Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, took time off after a detailed session with private sector chieftains last week in Lagos to engage journalists also on the direction of the Nigerian economy. Below is the full Q&A interaction between him and members of the press released by Laolu Akande, Senior Special Assistant-Media & Publicity .
Question: Thank you so much your Excellency for speaking to us. Up to this point our interactions with the private sector suggest a lot of frustration at the pace of reforms it’s definitely a difficult time for the government no doubt, but my first question to you is to speak to the point about creating an enabling environment in broad terms for the private sector to thrive. There is a sense, from my interaction with many in the private sector that the government to a large extent is trying to fix things on its own, there isn’t enough of an engagement with the private sector and of course for that to work there needs to be an enabling environment how do you respond to that?
Vice President: Well let me say that our engagement with the private sector has been consistent and quite robust. There may be situations where people may say that even that is not sufficient but i must say that it’s been robust. For example I’ve met with the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria(MAN) not less than three times at various times. I’ve met with farmers, with wheat farmers, with rice farmers on an individual basis about three or four times. We’ve met with segments of the business community, the professional groups and all that.
I am here at the dialogue of the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry(LCCI), and the Minister of Budget and Planning was in Lagos just last week engaging on the medium term expenditure framework. There’s a great deal of engagement with the private sector. As you can imagine the private sector is huge, it is a large segment of the Nigerian society and you would always find an individual or a group who say well this isn’t quite enough because we haven’t been spoken to yet.
But i think we’ve tried to create the right platforms for engagement and in any event we have no choice, we’re committed to engaging with the private sector. How do you have any kind of economic environment without active engagement with the private sector? The private sector is business, they are the economy and so it’s inevitable. In any event, we will engage with the private sector and we’ve been doing so.
I think that we intend to also continue to do so, we’re going to have our quarterly briefings with the private sector beginning next quarter, we’re going to continue with a briefing and there are several engagements.
Question: But just to follow up on that i think it’s really the outcome of those engagements that people will like to see in terms of policy formulation that will support the unleashing of the private sector in this difficult time. Can you speak to may be specific initiatives that have come out of those discussions?
Vice President: First the initiatives, before those initiatives can even take root and have effect there would be a gestation period. There’s no way that you can have a dialogue today and expect to see a tremendous change in the economic environmenttomorrow. But practically every step that we’ve taken so far, for example the ease of doing business, our ease of doing business initiative is one of the most important initiatives of the government and it is led, the technical committee of our Ease of Doing Business Council, which i chair, the technical committee is headed by a private sector personality Mr. Seyi Bickersteth, who is a principal partner in KPMG. Of course that is a very robust platform for engaging the private sector and several other ways in which we’ve engaged the private sector.
For example looking at tariffs; the whole issue of tariffs in various sectors of the economy. We’ve engaged the private sector trying to look at the issues around tariffs, even with the budget, (we are having) extensive consultation for undertaking of the budget. Look at agriculture for example, the wheat farmers, the rice farmers, the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme which is a CBN programme was on account of engagement with rice farmers.
For example we’ve discovered that many of the rice farmers did not prefer subsidies on fertilizer but to be given credit so that would enable them to buy their own inputs and use their own inputs when they preferred to do so. In Kebbi State, because we were able to implement the Anchor Borrowers’ programme on their own terms, we saw a tremendous increase in the hectare-age of rice. It moved up from something like 3.5 tonnes per hectare now to about 7.5 tonnes per hectare. And also in Kebbi state they’re doing close to a million metric tonnes of paddy rice now and that is again on account of engagement with the private sector, on wheat production also. There are so many ways as i said. It’s practically impossible really, you can’t make policy outside of those who those policies are meant to affect and we’ll continue to engage.
Question: Your Excellency, many people are quite impressed with the federal government’s mantra of diversification of the economy but some are worried that that has not been seen in the policy direction. Practically speaking like the 2016 budget for example, allocation for Agric for example, one would need to see that policy direction in terms of budget and i don’t think we have up to 1 percent of the capital for agric, that seems to be antithetical to that diversification effort.
Vice President: Let me say that first, the diversification efforts of the federal government -those efforts- are actually rooted in the reality of our circumstances. I’m sure you would agree that the question really is not that the economy is not diversified, it’s really more a deepening of that diversification because when you look at it, agric and services are the largest contributors to GDP(Gross Domestic Product).
