Post COVID-19: We should focus on how to grow economy, create jobs – Peter Obi

As he marks his 59th birthday today, former governor of Anambra State and ex-vice presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in 2019 election, Mr. Peter Obi, has given a roadmap for the country to overcome effect of coronavirus pandemic.

Fielding questions from a team of editors, he said inasmuch as Nigeria preoccupied itself with how to come out of COVID-19, that the main issue was what happened after the pandemic.

He further said the focus should be how to grow the economy and create jobs, just as he declared that stimulus package is the magic to solving the problem.

He however, said what the government provided as stimulus package was meagre and could not achieve much.

The former governor recommended the support to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), focus on education and health care, among other development area, as actions that would grow the economy. 

He spoke on these and many others.

 

Excerpts:

 

On Sunday you will be celebrating your 59th birthday. Looking back, to where you came from, how will you rate yourself?

Well, I don’t know how to answer this, except that I thank God Almighty who, by His grace, made me what I am today. I thank God that I was able to pass through the different stages of life.  I am sure that whatever I have been able to achieve or not achieved or even perceive to have achieved were by His Grace.

Looking at the journey of your life, when you started did you envisage that it would be as it is today?

Well, I think nobody can say that, because your tomorrow is not in your hands. I do not pretend to be a prophet. There were some things I never contemplated that I will be involved in, so that is why I say it is by His Grace because wherever we find ourselves or whatever we do, it is God; it is divine. My daily prayer is that His will may be done in my life.

You are just one year younger than Nigeria because by October 1, Nigeria will be 60 years. Looking at the history of Nigeria, how will you situate it, given where we are now?

With my little knowledge thus far in life, where we are now is very worrisome. In fact, it is extremely worrisome. It is worrisome because at a time every nation of the world is going through crises:  economic crisis, health crisis and other forms of crisis Nigeria seems to be very unserious and enmeshed in what I call rascality within the polity. At a time there should be serious thinking on how we can rescue the nation, we are not taking things seriously. While other countries of the world are striving so hard on how they will re-jig their economy after this pandemic; how they will create jobs for their people; how their businesses will grow back; how to improve their health infrastructure; how to improve their educational infrastructure,  nobody even knows what we are doing as a country –  we seem to be headed in the opposite direction. What you hear today is not the news we should be hearing. What we hear today should be serious issues on the way we are going to go. We should be talking of a reliable roadmap. It should not be about how, in NDDC, Joi Nunieh slapped Akpabio, Oshiomhole vs. Obaseki, Magu this and that etc.

Some critics will say that you are saying this because you belong to the opposition group…

Let me tell you; what we have on hand now is not an opposition thing. It is a serious issue on how to save the country and anybody who tells you that we are making comment because of where we belongs doesn’t even know what we are facing. We are facing a huge crisis and we are not giving it the right attention. It has nothing to do with the opposition. I didn’t see the stimulus package that will take us along this journey. From an economic standpoint, Nigeria already has a low budget compared to its population. Countries of comparative size, in terms of GDP or population, annually budget about a minimum of 20-30 per cent of their GDP. What it then shows is that Nigeria’s annual budget is not supposed to be less than $100billion equivalent given our GDP; but already our annual budget size is $30billion. Check it, you see how low we are.

Let me use the second biggest economy in Africa, South Africa, as an example. Their budget is over $120billion. This means their budget is four times our budget, when their population is a quarter of our population; so you already have a crisis at hand.  Our budget today, between 2010 and today (i.e. 10 years) is not up to the budget of South Africa in health for one year and they are about 55 million. So we are at the brink; that is what I am saying. What Nigeria should be doing now is to demonstrate enough will and seriousness required to pull ourselves out of this mess. It is not about leaving the real issue and be dancing around the  opposition and deemphasising  the danger that we have at hand.

How will you rate the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by the government?

Well, I have made a lot of comments on COVID-19, from the initial stage; how we didn’t start well, how we were poor on testing compared to other nations. It is still there, but the issue now is more than just talking about the handling of COVID. We should be talking about coming out of it. How do you re-jig our economy? How do we deal with the aftermath of this crisis?

What will you recommend?

They have a panel and if you read the document they came out with on the measures, there is a place they mentioned  the funding required to deal with that situation…. In the support from every country, you could see the quantum of their physical and  monetary intervention. In our own case, the total intervention is about   N2.3 trillion and that is approximately about $5 billion.  In a country  of over 200 million population, such as ours, such an  intervention lacks effectiveness, in other words, we have a crisis. And I want you to look at countries with comparative size, in terms of economy, in terms of population.

