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Keshi: It’s time South South braced up on economic development

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Keshi

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Director-General of BRACED Commission, Ambassador Joe Keshi, in this interview with KELVIN EBIRI and LEO SOBECHI, expresses optimism that current political realities in the South of South geopolitical zone offer great opportunity harmonize socio-economic development in the region. The astute technocrat with immense experience noted told that after seven years’ lull, the BRACED (Bayelsa, Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Cross River, Edo and Delta states) commission need to speed up issues of economic development, creating opportunities in education, health, industrialisation among other sectors.

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What’s the prospect for reviving the BRACED commission now that all the states in the South of South belong to one political party?
I believe it will create a greater harmony. Even with Governor Godwin Obaseki in APC before, he was very much involved in trying to revive the BRACED commission and now that he has exchanged party, I have got the feeling that it will help solidify the regional cooperation that BRACED is trying to achieve.
 
Our hope is that the governors in terms of economic development will be on the same platform and have the same vision and political will, and to drive development even more in the region.

Was politics behind the six years’ inactivity of the commission?
You could put it down to the disagreement that occurred and the bitterness that was left behind in the 2015 election. Let’s put it that it was more political in the sense that there were disagreement among the PDP governors at that time. Both about who to support at the federal level and then who to support at the local level and it created significant bitterness that lingered for a long time.
 
But, it is all gone and we are looking forward to the BRACED commission working more closely with the governors. Just like the commission in the South West, we report to the governors and in the last couple of years as I said as a result of the politics of the region itself, there was not many meetings at the BRACED level to address issues of concerns of economic development, which is what we are focused on.

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It is like a company when you have the board not functioning properly and you no person to report to, or to get to listen to you. When we fashion out a common policy for the region, it is supposed to be domesticated at the state levels or to be aligned with on going state policies. But then that was not happening; there is lull, which we are trying to overcome now.

How concerned is the BRACED commission about NBS latest report that put present unemployment rate in Akwa Ibom at 45.2% and Rivers 43.7%?
I have no reason to doubt the Bureau of Statistics report, because if you go round the region you will really know that there is unemployment because in terms of job creation little is being done across the board. My belief is that this is an area the states need to work seriously on by opening up the region for investment. If you go to some of the industrial estates that were built by previous governments years ago, they are no longer in existence and we need to recreate the industrial sector. We need to build up the industrial sector. We need to expand agriculture and use agriculture as the fulcrum of the development of the region.
 
We also need to invest in education, particularly, science and technology, and in health. When the region does all these it will begin to see the tide turn and then create the environment that will encourage investors, both local and foreign to come to the region. Which also means that the federal government has to pay serious attention to the issues of peace and security in that place because they control the security forces. They have full responsibility to ensure that the region is secure for investors to feel confident to be in the region.

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A number of states are putting up a miniature security structure to address their immediate security needs, I believe that will also be helpful. But, there are other areas that it is solely the responsibility of the federal government to provide security for critical national assets like oil pipeline. It is not the responsibility of the states to provide security for the pipelines. It is not the states that are responsible for the security of the ports or security of the crude oil. So those who are should also have the responsibility to provide adequate security. It is true that we have agencies and structure that have been set by the federal government, like the amnesty programme, the NDDC, they belong to the federal government, but from what we’ve seen during the probe of the NDDC, you can see that the tremendous amount of lack of monitoring and serious evaluation of the activities of NDDC. If there is a reform of the NDDC, it should be to focus on the larger picture of doing things rather than a situation where the money is wasted on things that do not expand or impact significantly on the lives of the people. I think that everybody concern with the Niger Delta needs to work together, they need to have a common vision that what is required in the Niger Delta is development.

What is required in Niger Delta is to create employment and prosperity. What is required in the Niger Delta is to improve the environmental condition of the whole region. This is what the nation owes the region. Look, we are surviving because of the oil that is extracted from this region. So, it is not out of place to say that the federal government should do more to ensure that the condition of the region is significantly improved.