I mean, oil that we talk so much about, is about the third contributor in terms of size although it is the largest revenue earner, so in accurate terms the economy is actually diversified, the real question is how to deepen that diversification and enable this to be much more fruitful.
Aside from budgetary allocation, there are issues that need to be dealt with so just looking at budgetary allocation for a particular sector in isolation isn’t enough. For example, if you look at the agricultural sector, one of the key issues is infrastructure, rural roads, the road network generally, rail for movement of agricultural products and all that.
So a lot of what is being spent on infrastructure obviously will benefit the agricultural sector and the reason why so much is being spent on infrastructure including irrigation is because we expect that these will benefit the agricultural sector as well, just taking the agricultural sector as one area.
Power is absolutely important for the entire economy and you can’t really diversify without power. As of February 2015 we had peaked at 5,000 mega watts of power, the highest in the history of the country as of February 2015. But of course you’re familiar with the fact that the forcados export terminal was bombed in February, that was 40 percent of gas production lost in that single incident. Several other bombings have taken place, several other sabotage of pipelines have taken place since so there has been a drastic reduction in power supply which obviously affects all the other diversification efforts into manufacturing and all of those.
So the efforts of diversification have suffered somewhat from some of these acts of sabotage and some of these problems that we’ve had especially in the power sector. But all told, there is no question at all that the government is completely committed to diversification, that’s why we have the ease of doing business- the presidential council on Ease of Doing Business, that’s why we are trying to speak to the whole agro-allied value chain aside from just agriculture itself. That is also why we are paying particular attention to even developing the petrochemical industry, supporting massive investments into tomato, supporting, by incentives, and all of that, massive investments in tomato, massive investments in the production of rice, production of wheat and several other agricultural products, with a view to deepening the diversification of the economy.
So i think we’re on course in terms of the general framework for diversifying the economy, there are many challenges but i think we’re on course in terms of the framework.
Question: Then my second question is, I’m just wondering if I got you right, that we are still owing N400 billion to local contractors and I know that we have issues, which actually is as a result of the drop in oil price and a lot of other issues which we’re facing now. One would think that if we begin to address that it will actually help in job creation, if we begin to pay some of this (debts). I don’t know what the strategy is in liquidating that?
Vice President: Of course you must recognize that these are legacy debts, these debts were owed prior to the current administration and we have been talking to the construction industry and trying to find ways of addressing that concern.
We are actually committed to ensuring that those debts are settled, their claim as I said is for about N400 billion and we’ve been looking at several different options for making that payment and they are also engaged with us in looking at the options for payment. I think that for the first time they are reasonably confident that they will be paid, it’s really more a matter of form and when, but certainly they are reasonably confident that they will be paid, which probably explains why they themselves are so willing to go back to work on various sites even with payment of some of the sums that have just been released following the 2016 budget.
Question: But the 8 billion dollars in cash-calls (oil sector JVC partnership) have been paid right?
Vice President: No, 8 billion dollars in cash-calls is still owed, again these are legacy debts. When oil prices were a hundred dollars, a hundred and fifteen (dollars), rather than pay those debts the government at the time did not pay the debts. Oil prices are now down to sub fifty and 8 billion is owed, so it’s certainly a massive drawback in terms of what it is that the oil industry itself can do and what the federal government can muster at this time.
But again we’re talking to the IOCs, we’re talking to our joint venture partners and we are getting reasonable responses from them, our ultimate objective is to be able to move out of the whole cash-call regime and be able to get the JVs(Joint Ventures) to borrow on their own account rather than make this necessarily the responsibility of government. So we’re working with them to find ways of settling the debts.
Question: Your Excellency sir, talking about the bailout to states one would expect that federal government would have talked about restructuring the states. In the last tranche of the N90 billion, did all the states meet the fiscal responsibility requirement as agreed before it was disbursed ?And is the bailout really achieving the purpose for which the federal government is disbursing it?
Vice President: Let me say first that as of about 3 weeks ago, 27 states or so had met the conditions of the fiscal responsibility plan and disbursements are only made when a state has met those conditions, so we can say that 27 of them have met the conditions so far. I’m not so sure whether between then and now anymore have met the conditions but that number at least have met the conditions.
Question: Can we have a list of those who have not met the conditions?
Vice President: No, I can’t know them off head and I don’t want to name the states that have or haven’t. But I can say to you that as of that time, 27 had met the requirements, but let me say that in terms of how the states have actually expended the sums, I’m not in a position to say how well the funds have been expended or to what use they’ve been put.
