Our mandate is supporting governments to succeed in reforming Nigeria – NESG chairman

The bureaucracy and delays at the Lagos Ports, unstable power supply, difficulty in accessing forex, are some of the major issues, affecting Nigerian businesses, according to Asue Ighodalo, chairman of, Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG). In this exclusive interview with a BusinessDay team comprising John Osadolor, Onyinye Nwachukwu, and Godsgift Onyedinefu, he discusses how the NESG has influenced policies that shifted Nigeria’s economy gradually from being government-controlled to being private-sector-led.

Can you give a summary of the recent #NES27 and the choice of theme: ‘Securing the Future: The Fierce Urgency of Now’?

As a background, we were coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic; then there was the #ENDSARS riot; these impacted the economy with significant adverse effects on inflows, trade, logistics, demand and supply. The pandemic with its impact on our economy also caused global damage economically and socially. The impact on the Nigerian economy was particularly devastating because our economy is not resilient and suffers from macroeconomic instabilities and vulnerability. These include our dependence on one source of foreign exchange earnings, lack of diversification within the economy, and our infrastructure deficit. Nevertheless, the government’s response to the pandemic was quite commendable, which gives me cause to be optimistic that when properly guided and we dig deep, we can accomplish great things.

You would also remember that the response of the government to Ebola was laudable. When Nigerians face life-threatening challenges, we can resolve it if we disregard our differences and come together as one, with one voice. The Nigerian economy is faced with many challenges and all hands must be on deck. A birth rate at 3.4 per cent per year, factoring the current Gross Domestic Production (GDP) growth rate, with inflation and devaluation, is ridiculously high. It has even been projected that at this rate, Nigeria would be the third most populous country in the world by 2050; now, that is a huge problem. As a country, are we going to create enough jobs for that population? What will that population eat?

The Nigerian economy needs to have a GDP growth rate of at least 7 per cent, preferably double-digit, to be in a good place. Coming out of the pandemic, recovery was relatively slow, we came out by 0.11%. We did five (5) per cent, in the second quarter, however, we were coming from a low base the previous year, so the 5 per cent is not exciting.

So you ask, why is our Summit theme anchored on the fierceness and urgency of now? We do not have time to waste as the Nigerian economy cannot afford to be left behind in the fourth industrial and economic revolution. As a matter of urgency, we must start looking at those things we have to do to move us to double-digit growth and we must do those things now. We were left behind in the second and third revolutions, we must not miss the 4th, even though it is already happening before our very eyes. This is why we say it is urgent and we have to roll up our sleeves and buckle our shoes.

How would you describe participation at the Summit generally?

I think participation at this NES #27 was exceptional and well attended by our resource persons and delegates. Also, because it was a hybrid event, those who could not attend in person joined virtually. We had over 17 governors as resource persons and they were all in attendance, all of the invited ministers, heads of government departments and agencies were also present. We had a very robust discussion and I believe the recommendations from this Summit will equally be robust. A high-level summary was presented during the closing session, nonetheless, a more detailed report of the proceedings will be documented in our Greenbook.

So, yes, we had an excellent summit, one of the best in a long time. We are genuinely grateful to the public sector for their participation, and I am truly grateful to members and volunteers of the NESG and the entire private sector for their participation. Everybody stayed through the two days, and it was well attended by thecaptains of industry who move the country’s economy.

At the Summit, so much was said regarding the many challenges before us as a nation. What are the top solutions proffered to enable us ‘secure our future’?

We focused on certain areas: economic stability, digital transformation, security, education, poverty alleviation, and creating an enabling environment. For us at the NESG, we believe we need to focus on security, education – getting our children back to school as we need to make our labour force fit for purpose,with emphasis on Technical and Vocational Education (TVET). We should create an environment where the creativity of our young ones in the digital economy thrives. We should also create an enabling environment for manufacturing companies and agro-businesses, probably one of the fastest routes for taking our people out of poverty. We also believe that our Regulators must be economic enablers, not roadblocks.

Those are the things we focused on and we have captured the recommendations settled on by our Summit participants, which will be ready for presentation in the next three to four weeks. We will present our Green Book publicly, but first, we will share it with the Minister of Finance and the Minister of State Budget and then finalise the recommendations. The Minister of Finance has the responsibility of presenting it to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) for consideration. Throughout the year, we will continue engaging with Government and working,so these recommendations can be adopted, become policy and are then effectively implemented. But, like I said, I am really optimistic. If we have 50 recommendations, and we can get buy-in from the government on at least five which are then faithfully implemented, we count that as progress at the NESG. We will continue to dialogue, regarding our other recommendations, we will not give up.

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How do you monitor implementation by the government?

