Abuja town hall: Ministers compelled to open up
Review ineffective policies, Sultan urges
As Town hall meetings go, they are not complete without drama. It was the turn of Abuja last Tuesday, after the much-publicised embarrassment suffered by Labour Minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, when he allegedly attempted to go against the popular view of his South Eastern brothers.
He was roundly booed for his misadventure of seeming to justify political appointments of his principal, President Muhammadu Buhari. Ngige was the butt of his kinsmen’s anger for daring to suggest that Buhari had been fair to his geo-political zone, and his associates have been making efforts to change the narrative in the media so that he would not seen as selling out by his kinsmen.
In Abuja, the drama was of a different kind, but many suspected that it did not slip out of hand because of the “good management” of the crowd by the organisers.
But it did not stop many from wondering aloud why Mallam Adamu Adamu, the Minister of Education was conspicuously absent. Some thought the situation in the education sector needed so many answers from none other than the man who had managed to ruffle feathers there.
There were also less than satisfactory answers on the hardship being faced in the country, as well as the challenges with infrastructure. When a former Director General of the National Mathematical Centre, Professor Sam Ale, attempted to praise the work of the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, the loud murmurs was evidence of an unsatisfied gathering. They may respect Fashola, but they were not happy with the power situation across the country.
Fashola struggled to defend what was on ground, but like a commentator said; “there is usually a difference between darkness and light. And the government appears overwhelmed, with the sabotage in gas supply from the Niger Delta.”
If anyone thought that Abuja’s Town Hall meeting was meant to be a tea party, the comments of the Sultan of Sokoto and Chairman of the day, Alhaji Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar 111, set the pace.
“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,” he stated.
His comments were a worthy starter for the restive members of the audience. It was a day of brutal frankness as Minister after the other took the centre stage. Minister of Power, Works and Housing said the present administration inherited 206 roads under construction valued at N2.1trillion, out of which government has paid about N700billion as at 29th July.
According to him, work has commenced in earnest on Kano-Katsina, Port Harcourt- Enugu road, Katsina-Maiduguri, Ilorin-Jebba and Lagos-Ibadan Express road“We have gone from an average of N4trillion to the budget of N6trillion. What has changed is that we are now spending 30 percent on capital and 70 per cent on recurrent. Of the N120billions we have received, we have paid out 70billion to contractors and consultants that haven’t been paid for over two years.”
On the contentious issue of power raised by participants from the audience, the former governor of Lagos was as baffled as many that a project like Mambilla dam started 34 years ago was still not realised.
And for those who thought a combined ministry of three former ministries was too big for him, he had this to say: “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.”
Agriculture Minister, Chief Audu Ogbeh pointed out that the country had a problem with fertilizer distribution because the security agencies disclosed insurgents in the North East were using them to make bombs.
According to Ogbeh, “We stopped fertilizer distribution for over two months and the price went up top N10.000 per bag. We want to restructure the Bank of Agriculture. We are not competitive because there is no railway system, no water transportation.
The conflict between farmers and herdsmen would soon come to an end. We need to give the herdsmen good grasses, good water. We are building ranches, mapping out grazing reserves. We spent N1billion importing milk. We have started planting grasses. We want to get young people and women to take to Agriculture. If we have a generation of deprived children, we are in danger”.
He was not done: “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.Not many at the Special Town Hall meeting organized by the Alumni Association of National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture, were impressed at the less than satisfactory answer given by Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, Mr. Abdullahi Mohammed, that the Commission requested that the pilgrims be granted the official exchange rate when the dollar was still selling for N197 to a dollar.
In particular, a participant, Farouk Mohammed noted that the subsidy during a period of foreign exchange crisis amounted to a waste.As if rehearsed, other Ministers toed the path of openness that Ogbeh took. That appeared to be the only available route with the stark realities on ground and the incessant bashing the administration has come under in recent times.
For instance, the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun harped on the need to invest on capital projects saying, “We must attract private investment and invest in agriculture and solid mineral sectors. We spend 70 percent importing. If rails, power, roads are working we can compete. We need a fundamental change; the diversification plan is not rhetoric.
According to her, the problems confronting the country accumulated over the years adding that there was need to show understanding, invest on infrastructure and exhibit discipline in spending.“We have a very conservative appetite for borrowing. There is no quick solution to the present challenge, there is a fundamental problem but we are moving in the right direction. We need fundamental change; if we can be patient, we shall get there. We have all the resources, all the ideas, what we need is implementation of the policies.
“We are borrowing; we can’t wait until oil sector recovers. We are borrowing to invest in infrastructure, create the enabling environment for industrialization. I know, we will come out of recession by doing things right, invest in our capital and economy. With hard work, we will come out of recession.
“We must get states and local government to equally apply discipline in their spending, fight corruption, seek accountability. Anywhere there is government, there must be accountability, we must stop revenue leakages, and we must fight corruption. That is what will bring solution to the economy.”
Like Ogbeh, Fashola, and Adeosun, other ministers including Senator Udo Udoma, Lai Mohammed, and Dr. Kayode Fayemi knew there was no room for political gimmickry with the situation on ground. They spilled the beans as much as they could, leaving participants at the event, and Nigerians at large, to judge for themselves.