The N90 billion is meant to be given on a monthly basis, it’s not a one off payment and we’ll not be able to support a state that is not keeping to the fiscal responsibility plan, we’ll not be in a position to support a state that is not doing so.
Don’t forget that the states themselves agreed to this plan, this was not a plan that was imposed, we all sat round the table and agreed that this is the way to go. And by and large this is, as I said, a product of consensus and so one expects that the states will as much as possible keep to the plan, that’s what one expects to see. Again as I’ve said, there is in place at least some way of ensuring that if that is not done then the support may not continue.
Question: Sir, in a recession as we are experiencing, do you see the action of government being sufficient enough to wriggle us out of the crunch considering even the expenditure pattern of the states, a legislature on recess, (and judges on vacation)? Don’t you think there is need for a kind of coordinated approach to what the government is doing in terms of communicating to the people? And again this is supposed to be a stimulus budget- to the fact that the government is supposed to spend so that we can wriggle out of the crisis. Do you think this is being followed and for how long do you think we can continue this sir?
Vice President: Well, let me say that the fact that the distinguished senators and honourable members of the national assembly are on holiday, or that the judiciary is on its annual vacation is not necessarily a major economic problem. I must say that perhaps sometimes it is useful in terms of rest and perhaps they’re doing so, but quite seriously the plan-and I’m sure that you’ve heard this repeatedly and read it- in our strategic implementation plan for the 2016 budget that what we plan to do is an expansionary budget that’s the whole idea.
Now that of course has various implications and there are drawbacks, there are problems, there are challenges. One is meeting revenue targets and of course I’m sure that you’re familiar with the fact that there is some difficulty with meeting revenue targets in particular because oil revenues have dropped drastically, most of that is on account of the sabotage that’s going on in the Niger Delta. I mean, I think we’ve lost close to 60 percent of expected revenues in oil, that’s a very huge drop in our revenue expectations from oil although we’re getting some good signs from non oil revenues especially from the FIRS; taxes, VAT, etc and other non oil sources. But the huge drop in revenue obviously is a major drawback and that of course will impact the possibility of being able to achieve all of our objectives in an expansionary context.
So there are difficulties there, but there is no question at all that there is an understanding of what needs to be done; deregulation has taken place in the downstream sector, a very important policy measure because it ensures that we’re no longer expending the kinds of resources that we have been expending in that sector.
There’s of course a flexible exchange rate policy as well which to a certain extent helps the market determine the value of the Naira, and help exports.
I’m sure you’ve heard of some of what is going on even in the North with a lot of export of grain going on, although we need to ramp up grain production. But because of the depreciation in the value of the Naira, there’s a fair amount of grain that is going out of the country now by way of export so there are major advances to what is going on, but you would agree that given the circumstances we are doing the very very best, as possible within the constraints of revenue.
Question: Thank you very much. The fiscal challenges are definitely very significant and when many look at Nigeria’s situation today it calls for a very innovative strategy, you’ve just mentioned and we’ve spoken about the issues around the debts owed to contractors, the debts owed to oil companies and so forth. Can you speak in very broad terms about how you’re looking to fix the fiscal problem and to what extent foreign investment is part of that fix especially when u consider the impact on the currency?
Vice President: Well let me say that first, both local and foreign investment is crucial in the turn around that we expect, we expect that deregulation and the flexible exchange rate would lead to an increase in the inflow of not just foreign direct investment but also portfolio investment.
We expect that that will happen, of course we’re not necessarily overly excited and enthusiastic about portfolio investment we want to see, this is hot money and it will go and come. But we are focused on ensuring that enduring investment in the form of FDI(foreign direct investment) is coming.
But we are also focusing on local investment, some of the investments that we’re seeing, to mention a few the Dangote Refinery, 650,000 barrel refinery, there’s the fertilizer plants, the Indorama one, the sorghum plant that is being done by Honeywell, there’s the 500-kilometre subsea pipeline that’s also a Dangote project, the gas pipeline.
Now these are very significant local investments and we expect that if these local investments are encouraged and we are encouraging them, and they come on stream in the timelines that they have specified most of them should come on stream between now and 2019, most of them. All of these that i’ve mentioned should come on stream, we expect that this will be very very significant in terms of even changing the fiscal landscape.
For example refining capacity of 650,000 barrels means that domestic refining has come to be and it means that the impact of importation of refined petroleum products on our foreign exchange reserves will significantly diminish because we will then obviously just be doing practically everything locally, refining practically everything locally.
