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Steel sector needs far-reaching reforms, not privatisation – Natasha Akpoti


Natasha Akpoti

Over the years, Natasha Akpoti has been consistent in her advocacy for the revival of the steel sector in the country. She told JOHN AKUBO that without commensurate political will and far-reaching reforms, the $1b okayed by the National Assembly for the completion of the Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited would not bring the needed result, just as she said that an economic asset that is capable of stimulating millions of jobs should never be considered for privatisation.

Why are you against the privatisation Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited?
I am against the privatisation of Ajaokuta Steel Company Limited (ASCL) because of its economic value. ASCL is an asset that is capable of stimulating the creation of millions of jobs, both direct and indirect; an asset that is able to generate foreign revenue for the country; an asset that would be able to stimulate the downstream sector, that is responsible for the manufacture of ammunitions, weapons and all of these sensitive things. This is why I am saying that it should not be privatised.Even as we speak, five of the biggest steel plants in India are managed by the Indian government. What did India do that is different? It employed very qualified and capable hands into the management of these steel plants

Any serious country in the world will not sell off its key economic assets especially that which is critical to a country’s national growth. Steel is a major player in international politics, which determines largely, the strength of any country’s economy.

What Nigeria is suffering from right now is economic slavery; we are not free yet because our ex-colonial master and western imperialists still strategically determine our growth. Nigeria as of today still remains a distant colony and if we are paying attention to our history right from independence till today, we should begin to ask ourselves why have we not developed in spite of the good quality crude we have in this country?

However, the answer to this is because there is constant exploitation by these western imperialists.The reason why the country is struggling to make sure that the Ajaokuta steel complex works as a government agency is because of the inefficiency in the civil service and inefficiency in the administration/management of the facility itself. There is a huge deficiency in the capacity of the leadership today there. That is why the government believes when something is too complicated the next thing to do is to privatise. In other words, privatisation is only an excuse for government’s inefficiency. Anybody who thinks of privatising Ajaokuta is actually towing the line of the gimmicks of government’s inefficiency.

In every country, the government is supposed to be more efficient than the private sector, and I want us to get this right. People give example of Dangote as an individual that is succeeding and so privatisation is it. Shouldn’t there be a red flag in our heads that it is a shame for us to say one individual is able to run his businesses more efficiently than an entire government that is made up of the president, legislators, the judiciary, ministers, governors and the rest. It is a shame for Nigerians to believe that privatising an asset like ASCL will make it work better than a government that has people working for it. 

For you, where should the journey to salvage ASCL begin?
The journey should begin with a reform right in the Ministry of Solid Minerals, and in the management of Ajaokuta steel complex, and in all related government agencies all aimed at ensuring that the best hands are put in there. It is only after this has been done that we will be able to have a working steel complex, and would not talk about privatising the facility.

So, the start off point is that there has to be a major legislative reform in the steel sector. Let me tell you this, we all celebrated that $1b that was approved for the completion of the complex through the National Assembly. Even the minister granted an interview and the management of Ajaokuta steel complex invited Aljazeera for a report celebrating the lifeline.

Let me tell you this, if there are no major legislative and administrative reforms in Ajaokuta today and that $1b is released, the money would be embezzled and nothing will happen. So, releasing this amount of money into the current structure does not guarantee that Ajaokuta steel complex will work because there has to be some systemic, strategic reforms. And what are these reforms?

First, a regulatory body in the steel sector has to be established. It would not be bad if the government revives the Nigerian Steel Development Authority (NSDA) that was there in the 1970s. Every major development that took place in the Nigerian steel sector was done when the NSDA was still operational, but in 1979 or 1980 it was closed down and was replaced by the Nigerian Steel Authority (NSA), and that was a toothless bulldog as it never operated for one day, had no office. So, it is very important that the NSDA is revived. What that authority will do is similar to what the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is doing.

While the Ministry of Communication is more politically inclined, the NCC is largely where we have experts, professionals managing the process, and these people work side-by-side and are both reporting to the Presidency.

We also have the Ministry of Power and the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) working side-by-side and reporting to the Presidency. While one recommends policies, the other manages the operations. That is what is expected in the steel sector. Right now we have only the Ministry of Solid Minerals, and do not have an independent body of experts. It is very important to have such independent body, which would have most of its staff drawn from these professional bodies; they are the ones that can regulate reforms, tariffs and recommend needed policies to the minister, the National Assembly, or the president. That independent body of experts is missing in Nigeria and we need it. That is one major reform that we seriously need.

