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Thursday, May 23, 2024

INTERVIEW: The Impact of Tinubu’s Policies on Nigeria’s Transformation

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Shortly after his victory in the 2023 election, President Bola Tinubu nominated Atiku Bagudu as member of the Presidential Transition Committee, signalling a powerful message about the relationship between the two politicians.

After the inauguration, Mr Tinubu appointed Mr Bagudu as the Minister of Budget and Economic Planning.

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Mr Bagudu, 62, was a federal lawmaker before serving as governor of Nigeria’s north-western state of Kebbi for eight years. He is a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC). As the chairperson of the APC Governors’ Forum in 2022, Mr Bagudu played a key role in the emergence of Mr Tinubu as the party’s presidential candidate for the 2023 general elections.

Last month, Mr Bagudu sat with a PREMIUM TIMES team in his Abuja residence for an interview that was agreed to focus on his ministerial role, the Tinubu administration and the 2023 election. He spoke on wide-ranging issues such as his relationship with President Tinubu, the composition of the federal cabinet, fuel subsidy removal, budget processes, inflation, state policing and other issues.

The Minister of Budget and Economic Planning, Atiku Bagudu during the interview [PHOTO CREDIT: Ademola Popoola – Premium Times]

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Excerpts:

PT: One of your colleagues, the Minister of State for Defence (Bello Matawalle), has been in the news recently saying that northern appointees in the cabinet of President Bola Tinubu need to speak out more about the successes of the current administration. What’s your view on that?

Bagudu: Thank you. I believe every appointee has an obligation within the area of responsibility he or she has been assigned and even beyond to communicate with the public appropriately, irrespective of region. And there is a lot to say in this government.

Secondly, we also respect space. For example, the minister of information and the media aides of Mr. President have been very, very active. In addition to occasional briefings, the president’s media aides even organise sessions for aspects of the government that need to be communicated and need to be interrogated by the media in sessions. And there is also the need to show that this is a government that is not afraid of answering the hard questions, because it is a government that is led by a leader, President Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who is both magnanimous and humble, who came to the presidency with the conviction that he will draw the line in order to make Nigeria better.

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Mr President always acknowledged that Nigeria’s fault lines need to be managed so that public officers are taken to task rather than personality or exploitation of the fault line. Every part of the country contributed in making him the president of Nigeria and that is very commendable.

From the North, President Tinubu has done very well. He is somebody whose personal conduct as a politician and as a Nigerian has been outstanding. He has built a relationship across the country. I didn’t know President Aswaju Bola Tinubu during the campaign or before the campaign started. I have known him for well over 30 years and I’m just one of several others who say the same thing.

Nigeria’s President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official Twitter handle of Nosa Asemota | https://twitter.com/nosasemota]Also, he has supported the unity of our country. He supported people from the North who sought political power even when he is in a position to seek it for himself. He supported the late Shehu Musa Yar’adua, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, the current National Security Adviser, Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, and former President Muhammadu Buhari. So it’s not surprising that the North was very exuberant to also support him, not just because he has done all this, but in addition to the fact that he has the capacity.

In a nutshell, many groups have been saying different views from different parts of the country. There is not a unified voice. But for me, as a political appointee, maybe more than a political appointee, both before and now in government, I know that what the president has done in the last 10 months has been outstanding.

First, he took one of the bold steps that all the presidential candidates said should be taken, which is the removal of fuel subsidy. Aside from the subsidy, there is also a measure on the deregulation of the foreign exchange market so that investors can return to our country.

This is not even an issue of blame game. President Tinubu decided that he would not play the blame game. But Nigerians have been hesitant in taking some actions that should have been taken decades ago.

We want to be like Asian countries, we want to grow like Brazil but Brazil and those Asian countries that we want, we are competing with, have taken measures that we needed to have taken decades ago.

The president is even bold to acknowledge that. Let’s do it now. Some of these measures have consequences which we acknowledge. And that’s why again, a number of measures are introduced in order to ameliorate the situation.

These measures are helpful to Nigeria, irrespective of North or South because they are to restore macroeconomic stability, to restore security in the country and make it better so that investors will feel confident. And equally, the security effort has been outstanding. A lot of the gains of the past have been improved, often, particularly, in many parts of northern Nigeria and the budget itself.

