The twin woes of the deteriorating state of the economy and rising cases of insecurity across the country will not subside until President Bola Ahmed Tinubu comes up with urgent remedial measures to show he is in charge. National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Debo Ologunagba, while reviewing the protests and uprising against high cost of living across the country, told AZIMAZI MOMOH JIMOH in an exclusive interview that the abrupt removal of subsidy on petroleum products without due economic strategies, among other mistakes, have resulted in serious hardship, which is responsible for the current apprehension in the country. Ologunagba also said that the poor confidence the people had in the Tinubu-led All Progressives Congress (APC) administration has worsened substantially because of its poor approaches to issues of unemployment, poverty, high cost of living and insecurity. Excerpts:
There were protests in two major states of the country, Kano and Niger a few days ago. How do you feel about these protests?
First of all, the protests in my assessment and in the assessment of our party, is a reflection of the situation in the country – the suffocating environment and the situation where insecurity, hardship, hopelessness, hunger and agony have been inflicted on the country and the citizens by the incompetent, ill-thought out and hurriedly implemented policies of the APC.
What is the way out? Are all hopes lost?
We have been very clear that the APC is insensitive to the fact that because of its policies, more than 104 million citizens have sunk deeper into poverty. Nigerians can no longer afford their daily meals, with families now going to bed on empty stomachs as poverty rate soars to over 46 per cent.
These are statistics from the World Bank. And it is there in the public space. Hopelessness has set in. So, frustration is already here. And when there are situations like this, the expression of those lies with the same experience, particularly when the government is insensitive and completely irresponsible in that manner.
As the leading opposition political party, what would be your advice?
The primary purpose of government as provided in Section 14 (2b) of our Constitution is for the welfare and security of the people. That is the only reason for government to exist. The APC has failed woefully in these two important duties. So, the people are frustrated. And you see the expression in those protests which is only beginning to spread. Like we charged yesterday, we hope the government will take immediate action to arrest it. We all want this country to succeed. We want to have peace. It is when there is peace that one can aspire for the pursuit of happiness. That is when we will all be happy. That is when the parties can thrive. That is when democracy can thrive. But when you have a government that is irresponsible, insensitive and completely oblivious of the sufferings of the people, then this is the challenge.
The President came in on May 29, 2023, and said ‘we will remove oil subsidy’. You know how petrol and petroleum products are key to the survival of this nation. And you took it out; no buffer. You went further to talk about the floating of the naira. What do you expect without a backup arrangement, without thought process into it? We understood that it was not even part of his speech. It came off the curve. You are playing kite with the lives of Nigerians who will be affected like we are affected now? You find a spiraling hike in interest rate. As we are talking now, it is about 28 per cent on the average. You floated the naira without effective guidance on how to implement the policy. You find the dollar moving from N168 that PDP left it in 2015 to N1,500 today. You find companies leaving the country in droves. Many companies are dying and with that comes unemployment. And they have no safety nets. And that begins to expand on a daily basis. Those are the consequences and that is why we are here. And the President and the APC must know and come to terms with the fact that there is frustration in the land because of the suffocating, economic and social policies, laid back attitude to security and massive corruption in the Tinubu administration. These are the issues fuelling all of this.
In Benue, there was a massive terrorist attack. We called on Mr. President to show leadership and visit that place so that the people can know that they have a leader; that someone can speak for us. Because in situations like this, when there are crises, the President will transmute from Commander-in-chief to consoler-in-chief and give people hope. You sent proxies and emissaries to talk to them. Meanwhile, you were partying in Lagos? That’s not leadership.
We saw an example in President Joe Biden of the United States when George Floyd was killed by policemen. What did he do symbolically? He went and knelt down before the six-year-old daughter of George Floyd and apologised on behalf of the nation for the murder. It didn’t bring the man back but it showed that this President has empathy. The APC does not fear the people. That is why you still find people in government saying they have the best policies. And when you are critical of them, they say you are being sponsored by the opposition.
And what is your response to that?
The right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under the Constitution. That was why this President, the previous president, Muhammadu Buhari, and former governor of Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi led protests on the streets against increase in petrol price from N87 to N141. We as a political party in a democracy recognised the right to protest. So, why are they being hypocritical now?
It is in our interest as a country that the President wakes up and ensures that an urgent attention is paid to the frustration on the streets because we need our country to be peaceful so that we can pursue opportunities for happiness.
