Vice President of Nigeria (1999-2007) and Presidential flag bearer of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, last Tuesday, September 13, 2022, presented his economic blueprint to the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry, LCCI.  His is the first in the series.

The Labour Party, LP, a presidential candidate is billed for tomorrow, Tuesday,  The All Progressives Congress, APC, presidential candidate, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu has pushed his presentation to a later date.  In this interaction, Atiku Abubakar presents his idea of how best Nigeria can be rescued from the jaws of backwardness.

Excerpts:

Why it is important to engage

First, in times of uncertainty such as we are experiencing today, it is the hallmark of leadership for business and political actors to pause, and anticipate, before taking the next steps. Our actions today will have consequences on our tomorrow and the day after.

Second, Nigeria is in transition as the APC government leaves the stage and the PDP takes over – with your support and goodwill – come May 2023. It is your duty, therefore, to take stock of the assets (if there are any) and liabilities (which will be huge!!!) of the APC administration.  It is also your responsibility to interrogate those who aspire to govern the country.

You must assess their understanding of the environment, their policy priorities, and their strategies for dealing with a plethora of local and national issues from the mundane to the most complex.  You should never allow political slogans to take the place of development plans. Political propaganda on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is never a substitute for proper socio-economic and political agenda.

Thirdly and finally, the private sector is key to any government’s development agenda and must be always listened to. For those who do not realise the criticality of the private sector in Nigeria’s development, the following will whet your appetite.

(1)According to National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) data, the public sector accounts for only 7.5 per cent and the private sector, for 78.9 per cent of national consumption expenditure. (2) Similarly investment expenditure, is a major source of economic growth. Government investment is only around a quarter of that of the private sector. Indeed, 85 per cent of the investments in the Medium-Term National Development Plan 2021-2025 are envisaged to be private sector funded.  (3) According to the Nigeria Infrastructure Master Plan, Nigeria has an infrastructure financing deficit of approximately US$3 trillion over the next 30 years. This means a financing requirement of approximately US$100 billion per annum which cannot be met by the public sector.  Nigeria’s annual budget is only USD30 billion.

For these and many other reasons, a warm handshake with the private sector is inevitable for any economic policy or programme to succeed. Indeed, private sector leadership in driving growth is the first of the three key principles of my economic growth and development agenda, as encapsulated in My Covenant with Nigerians.

What is your economic policy that can lift Nigeria up from the abyss? 

Economic prosperity is an integral part of my 5-point agenda, soon to be officially unveiled, that seeks to restore Nigeria’s UNITY, strengthen NATIONAL SECURITY, foster ECONOMIC PROSPERITY, improve EDUCATION DELIVERY AND RE-STRUCTURE the polity. Indeed, economic prosperity is the thread that runs through the other critical elements of the agenda.

So, where is the Nigerian economy today?

I will focus on five key deficiencies of the economy which all turn out to be self-inflicted.

Nigeria’s GDP grew at an average rate of less than 1per cent since the APC assumed power in 2015. Compare this with an average growth of 6.5 per cent in the seven years earlier.  Per capita income, a measure of citizens’ well-being, has progressively fallen since 2015 because of declining output and a fast-growing population. Nigerians are worse off today than they were in 2015.  The current rate of growth of about 3.5 per cent masks the real challenges facing the economy.

The economy remains very fragile as the key sectors are either growing slowly (as with agriculture) or contracting (as with oil and gas). The oil and gas sector, which is the economy’s lifeline, has suffered a decline in 19 out of 30 quarters since 2014.

For many economic sectors and for ordinary citizens it still feels as if we are in a recession. More than 23 million people are out of jobs.  In just 5 years between 2015 and 2020, the number of fully employed people dropped by 54per cent, from 68 million to 31 million people. The number of unemployed people is more than the population of Lagos state or the inhabitants of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abia, Bayelsa, Cross River, Ebonyi, Kwara and Nasarawa states combined!

What is even more worrisome is that the majority of the unemployed are young men and women, who lack not only the means to survive but any hope for the future.  The number of unemployed youths increased by 9 million from 4 million in 2015 to 13 million in 2020.