Would that be all for the reforms that we need?
Today mines is in the exclusive list. ASCL can be successful under the control of the government when we have very important legislative and operational reforms in place. I have noted that down because I am going in for the Senate. Nigeria has over 72 solid minerals across the country and all of them are vested in the exclusive list. That means it is only the Federal Government that has right to deliberate on it and we have one minister and a deputy. So, how will the minister and his second in command be able to effectively think, articulate and execute the best of operations for iron ore, for gold, for tin, for columbite and for all of these minerals across? This is the reason that it is difficult for the minister to give adequate attention to minerals in Nassarawa, Sokoto states, or to give maximum necessary attention to minerals in Kogi State. If we say we are truly a federal State, it would not be out of place if states were given responsibilities and rights over resources in their locality.

Which reform in your view will capture the interest of the host community?
One major reform that is necessary is to move mines into the concurrent list. What that means is that authority and some level of power would be given to the state House of Assembly through the governor so that they can also contribute in making reforms and proffering solutions and developmental plans to Itakpe and Ajaokuta. By the way, Ajaokuta is just the factory for Itakpe and Itakpe is the feeder mine. So, you can’t separate Ajaokuta from Itakpe. Itakpe too is in the exclusive list for which the state government does not have a say. I noticed that in the constitution, Itakpe and Ajaokuta are listed in the exclusive list. Like I said, if they are moved to the concurrent list, it means that making reforms and proffering solutions will not be an issue of National Assembly deliberation alone, but both state and national, and that will lessen the burden on the federal. But there can also be an agreement that this is the level of interface and contribution that a state government can have. What that would do is to enhance better host community representation and capturing in the scheme of things.

I will give you a classic example. In the Niger Delta, there is plenty crude oil, but when you go there, one of the first things that you notice is that roads in the North are far better than theirs. They also do not have good hospitals and schools, yet the amount of oil that has come out of that place is more than what Dubai has. So I ask, why is it that Dubai is more developed and the communities in Niger Delta are very poor? The answer is because the interest of the host community is not captured legitimately, legally, and constitutionally. All of these things are very necessary, and that is why I said that Ajaokuta should not be privatised. All of these reforms, if they are put in place, will ensure that there is transparency, and necessary interests can be captured. The host community should be captured when it comes to the issue of royalty that would be paid and the revenue that would be shared.

What steel laws do we need to grow the sector?
Nigeria does not have steel laws. You see the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) is to the petroleum industry, what the steel laws would be to the steel sector. The steel sector needs to have a set of documents and laws that would guide the operations of the entire steel sector.If you check today, America has a set of steel laws. Brazil and India also have steel laws. So, I am of the view that even though we pushed for the $1b now okayed by the National Assembly, the money should not be released until these reforms are made. Laws are very important in creating orderliness in the society and also in the corporate world. The fact that Ajaokuta is registered means that it is a legal entity and it must have rules and regulations guiding its operations.

What happens in Ajaokuta and every other steel plants in the country is that any government just comes in and appoints a manager or administrator for Ajaokuta, or Itakpe Iron Ore and others, and goes ahead to put a minister in office without regulations, guidelines being on ground, and the person simply comes in, does what he wants and without a procedure to go by. No. We cannot continue to operate like that more so when these things do not take time to create. All we need to do to create these steel laws is to engage the experts and professionals within and without, begin to look at countries that are similar like South Africa and India, get their steel sector documents and look at what applies and begin to amend them to suit our circumstance.

If we are serious as a country, Ajaokuta would not be moribund because the laws would be continuously amended so that we can have a situation where the National Assembly can amend them and make it mandatory for all agencies of government to ensure that construction works must patronise Nigerian rods and roofing sheets. This will go a long way in strengthening the Ajaokuta steel complex, but if you don’t have these laws Ajaokuta will be working, but people will still be smuggling in these products and it will affect the fortunes of Ajaokuta.

It appears that there is sheer lack of political will to bring about these reforms?
People keep talking about political will, but who is responsible for it? Is it not the people in authority? One mistake we keep making is voting in leaders that have not clearly defined their commitment towards the steel sector. If you read President Buhari’s manifesto and Atiku’s manifesto, none of them talked about the Ajaokuta steel complex, they only mentioned Ajaokuta when they visited Kogi for their rallies, and Buhari even needed to be reminded. In Atiku’s case, they must have hinted him that morning that Kogi is the home of Ajaokuta.