Your party was in power for some time and you have a lot of experiences on issues of governance. Don’t you think eight months is too short to assess a government and that the protest has come too early in the life of this administration? Shouldn’t the people have been a little bit more patient?
Well, those are the arguments of some people in government. If you don’t like the heat, don’t go near the fire. What they sold to us in the campaign was that the President was very experienced. He changed Lagos. They said he made Lagos. And he would bring it to the federal level. So, where are those experiences and competence they sold to us? Those are all escapist arguments. You said you were going to bring hope. Was that why they implemented ill-conceived policies?
In any event, the people are dying and helpless. And when you see a hungry man he has no time. You can’t measure time for him. If a man cannot pay his house rent today because he has lost his job as a result of the government policy that closed down his company, everyday looks like a year to him. So, let the government recognise the right of the people to protest. The policies are draconian, inhumane, insensitive and added to that is the nauseating news of corruption in government. If the government is humane and people genuinely believe that this government is making efforts, people will be willing. Nigerians are very good people. They will be willing to say they are making sincere efforts. But when you find concealment, when you find corruption, when you look at the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry and N47 billion is gone, then you cannot connect to it. And when you find out that there is no transparent process of investigating, you ask yourself but the ICPC is there, EFCC is there. There are statutory bodies to look into that. Why are you creating an inter-ministerial panel to look into that?
So, the time is short. Nigerians are in a hurry because they are dying by installment. They don’t have the luxury of time for the President. He should roll up his sleeves, get his team to wake up and do what Nigerians want him to do in line with provisions of the Constitution – security and welfare. He has failed in security, he has failed in welfare. That is why you are seeing these protests.
What are those issues of governance that this administration is running away from that ought to be addressed?
The issues that should be addressed are about the economy. And it is your policy and implementation that brings about that policy. You can’t do tokenism. We are not a country of palliatives. Create an economy that can work itself. For instance, just one part of this is the petroleum sector which affects everything in this country. Nigeria has four refineries, none is working. And when you talk about the cost of petrol, it is the cost of getting it that is transferred to the people. Now we have 400,000 barrels a day allocated for our consumption and it goes out for refining. In doing that, there are freight and insurance charges. There are other agent fees paid when you are moving the crude oil out. It is refined outside the shores and you bring it back; you pay freight, insurance, agents and transportation costs. And you also pay for what we call storage in Nigerian tank farms per litre. And you begin to put all those costs which in every stage are embedded with corruption. So that burden is taken to us. How do you solve that problem?
In any event, Mr. President is the Minister of Petroleum; NNPC is under him, which means he has it under his finger tips. You have handover notes from the previous government. Why don’t you say of the four refineries, which of them can be fixed within the next six to nine months? Let’s say hypothetically there is 100,000 barrels per day, and in nine months, one of the refineries is working. What it means is that you are no longer sending 400,000 barrels per day for refining, you are sending 300,000.
So the cost of refining 100,000 barrels per day abroad is saved. You don’t need dollar to do that. There is no pressure on your foreign reserve. What does that mean? The refinery is back to work, technicians and other workers are working. Then the by-product of crude refining from bitumen, black oil and all of that are there. There are companies that use them. They can then take supply from that refinery, putting no pressure on the foreign exchange. They produce and keep their staff who are paying taxes; the economy will be improving. You can say the second refinery will come up in another six months. So in two years, you are almost there. But they don’t want to do that because corruption is embedded in the system. Those are policy issues.
Secondly, on democracy, let the government stop any interference with the democratic process, which is the INEC. Let us revisit the Uwais panel report so that we can have a truly independent INEC such that our elections would be determined on the ballot paper not in the courts.
Those are policy issues. Those are structural problems; because the respect and legitimacy of any government is directly related to the way it emerged. When people believe that the government is from them, they are likely going to give the government a chance and the government will be honest and transparent. Where is transparency here?
You mean most of those protesting never genuinely trusted this government?
When you feel the government is from you; when you feel the government is doing things in your interest, then you are more likely to give that government an opportunity. We are not talking about whether they voted or not; now we are in government, what actions has that government taken? What policy have they made? If a government wakes up and increases the price of fuel and by virtue of that fact that your country can no longer produce fuel, there is no electricity, then that government has by its actions put you into unemployment. How do you trust that government? It’s about symbiotic living. That’s why there is a provision in the Constitution that says the purpose of government is for the security and welfare of the people. In your policy decisions, implementation of policy, you must feel for that person. They don’t know us. That is why they are describing those protesters as being sponsored by the opposition.
