The Senate wednesday kick-started its debate on the economic turmoil in the country, with some senators blaming the recession on the incompetence of some ministers in President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet.
Senators, who did not mince words during plenary in the upper chamber, said that the president had put round pegs in square holes, observing that the incompetence of such ministers had largely contributed to the festering crisis.
They called on the president to immediately reshuffle his cabinet by redeploying competent hands to handle sensitive economic matters.
Leading the debate on the recession wednesday, the Senate Leader, Ali Ndume, laid the premise for Nigeria’s current predicament, disclosing that no fewer than 15 countries in different parts of the world, including Brazil, Russia, Japan, Ukraine, Greece, Venezuela, Switzerland and Finland, were currently in recession.
According to him, most countries which were dependent mainly on oil for survival had been hit economically, explaining that the Nigerian situation was however peculiar because all the economic sectors were reeling, except agriculture.
He pointed out that the situation was aggravated by the depletion of Nigeria’s foreign reserves by the past administration and recalled how former President Olusegun Obasanjo built foreign reserves to the tune of $62 billion but lamented that as of 2015, the reserves had been plundered to as low as $30 billion.
While the Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu called for a cabinet reshuffle, Senator Dino Melaye (Kogi West) argued that putting incompetent hands in charge of the economy would continue to aggravate the situation.
Ekweremadu was of the view that the situation had continued to deteriorate because of the bottlenecks caused by the failure of the federal government to release funds into the economy as appropriated in the 2016 budget.
He also observed that if the claims by the government that it had accumulated N3 trillion in the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and recovered $20 million from the former Minister of Petroluem Resources, Mrs. Diezani Alison-Madueke, along with several millions of dollars said to have been recovered were true, the situation ought to have been different.
On the other hand, he said if the claims were untrue, the federal government needed to tender an unreserved apology to Nigerians for feeding them with falsehood and blamed the recession on the non-release of funds into the system.
Ekweremadu named two of the ministers whom he said needed to be redeployed to include the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun and Minister of Budget and Planning, Senator Udoma Udo Udoma, insisting that both ministers would perform better if assigned other portfolios.
“In the first place, distinguished colleagues, we passed a budget for 2016 and we envisaged the situation we’ve found ourselves and we believed that the best thing to do was to increase the budget for 2016 so as to reflate the economy, but we are almost in the final quarter and yet no releases are being made.
“I think the best thing to do at this point, Your Excellency, distinguished colleagues, is for the government to consciously release as much money as possible into the economy.
“Yes, we are saying there is no money; the oil price has dropped but we were also told that through the TSA, we have about N3 trillion somewhere. We were also told that the former Minister of Petroleum returned $20 million.
“We were also told that politicians have returned several billions of naira, dollars and pounds. It is either that this is not true or that the money is somewhere and if it is not true, someone needs to apologise to us and state the correct thing and if it is true, this money has to be released to contractors so that contractors can go to work and those in the construction industry will be paid and then they will pay the school fees of their children and money will circulate.
“If we have money in the economy, I am sure that shortly, we will also find some relief.
“Secondly, the president needs to look at his cabinet. He has to put square pegs in square holes. Your Excellency, distinguished colleagues, Udo Udoma is my friend, an accomplished lawyer for that matter but in fairness to him, I believe he can do better in another ministry especially like trade and investment, certainly not budget and planning.
“The Minister of Finance could do much better in another ministry also. At this critical time, we need somebody who is more experienced to man the Ministry of Finance so that we are able to coordinate the strategies for this recovery.
“I also believe that we need to have all hands on deck right now. It does not matter their religion, it does not matter their party. We need to go all out and look for the best brains to come and help us to come out of this recession.
“America was in a recession in the 1930s. They recovered within three years. What did they do? All Americans came together, irrespective of your political persuasion, and they were able to work on solutions.
“At this point, it does not matter to us whether you are APC or PDP or you are non-aligned. The important thing is that the president has to look for the best people to come together, to proffer solutions. It does not matter which party you belong to,” Ekweremadu said.
Ekweremadu also called for fresh negotiations between the federal government and oil companies, saying such negotiations would enable the government to free enough money, adding that the government needs to boost investors’ confidence by ceasing to label all Nigerians as corrupt persons.
He, however, differed on calls for the sale of the nation’s oil sector assets, noting that only non-performing assets should be sold, stressing the need for restructuring of the system by unbundling the federal government.
He also advocated the amendment of Section 162 (3,4,5,6) of the constitution with a view to stopping the monthly sharing of federal revenue between the federal, states and local governments.