On the budget, President Tinubu has so far been involved with three budgets. He inherited a budget that was passed in June 2023, which is the N819 billion supplementary appropriation. He renegotiated that budget with the National Assembly. He said to them that about N500 billion out of that money was to support the vulnerable that might be affected by the interventions we intended to take. And they agreed with him and provided N200 billion out of it for agricultural intervention, N100 billion for CNG buses, another N75 billion for MBS and N50 billion for Nano credit. And I think that was a commendable first step.

National Assembly Complex, Abuja

Then in October, the second supplementary budget came in the sum of N2.17 trillion. This is a supplementary budget that was meant for infrastructure and to meet the obligations and promises made to labour, which awards as part of the wage negotiation and to provide additional cash transfer to Nigerians. But the bulk of that was to the security services. Security is everyone’s business. When you spend on security, everyone becomes better off. And the whole idea of that is to ensure that our security is funded better even while we are not where we want to be.

Thirdly, the 2024 budget. These budgets are budgets for Nigeria. They are not intended to favour or reward any particular zone. They are meant to provide the basis for the restoration of macroeconomic stability, resumption of macroeconomic growth, investments and employment across the country. And we are confident that is being done.

Take a look at the budget, which are the biggest ministries in terms of spending? You will see that agriculture ranks high. The two ministers in (the Federal Ministry of) Agriculture are from the North. Then you rank Education. The two ministers in Education are from the North. Next is Defence. The two ministers, again, are from the North. Same with the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Works is also top. The gentleman, Dave Umahi, is from the South-east. He is not from the South-west. So even the ministries that are the biggest spenders cannot lend themselves to the assertion that the budget is in any way shaped to deny any part of Nigeria.

So to conclude, yes, I don’t think politicians or other appointees have been shy about talking about it (the administration’s achievement) but maybe there is a need to do more.

PT: Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, who serves as the special adviser on political matters in the presidency, condemned the minister of state for describing members of the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) as paperweight people following the forum’s statement criticising the Tinubu administration. Senator Kabiru Mararafa also asked Bello Matawalle to apologise to NEF on his statement. What’s your take on this?

l think first I’m not witness to the words that were used by both in terms of what they actually said. But, generally, I know that Matawalle and indeed all of us Nigerians are culturally sensitive to what is called an elder.

Even where we disagree, we can take a position against certain issues without any form of disrespect. It’s a part of our cultural form, it doesn’t mean we don’t disagree. And it’s across the country.

I’ve seen many northerners who from time to time have had differences with elders on issues. I have seen it in the South-west and in the South-east too. Some will go against the views of Afenifere, Ohanaeze or Arewa Consultative Forum.

Minister of State for Defence, Bello Matawalle. [PHOTO CREDIT: Twitter handle of the minister]But the central issue is that our president, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, had campaigned in the North, among other places. We were with him during those campaigns. We know what northerners expected of him, we know what he promised, and those are the measures you start with evaluating any politician. And since he became president, he has worked hard to ensure that what he does reflects his campaign promises and reflects what he believes has been asked of him by constituents across the country. And in his effort to ensure that, he is respected all across the North.

I can’t speak for all or everyone but the majority believe in what he is doing and are thankful to him for the unity and the commendable policies that, even though causing occasional dislocations, but they can relate to the long term of course.

So we are in politics, again. We are in politics. When you are managing two things, reform and politics, somebody may always express a view that seems to suggest or is suggestive of their talking on behalf of others.

But all of us in the cabinet know how fair-minded and magnanimous President Tinubu is. For example, I am the minister of budget and economic planning. I don’t feel second to anybody in the cabinet.

PT: You talked about how you campaigned for him in the North. One of your former colleagues who also played a major role when you were governors, to declare support for President Tinubu, was former Governor Nasir El-Rufai of Kaduna State. Somehow you all left him out in the part of the government. How do you feel that your colleague whom you played a major role with to build this government, was dropped out of the system? What’s your take on that?

Well, again, President Tinubu nominated Nasiru El-Rufai, his excellency, former governor of Kaduna for ministerial position. His name was taken to the National Assembly. Again, that shows character. That shows promise-keeping by President Bola Ahmed Tinubu.

But rightly or wrongly, or rather, constitutional democracy is based on the separation of powers. The Senate has been given a constitutional role in the confirmation process.

If they decide to deny any one of us, they are approving their confirmation power. The president is handicapped by our constitution to do everything. Is it fair? But that is how the laws have been set up.

Why did the National Assembly not confirm him? I wish they had done so.

PT: Are you still in touch with him?

Bagudu: Yes

PT: Some people believe that if the president had intervened, probably the National Assembly would have confirmed El Rufai.