If you go by population, a country like Indonesia that has a population of 250 million, it  is spending over $60billion to be able to tackle their economy. Smaller countries that have half of our population, like the Philippines and about the same size of GDP is spending $20billion. Countries like Vietnam, with a population of over 90 million, is spending $26billion. South Africa is devoting $5billion for their SMEs. They are putting $4billion to create new jobs alone. Our entire package for this is $5billion.

We should be asking ourselves what other countries are  doing that we are not doing,.

 You know Nigeria has serious financial problems. You know the country’s debt profile and if the government wants to borrow more, critics will come hard on it …

No, no. it’s not like that. Since 2017, you remember, at a time I said the borrowing was not too much. I have said it repeatedly. I came from a financial background. There is nothing wrong with borrowing. Nations of the world, businesses all over the world, including myself, that have made money, have grown from borrowing; but you must borrow for investment. You don’t borrow for consumption. The reason you are using  about  90% of  your income  to service debt is that your borrowing was not invested rightly– in production. There is nothing absolutely wrong with borrowing, but it must not be for mere consumption. You don’t run the economy that way. We borrowed money and threw it away and that is the reason we are having a crisis.

Countries like Singapore borrowed and made an investment and the investment will pay itself back. It is as simple as ABC. Ghana is borrowing money, but go and look at Ghana from 2010 till today. They moved from per capita income of $1, 300 to now over $2, 200; but we have moved backward, from over $2, 300 in 2010 to $1, 900, which means you are throwing money away. And you could see it in the rascality that is all over the place. If you borrow, people should know what you are borrowing for; but what we are doing now cannot take us where we want to or ought to be.

You ran as the Vice Presidential candidate in the last election (2019). If your party had won that election what would you have done differently, particularly on the economy?

The issue is economy. Nigeria is pre-occupied with politics.  The truth is that nobody measures the amount of political skills. Countries like Italy have their leaders changed very often, but they are there economically as members of G7, G20. The reason we are not there but South Africa’s name is there is because of their economy.  I want us to focus on the economy, focus on creating a viable economy that can create jobs and it’s not rocket science. Economies are driven by SMEs. Economies are driven by paying attention to the critical areas of development. The more you invest in education, the more a country will develop. The more you invest in health, the better for the country because these are critical areas.

So what exactly is wrong that we are not getting it right?

We are pre-occupied with travelling in the wrong direction. Just open the newspapers, including your own today and you see what the headlines will be. It is about one rascality or the other. I said even during the presidential election that you can fight thieves, but that should not be the primary focus of a government. Fighting corruption as an economic policy is a waste of everybody’s time. You can fight thieves, by what you are doing to salvage, strengthen, and re-jig your economy. Let me tell you: what Magu is going through today is hurting the country more than it is hurting Magu, if you don’t know. Some people think today that oh Magu is in a mess, that Magu is this and that, but do you know who is in a mess? Nigeria.

Newspaper headlines in a serious economy should be that the government, for instance, has decided to support SMEs with this or that quantum of money. Some countries are begging their people to come and take money for investment, like Egypt. Have we bothered to study those factors that made structures that aid the economy such as power to succeed in other countries and constitute a problem or even a nuisance in our own country?  By what magic did other countries have a developing inter-modal transportation system that grow with their economy and population but seem to retrogress in our country? These are critical questions that our economy must answer for us to move forward. We have pretended for a long time and I believe the time is ripe for critical questions.

PDP, your party, was in power for nothing less than 16 years and not much changed. Why would you blame the current government?

It is only in this country that we waste our time on yesterday. Those who think more about yesterday and today will miss tomorrow. Whatever complaints against the PDP were the reasons this government came. If people have a company, the owners of this company called Nigeria decided that the former managers were not doing well. Based on your promises that you are going to turn the company around and make a good investment they hired you, asked you to take over. Five years after, you are still referring to the former leadership of the company. Let me even tell you what people say about the PDP. President Obasanjo came to government in 1999. The GDP of Nigeria in 1999 was $75billion. President Obasanjo left us with a GDP of over $300billion. By the time President Jonathan left office, our GDP was $525billion; our per capita was $2, 500. Today our GDP is $400billion; our per capita is $1,920.

I am saying that at a time we should be seriously talking about the future, we tend to be playing politics with it. Look at our investment in education. It is nothing to write home about. Looking at the last budget, we are providing not less than N2.9 trillion for servicing of debt, but our education and health budget combined is about the third of this. I can tell you that in the end, the amount we use in servicing the debt will be more than what is provided because we are borrowing more. The reason that is happening is that the debt we are servicing is not productive. Look at our development between 2010 and now. We have piled up a debt of nearly $100billion. It should have shot up our GDP, if we did meaningful things with it.  So these things are not politics. It should not be politics. It doesn’t matter who is there and it is not the issue of the president. All of us who call ourselves leaders have never sat down to look at this and resolve to tackle it head-on as it should be.

