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Better infrastructure, education will stop Niger Delta agitation –Dafinone

From Juliana

Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja

A Chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, (APC),  and chairman, Nigerian Conservation Foundation, as well as chairman, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), Export Group, Ede Dafinone who contested the by-election for Delta Central Senatorial District in 2013 on the platform of the Democratic Peoples Party (DPP), in this interview explained how Buhari’s squeezing of the foreign currency policy accidentally forced the big companies to veer into agriculture which in the long run positively impacted on export of agriculture produce.

He also said the development of the Niger Delta region as well as massive education of the people is the key to ending the agitations in the region.

As a member of APC I’m sure you can feel the pulse of Nigerians that they are not happy with your party, yet many are saying President Muhammadu Buhari should continue in 2019 despite his failing health. How do you react?

Well, the statement you made that the pulse of Nigerians is leaning towards the feeling that things are not going too well is very true. From the private sector the economy has been underperforming compared with the position we were, four or five years ago.

The feeling of Nigerians was that with the coming of the President Buhari-led government there would be an immediate change and of course this is not possible. Change does take time it is not immediate. More so with two overriding factors; one the economy was in bad shape, due to the crash in oil prices from $120 per barrel. In the first few months of this administration, we saw oil prices at the level of $30 to &40 per barrel and with your revenue cut by 60, 70 percent every government will have a hard time.

The second key factor is the past administration. With the ample resources at their disposal with the high oil prices, it was not able to put the country on a right footing. And I hear you say that here is another APC person blaming the PDP government but really it is a wider issue than that because the whole world stepped into recession at that same time not just Nigeria; so it takes a bit of time to restructure the economy. This administration has taken bold steps to restructure, I expect the dividends of that to show in the third and fourth years, in time for the Nigerian people to see that the APC- led government can perform and will perform in the next term also.

How has this restructuring you mentioned impacted on Nigerians?

I had said I should expect the impact to show through in the third and fourth years. In fact my personal estimate is that by fourth quarter of 2017 Nigerians should be able to see some difference in the economy and for me that stems significantly from the change in direction of the foreign exchange policy of the Central Bank of Nigeria. For about two months now they have made foreign exchange freely available which means that importers can have access to foreign exchange and therefore import the raw materials for their manufacturing or the goods for trade. Previously importers could not get their hands on foreign exchange and businesses were scrambling.

MAN recently expressed reservations with government pioneer’s status given to 27 industries; shouldn’t they be happy about it, why are they angry?

I cannot speak for MAN and so I wouldn’t know why they are upset. But from a neutral aspect, if government is giving out pioneer status to Nigerian companies it should encourage manufacturing and production and that should be a good thing.

Nigeria’s consumption is import driven majorly, how can we reverse that trend having been in the manufacturing sector?

Consumption is import driven because we do not manufacture a significant number of items we consume locally. So for us to reverse that trend we need to produce more of what we consume locally and the easiest thing to start with would be of course agricultural products where fortunately Nigeria has a significant comparative advantage. So if government is able to continue on the drive to encourage large scale agriculture then this should be the start of higher level of consumption of locally produced goods as opposed to imported items.

One of the things, and I think it is an accidental development that happened when the government squeezed the foreign exchange market and did not allow free access to foreign exchange was that a lot of the big conglomerates went into agriculture, invested in lands and took position to say that ‘well, if we cannot get foreign exchange from the banks, and if we can grow cocoa and export, then, we will have our own foreign exchange.’ That policy on its own led to a significant investment in agriculture which should yield benefits, I don’t think that was the intention of government but it had a positive result none the less.

The unity of Nigeria appears threatened; agitations here and there and hate speeches here and there and nobody is sure what happens tomorrow. What do you think is responsible for all these agitations?