The global market for palm oil, where Nigeria alone has 43 percent global production, is projected to reach $25.3 billion by 2025. Are there plans towards reviving palm industry in South-South?
That was the first sector we actually addressed between 2010 and 2013 when we came up with an agricultural template for the states. The first thing we said was that the region survived on palm oil in the years gone by. Today the region still has the capacity to produce oil palm, but when you go round the region and some areas in the Southeast you will see a lot of oil palm farms lying fallow.

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They need to be developed and in fact, more trees planted if we want to be able to become competitive in the global market. The largest producer Indonesia produces about 45million metric tons and Malaysia produces about 40 metric tons. Nigeria is less than 1.03 million metric tonnes.
 
There is still demand in the world despite the huge production of these two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia. There is still shortage of oil palm in the world, even in the country (Nigeria) itself. We suggested and actually made a proposal to the governors at that time that this is where they needed to focus on very quickly, because agriculture has multiplier effect, not just for export, but we need to use it to create local industries that would grow.
   
If since 2013 or 2014 all the states had planted 500 oil palm trees each by now, I am sure they would have started harvesting. We also said while you are waiting for the plants to grow, also figure out the industries that will convert the products rather than exporting everything as raw materials. If they had done that, today the region would probably be exporting oil palm or we will have industries that will convert the produce to a number of things that a number of industries use today. Not just in the country, but also around the world, and of course, Nigerians use a lot of it for cooking.
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The second thing we suggested to the states, is now when everybody is focusing on oil palm, which other two cash products do you have the capacity to produce across the value chain? Each state was requested to do a study and decide which of all the products do they have the comparative advantage to produce in the respective states. Each of them decided on what they can produce.
   
This was a decision that was made by the then governors, not the current governors. But this was also coming close to the elections. Between, 2013-2014, everybody had started looking at the electoral map. So, not much was done to implement these suggestions at the state level. It is not our responsibility to go and get farmers. We don’t own the land. But we can work to create that policy and vision for the states. That is our role. Ours is to ensure that there is standardisation of policy and to ensure cooperation in the things that the states do.
 
Unfortunately, these were not domesticated properly at the state level. But, we are hoping, because it is never too late and we can again sell the idea of focusing on agriculture and industrialisation to create a lot of jobs. You know we just left Asaba not too long ago, where the Niger Delta Dialogue presented their report on insecurity in Delta State. They have also done this in all the states of the South-South. One thing that the researchers pointed out in all the reports is that lack of economic opportunities has continued to fuel insecurity in the region.
 
The perception of marginalisation continues to aid criminality all over the place. If we can address a huge chunk of the economic issues and create opportunities for people, I think that will significantly help. I think on record, the amnesty programme trained about 30,000 people, including those who went abroad. They trained a lot of pilots. It will be interesting to find out how many of those people are gainfully employed and if they are not all gainfully employed, then we will see that something is wrong with the way the programme has been approached and executed.
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But the bottomline is, I am confident with the new development, we will be able to go to the drawing board and point out the areas where the states need to cooperate with one another. For example, as a result of the COVID-19, we are working on an E-learning platform for the region based on the fact that we saw the vacuum through COVID-19 that we need to embrace technology very seriously.

Politics and economic development are intertwined, how do you think governors can put economic development above politics?
It is not about how do I want them to push development or not. As governors, they campaigned on improving the lives of their people. The only way you can improve the life of your people is by creating an environment that creates opportunity for them to be able to live decently; have gainful employment, live in a very safe and secure environment.
   
Again, I just think that the governors have a vision of improving the economic and material wellbeing of their people and this should be the focus. My greatest fear all the time is that a lot is done in terms of politics, but we need to spend on issue of economic development, creating opportunities, improving the situation that would enable a lot of things to happen in all fronts; in education, health, industrialisation.