If you read the Next Level document or Atiku’s Better Nigeria Manifesto, you will not see one line on industrialising Nigeria, and you cannot talk about industrialising Nigeria without Ajaokuta Steel Company. Industrialisation is very important for Nigeria and Africa. There is this report by the African Development Bank, which was done in collaboration with the UNDP. They said that the future of Africa; the only way Africa can get out of poverty is if it focuses on industrialisation and entrepreneurship.

Tell me, just how can we have two major candidates in a major national election and yet they are silent on the issue of industrialisation. Is it because of the belief that Ajaokuta is too complicated? Yes it is complicated when your interest is divided. Any president that has the interest of creative growth of this country will not look at anybody, but will focus on greater good of the people not minding whose ox is gored.

What do you make of the alleged international gang up to scuttle the project?
The Ajaokuta project is going to still suffer national and international sabotage. If you don’t have a government with commensurate political will, whether you like put $10b or privatise Ajaokuta nothing good would happen once the government is not committed to making the reforms work.
Another question is why do I keep advocating for Russia to come back? Am I saying that there are no good Chinese or Indian companies that can manage the place? Let me tell you, every country needs to have an ally in its economic and international growth. Nigeria is still experiencing economic slavery and most of the people Nigeria runs to, whether it is America or the United Kingdom, you are indirectly running to the World Bank. These people know that we have the capacity to become one of the strongest world powers, if not the strongest black nation in the world; we have that capacity whether it is by population, intellectual capacity of our people, or by the resources that we have in our land, but they would rather give us grants of $10m or $20m as against helping us to grow to a point that we can make $100b for ourselves. The sad thing is that with all our endowments, we would be celebrating the $10m that they gave us forgetting that we can actually become a country that can be giving other African countries $10m.

At this point, if Nigeria was giving aids to Ireland in the 1970s, by now other African countries should be coming to Nigeria for grants rather than run to China. Because of this, it is very important to know that not all countries would like Nigeria to grow and become self sufficient because they are still exploiting us, dumping their low quality finished goods in our land, such as petroleum and steel products.

If Nigeria were to be working today, it would position itself as the industrialisation hub of West Africa. That means the entire West African market instead of rushing to China to buy iron rods, roofing sheets, agricultural equipment, armoured cars would have been coming down to Nigeria. There are surely countries that do not want us to be that independent or industrialised because they don’t want to lose the West African and African markets.

Why are you in favour of the return of the Russians?
When you talk about a country that is our ally in economic growth among all the countries in the world, none is an island. If America needs help the first country it runs to is the UK, before going to Germany. If America calls on UK for help they would not want to know whether America is right or wrong they will oblige immediately. Which One country can stand for us today in times of our need? There is none, but you know we had such a partner in the past and that was USSR and Russia.

When you look at the history of Ajaokuta Steel Company, when our national heroes like Tafawa Balewa and Co. were trying to establish the steel sector, Balewa went round to the UK, America to come and help us develop our steel sector, but they all turned us down. They said if we want steel we can buy from them. This is because they understood the importance of steel to a country. Then what happened? General Yakubu Gowon visited then Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the President of Egypt that told Gowon that western imperialists would not help him, and that he should go to Moscow and get help there. At that time, the TPE of Russia was building Helwan Steel Plant, which is the biggest steel plant in Africa. The five biggest steel plants in India were built by TPE.

Based on that, Gowon in 1970 paid a visit to Russia in furtherance of the Nigerian steel sector. That was when he had the agreement with TPE and they came down. Nigeria should have maintained that relationship. At that time when the UK was colonising Africa and Nigeria in particular, Russia was a world power in the early 1990s and they were the head of the United Nations, but they did not participate in the slave trade or in colonising Africa because it was not their style.

As a matter of fact Russia was the country that helped South Africa, Algeria and even Ghana to gain independence from all of these imperialists. So, ordinarily we should have maintained the relationship with Russia through the advancement of our economy just like what Egypt did. If Egypt and India want to upgrade any of their steel plants today, they don’t open a bid, all they do is go straight to this company. This is exactly what these major countries have done- they maintain the relationship with the TPE. So, why is it so difficult for us to do that as well, considering the fact that Russia stood behind Nigeria as an economic support base, and as partners in developing our steel sector when no other country was willing to.It is on record that since the time this TPE left, there has been no other major development in that place. Nothing stops Nigeria, if it is a serious country with the right political will, from reconnecting on a government-to-government basis with this same company.

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