The same as fertilizer which requires import, sorghum, and the various other things. So we think local investment is absolutely important and we’re supporting local investment with everything that is possible giving necessary incentives and all of that. Now we also expect that with the flexible exchange rate just as I’ve said, obviously this will encourage foreign investments.
Everyone knows that Nigeria is the next frontier for investment, there may be difficulties and complications here and there now, but I don’t doubt at all, I mean even going by what we see today many foreign investors are keenly interested in investing in the Nigerian market.
Question: are you seeing any early signs of those investments coming anytime soon?
Vice President: Oh yes!
Question: Can you speak to any?
Vice President: For example, General Electric is about to make a very very significant investment in the country. There are investments that are already coming in for railing stock for railways and obviously the reason why this is the case is because we’re doing two rail lines; the Calabar-Lagos rail line and the Lagos-Kano rail line. So investments are coming in for railing stock, there are many such investments that people are looking at , because really, when you look at it this is a country of 170 million people and a very very vibrant economy for that matter so investment people certainly are looking at investing in the country.
And this is so even in agriculture, there’s an initiative, a major Mexican company in fact possibly their leading farmer, producers of agricultural produce from Mexico who has come in to Nigeria is already investing in 10 states, especially pineapples and bananas, vegetables and fruits. I think the scope for investments is there, the appetite is there and I believe that what everyone is looking forward to is just signs that things are stabilizing, that the environment is one where there is governance and that there is consistency in the policy. I think that’s what people are looking for.
Question: Finally, every government has a 4-year tenure and then more. And I’m worried that out of that four years the judiciary goes on recess or holiday, whatever you call it for 3 months every year when you add it up that is one year out of the 4 year tenure of any government and then if the ease of doing business we talk about has to do with the time it takes to resolve business disputes and what have you, some of these issues are in court, I’m not even talking about the political issues which are in court which also have bearing on business, because all of these cases have to wait until they resume. Are you not worried sir, that it can actually take away from the plans or strategy of every administration? That’s one. And then the fiscal responsibility plan for states, what are the conditions that were given to them?
Vice President: First let me say again about the holidays the judicial holidays, they’re not 3 months it’s actually about 2 months. Secondly when the judiciary goes on holiday there are vacation judges, where you have emergencies and you have problems of one kind or the other. In fact criminal cases generally can continue during the course of the vacation and there are usually vacation judges where you have emergencies, so I really would not as I said deprive their lordships and ladyships of their holidays on account of the fact that we have a 4-year tenure.
But the important thing is that generally our adjudicating system is slow and there is a need for much more speed, and this is one of the justice sector reforms that we are hoping that we can at least get going. There is great need to move very quickly. Some of it may involve constitutional changes especially because at the moment, you know that you can appeal on practically anything and slow down the whole judicial process.
But it is possible by way of constitutional changes to say that you can’t for instance take an interlocutory appeal beyond the court of appeal, in other words, if you are going to appeal at all you can’t appeal on an interlocutory point before the case is completed that is, all the way to the Supreme Court as is the case now, that can just waste years. So it’s possible to say interlocutory appeals will terminate at the high court, at that level, or the court of appeal, etc.
So there are changes that can be made that can speed things up and we hope that we might be able to get some of those changes done.
You then asked a question of the fiscal conditions for the states. One of the conditions is that they must clean up their payroll, in other words they must use BVN(Bank verification number) or a biometric system or some electronic platform that ensures that they can get rid of ghost workers. So cleaning up the payroll is very important because not only does it ensure that you don’t have ghost workers but more importantly it ensures that you’re able to keep your recurrent expenditure within limits and as we found several of the states have the problem, federal government also has that problem of several ghost workers over the years and that is an important condition.
Another condition is improvement in Internally Generated Revenue, IGR, we want to see a plan for improvement in IGR . There must be a definite, clear plan for improvement in the IGR (Internally generated revenue)of the states.
There are also other issues around the whole public expenditure profile and how that is governed. So the TSA is an important part of the fiscal responsibility plan using the TSA, just in the same way that the federal government uses the TSA. So we’ve also asked that the states implement TSA and show us exactly how they intend to do so, this is the Treasury Single Account which ensures that government is able to see where it’s revenues are going and be sure of how much money, especially from revenue generating agencies, how much money actually came in and where it went so these are some of the key conditions in the fiscal responsibility plan.