“We need restructuring. We need to unbundle this federal government from the security sector, to power, to agriculture and to the social sectors.
A situation where the federal government is in charge of everything is not helpful. We need to unbundle this country if you like, call it restructuring.
“It might be a long-term strategy and it might be in phases, but it is something that we need to do quickly.
“I have heard about the issue of selling off our assets. I need to caution that other countries are not doing the same. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) does not even allow you to buy oil wells, much less selling them. And of course, a country like Saudi Arabia, their budget each year is run by investments from their oil revenue, while other countries are investing and with all the investments we have and besides, I’m sure we will not be fair to the next generation.
“So, if we must sell, we have to sell the non-performing assets so that people can turn them around and create employment. We need to amend Section 162 especially from subsections 3,4,5,6 where each money in the Federation Account is enjoined to be shared among the other levels of government,” he said.
Melaye said the degree of poverty and starvation ravaging the land clearly showed that the nation was sitting on a keg of gun powder, pointing out that in no distant future when the poor have no food to eat, they would be forced to “eat the rich”.
Melaye echoed Ekweremadu that the managers of the economy were incompetent, submitting that only experienced and competent persons should be handling the onerous task of managing the economy.
“Anyone who wants to manage an economy must have experience in strategic economics and development economics… The president must rejig his cabinet. We need people with experience and expertise to manage the economy.
“At a time the United Kingdom hired economists from other countries to manage its economy,” Melaye said.
He also called for the immediate ban on importation of items such as wheat, refined sugar, milk and powdered milk, frozen meat and chicken, clothing and textiles, stationery, perfume and insecticide.
Melaye also solicited for the immediate constitution of the Board of the Central Bank of Nigerian (CBN), saying a situation where it operates without a board would create bureaucratic bottlenecks.
In his submission, Senator George Akume (Benue North-east) also criticised the call for the sale of the government’s oil and gas assets, alleging that those making the call are those with the money to buy them.
Akume also recalled how two former governors of the CBN, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo and Muhammadu Sanusi II, had once alleged that several billions of dollars were missing.
He said if such funds were recovered by the federal government, the advocacy for the sale of oil assets would be unnecessary, arguing that selling them when oil prices are soft would amount to a great loss.
“From these and from monies going through other sources, at least, we should be able to recoup over $50 billion. If we succeed in doing this, do we still have to sell our assets as is being canvassed? The thing is very straight forward – there is a buyers’ market and there is a sellers’ market. If you want to dispose of your oil assets at this time when the price of oil has crashed, precisely how much are you going to realise?
“We are making a mistake here – what we are advocating is very unpatriotic and will ensure that those who have stolen from us will still come to buy them up. I believe that this is not the time to strip the country of these assets.
“Fortunately, the CBN governor made a very powerful statement that the worst days of the recession are over and therefore, we have to look elsewhere and not sell our assets. We should focus on industrialisation and agriculture and try to revamp this economy. I am worried because people who are telling us to sell these assets are people who have huge pockets.
“Our assets must remain for us: even Saudi Arabia didn’t sell part of their national assets as alleged,” Akume submitted.
In his submission, Senator Barnabas Gemade (Benue North-west) called for the immediate release of funds into the system, explaining that monies kept in the Sovereign Wealth Fund (SWF) account as well as pension funds should be released to stimulate growth.
According to him, monies are usually saved for the rainy day and since Nigeria was witnessing its rainy day, the ideal thing now is to release such funds to stimulate the gross domestic product (GDP) growth and spur investment in viable sectors such as agriculture and mining.
In his contribution, Senator Shehu Sani (Kaduna Central) said the current recession should not be seen as a moment of despair but rather serve as a turning point for the re-direction of the nation’s economy.
Sani, who lamented Nigeria’s overdependence on oil, said unfortunately, the poor in Nigeria had always taken the brunt, noting that the only difference was that the current recession was compounding their hardship.
But Senator Bassey Akpan (Akwa Ibom North-east) reminded his colleagues of how U.S. President Barrack Obama took over the reins of the American economy in 2009 during the financial crisis and immediately pumped $800 billion into the economy after securing the nod of the U.S. Congress.
The move, he said, fostered the quick recovery of the nation’s economy. He traced the root of Nigeria’s recession to government’s decision to mop up its funds in commercial banks into the TSA, arguing that if the nation must recover from this crisis, the federal government was left without an option than to return the funds in the TSA.
