Of Low Hanging Fruits And Economic Reform.

In this period of grave economic crisis, there are so many low hanging fruits which can be plucked by governments from the federal, state to the local government levels. The plucking of these fruits of reform will to a great extent show a majority of Nigerians that we have leaders who actually empathise, feel and reason with us in our daily suffering. It is not about what the leaders say but that Nigerians will be more convinced with what they do. In this regard, cutting the cost of governance, enhanced transparency and accountability are sure steps in the right direction whilst coming out with a clear vision and strategy for economic revival will be celebrated across the land.

Let us start from President Muhammadu Buhari who needs to cut down on the number of jets in the presidential fleet. The reputed Spartan frugality of President Buhari and the reported number of jets – exceeding 10 in the fleet- are a mismatch. Many Nigerians would have sworn on behalf of the President that reducing the number of aircraft in the president fleet would have been one of his first routine decisions that would be made without much media celebration. Why keep this number of aircraft when Nigerians are literally going to bed hungry? For the governors, they can cut the number of vehicles in their convoys from over 10 to not more than three. Both the President and governors also need to cut down on their security votes. These are not unreasonable demands by the populace from leaders who preach sacrifice, patience and perseverance to Nigerians who are undergoing unprecedented hardship, including those who do not get their salaries as public officers at the end of the month.

Can we have all the governors commit to opening up their state budgets? State governors ought to ensure that their budgets are published in hard and electronic copies as soon as the estimates are sent to the state Houses of Assembly with opportunities for robust debates by citizens on the policy thrusts and spending estimates of the state. It is also expected that quarterly budget implementation reports and yearly audited accounts should be in the public domain. At the federal level, the time has come for the President to tell Nigerians about the details of assets recovery from persons who looted Nigerian funds. Opacity in the recovery of assets may, down the line, after the administration has left office, lead to the discovery of the re-looting of the loot. But providing routine account of recoveries may provide enough information for public oversight to challenge and nip in the bud any such attempt at mismanaging the loot.

It is also time to move from chanting the mantra of anti-corruption to laying a strong foundation for corruption to be nipped in the bud. Can we have all the 36 state governors publicly declare their assets? Can we have the President and his deputy grant access to the asset declaration forms they earlier made to the Code of Conduct Bureau? A regime of secrecy around assets declaration serves no useful public purpose. Rather, it encourages corruption. We cannot have, for instance, a situation where a serving Senate president is facing charges for non-declaration of assets whilst the administration that laid the charge insists on secret declaration of assets. We need a situation where the Nigerian public will also know about the declaration of other serving and former governors and other high ranking government officials so as to determine whether the prosecuting agencies are doing their job or getting paid for non-performance.

Nigerians may resist some reforms being bandied in the corridors of power such as increase in the rate of Value Added Tax if they do not see a reduction of prodigious frivolity in the manner governments are run in Nigeria. The idea of increasing VAT to get more revenue to government may be good but no one will willingly sacrifice to place more resources into the hands of leaders who have not shown they understand the suffering of the people and live like medieval kings.

Now, to the big picture and vision of riding the waves of economic decline; in every downside, there is an upside and the opportunities of moving to the next economic level, not necessarily built around crude oil export, have crystallised. Of late, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has presented papers at workshops detailing some contours of economic policies of the administration. The National Economic Council also had some resolutions at its recent meeting. Of course, the All Progressives Congress has a manifesto and several campaign promises were made at the federal level. All that is required is to get the policy issues strengthened and made actionable through a strategy matched with financial and other resources.

In creating an actionable policy framework, we do not need to reinvent the wheel. Several policies and programmes of the former administration have been declared viable by Buhari’s ministers. For instance, the value chain approach to revitalising our agriculture makes eminent sense. As the fourth largest producer of cocoa after Cote d’ Ivoire, Indonesia and Ghana, we are the third largest exporter of the commodity. Why are we the third largest exporter instead of fourth? It is because Indonesia adds value at home to its product and exports little raw cocoa? The same agenda will need to be used for cassava, palm produce, groundnuts, rubber and other crops. The value chain will also challenge local machine fabricators to improve their skills and competencies so that over time, importation of machinery will be drastically reduced.

In the oil and gas industry, the full deregulation of the sector with effective regulation is imperative to its reform. Whatever needs to be done to get investors to build refineries and petrochemical plants in Nigeria should be the key target. Not only will the long fuel queues disappear; overt time, we will save foreign exchange used in fuel importation, put less pressure on the naira, create jobs and revenue for government. In the solid minerals sector, we must use the lessons of the oil sector to develop it. From the start, we must add value and refuse to export raw commodities. This is the only way to get maximum revenue and benefits from solid minerals.

In the health sector, we need to devise alternative funding for universal access to quality health care. A number of ideas have been around for years. Can we try compulsory health insurance for all and a health development bank? The bank will be a source of long term funding for the development of the health sector especially in high level tertiary specialised medicine. New sources of funding can come from taxation on alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances which the state allows individuals to consume. The full implementation of the National Health Act is also imperative. The rail sector can benefit from guided introduction of private capital from investors ready and willing to reap the fruits of providing services and moving the sector forward. Fast modern trains moving humans and cargo across the vast territory of Nigeria is required.

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