High youth unemployment and limited employment opportunities pose serious economic and security challenges. Ensuring there are enough jobs for Nigeria’s youth is therefore already an urgent concern.

Are more Nigerians poorer and more miserable today or richer than in 2015?

Job losses, the declining purchasing power of per capita income and the lack of citizens’ access to basic amenities have pushed more than 90 million people below the poverty line and created more misery for the poor in towns and villages.  This year, around 12 per cent of the world population in extreme poverty, with the poverty threshold at 1.90 U.S. dollars a day, live in Nigeria. Basic commodities are now beyond the reach of the average Nigerian. A loaf of bread costs 100per cents more today than it did in 2020. Farmers now pay more than 200per cents for a bag of fertilizer -if they see it-than they did in 2020.

What is the meaning of Nigeria is being dressed in borrowed robes! 

Nigeria under the APC-led government has consistently run-on budget deficits since it came to power in 2015.  These budget deficits are often above the 3per cent threshold permissible under the Fiscal Responsibility Law. Ironically, this has increased the government’s appetite for more debts- now more than N50 trillion (if you add AMCON debts and Ways and Means).

For the first time in Nigeria’s history, the FGN paid more in debt service than it earned! By spending more than 100per cent of its revenue on debt service, Nigeria is breaching one of the applicable debt-sustainability thresholds. The APC-led government is dressing Nigeria in borrowed robes! This action puts a big question mark on the capacity of the government to manage its rising debt profile without endangering macroeconomic stability. Indeed, we are concerned that this action is already exposing Nigeria to financial stability issues as we slip from a medium risk of debt distress to a high risk of debt distress.

Capital flight

Policy incoherence and flip-flops combined with internal insecurity continue to pose a significant risk to investment and thus output growth. They leave potential investors confused and weary of the Nigerian economy. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has progressively declined since 2019. It fell sharply from US$8.5 billion in Q1 2019 to US$5.8 billion in Q1 2020 and US$1.9 billion in Q1 2021.  We have lost our esteemed position as Africa’s preferred investment destination to less endowed nations!

Why have these economic challenges persisted and progressively worsened?

It has become fashionable for the APC-led government to blame the opposition and external factors for Nigeria’s economic woes. The evidence, however, is overwhelming that the country’s underperformance is largely attributable to leadership failures in the management of the state.  The failure of leadership by the APC-led government is staring every Nigerian in the face as the country’s economic, social, political and security challenges persist and assume frightening dimensions.

An unprepared leader fails to anticipate impending crises and is always slow to react. The first policy document designed by this government – the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) in 2017- was a reaction to the economic crisis of 2016. Similarly, the Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) was a reaction to the COVID19-induced economic crises.  Even these reactions were slow to come and economic recovery has perhaps been premised more on luck, rather than planned economic reforms.

Your vision to get the economy on its feet and create prosperity?

The economic growth and development agenda: Our economic growth and development agenda seeks primarily to stimulate the growth of the economy.  It envisions an economy that is modern, dynamic, and competitive, capable of taking its rightful place among the top 20 economies of the world. Nigeria has the potential to double its GDP by 2030 and achieve a per capita income of approximately US$5,000. We anticipate growth from our policies that seek to revitalize the real sectors including agriculture, manufacturing and MSMEs. Re-building infrastructure and reducing infrastructure deficit will enhance the carrying capacity of the economy and unleash growth and wealth creation. We will elevate production for export to a top policy priority and long-term investment priority and promote the export of manufactured goods

How would you deliver on these lofty goals?

Here are just a few examples of the sort of strategic steps we plan to take should I be so fortunate to be chosen by the Nigerian people to lead them: We cannot overcome our economic challenges without significant reforms to restructure the economy and to support the private sector to unleash its growth potential and play a key role in the economy. A strong, productive, and pro-growth private sector is needed to create wealth, generate employment opportunities, and help fight poverty. Nigerian businesses are significantly impacted by business environment constraints and cannot, therefore, realise their full potential.