Also speaking, Senator Rabiu Kwankwaso (Kano Central) listed steps to be taken by the federal government to get out of the recession. He said the country would have to strike a balance between local and foreign consumption, avoid policy somersaults, stop multiple taxation, focus on agriculture and construction, and communicate its policies to the public.
Address Legislature, Dogara Tells Buhari
In the House of Representatives, the Speaker, Hon. Yakubu Dogara, also urged President Muhammadu Buhari to address a joint emergency session of the National Assembly and outline his plans to pull Nigeria out of the current economic recession.
At the plenary of the House wednesday, he also called on the government to consult economic experts at home and abroad to fashion out short, medium and long-term measures for dealing with the present crisis.
Some issues that Dogara identified as deserving of a “second look” included the impact of the TSA on the economy, the pace of budget execution, the spiraling rise of the dollar against the naira and the multiple exchange rate regime, investment in infrastructure, and unemployment.
These, Dogara said, would set the nation on the path of recovery and sustained economic growth, “as it would ensure that all stakeholders are on the same page”.
The speaker also called on the government to take full responsibility for the present economic situation, pointing out that it was not time for blame game.
In his welcome address to lawmakers who just resumed from an eight-week summer recess, the speaker said all hands must be on deck to tackle the nation’s challenges and rescue her from the shackles of poverty, social and economic underdevelopment.
“As leaders, we must take responsibility for the present economic situation, although we are not directly responsible for it. We must admit that this is a difficult thing to do in the present generation that spurns responsibility.
“Everyone wants to blame someone for something that goes wrong. Unfortunately, history teaches us that no one, no nation has ever achieved greatness except on account of the creative hunger that comes with accepting responsibility.
“This is not the time for partisanship. This is not the time to score political points. This is not the time for grandstanding. This is not the time for the blame game. The situation and the times call for bold, courageous, enlightened and purposeful leadership. This is a patriotic call to action from all stakeholders and indeed all Nigerians,” Dogara added.
The speaker harped on the need for the legislature to continue to provide support for the executive’s solutions to the nation’s economic problems, and to consolidate on existing consultations between both arms of government on the way forward.
“We must never miss the opportunity the present travails offers us to launch Nigeria into its rightful destiny and place it among the comity of prosperous nations.
“As representatives of the people we are well acquainted with the alarming state of the citizens’ penury. We will therefore collaborate with the executive in fine tuning any observed limitations in policy formulation and implementation to ensure speedy delivery of services to our people,” the speaker said.
Vote of Confidence from Obama
But as the National Assembly debated Nigeria’s economic woes and proffered solutions that the executive could adopt, the Buhari administration got a vote of confidence from an unlikely quarter on Tuesday.
During a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly holding in New York, the President of the United States Barack Obama expressed confidence in the Buhari administration.
Buhari’s media aide, Mr Femi Adesina, in a statement, said the U.S. president described his Nigerian counterpart as a man of “integrity and honesty”, adding: “We have confidence in your leadership. There are some difficulties you face, but this administration is willing to assist in the short time we have left.
“You have made real progress in defeating the brutal organisation called Boko Haram, and that was achieved because of your leadership.”
Obama also offered a hand of fellowship to Nigeria “in the final and comprehensive defeat of Boko Haram and resolution of the Niger Delta crisis, which would help ramp up oil production and increase revenue, resolving the humanitarian crisis in the North-east, recovering stolen money, and revamping the economy”.
Describing Nigeria as a big and important country in sub-Saharan Africa, Obama said his country looked forward to a framework for sustained partnership between the two nations.
Earlier, Buhari had assured the Obama that Nigeria was making steady progress towards resolving the problem in the Niger Delta region, which had led to economic sabotage on a grand scale.
Buhari said: “We are making definite progress on how many factions of the militant groups exist, their leadership and operational basis, and we have equally sought the cooperation of the oil majors. In a short while, I believe the issues would be resolved.”
While thanking the U.S. for the assistance rendered in the area of security through provision of armaments, training for Nigerian troops, and sharing of intelligence, leading to the degradation of Boko Haram in the North-east, Buhari said the country was open to support in combating the humanitarian crisis currently ravaging the region.
The Nigerian president said the farming season was good this year, with the prospect of good harvest, adding that “Nigeria is on the road to food self-sufficiency soon”.
“We shall be able to feed ourselves and utilise the billions of dollars spent on importing food on other productive areas,” he informed Obama.
He reiterated that his administration came to power on the tripod of security, battle against corruption, and the economy, stressing that there would be no let-up in fulfilling those electoral promises.