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These are things we need to do. Right now, I know for sure that all the governors are putting in a lot of efforts to put in place infrastructure, which is commendable and welcome. But, we also need do more in certain areas in order create employment. And that is ensuring that the environment is safe, conducive for investors and take a whole chunk of area that government is unable to do.
 
I think that generally, throughout the country, governments need to realise that they cannot do it all alone. With COVID-19 that has rendered a number of people financially down, it is difficult now for you to increase taxes. But you can see that the South-South governors have been wise enough to grant tax relief to industries and people. So that means that a chunk of government resources is gone, but the way to recover this is to ensure that you have credible sustainable businesses all over the place.
   
I was surprised in Asaba when somebody told me that the Internet in the hotel where I stayed was not working well. Somebody told me there are no Internet service providers in the state as they are based outside of the state or the region. There should be a lot of Internet providers on ground. This is another area I sincerely hope we can focus on and ensure that the region is wired.
 
I hope there is agreement among the governors to allow people to invest in ICT infrastructure, because that will also open up tremendous opportunities for young people. Interestingly enough, a number of young people are embracing technology in the region, but now we have to build the infrastructure that will enable them to excel and achieve their own personal vision for themselves.

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How can the region overcome the challenge of the non-completion of the East-West Road and the Coastal railway project?
Again, in my view, we have to be imaginative in all these things. I have always wondered why the federal and the state governments in this country continue to insist on building roads. I served as a permanent secretary to the federal cabinet with two presidents. When you get the memo to the federal executive council for the award of a contract for one road, and when you read the genesis of that road, you will see that it is not as if the request is for a new contract.
 
In fact, the road may have been awarded twice before, but because of financial constraint, only little was done. Now, it is being awarded again in order to continue work, and then, the same road is probably not completed before the end of that regime. Another regime comes, awards the contract again and that continues over and over.
   
When you look at the history of all the federal roads, I am sure it is also the same in all the states of the federation. In fact, if we do a very good study, I will not be surprised if we find out that the roads that were awarded by the set of 1999 governors have been awarded again by their successors and then the successors of the successors. What does that tell you, it shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way these things are awarded.

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And the only way of getting out of this syndrome is for the federal and state governments to bring in the private sector and award a number of this critical roads to the private sector, let them toll and collect their money over a long period of time. That will save both the state and the federal government significant amount of resources that can be reinvested in other areas such as health, education and other sectors.   
   
There is clear evidence of a correlation between investment in education and health and development of the people and the country. So, I think there is need for a paradigm shift in our conception of road development. Government should realise that they probably can’t do it all alone, because by the time you finish one road, the one you did last year is already bad.
 
Again something is wrong somewhere, because there is no maintenance. We are just building roads without maintaining them. But if you concession it out to private companies to build and maintain over a couple of years, you can be sure that we have a number of good roads all over the place.  You mentioned rail. This is one area we have been advocating and I sincerely hope that sooner or later the governors can engage the federal government on the much talked about Lagos to Calabar rail line.

What sorts of conversation should the South-South States be having with the Federal Government in terms of development and security of the region?
They should be having serious conversation with the federal government. In fact, it is not a question of the kind of conversation they should be having, the federal government has an obligation to the South-South, because the bulk of the resources keeping everybody alive in this country comes form that region. In fact, it is unfair to taking money from that region and be developing other places and not caring what goes on in the region.

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Yes, the governors should be having serious conversation with the Federal Government, drawing the attention of the federal government to do its own part. But in terms of fairness, in terms of justice, in terms of equity, the Federal Government has an obligation morally to know that it is unfair to completely neglect the area.
 
If the Federal Government has established the NDDC to develop the South-South, it has an obligation to make sure that NDDC delivers and not for what we hear is going on in that place. During the probe (by the National Assembly on NDDC) there were a lot of newspaper reports suggesting that the people of the Niger Delta are not serious. No, from what I saw when I was in Port Harcourt, people from all over Nigeria come to NDDC to obtain one contract or the other.
 