I found myself as a governor where there was no government house, no governor’s lodge, no this, no that, and I sat down to ask the question: where are we? What is happening here? What mess is this? We need to change this place, I told myself. We had young boys who were not going to school; all our schools were in shambles; we were number twenty-something in WAEC, but I said something must be done and the evidence of what we did is there for all to see. What are we teaching those that want to take the life of crime when they are reading that this person stole this, this person stole that? Even Nollywood doesn’t have the type of show we are witnessing today in our polity.

We must do something and focus governance on dealing with issues that will lift the quality of the lives of citizens. We have millions of Nigerians who don’t know where the next meal will come from. We should be talking about their employment; how do we give them jobs? How do they start something? That should be our pre-occupation 24 hours in a day; anything short of that is creating more problems. When you know what you want these things are easy; they are not rocket science. The truth is that the people are complacent; they accept every nonsense from leadership and it should not be so. You see the situation is like a case of where lunatics took over the asylum so when good people want to come they make noise and they ran away.

Let’s have a quick reflection on your legacy while in office? 

I don’t like to talk about Anambra state because I see Anambra state the way I see the football  league. I always compare whatever I do in life with the league. For me being governor of Anambra state was like doing a division one game, having played it I believe it was good and now I have been promoted to premier league and if you are in a big premier league you shouldn’t be going to talk on issues of lower-division.

However, because you mentioned the issue of legacy I will just make a few comments because all that I did is already in the public space. My greatest achievement in Anambra State for me is not in building the physical infrastructure; it is in bringing civility and order to governance. When I came, there was nothing concrete on  ground. To give you an example, we didn’t have a secretariat. The ministries were scattered all over the place. An agency like a housing corporation was in a rented apartment. How can you be the housing corporation and you are in a rented apartment? We ended up building the first Secretariat in the State since creation. However, my major concern  was to bring order and civility to the state to domesticate governance by bringing it down from the Olympus to serve the interest of the people. It is not the physical thing for me but there was a commonality of people coming together to work.

During my tenure, I tried to remove the air of resentment that people have developed about governance such that nobody will tell you anybody was chased out of the road because Peter Obi was passing.  If you are a commissioner and you come to receive me at the airport, you lose your job; it was an order because you are not a protocol officer nor is governance advanced form of gangsterism. Secondly, we went after issues that concern governance, a measure of development and how do you measure the development of any country? We adopted the then Millennium Development Goals. We looked at the eight goals and followed them religiously. We were the first state in this country to do poverty mapping, to know where there is poverty and we found out that the most important thing to the poor areas was access and while I was there, there were no rural roads that were not opened; we had more rural roads than the ones in the capital city.

Another item was education and we addressed it squarely. We moved from 26 to number 1 through massive measures   that is yet to be equalled: rehabilitation of classrooms,  improving the quality of our teachers, provision of  buses to all the schools in the state, the procurement of over 30,000 laptops, rehabilitation of school libraries and laboratories, I personally visited  all the secondary schools in the state, among others. We looked at the health issue; we partnered with the church to deliver it.  We built the teaching hospital from the scratch, bought ambulances and ended from inheriting a state with no single accredited health institution to the accreditation of over 12 hospitals, schools of Nursing, Midwifery, Health Technologies . We maintained the momentum till the last day and ensured that no sector was neglected.

We believed so much in growing the human infrastructure such that before we left, we were able to pay over 35 billion arrears of pension and gratuities.

 Sir, one of the complaints is that some of the roads in the state are going bad

Why would that be a complaint? It should not be. I built hundreds of roads and I can call many of them that are yet to have potholes more than 14 years after construction such as Oba-Nnewi, Zik’s Avenue, Obeledu-Igboukwu, Aguluezichukwu-Ogboji,Ekwulobia-Nkpologwu, Old Nkpor-Amawbia, Owerre-Ezukalla-Umuchukwu and many others. Recognising the fact that roads are maintained all-year round, I set up the Anambra Road Maintenance Agency (ARMA) with full complement of construction equipment.  Meanwhile, when I was there, as obtainable in other parts of the world, we usually set aside 15 to 20 percent of our budget on roads for road maintenance. On the completion of my tenure, I left 2 billion in the Ministry of Works for road maintenance and the money was not even included in the bulk of the savings I left.

May we know about the bulk money you are talking about?

I have spoken on that for so long and it is not a secret that when I left office, I did not owe any salary or accumulate debt, but I left future savings for the state.

 Finally Sir, what have you to say about zoning which appear to be generating heated discussion at the moment?

I was the one who insisted, even when, like in the issue of return of school to the Church, all those around me objected, that the Governorship should go North. I followed it religiously.  I believe that zoning encourages fairness and peace by ensuring balance. – Culled from The Sun.

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