This government has failed to demonstrate a strong commitment to private sector development: for example, the several pledges it made to reduce its pervasive influence on the economy and promote private sector-led development remain unfulfilled.

Our administration will be different. We will support the private sector to drive growth. We will establish strong partnerships in investing in infrastructure, in creating jobs and income and in the fight against poverty.  We will listen to the private sector more. Understanding the private sector and securing their buy-in when policies are designed will determine the success of our economic growth and development agenda. Through regular dialogue with the private sector, we will build consensus, improve trust between us and make new reform initiatives easier to implement and sustain.

Investor confidence in the Nigerian economy

There will be more clarity, coherence, and consistency (the 3Cs) in the policy.  Nothing could be more threatening to investment flows than an environment that is full of policy flip-flops. Our monetary and fiscal authorities will be better coordinated and shall ensure a stable macro-economic environment with low inflation, stable exchange rate and interest rates that will be supportive of businesses’ quest for credit.  (Read my lips: a stable exchange rate, not one Naira to one US$ exchange rate!!!).

We will allow CBN the independence to pursue its mandate but ensure that such policies are not detrimental to Nigeria’s quest for FDI and to Nigeria’s long-term growth. For example, we will push for a foreign exchange policy that encourages capital inflows and makes capital outflows less attractive to investors. We will take tough and difficult decisions on security matters without fear or favour. Investment is a cowardly animal and is fearful of conflicts and insecurity.

Infrastructure financing 

The government is currently driving key infrastructural programmes with very limited private sector participation. In the face of dwindling public revenues and given the quantum of resources required to bridge the financing deficit, this is neither feasible nor sustainable.  We shall incentivize, with regulation and tax incentives, a consortium of private sector institutions to establish an Infrastructure Debt Fund [IDF] with an initial carrying capacity of US$20 billion.

This will be for the financing and delivery of large infrastructure projects across all sectors of the economy. We will establish an “Infrastructure Development Unit” [IDU] in the Presidency, with a coordinating function and a specific mandate of working with the MDAs to fast track and drive the process of infrastructure development in the country.

Power situation

Our administration will consider declaring a state of emergency in the Power Sector to underscore our concerns about the state of affairs in the sector. As a short-term measure to ensure enhanced supply within the first year of the new administration, I shall initiate and implement an emergency power programme (EPP) that can deliver additional capacity in certain key areas. Over the medium term, I will then go on to propose legislation for the removal of the entire electricity value chain from the exclusive list and give states the power to generate, transmit and distribute electricity for themselves.

One lesson we have learnt recently is that an industrial dispute with the FG in Abuja should not affect an industry in Lagos or a factory in Aba or in Kano or even an average Nigerian who just wants to get home, watch the news and sleep under a ceiling fan. Secondly, my policy shall aim at achieving greater coordination of investments in the entire electricity value chain. Investments in additional generation capacity are futile without consideration for the complementary transmission and distribution infrastructure to wheel the additional energy.

Thirdly, ahead of procuring additional generation, both transmission and distribution capacities would be enhanced with private sector support for investments.

In this regard, we shall incentivize private investors to invest in the development of multiple green-field mini-grid transmission systems to be looped into the super-grid in the medium to long term while allowing the FG to focus on policy, regulation, and standardization.

Job creation and war against hunger.

The economy must grow for economic opportunities to abound.  However, economic growth will be meaningless unless our citizens enjoy the benefits of growth including access to jobs, higher incomes, and enhanced access to social amenities. Poverty reduction shall be the centrepiece of our economic development agenda and economic performance shall henceforth be measured by the number of jobs created and the number of people lifted out of poverty.  Within the first 100 days in office, I will create an Economic Stimulus Fund with an initial investment capacity of approximately US$10 billion to prioritize support to MSMEs across all the economic sectors, as they offer the greatest opportunities for achieving inclusive growth.