Government has its manifesto, some of our Summit recommendations tally with the government’s present policies, some suggest a different way. For those that tally, no problem, for those that suggest a different way, we concede that government will review what we have suggested. It is the government’s responsibility to determine whether they will accept those recommendations or not. When they accept the recommendations, they will implement and where they require us to support in the implementation process, we will gladly do so; not just the NESG, the private sector. Where they do not, for their own reasons, take those recommendations, we cannot fault them because the government is who we elected, we must go with the leaders as to the direction they are taking us. We will continue dialoguing if we disagree with their direction when they do not take the recommendations. Throughout the year, working through our policy commissions, we will continue to engage with Ministers and high government officials trying to convince them to accept our recommendations, we never relent, once we believe we are acting in the national interest. However, the buck stops on the President’s table. The government will determine which recommendations would be adopted and implemented and which it holds in abeyance or doesn’t accept. On our part, if we are convinced by the government that its way is the right way, we will support the process if it is in line with our guiding principles.

We are not in the business of choosing governments, we are in the business of supporting every government to do what is right in the national interest, that is the business of the NESG. Any government that the people of Nigeria elect, our business is to make them succeed in creating the Nigeria of our dreams. That has been our business since 1993 and we will continue in that direction.

Are you satisfied with the level of implementation of past recommendations?

It can be better, but it would have been worse if the Nigerian Economic Summit Group had not been here. I can go through all those things that came from the Summit and became policies; privatisation, telecoms deregulation, power deregulation, pension reforms and so on. There was a time in this country that if you wanted to take foreign exchange out of the country, you had to get permission from the CBN governor. In 1996, facilitated by the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, the foreign exchange market was deregulated with remarkable economic impact.

Shortly after that, the inflow of investments into Nigeria was humongous. What about the privatisation exercise that happened in 1998, 1999 up until 2003 and is still ongoing today? And when you look at government deficits and how theywill bridge deficits, part of the plan is further privatisation.At the NESG, we do not carewho takes the glory, we are not in the business of taking glory, we are in the business of working together with stakeholders to make Nigeria a great country, an economic superpower, a competitive economy with the requisite infrastructure. A Nigeria where every Nigerian can aspire, wake up in the morning and go to work, every Nigerian child can go to school, a country where a Nigerian who is ill can get good health service, that is what the NESG is about.

We pay to serve in the national interest. Having worked with the NESG for several years, I must say that the beautiful group of people we have in the NESG; the volunteers, the members and board members also keep me optimistic about the future of Nigeria. We need more people like this who will be willing to commit their resources, technical know-how and time to this country’s development. We will remain optimistic and continue to focus undaunted. Sometimes one can be weary at the turn of things, primarily because things have not worked as quickly as expected, however, when we remember profound words from Mandela that “it is a long walk to freedom”, we move!

Our remit is to see how we can lead partnership and dialogue between the public and private sectors to champion the reform of the Nigerian economy

Politicians didn’t attend the Summit as expected. Is it that you didn’t engage with them?

We have a couple of views at the NESG. First, we really need to focus on today and how we can work. Our essence is public-private sector dialogue, and collaboration to see how we can come up with those policies that will help the development and growth of our country as quickly as possible. I fully realise that there is a future, but we think it is early to begin to discuss politics at next election levels. If you recall, there were some Summits that were held penultimate years before the elections, when we invited political party leaders; when it was clear, who may or may not emerge and then we invited possible candidates and their party chairmen and so on.

But, for NES #27 it was too early, maybe next year’s Summit, when things are clearer. This year we wanted to focus on the government of the day and we think there is still enough time for a lot of work to be done towards improving the economy, and to leave an enduring legacy, if the right things are done. That was our focus for this year’s summit, we did not want any distraction. That said, about 17 state governors attended the Summit, this is the highest attendance by sub-nationals, and each of them participated very actively in all the breakout sessions and some in the plenary.

We had a wonderful collaboration not just at the federal level, but at the state level. We are truly happy with the contribution of the governors, they showed a high degree of awareness, intention to collaborate and responsibility, because in all honesty, if we are going to bring people out of poverty, it starts from the local government and state level. We were extremely thrilled by the fantastic performance, participation and contributions of our governors. Even the one or two governors that were out of the country joined virtually, there was no governor that missed a session, all those who are in country came physically and those who were out of the country, attended virtually, it was wonderful. Also all invited Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Head of Government Agencies attended. The Vice President declared the Summit open and closed the Summit after a one hour interactive session when he spoke in detail on the economy and government’s policies and position on critical issues.

Does the NESG plan to intervene in politics?

