POLITICS

Interrogating the Soul of the Atiku Abubakar’s economic agenda – By Bilyamin Ahmad

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It is hard to find anyone in the current political dispensation who will argue that Atiku Abubakar, Nigeria’s former Vice President and PDP flag bearer in the coming presidential election, has more than a smattering knowledge of running an economy. Give it to Atiku Abubakar, he was one of the important arrowheads behind Nigeria’s low debt profile while he was vice president of Nigeria between 1999 and 2007. He superintended the privatization of Nigeria’s 588 floundering enterprises, resulting in weaning the country off 55 per cent of an external debt component. This explains why Wazirin Adamawa’s “Covenant with Nigeria” economic blueprint strikes a positive chord in its plan, as one of its economic revitalization pillars, to break government monopoly in all infrastructure sectors, including refineries, rail transportation and power transmission. The current administration has failed woefully in integrating the private sector into the economy, which explains why most of its policies are deemed antithetical to the growth of private enterprises.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, household consumption in the first three quarters of 2022 hovered between 75 percent and 80 percent. This simply proves that the private sector, not the government, is the major component of the Nigerian economy. Despite the startling statistics, the current administration has failed to embrace the private sector and integrate it into mainstream development of the economy. What it has done mainly in the last eight years was to introduce various forms of tax, including excise duties on alcohol, tobacco, wines, among others, without commensurate infrastructures to support businesses. Rather than put the Port Harcourt refinery in the hands of the private sector which has the expertise to manage it, the government ignored its terrible fiscal outlook, borrowing $1.5 billion for the refinery’s rehabilitation. This is over N1 trillion using the parallel market rate of over N700/$ which the current administration has popularized. Today, the government has shifted goalposts as to the date of the refinery’s completion, evidencing its lack of direction. Atiku Abubakar believes that such public enterprises should be left for the private sector which has the expertise to manage them, not the government. At best, there can be a public-private partnership that is healthy and productive. By doing so, the government saves money and reroutes it to other critical sectors such as education and health. Those who mocked the Wazirin Adamawa for expounding his belief in the private sector by espousing the need to hand over a behemoth like the Nigerian National Petroleum Limited to the private sector to manage are now planning to sell some government facilities to fund the 2023 budget.

Their thinking was, perhaps, that by popularizing the clause, “Atiku wants to sell it to himself and friends”, the former Vice President would lose the support he has across the country. But this has not happened to their disappointment. Many who have seen their hypocrisy are simply laughing, waiting to throw their party out of power in next month’s general election. Atiku has not hidden his plan to decentralize power transmission to achieve efficiency in that sector. He believes, and rightly so, that the current government control has led to the inefficiency in the sector. As a firm believer that the current government has run the Nigerian economy aground through an inconsistent exchange rate market regime, he says in his “Covenant with Nigerians” that “the persistent price distortions occasioned by current interventionist exchange rate management policy shall be eliminated.” Today, there is Nafex rate, parallel market rate and other rates across the board.

As a result, the dollar crunch is hurting millions of businesses as they cannot find the greenback at the official market but only rely on the parallel market where a dollar is sold at over N700. Atiku has vowed to change this for good by harmonizing all these markets into one rate that will be driven by the market. The last seven years have been characterized by a statist, command and rule economic system which was populist at the beginning but merely inefficient at the middle and the end.

But Atiku Abubakar has vowed to allow the market to allocate resources to ensure that those who want them are able to get them seamlessly. Unlike the APC hegemony, Atiku has articulated his plan to run an efficient fiscal regime. Consider the deficit in the 2023 budget. According to government finance officials, the N21.8 trillion 2023 budget has a N11.34trillion deficit. Public debt is mounting, hitting N77 trillion recently. As revealed recently, there is a plan to illegally securitize the Central Bank of Nigeria’s over N22 trillion ways and means. Worse still, the present government has used over 80-110 percent of revenue to service its humongous debt, posing itself as a squanderer. All these have happened because the government lacks thinkers and pragmatic economists who have the capacity to checkmate government excesses.

Atiku plans to change this trajectory by appointing experts into his cabinet and carrying the private sector along. His vision is to optimize the fiscal space and generate more revenues for the economy. Revenue to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product is about nine percent whereas other African peers like Kenya and Ghana are doing 17 percent and 21 percent respectively. Atiku believes that there are several dormant areas in the economy where his government will explore to increase revenues. He does not plan to raise taxes but to ensure that many are brought to the tax net to increase government revenue for economic development. He eyes a fiscal regime which is stable and predictable, and can clearly bridge the gap between revenue yield and expenditure. Atiku is aware that increasing revenues may necessitate some level of reforms in the economy. And he has, as one of his plans, a target to introduce wholesale reforms at various segments of the economy, including Customs, ports, and other organs of government. Similarly, being a businessman, Atiku knows that boosting the foreign exchange must be done urgently. This implies the need to strengthen the agricultural and manufacturing sectors to boost export of tangible goods. But it also means exporting Nigeria’s talents to bring back foreign exchange to the Nigerian economy, which is the biggest in size in Africa. He plans to block leakages and ensure efficiency in government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs). This does not mean sacking government workers but introducing reforms and ensuring that technology drives his government. The former vice president is tech-savvy and understands the emerging changes in technology. He believes that the education sector should be able to produce graduates that can effectively service the economy, hence his plan to rehabilitate vocational and technical studies across the country. Nigeria is at a critical point in its history, and only an experienced man like Atiku Abubakar has the experience and capacity to re-calibrate the economy to lift citizens out of poverty and create jobs for many Nigerians. His vision offers real incentive for voters to choose him out of all jostling for the exalted office in the land come February 25th.

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