My government will ensure transparency in the access of farmers to seeds, fertilizers and farm machinery, as well as processing equipment to boost food production and bring down food price inflation. My government will strongly promote private sector investments in agriculture, from seeds to fertilizers, farm chemicals, and farm machinery to expand our competitiveness in national, regional and global markets, for commodities in which Nigeria has a comparative advantage. We will support agro-industrial development for major food crops, livestock, and fisheries, and invest heavily in irrigation and climate-resilient agricultural systems. We will add value to all of what we produce.

Steps for fiscal restructuring

First, undertake an immediate review of government spending with a view to eliminating all leakages arising from subsidy payments. With its current precarious fiscal position and daunting development challenges, can Nigeria really afford to forgo critical investments in education, health, security etc. and channel scarce resources to subsidizing the lifestyle of its elites? Second, stop all financial support to ailing State-Owned enterprises.

As with subsidy payments, by holding onto these underperforming enterprises, Nigeria is sacrificing investments in critical areas, including education, health, water, sanitation, and rural infrastructure.  For example, the first phase in the rehabilitation of Nigeria’s refineries is expected to gulp US$1.55 billion! Third, take steps to improve spending efficiency by gradual reduction of government recurrent expenditure.  Over the medium term, recurrent expenditures should not exceed 45per cent of the budget.

Fourth, undertake a review of government procurement processes to ensure value-for-money and eliminate all leakages. Finally, focus on non-debt financing by promoting a private sector-led infrastructure development fund for the financing and delivery of key infrastructure projects.

On debt

The revelation by Nigeria’s Finance Minister in July this year that the cost of servicing Nigeria’s debt has surpassed the federal Government’s retained revenue by N310 billion in the first quarter of the year is very worrisome.

I will: take immediate steps to slow down the rate of debt accumulation by promoting more Public Private Partnerships in critical infrastructure funding and identifying more innovative funding options; reviewing the current utilization of all borrowed funds and ensuring that they are deployed more judiciously.

Specifically, our government will ensure that all borrowed funds are for priority infrastructure projects that would generate income, boost output, and put the economy on the path of sustainable growth; review the country’s debt strategy by focusing on concessional and semi-concessional sources with lower interest rates and relatively long-term maturity.

The government must reduce the issuance of short-dated debt instruments.

I will introduce reforms that will make the institutions you interface with more efficient.  I will streamline their functions and ensure that they focus on their core responsibilities of policy coordination, facilitation and standardization and enabling the appropriate legal and regulatory framework for rapid economic and social development.

The private sector is made to deal with too many federal agencies and actors who often make conflicting policy pronouncements as they interact with investors and businesses. The Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment alone has 17 agencies under its supervision: NIPC, FTZA, NEPC, SMEDAN, BOI, NERFUND etc. Many of the agencies lack the technical capacity to deliver on their mandates efficiently. Many of the agencies operate in a typical civil-service style, with cumbersome processes and delayed decision-making or implementation.

Do you have what it takes?

Our economy is bleak and our challenges daunting, there is no doubt about that. No one should downplay the enormity of the tasks ahead. Indeed, I cannot think of a more daunting challenge than restoring confidence in the future of Nigeria as a dynamic economy and stable democracy.

First, I have a good grasp of the challenges bedevilling Nigeria. I know the root causes of our problems. I know that many of these problems are self-inflicted and can be reversed if we are determined. And we are determined! Second, I will not come unprepared. It is not in my character as a businessman or as a public officer to be caught off guard. My policy document contains the right policies that will be timely delivered. Yes, timely delivery! Without any GO SLOW, I can assure you.

I will assemble the critical skills and competencies to implement innovative solutions to our problems with the desired impact. I will provide the critical leadership that is needed to deliver.  Finally, in economic reforms and economic management matters, I am not a novice. I have a history of economic reform and economic transformation. Remember the good old days of economic growth with macroeconomic stability, low rates of unemployment and low poverty headcount.

As head of the economic management team, (1999-2007) I was instrumental in the design of a private sector revival strategy and advocated for the opening of the economy for private sector investments in the IT sector. Today it is undeniably the fastest growing services sector in the Nigerian economy. Experience counts and to avoid the mistakes of the past, never again should Nigerians hand over their future to a greenhorn.

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