By Charles Anibogwu
Former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and one-time presidential adviser on the Niger Delta Amnesty Programme, Timi Alaibe, recently joined the national debate on the desirability or otherwise of sourcing for an external loan to fund the 2017 budget, when he took a stand against the move.
Speaking in an interview programme on Arise Television, Alaibe said with the positive signals coming from the Niger Delta region in the last one month or so, coupled with the relatively encouraging indices in the international oil process in recent times, the country can conveniently fund the budget without recourse to external borrowing.
Alaibe is not an economist, certainly, not one of the numerous “experts” or “economists” that we have in the country today whose views on the economy are as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun.
But in these days of economic emergency triggered by a recession that was avoidable, a national debate on an issue that affects the very existence of all Nigerians cannot be left in the hands of people that are designated experts.
As he himself said at an event where he gave a talk on what has come to be known as the Niger Delta Struggle, we must continue to talk. Indeed, this is the time for all of us to talk.
The federal government has recently been embroiled in a controversy with the National Assembly on the one hand and Nigerians on the other over its plan to borrow close to $30 billion to fund the 2017 budget and also finance infrastructural development in the country.
Two factors immediately stand out against this plan. Firstly, the government has not been forthcoming on the specifics of the borrowing plan, that is, a breakdown of the projects and programmes it plans to spend the money on.
It is the reason the government does not enjoy the encouragement and support of the International Monetary Fund on this venture. Secondly, a combination of several variables such as favourable international oil prices and increasing oil production engendered by a relatively stable Niger Delta means that the country’s fortunes seem to be looking north, which makes the option of a foreign loan totally unnecessary.
One may also add the over five trillion naira reportedly saved on the single treasury account (an amount that is a little short of the entire budget itself), coupled with the various sums of money that are said to have been recovered from alleged treasury looters, as veritable sources of funding for the budget.
Some said it was his “magic touch”. Some said it was his “body language”. But there can be no dispute about the fact that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s shuttle diplomacy in the Niger Delta during the period of his acting presidency, when the president was away on medical vacation, dramatically changed the situation in a region where militants regularly hold the nation by the jugular.
Osinbajo’s decision to opt for the carrot, rather than the stick, by personally visiting the key states of the region with an olive branch in hand, went a long way in calming the restive militants and reassuring the people of the region of government’s commitment to addressing the Niger Delta question.
It is to the credit of the initiative that in the last one month or so, there hasn’t been any report of oil pipeline vandalism or any act of sabotage on the country’s economic life wire. And correspondingly, there has been relative stability in oil production.
Though latest statistics are not available (not surprising, in a country where crucial statistics are never available at any given time), there are indications that the country is currently not producing less than two million barrels of oil a day.
International oil prices have been encouraging, not going below $55 per barrel in the last one month. The situation has seen the country selling more oil and earning more foreign exchange.
This is reflected in the continuous appreciation of the naira in the foreign exchange market.
Alaibe wants the government to maintain the current level of dialogue with stakeholders in the Niger Delta, not just for the purpose of ensuring that the prevailing peace is sustained but, most importantly, finding a permanent solution to the recurring restiveness in the region.
He specifically suggests, as a permanent solution, a revisiting of the Niger Delta Master Plan which he authored during the tenure of former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, but which has apparently been forgotten on some shelf in Aso Rock.
Alaibe is in a position to know what will work for the Niger Delta. Apart from running NDDC as chief executive officer, it was he who handled the Amnesty Programme that incorporated the disarmament exercise that saw thousands of repentant militants turn in their arms in exchange for the rehabilitation programme of the federal government.
He, therefore, knows how to deal with the problem.
With feelers coming out of Aso Rock to the effect that President Buhari intends to delegate more responsibilities to Osinbajo, it should be expected that the people of the Niger Delta will be brought on board the ongoing initiative to address the contending issues of marginalization, underdevelopment, neglect and deprivation that fuel crises that have so far defied the several interventions of government through agencies such as the NDDC and the Ministry of the Niger Delta.
The option of a foreign loan to fund the budget suggests a deliberate abandonment of the path to a permanent solution to the challenges that confront the country’s economic mainstay, which is the Niger Delta, for a respite that would leave the country saddled with more problems in the future.
If it is possible to achieve peace for the period we haven’t recorded any act of vandalism so far, then it is possible to end the crisis once and for all. All that is required is sincerity on the part of the federal government, which Osinbajo’s initiative points to.
There is need to rejig the amnesty programme.
The success of the various training programmes embarked upon by previous governments, including local and foreign training in various professions and vocations, suggests that there is an opportunity for sustainable means of livelihood for militants who are ready to lay down their arms. It may be safe to assume that they do not see pipeline vandalism and economic sabotage as a better means of livelihood.
The fact must be stated that a permanently stable Niger Delta, as Alaibe suggested, will guarantee the continuous supply of the oxygen on which the country depends for existence.
We don’t seem to have much of an alternative now, not even with current optimism about the potential of agriculture to become a major foreign exchange earner.
Anibogwu, a public affairs commentator, lives in Abuja.