Dr Mohammed Santuraki is a former Managing Director/CEO of Bank of Agriculture and Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria. In this interview with OLUWAFEMI JUWE, he urges President Bola Tinubu to return the Central Bank of Nigeria to its orthodox role and stop all the Godwin Emefiele-induced interventions, among other issues
How will you assess President Bola Tinubu’s first two months in office?
Certainly, he has his own weaknesses, but what democracy does is that it can limit choices from which one can only choose people on the ballot. So, I wasn’t surprised that he emerged as the President. I believe he will do well because I do know that he has good people around him, which is important in governance. The rate at which he has hit the ground running has surprised me just as it is surprising to see what our political leaders can achieve only if they stay very focused and with strong political will. In terms of areas of focus, the President has been reasonably settled because he came up with his programme, which is the presidential policy directives and the five areas he selected are public finance, infrastructure and security, human capital development, public sector and the economy. It’s good that he has prioritised some of these.
Part of the public finance agenda is the removal of oil subsidy, which he did in his first week in office. This has been a big issue in Nigeria. A lot of our past leaders kept calm but he held the bull by the horns and removed it, which is a very good thing for Nigeria considering the amount spent over the years on oil subsidy. The last record we had regarding subsidy spent last year was about N4.3tn. You can imagine a national budget of about N20bn expending almost one-quarter of the budget on subsidy. And the claim then was that they were subsidising daily consumption by about 66 million litres. Immediately the subsidy was withdrawn, the daily consumption dropped. So, the implication of that is that one-third of the N4.3tn went into private pockets. That money can go into financing agriculture, because now the government will have more money for social infrastructure, education and so on.
Another issue is the issue of the unification of the exchange rate. When you have differences in exchange rates, only people with connections will keep benefiting without doing any work. Reasonably, there is an attempt to address that issue now by the current government of President Tinubu. The other element is what is being done in the CBN. Everybody knew that a lot of corruption was going on in the Central Bank of Nigeria, but nobody wanted to face the problem. Now, it is good that the President is set to ensure that the CBN returns to its statutory roles. In the last 10 years, we had a CBN that began lending to the sector. Usually, the CBN is the lender of last resort, but our CBN became the lender of first resort. I am in the agric business and people would ask if I have accessed some of the CBN’s intervention schemes.
Remember that we have almost 200 federal parastatals. What are they doing with those parastatals? This means, we have several numbers of boards, chairmen, DGs, secretaries, etc and not to talk of other staff members. We have 774 local government chairmen, then we have 72 governors and their deputies. So, we have to reform the system. A lot of these parastatals overlap. Democracy is very good but the way we are implementing it is expensive. Unfortunately, under the previous regime, we were creating more and more parastatals. So, governance is taking a chunk of the meagre resources of the country. If Tinubu can bite that bullet and ensure that these reforms succeed so that we can reduce the cost of governance and get additional resources available to pursue the development agenda of the country, then he would have done very well.
Another area is judicial reform. What is happening in this country now is that INEC is actually not the body that determines elections and who wins elections in this country, because our politicians rush to the courts for determination. The judiciary comprises unelected officials, but who are sadly now determining who will be our leaders. We need to tackle this area of conflict in our system. That sector needs a lot of reforms. For instance, when you have families of some senior judges in the Senate, it complicates the matter. We need to take care of those areas of conflict of interest legally. In fact, some of the judges even have their children running for elective offices. These are some of the areas in which we need intervention and reform, so that we remove the areas of conflict given the critical role of the judiciary in the determination of our political fortunes. The new government must address these areas.
As an ex-Managing Director/CEO of the Bank of Agriculture, how do you think the government can handle the agric sector?
What we have done wrongly is that we think we must always just throw money at our problems. That we have also done this in the agric sector and it has not taken us anywhere. The central driving force for agricultural development over the last years has been the issue of this Anchor Borrowers’ programme of the Emefiele CBN, which is not the right approach. We need to go back to the basics. Yes, we must support small farmers but we do it in a more targeted way. Yes, money is important for agric growth, but what people need is technical skills because we have a lot of subsistence farmers whose production is not optimal. This is because they don’t have the right skills and knowledge. Our extension services in the country are gone. They don’t exist anymore. So, we need to empower our farmers technically. We also need to expose them to good seeds as a way to develop the value chain in agriculture. We needed to also create an environment for agricultural businesses to flourish, just as we also need the big-time farmers because they are the ones to bring out the capital for export and other support, because export is very important. We need to make it attractive because I’m also into agribusiness.
I am for instance imagining the day we can export and also convert proceeds to naira in an attractive way, but suddenly the government introduced measures whereby once you export, you have to convert it through the official window and that makes exports unattractive. But I am hoping that with the current changes going on in the domiciliary account market, the government will look at it, so that exporters can have the freedom to sell their proceeds in any of the markets in the world. We also need to encourage foreign direct investment in the agric sector. I am from a state that has the largest landmass in the country. We have a lot of land but with the land use system, it is difficult to get land for a serious investment because people have cultural attachment to land even if they are not using it; they find it difficult to give out. People need to be more educated on this so that we can have models where the existing landowners can be integrated into the whole agribusiness chain.
As the chairman organising committee for the inauguration of Governor Mohammed Bago of Niger State, you must have his ears. What radical steps would you advise him to take to banish poverty and insecurity in Niger State?
There’s a lot of work to be done in Niger State because when you look at states that were created at the same time as Niger and some of those created after the state, you will find out that we are far behind. We have a great deal of infrastructural deficit. Our intercity roads are very bad. The government needs to improve the intercity infrastructure and embark on urban renewal. Niger State is one of the few states where we have four or five urban centres and it’s the largest. A lot of states just have one city, but Niger has Kontangora, Bida, Minna, Suleija and New Bussa. All of them are urban centres in their own right. You also have about eight first-class emirs and I am not talking about 2,000 first-class emirs. You know a lot of the 2,000 class of first-class emirs have been created. I am talking of pre-independence first-class emirs. No state in the North has that number. Of the pre-independence first-class emirs, eight of them are in Niger State. No state has that record.
Our landmass can be an advantage and also a disadvantage because the amount of money that will be needed to create infrastructure can be so huge that you will not be able to notice any appreciable improvement in any one area. That’s part of the challenges that we have. Fortunately, the advantage is that we have a lot of arable land. So, facing agriculture will be a very viable strategy for us. And that is an area that our new government is focusing on. Our strategic location and closeness to the Federal Capital, we have not really taken advantage of that. Between our borders with the FCT, we can have housing estates and light industries around that. We want to optimise our closeness to the FCT to make sure that we accelerate development. The fourth one is endowment in terms of hydropower. Niger State is dam intensive. We have many dams. We have several rivers. So, easily 40 per cent to 60 per cent or so of the entire electricity generation in the country is from Niger State – Shiroro, Kainji and others. We are truly a power state in the real sense of it.
That’s another brilliant area the Tinubu government is doing well with the signing into law of the Electricity Bill that sort of liberalises power generation. So, what we are looking at is that we have discussions with development partners, including the African Development Bank and the United Nations Development Programme, so that we can create mini hydro plants so that we can empower some of these industrial estates that we are planning. Power is a very critical factor as far as industry is concerned. We also have plans for urban water supply, which remains a big problem in Niger State. Most of our towns and urban areas don’t have water, so we thought of sinking boreholes. We have made concerted efforts towards improving water supply in major centres.
As a notable politician who is very close to Governor Bago, do you think he can walk his talk for the people?