By Oke Epia

Public discourse in Nigeria last week centred on the economy. Stakeholders across board recused into retreats and other such recycled gatherings to take tea and then lament the parlous state of the economy. At the end of the day, solutions that have been proffered decades ago were re-packaged as fresh offerings of semantics sold in the dodgy demagogy of the change mantra peddled by today’s dominant political class.

Talk they say is cheap, so the cost to the economy of the talk shops which held this week can be said to be of inconsequential value. But the real challenge is having the outcomes of the retreat and roundtable, which held at the aso rock presidential villa and the national assembly respectively, become real catalysts to launch the economy in the direction of progressive and positive change. How would all these talk translate to food on the table for the millions of Nigerians who are finding it increasingly difficult to feed? That is the million-dollar question on the lips of the people.

On Monday, the National Economic Council (NEC) commenced a two-day retreat on the economy at the villa. Same day and about same time, senate president Bukola Saraki, convened a ‘National Assembly Business and Economic Roundtable’ also with focus on the economy. Two disparate high-calibre meetings same day on same subject by two critical arms of same federal government in much the same precinct did not seem like a vote for synergy in a government controlled by same political party. But then, the nation has recently been told of how ‘protocol breaches’ caused the cancellation of a foreign trip by the vice president that would have seen Saraki ‘act’ as president of the federal republic at a time the number one citizen was also out of the country. Well, so much for the power play within the All Progressives Congress (APC), the ruling party at the centre. But forgive the brief disgression and please return with me to the topic for discussion.

At the presidential retreat, members of the NEC including its chairman, vice president Yemi Osinbajo, state governors and ministers of finance, budget and economic planning, among other top federal officials attended. Reports say a trifle of private sector players also attended the event which was declared open by none other than President Muhammadu Buhari. It presented an opportunity for the President to unveil the economic direction of his administration; ten months after being in charge of the reins of government. Having endured an uncertain period defined by policy incoherence, foreign exchange somersaults, opaque loot recovery schemes, and worsening public services like electricity and staccato supply of petroleum products, Nigerians looked forward to Buhari’s speech with huge dose of expectations. The one other opportunity the President had in recent past to outline a direction at least on a short-to-medium term scale, was the 2016 budget presentation: but whatever gains he recorded at that December 22, 2015 event at a joint session of the national assembly got lost in the nasty embarrassment the fiscal document had since become with bemusing tales of padding, confusion and commotion.

Whether or not President Buhari met the expectations of Nigerians and that of the international community in his address to the villa retreat is a matter for economic experts to opinionate about. But it suffices for a layman like this writer to note that the impression given was that some key sectors required special attention to get the economy out of the doldrums. Trite a point as this was, the president identified five focal areas thus: agriculture, power, manufacturing, housing and health.

Of note was his declaration that the government has targeted to generate 10,000MW of electricity to the national grid in the next three years, with an immediate benchmark of 2000MW in 2016. Exhibiting some grasp of power issues, the President identified common public complaints on electricity distribution and lamented that “this sector has been privatized but has yet to show any improvement in the quality of service,” adding: “we are facing the classic dilemma of privatization – public interest versus profit motive.” And then he gave an indication of how his administration would tackle the power challenge: “Government is to fast-track the completion of pipelines from gas points to power stations and provide more security to protect gas and oil pipelines. Power companies should be encouraged to replace obsolete equipment and improve the quality of service and technicians.”

On manufacturing, the President was rather vague on policy direction as he admitted rather ironically that “so many manufacturing industries in the country today are groaning and frustrated because of lack of foreign exchange to import raw materials and spare parts.” (He was silent on the fact that the topsy-turvy forex policy in the last few months was responsible for the situation) And then he offers little hope as to how to solve such immediate problem: “Painful though this is, I believe it is a temporary phase which we shall try to overcome but there are deeper, more structural problems bedeviling local industries which this retreat should identify and proffer short and long-term answers to.”

Apparently, a lot depends on the outcome of the presidential retreat which in turn depends on the two panels set up on ‘Implementation Monitoring’ and the ‘Implementation Steering’ committee headed by the vice president himself. A communique released at the end of the event said targets were set for food sufficiency in tomato paste (by the end of this year); rice production (2018) and wheat production (2019). A coterie of policy advisories for the agricultural sector was also outlined. Benchmarks and targets were set in several other sectors including finance and revenue generation, solid minerals development, education and human capital development, infrastructure and services, industrialization and enabling monetary policies, among others.

However, I find it pretty discomfiting that nothing in the communique I read indicated any concrete and detailed plan or policy direction for power generation, transmission and distribution. Even if the retreat had decided to adopt President Buhari’s submission at the opening ceremony on this all-important sector, it should have so indicated in its record of resolutions. But as stated in the opening paragraph of this piece, there is nothing new that was expected to come out of Nazareth anyway. All that was said had been said before. I reiterate that implementation of good policies and not the absence the same is the bane of Nigeria’s development. There has always been an inexplicable inability to walk the talk.

Perhaps, rather than dissipate energies on ‘fresh’ policy formulation, efforts should be channeled at a holistic review of laws governing business and economic activities in the country. Good enough, this issue was one of the major highlights of the Business Roundtable held in the national assembly. It is heart-warming that senate president Saraki affirmed the readiness of the legislature to review and amend existing laws that impede the smooth operations of business and which prevent SMEs from thriving competitively in the country and around the world. The roundtable, which agreed on the role of the private sector in driving economic growth and development, identified several laws and regulations that need to be reviewed and/or amended to enable operators of all cadres. Some of these include the Land Use Act; registration of businesses; taxes and taxation; access to capital and even privatization of state-owned businesses.

The sooner the national assembly gets down to brass tacks on these issues the better for the economy. Like renowned business mogul and entrepreneurship-enabler, Mr. Tony Elumelu, stated in his remarks at the senate roundtable, “a lot of talking has been done over the years around the issue of improving the enabling environment for business. The prayer of the private sector is that we move from talking to doing. If we make these changes, we can unlock countless jobs and opportunities in the country. Let us go about the business of doing so that our entrepreneurs can go about their own business.” If there is anyone in a more vantage position to say this, it is Mr. Elumelu, whose pan-African $100 million worth ‘Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme’ (TEEP) is raising a new generation of entrepreneurs and future business leaders across the continent. Unfortunately, the likes of him and other corporate giants like Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga and Folorunsho Alakija did not feature in the villa event. Maybe the event was designed to exclude them. Maybe ‘protocol breaches’ occurred along the way. But that is not what Nigerians care for. Citizens simply want food on their tables and an opportunity to explore their economic potentials to the fullest.

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