Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji is a former Minister of Finance and ex-Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. In this interview with Mohammed Aminu, Abubakar, who is the Sardauna of the Sokoto, speaks on the current clamour for restructuring by some parts of the country, agitation by the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
Although Nigeria is gradually said to be exiting recession, the economy is still generally bedeviled by many challenges. What do you think is the way out?
I started my career as an assistant secretary in the ministry of finance since the era of Festus Okotie Eboh and even during the time of Obafemi Awolowo. I worked with Edwin Ogbu, who was the first black permanent secretary of the federal ministry of finance. I served as the executive director of African Development Bank in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and was also on the board of the development bank.
When I was the minister of finance, the value of naira was equivalent to a dollar but now it is N365 to a dollar. I still recall that Nigeria lent money to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during the time of Gen. Yakubu Gowon in 1974 and I signed the agreement. Though I cannot remember the actual amount, I was received like a king in Washington, United States of America.
It is very sad what is happening to the Nigerian economy now and it is partly our own fault. The United States President, Donald Trump, is right for saying that Nigeria is not doing well as expected. When I was in the ministry of industry, I led a delegation to the United States of America. I was received warmly and we invited 12 American companies to set up industries in Nigeria. They came and established various industries here. But it is sad that at the moment, you cannot find a single company working. They have all collapsed.
What happened that the industries collapsed?
I was chairman of all the steel rolling mills in Nigeria then and I signed all the agreements between Nigeria and Russia to build the Ajaokuta Steel Rolling Mills. The late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua led the delegation and we went to Russia and discussed with the Prime Minister. He later sent people to Nigeria to sign agreement for the revival of Ajaokuta steel plant but today it is down.
I was also the first chairman of Delta steel but today it is not working. We have many Nigerians qualified to run any industry in Nigeria and if we don’t have enough technicians to run them, why can’t we bring foreigners to help us run them? Other countries also did that. I traveled to Canada with Philip Asiodu and we requested help from them for our energy sector. We brought six experts to work in various departments in NEPA then.
How do you then see the Privatisation exercise carried out by the federal government?
I am against privatisation. I warned the federal government against privatisation and fought against it. I warned against selling strategic industries to private investors such as NEPA, NITEL, Nigerian Airways, NNPC, among others, because we will end up transferring their inefficiency to the private sector. I believed then that these six strategic parastatals should not be privatised but the federal government failed to listen to the advice.
Now where are we heading to after selling them? NEPA has been sold to private investors but we are still in darkness. There is no electricity and they have transferred their inefficiency to consumers. That some countries recorded success in privatisation doesn’t mean Nigeria will succeed. You cannot as a National Assembly or Senators summon the Managing Director of the Kaduna Electricity Distribution Company today to explain why there is no light in a particular area.
Many believed the Structural Adjustment Programme introduced in the 1980s by the IBB regime led to the collapse of the Nigerian economy. Is that correct?
It is not true that the structural adjustment programme introduced during the regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida contributed to the collapse of the Nigerian economy. SAP means you have to reform the way you run your economy. The World Bank and the IMF advised Nigeria to restructure the economy so that they will help us. Anybody that wants to assist you to grow is not an enemy. The argument then was that if it pains, then it works. You cannot have restructuring without pains. We are in an era of globalisation, if you don’t have the right people in the right place, it is your fault and you cannot blame anybody.
Do you share the sentiment of restructuring the country?
As for me, I don’t believe in restructuring of Nigeria. And I am against the regional system as practised in the first republic. The states we have now are too many and Nigeria should not have 36 states. We should have at least only 12 states in the federation. It is just that the military were creating states during series of coups to please the people. We spend huge chunk of the nation’s revenue in running government and paying public officials. We have 36 states, 36 state houses of assemblies, national assembly, commissioners, and various public office holders. So, Nigeria’s money is being used to settle political office holders.
You see, people are just playing politics with this issue of restructuring. I strongly believe that we should have a competent leadership to run the affairs of the country. We should focus on getting the right man wherever he is to lead Nigeria, whether he is Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa/Fulani, Ijaw, Efik or any other ethnic group.
In what context do you see the recent agitations by the Indigenous People of Biafra to secede from Nigeria?
I don’t believe secession is the answer to our problems. We should remain united. Sometimes, I wake up and weep for Nigeria. Buhari said late Odumegwu Ojukwu visited him in his hometown Daura and told him that he is for one Nigeria and not interested in Biafra and that those clamouring for secession are on their own. I knew Buhari for a long time and we were in the same secondary school in Katsina. I was in form six while he (Buhari) and the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua were in form one. I was their prefect then. In fact, Yar’Adua and Buhari were in Durbi compound and I was their prefect. So, Buhari was my boy then.
How do you think Nigeria can completely get out of this recession?
Everybody is talking about diversification. We have been talking about diversification since the era of the Second Republic President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari. The simple truth is that Nigerians are not willing to go back to farm and work to enhance food production. The industries we set up in the 1980s were all geared towards diversifying the nation’s economy.
We can only exit recession if we resolve to curtail our excesses. We must resolve as a nation to cut our cloth according to size. We must cut down the huge expenditure on servicing public office holders. We must stop corruption by putting in a system to prevent people from stealing public funds. That is the only way we can move forward.