Everybody was ripping-off NDDC, not just the people of the region. And that was because the authorities that should ensure that the commission achieves its objectives are not paying due attention and making sure that the NDDC works as expected.
   
Within one year, there have been four acting managing directors. How does an agency work when you keep changing the management? Is that the Federal Government lacks the capacity to address what is going on in that place? No!  The point I am making is that the establishment of NDDC is good, but the Federal Government has an obligation to make sure that the NDDC delivers in developing the region. It has a roadmap, so, who has sat down to see what has been achieved since the NDDC was created?
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If nothing has been done, that is part of neglect that I say they need to pay close attention and not just neglect the region. You don’t say we have given them money whatever they want to do themselves, its okay. No, if there is a renewed violence again in the region, the nation will suffer and then we start running to find another set of solutions.

Have the DISCOs ensured stable electricity supply to aid industrialisation of the region?
Where has the DISCOs ensured that in this country? My only regret is that when the DISCOs were being sold we had actually hoped that the regional governors at that time will come together and take one of the DISCOs in order to be able to provide light for themselves.

Today, when you put together all the power generating plants in the Niger Delta, whether in Port Harcourt, Calabar etc, built by the states, if you put all together, the South-South will enjoy near 24 hours supply of electricity on daily basis. But the problem is that they also fed significant part of the production to the national grid. So, you find that some parts of Nigeria have light but the area where the plant is situated does not have light. And again, that is why I said there is a need for the federal government to pay adequate attention to the region. We need to really run this country as a federation and a lot of things will automatically resolve itself.

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Look, I lived in Atlanta for about six years; there is what you call the Southern Company and it is responsible for electricity in Atlanta down to Alabama, Mississippi, Nashville, I am not sure if their operation extends to Florida. But it is not the Federal Government that supplies the whole of United States electricity. Some governors in the South-South in the past built power plants. I think by law these are fed to the national grid. But what I think we should do is we should have two system. There should a national grid and one also that covers the region. So if everybody produces (power) from the region, use it in the region, what is left you can be put into the national grid. That will now encourage every state or on a regional bases for regions to build their own power. That will help to solve this problem of managing everything from the centre. This country will not disintegrate if we devolve power to the States. If we remove electricity from the executive list, remove railway development, and so many things from the executive list, you will see how this country will function very well, rather than wait for years from the Federal Government to do a lot of things.

What must be done for the South-South region to begin to attract Foreign Direct Investment?
Very simple; unfortunately, the narrative has been created about the Niger Delta as a zone of instability and insecurity. Now, we have to find a way to change that narrative. Changing that narrative means that government need to create the enabling environment that will not just enable investors to come in, but that will protect the investors and protect their investment.

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So, a situation where people want to go and invest and the areas boys become a nuisance or people won’t allow them to work or will frustrate them or even some government policy makes them unhappy and they leave, all things need to take into account and changed. We need to also take into account the ease of doing business not just in the Niger Delta, but also in the whole country.
   
Investors are not ‘Father Christmas’. They want to make money. So what we need to do is allow them to set up their businesses and in a reasonable manner tax them because that is the only way you can collect money from them. Don’t over tax them. Tax them in a way that they can expand their business and continue to stay in your region.
   
I am not too sure, but I believe that Lagos has the highest taxation in the country today. But, are people not investing in Lagos? Almost every Nigerian is going to invest in Lagos. Why? Because Lagos is growing into a metropolitan city, where investment is secured; where people are culturally matured enough to recognise that as a metropolitan city, everybody has a stake that Lagos continues to grow.
 
That is the kind of thing we need to do, not just in the Niger Delta, but also all over the country. Open up the country for Nigerians to live and do business wherever they want to. So everybody brings their own talent and resources to where they think they can make some money.

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