This government believes that the manner in which the last administration managed the naira was wrong. And they didn’t want to toe that path of defending the naira so that at the end it would find its level and start appreciating. What is your take on that?
That has always been the layman’s argument. What is the value of the currency? The value of a currency is dependent on the capacity of that economy to produce competitively so that you can export and earn foreign exchange. What policy have they put in place to encourage local manufacturing? I will give you two examples.
If the government is truly serious about helping the naira to grow, a whole lot of money has been spent buying vehicles from Japan. We have local companies here. After the Second World War, in the United Kingdom, there was a Marshall Plan. It requires leadership, strength, strong will and wanting to make a difference. It won’t be business as usual. What is wrong in saying that for these four years, we are at the rebuilding stage, let’s look at those local manufacturing companies and help them. It happened in America. During the Obama years in 2008, there was the global economic crisis and all the flagship car companies were having problems. He bailed those companies. Today, Chrysler is one of the best; Ford is doing exceedingly well. People are back to work, the economy is thriving, people are going back to Michigan to work. It should be a policy of the government to say we will support our local car companies so that the money does not go to Japan. And there would be no pressure on the naira. So, if the government really wants to do something, they will say we are going to give you N50 billion as a grant and a one year moratorium. That is the only way they will improve in their capacity, quality and bring foreign people to work with them.
In all of this, you must provide security. The President has failed in doing that. To distance himself from Buhari would be irresponsible of him. He would be unkind to Buhari because he was the National Leader of the party. And in any event, he has a Vice President, Minister of Finance, Minister of Interior, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Chairman of so many bodies. So, how can he insulate himself from that? It is his cross; he should carry it. Nigerians deserve more explanations from him rather than being escapist.
Do you see any link between this crumbling economy and the rise in insecurity?
Leadership is key in either of the two scenarios you painted. One, the body language of the President has not demonstrated that he is even interested in tackling terrorism and insecurity. He hasn’t shown that capacity.
Because the mere presence of a President will send messages to the troops on ground. In all the speeches this President has made to us, there was not one paragraph on the issue of security. Go check all his reports. And we have drawn attention to this. The management of the economy is a milling ground for people that are frustrated who are available for insecurity. I will give you an example. A military man was going to visit his family. He came out from his beat in the bush, came to a motor park and the price was N35,000 for a one-way journey. It used to be like N5,000. And his salary is N50,000. He went back to his beat. You can imagine the level of frustration in the life of that individual. What about people who, because of the increase in petroleum products, the crazy and arbitrary floating of the naira, the massive corruption going on in government, have lost their jobs and are hopeless? What do you think? Frustration will set in and if there is an opportunity to go into terrorism or an environment that is not conducive for law and order, they are possible recruits for that. Those are the challenges.
We have given this example and suggested that petrol can’t sell more than N150 to N200 per liter because of the analysis I had given you. So, if you tackle corruption and over 100,000 barrels, it means that is available for the country. And when people get back to work, they will pay taxes, feed their families, improve the economy and the social fabric of the society. If a man cannot take care of his family, he will not know whether the children are even doing well or not. He won’t know the kind of group they keep. The direct relationship between the failure in the economy and the failure in security is that this government has failed woefully in the basic purpose of government. And as a nation, we should be worried. There is frustration in the land. Actions need to be taken immediately. It is not saying we are going to release strategic rice. You can only have strategic rice if rice are being produced. When you finish those ones in the strategic reserve, what happens? We were in this country when they told us they had a pyramid of rice which was not different from the pyramid of lies. So, it’s a consistent pattern of the government. APC is not a party but a special purpose vehicle to promote the agenda of individual interests. And that is a sad commentary for our nation.
Nigerians are hurting and the government must listen. The President should not listen to people in corridors of power that all is well. All is not well. People are starving, agonising; people are dying every day. Kidnapping is going on. People cannot travel anymore. Kidnappers are not abducting lone travelers; they are kidnapping bus load of people. Two Obas were shot dead in daylight in Ekiti State; some Obis were shot in the East. Where is the President?
He needs to speak to Nigerians on the security measures and what he is doing about it. He needs to speak to us on the economy and the remedial action to be taken right now. There must be concrete action to show that indeed he is in charge and he knows what he is doing. If he was touted as the maker of Lagos, let him make Nigeria.