Bagudu: This is now in the realm of speculation. What was done objectively is that the president nominated him. We know that his name was read at the Senate. He went to the National Assembly for screening. He answered all the questions that were asked of him although some were stepped down.

Nasir El-Rufai [PHOTO CREDIT: Nasir El-Rufai]So that’s an objective way to look at it. That is what happened. I can’t answer speculatively, but I believe for the president to submit your name, for you at least to be taken to the National Assembly, it’s the best measure of the president’s willingness and confidence in the person.

PT: Now to your own ministry, Budget and Economic Planning. El-Rufai raised something recently that many Nigerians have been concerned about – the issue of petrol subsidy. He said the facts show that the landing cost of petrol now is almost a thousand naira. So whether the government admits it or not, the NNPC through a system of recovery is still subsidising petrol and yet there is no budgetary allocation for subsidies. What’s the true situation of petrol subsidy in Nigeria?

Bagudu: Thank you. First, we are combining both law and public policy. The Petroleum Industry Act created a law that made the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation a limited liability company with a board and to function as a private company.

And then the public policy decision, rightly, commendably and boldly, that we can’t as a nation afford fuel subsidy, a decision that I am in support of and I’m still in support of.

And so, the policy has been effected and is still being effected. But sometimes we are confusing the two. Many people are confusing price movements and the policy decision. A policy operates on the average. That I removed the subsidy does not mean prices of petroleum will change on a daily basis.

Because, even airlines that many of us are privileged to use occasionally or big transportation companies, their fuel cost does not change in the day, but it’s an average.

So, our policy on fuel subsidy stands. But we don’t control the daily movement of prices. But as a policy decision, we have decided that we wouldn’t be paying subsidy.

However, exchange rate movement can affect petroleum prices. So that may bring more pressure on our oil traders to edge knowing that there is no subsidy or to take measures that are consistent with the policy decision. Maybe they will not be able to make as much profit as they were making before. But that’s life. The policy remains.

PT: So in clear terms, the government does not pay subsidy as we speak.

Bagudu: No. The government can only pay subsidy if there is a subsidy demand on it. And yes, the landing cost may be higher, but what I’m saying is you don’t change the policies. It’s just like the exchange rate. If you look at the budget, we use N800 for exchange rate. But the exchange rate any day may be at variance with that, lower or higher.

Fuel attendant at the petrol station

Why did we use N800? Based on all our computations, the hope is that the average throughout the year will be N800. Same thing with fuel subsidy. We removed the fuel subsidy on May 29, 2023, and we are not paying fuel subsidy.

Then the exchange rate unification. It’s a commendable move by the monetary authorities. The exchange rate, the spike, in a way affects prices, which affects landing costs. But again since that height of January 2024, we are now seeing a tapering downward of the exchange rate, such as, as we pray, by the year end, the average exchange rate will be even about N800.

And the same thing with subsidy. Subsidies are not computed in a day even if there is a claim. So even though the spike has affected the narrow landing cost of oil prices, we believe by the year end, all the gains will ensure that no subsidy payment is affected.

PT: Talking about subsidy and budgetary provisions, as the minister of budget and economic planning, are you satisfied with how the National Assembly treated the 2024 budget, the first full year budget of President Bola Tinubu?

Bagudu: Government is a work in progress. I commend the National Assembly because first, it’s a transitioning year budget.

Why is it significant to call it as such? Under our Fiscal Responsibility Act, the presentation of Medium Term and Expenditure Framework (MTEF) should precede the presentation of a budget.

President Bola Ahmed Tinubu was sworn in on May 29, 2023, and he took bold measures from that day that affected the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, which should have been ready for presentation to the National Assembly by then. And understandably, like I said, maybe the departing government felt we should respect the person who is coming in.

Again, maybe that is one of the things that we should also interrogate. This issue of our transition happening mid-year, and then is not aligned with the budget process. So there was a bit of a lag between the cost price by the transition team and the presentation of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, which should be approved before the presentation of the budget. But the National Assembly was magnanimous, in spite of all that lag, to work harder. And like I said, they did the supplementary budget of N2.17 trillion. I didn’t hear complaints about that from Nigerians.

All the expenditure was largely for, like I said, security and infrastructure, and so that is the first. Maybe people tend to gloss that over. The president also negotiated the N819 billion budget. Again, I don’t hear any complaints about that. Then the 2024 budget.

ALSO READ: 2024 Budget: N800 to dollar benchmark strategic – Bagudu

So I commend them

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