We were established for a number of reasons. Let me go back to December 1992 when Bill Clinton became President of America, he held a summit with business people on how they could revive the American economy and establish a basis for public-private dialogue. So in January 1993, when Chief Ernest Shonekan became head of interim government under General Babangida, he then replicated the same thing, and that is how the first Summit was held in February 1993.

It was the dialogue between the public and private sectors to understand better, collaborate and ultimately grow the Nigerian economy. This has been the NESG’s philosophy, so we stay on the economy and do not digress. People have often asked why we have not intervened in politics, but that is not our remit. Our remit is to see how we can lead partnership and dialogue between the public and private sectors to champion the reform of the Nigerian economy. If you remember, when we started in 1993, the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy was under the control of the government.

So, part of the work that we have done as the NESG is to persuade the government to enable a private sector-led competitive economy. Between 1993 and today, you have seen a shift. In 1993, telecoms were government-controlled, government-invested and government-led, NITEL was the only telecom company we had, NEPA was also government-controlled, but you can see that we have restructured, we have privatised, and this includes a number of big banks like Union Bank, UBA, and First bank.

In the last 28 to 30 years, there has been a shift from a government-led/controlled economy to the private sector leading and controlling the economy, we are not fully there, but we are nearly there. At the NESG, we are convinced that, that is probably our most outstanding achievement, the shift from a government-controlled economy to the private sector-led economy.

How do you assess government’s social investment programmes?

I want to commend this government. Two specific social investment programmes are very dear to my heart and the Summit process. The first is the school feeding programme; so many families cannot feed their children, but when their kids come to school, they can be fed, this encouraged and attracted many more children to attend school. Second is the interventions to the poorest of the poor; that helped the poor either at their trade or helped their families.

For many people, N5, 000 is a lot of money, and when replicated on many fronts, helped boost the economy. So, I think they are fantastic policies, but I am a bit worried that they have slowed down in implementing the programmes. I am hoping that the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs will pick up from where the Vice President’s office stopped and continue those programmes effectively and efficiently because it is a fast way to help inclusiveness and drag people out of poverty.

We should also combine these with effective agricultural intervention and effective support to farmers. With these interventions, the President will be moving purposefully towards achieving his goal of bringing people out of poverty. I believe the issue with the Social Intervention Programme is that of implementation. I am not sure what has happened, but there is a bit of a hiccup. They need to be restarted and affected as they were in 2018/2019 just before the elections. The Trader Moni was a fantastic idea, it was a good concept by government, if properly implemented, we will see the multiplier effect on our economy. I am hoping government will go back to its effective implementation.

The NESG is obviously worried about the manufacturing sector, what challenges do you see and what should be done?

There are lots of challenges, and they are not insurmountable. Let me even pick the low hanging fruit, the Apapa port. I was chairman of a manufacturing company and we woke up one day and discovered that the cycle for bringing in raw materials and accessing the port moved from one or two weeks to three to six months.

You can imagine if I am waiting for six months for raw materials and replacement or repair equipment to come in, and we run into shortages, that also affects inflation because there are shortages in the market. Exporters who want to access the ports cannot go into the port, if you want to export a perishable item, for instance, you have a problem.

We need to solve those low hanging fruits. Why is it difficult to solve the Apapa/Tincan Island problem? Why is there so much bureaucracy there? There is also the issue of access to foreign exchange, we know that we do not have as much foreign exchange as we require, but the way the foreign exchange is disbursed and appropriated should be a bit more transparent. If I want foreign exchange, there should be a proper bidding auction process that sets the right pricing, so people are clear.

Then, access to infrastructure, power. We need to solve our power problems. There is a “chicken and egg” situation here, we do not want to affect the poor, but we have all these subsidies that are not really benefiting the poor. Is oil subsidy truly benefiting the poor? The Power reform was designed in a way to benefit the poor, like the “one light bulb policy”, the poor with one light bulb were expected to be supported through that process.

At appropriate pricing manufacturers will have power, but nobody wants to pay the market price for the power they consume, but how come they pay the market price in Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana, and we cannot pay the market price in Nigeria. If we do not pay the market price, we do not encourage people to invest in the Power sector. If you do not pay the right price for gas, the gas sellers will not sell to our Power sector, they will prefer to export the gas. So, we need to re-think and balance some of our policies when we say we want to help the poor.

Another issue is capital. We have $17 trillion of capital in the world that is earning negative interest, which means when you invest that $17 trillion, you will get less than $17 trillion back. But people are happy to keep their money that way because it is secure and they know they will always be able to access it. So, why can’t we create an environment that can attract even if it is only half a trillion of that sort of money into the Nigerian economy, which will then earn positive yields for the investors?

But again, if people do not trust that if they bring their money here, they will get it out without hindrance, they will not bring their money here. We need to create an environment where people are confident and our laws and our policies work.

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