No Cause for Alarm

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, finance minister, sends a 102-page document to the House of Representatives Committee on Finance, showcasing the government’s achievement so far

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, minister of finance and coordinating minister for the economy, has probably never been under as much pressure as she has experienced recently. Since mid-last year, she had at one time or the other been summoned by the House Committee on Finance to answer questions relating to the economy. She had also been at the receiving end of verbal attacks from some members of the committee. Her last encounter with them was far from palatable – they demanded answers to 50 questions as a precondition to examine the 2014 budget, something many Nigerians considered overbearing on the part of the legislators.

But she responded last Wednesday to the 50 questions posed to her by the committee, and she did it in a grand style. She replied them in a 102-page document, highlighting the key points of the Goodluck Jonathan’s Transformation Agenda.

Although while admitting that the government had encountered many challenges, the finance minister reiterates that the nation’s economy is showing real and measurable progress in many areas. As part of the questions posed to her, the minister explained how government is tackling unemployment, which appears to be one of the bane of the development of the economy; she also informed the House on how government is tackling infrastructural decay across all sectors of the economy.

In her response on how the administration is tackling the unemployment challenge, she said the federal government had provided 1.6 million jobs across the country. The finance minister explained that, “for instance, on job creation which is the central focus of the administration, a total of 1.6 million jobs were created last year, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, of which 250,000 were seasonal jobs created in dry season farming in 10 northern states. In manufacturing, the Onne Oil and Gas Free Zone created an estimated 30,000 direct and indirect jobs. The government special intervention programme, YouWin supported young entrepreneurs, creating over 18,000 jobs. The SURE-Community Services has also created 120,000 job opportunities.”

MTN

One of the questions dwelt on major economic achievements of the government in 2013, and the finance minister, while breaking down her explanation into different sectors, focused on infrastructure, power, water resources, manufacturing, as well as aviation, among others. For instance, on power, she said: “We have completed one of the most comprehensive and ambitious power sector privatisation and liberation programmes globally. We have privatised four power generation companies and 10 power distribution companies, and have virtually settled all claims and entitlements of PHCN workers…to promote clean energy, we also commenced construction of the 700MW Zungeru Hydro-Power project in 2013. We have strengthened relevant power market intermediaries such as the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading, NBET, and backed them with financing to stimulate greater private investments in the sector.”

Not done with reeling out the achievements of the Jonathan’s administration in 2013, Okonjo-Iweala said the aviation sector has been having it good. According to her “22 airports across Nigeria are being remodelled and upgraded in 2013, we completed the upgrade of 11 airport terminals and work on the remaining 11 terminals is in progress.” And for the manufacturing sector, she explained that, “The Nigerian Enterprise Development Programme, NEDEP, was initiated in 2013 to address the needs of small businesses. Some key interventions by NEDEP include supporting small companies with access to affordable finance, access to markets, capacity support, business development services, youth training, and support in formalising their operations. In addition, in 2013, we reduced business registration costs for small businesses by 50 per cent, to help them conserve capital. Finally, as a result of our backward integration policies, Nigeria is now a net exporter of cement and expanded cement output capacity from two million metric tonnes in 2002 to 28.5 million metric tones in 2013.”

To authenticate her submission, the minister backed her claims with statistics, which many are wont to agree with. No doubt, she made her point, but that had not deterred social commentators from picking holes in them. For example, while it is true that government has provided job, the question is, how far has such move checkmated mass unemployment that is ravaging the country. Gabriel Idahosa, chief executive officer, CEO, Urbach Hacker Young International, a financial outfit, puts it more succinctly when he said: “We have to look at the fundamentals. How big is the achievement when compared to the problems on ground. When we gauge the provision of 1.6 million jobs in a country with over 40 million employable persons, what visible impact would that make.”

Idahosa added that although there are statistical data to justify her claims, the finance minister should note that there are no visible signposts to verify such in a pragmatic content. “There are things playing around the economy and Nigerians are justified in asking for performance. No doubt, we are draining our resources, and the benefits not commensurate with what we are seeing as physical development,” he intoned. While pointing out that our foreign reserve has been depleted to less than $3 billion, from $20 billion, he also noted that the Presidency is not doing enough to checkmate corruption, which is behind the country’s financial woes.

Peter Adebayo, a chartered accountant and management consultant, while commenting on the state of the economy as showing real and measurable progress, as expounded by the finance minister, said that, “this needs to be supported with more empirical statistics that cut across all sectors and I think government should dwell more on making Nigerians job creators themselves rather than being at the vanguard of predominating the job creation sector of our slowly growing economy.”

On power, Adebayo advised that, “government should break the jinx behind the energy palaver and open up our economy for effective entrepreneurial development.” While hoping that the House Committee on Finance will also give their own response to the minister’s letter, Nigerians may be justified in asking for improvement in the economy.

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