I hold a rather different view on that issue. For me I believe significantly that a lot of these agitations is driven by underground politics, it may sound cliché but there are different groups who are trying to reposition or position themselves ahead of elections in 2019. And I think that what you will find when you dig a bit deeper into the source of these agitations is that they are being driven or pushed by such groups. Where it is not political than it is financial and I strongly suspect that one, two or more of these groups have been founded by people who wished to make a personal financial gain, it is a business. So by creating a nuisance factor, they believe they will be rewarded and unfortunately there is precedent with that where some people that disrupted the economy have benefited personally from such disruption.

Nigeria has more to gain being together than being separate. Yes today the oil comes from this region and not that region; tomorrow the groundnut will come from one region and not from another region. We should see ourselves as a brotherhood that is the way Nigeria started and know that we need to work to support our brothers in different parts of the country when we had the resources and they don’t because the position can easily be reversed tomorrow.

Are you in support of restructuring as it is being clamoured for, if yes, why and if no, why?

I believe the cost of governance is too high and I have had some little experience with local, state and federal government, there is a significant amount of administration cost that could be reduced significantly if government was restructured. So that argument leans towards administration in my region. Having said that, to dissolve states and move them to regions, the practicality is a little bit difficult. The main arguments for restructuring are on the way resources are shared and they want central government powers reduced, leaning again towards the America model of independent states. There are some pluses for that but at this stage of our development my feeling is that we still need a strong central government that can have overall policy direction.

I give you a small example; in all the states, the local government elections are managed by state electoral commissioners and in times past, I cannot speak of today, when you have local government elections, the party seating at state government wins all seats automatically while in some cases there were never any elections, so results were just written and published, so much so that in the last elections in Delta State, during the local government election, the opposition parties did not believe they would win any council so they didn’t bother to campaign and there actually was an election. Giving control of the police, giving control of the electoral commissioners etc to state government where essentially the governor controls the state House of Assembly as an absolute power, will create little monarchies that are beyond control, I don’t think we are ready for this.

You are from the Niger Delta region and if you travel to the Niger Delta, all the infrastructure are dilapidated and this is the area that produces the major chunk of the wealth of the country. Don’t you think it is the reason for the agitations in the region?

The reason for the agitations looking backward is the sharing of wealth. But with the whole dilapidated infrastructure within the Niger Delta, you have to blame successive governments and when I say governments I want to include federal, states and local governments because very often we from the Niger Delta are heard to complain that the federal government have deprived us of our resources.

But you do not hear the same Niger Deltans say that our state government did not develop our area with all the resources to him or our local government did not do any development but we are quick to blame the federal government because they are not Niger Deltans largely. But the local government chairman is from the local government and he did nothing, the state governor is from the region and he did little. So our primary complains should be with those individuals and if they have performed then we can go up to the federal government to say ‘look you have not given us a fair share.’ So we need to have more responsible governments at the local and state level in order to ensure better infrastructure development.

How will you rate the performance of your state government, Delta in the last two years?

We started by talking about the federal government and I think I said two years is too soon but there are signs that things would be better before the end of the four years of this administration.

For Okowa’s government the signs are less visible, there are no projects and policies he has embarked on that show that there will be a change, he is not demonstrating that at all and he has to remember that the four years goes quickly and he needs to put something on ground so that people will know that in his four years he achieved A, B, C, D. He is running out of time but he still has some time to leave a lasting legacy.

What are some of those areas?

I would like to see better interconnecting roads. A lot of trades at that level are so dependent on goods moving from one end of the state to the other and even within local governments from the markets to the village. The way goods are priced in the market is dependent significantly on the transportation cost. If you can reduce that cost then you are creating opportunity for wealth.

I know that it is not his full responsibility but security is such a significant problem in Delta. We have an increase in level of kidnapping over the last six months. When we talk of kidnapping we cannot appreciate how it is in the smaller rural areas where children have been kidnapped on their way from school.  I am not talking about children of rich people, I am talking of children of normal people and ransom is N5,000 or N10,000 then you are scared to let your child go to school, to church, it creates an environment of fear and it is important that government addresses that quickly.

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