Nigerians on Tuesday tackled members of President Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet about poverty and rot in the country at a dramatic town hall meeting in Abuja.
The Sultan of Sokoto and Chairman of the occasion, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar, set the tone for the interactions between Buhari’s nine ministers and members of the public when he said in his opening remarks that government policies should be reviewed if they were not working.
He said, “If policies don’t work, there is nothing wrong in reviewing them. The government must be open to suggestions.
“If the people say they are hungry, the government should listen to them.”
The Sultan said there were 11 ministers in the hall even though they were nine.
He was jokingly referring to the multiple portfolios occupied by the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola (SAN).
In his speech, the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, said, “There is a cry in the air that Nigerians are hungry and we hear them loud and clear. There are also unbelievable stories about people taking their children as human collateral for food with no intentions to pick them up.
“This situation in Nigeria today was going to happen; whether it is this administration or another. We headed this way a long time ago.
‘‘In 1986, we were forced to devalue and deregulate. We were forced to open our doors to importation. We began devaluing the naira. We have done it steadily for 30 years. We are now N400 to one dollar and we are told to continue devaluing; that devaluation will bring wonders. I don’t believe it.
“I hope we don’t hit N1,000 to $1 someday because the demand for dollars is $2.5bn a week and I have this from high authorities within the system.
“We simply don’t have it. We don’t print dollars, but the people are angry that we are not making dollars available. We became importers of rice; $5m a day; wheat, $6m a day; tomato paste, $400m a year; and $20bn a year on food.’’
One of the participants, the Vice-Chancellor of the Bingham University, Nasarawa State, Prof. Leonard Kursim-Fwa, expressed worry about the state of education, infrastructure deficiency and poor electricity, among others.
But a former Director-General of the National Mathematical Centre, Prof. Sam Ale, said electricity had improved since Fashola became the Minister of Power, Works and Housing.
His remarks did not go down well with the people in the hall, as there were murmurings of disapproval.
Another participant asked Fashola why Nigeria continued to rely on gas for electricity when there were alternatives in hydro and coal.
Fashola responded that Zungeru and Mambilla hydro plants were being worked on.
He regretted that even though Mambilla was conceived in 1982 when he was 19 years old, the project had not been realised.
To a questioner who said the three ministries being supervised by Fashola were too big for one minister, Fashola said, “We have spoken about the cost of running the government, and in trying to reduce that cost, the President decided to merge the three ministries.
“My work is supervisory and today in the ministry of works and in the ministry of housing, there are over 4,000 personnel and the number is reducing. The ministry of power has about 800 workers today and the number is reducing.
“So, it is no longer a government-driven sector, it is now a government-regulated sector driven by private sector. And if you have issues about that, I think you should complain to Mr. President.”
Another participant, Mr. Farouk Mohammed, challenged the Federal Government for approving an exchange rate of N197 to a dollar for pilgrims at a time of foreign exchange crisis and economic recession.
Mohammed, a former OPEC worker, expressed displeasure at subsidising pilgrims, saying such would continue the cycle of wastage.
Responding, the Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, Mr. Abdullahi Mohammed, explained that the commission requested that the pilgrims be granted the official exchange rate when the dollar was still selling for N197 to a dollar.
He said the approval which was granted did not amount to subsidy.
According to him, the fund was warehoused in the Central Bank of Nigeria after the approval.
The Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, was queried on ghost workers, continuous borrowing and why so much was being spent on one per cent of the population that form the government.
Adeosun said, “There is no quick solution to the present challenge. There is a fundamental problem, but if we can be patient, we shall get there.
“We have a conservative borrowing programme; and we must borrow to do rail and other projects — the rail that we have now was done in the colonial era.
“We have to do rail to enable agriculture and solid minerals to be competitive. I don’t see any other option than to borrow.
“We will borrow sustainably; we will borrow to make sure that we don’t burden future generations.
“We have been borrowing in the past to pay salaries; now we borrow to invest.”
The Minister of Budget and National Planning, Senator Udo Udoma, said, “When the budget was signed into law in May, it set for us a 12-month implementation framework. So far, we have released for capital projects N331bn. The bulk of it was power projects. The National Assembly provided that it should run from when it was signed into law. That means we have till May next year to implement all the capital projects.”
Some of the participants wanted to know why the Minister of Education was not present at the forum despite the rot in the education sector.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said the education minister was not part of the list given to him by the organisers of the meeting – the alumni of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies.
Other ministers that addressed the gathering are Geoffrey Onyeama (Foreign Affairs), Kayode Fayemi (Solid Minerals Development), Amina Mohammed (Environment) and Prof. Isaac Adewole (Health).