Agba: How FG responded to the challenges of COVID-19 pandemic with Economic Sustainability Plan

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In the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Government was proactive in setting up the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC) under the chair of the Vice-president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, to produce an Economic Sustainability Plan (ESP) with which to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. The 12-month ESP, which has now technically ended, was robustly deployed to stimulate the economy to ensure, among others, Nigeria’s quick recovery from a two-month recession; creation and retention of jobs; upgrade of healthcare facilities, and food security. Minister of State for Budget and National Planning, Prince Clem Ikanade Agba, who is a member of the ESC, speaks on the ESP, the successes and lessons learnt in the plan’s implementation during an interview on Channels TV’s “Sunrise Daily”. Excerpts of the interview session monitored by THE CONCLAVE are reproduced below

 

Question: Honourable Minister, could you just shed some light on we came about this name and what benefits accrued from the plan?

Minister: You will recall that the 2020 budget was signed and passed into law by Mr President on December 17, 2019. Sometime in February or March 2020, COVID came upon us. This was not something that was expected. It was something that was not very well understood. What were told by Bill Gates and others was that Africans were going to be dying on the street; and, so Mr President set up the Economic Sustainability Committee (ESC) headed by His Excellency, the Vice-president. And what were the things that we were supposed to do? One was to ensure that lives were not lost. We had to protect lives and come up with policies that were to save lives. Two, since we did not understand the nature of the disease and economies were going to be shut down, not just here in Nigeria but everywhere in the world, it meant that economic activities were going to go down; and, so were either going to go enter into a recession or a depression. So, the whole aim was to come up with policies to ensure that even if went into a recession, it would be deep and there would be a quick recovery. The other was people were going to be staying at home. How then do we ensure that we retain jobs? How do we even ensure that we create more jobs? But more importantly, how do we try and save job losses. How do we protect the vulnerable ones in the society? It was also an opportunity to take a review of our health infrastructure, to see what state they were in and what could be done to ensure that they were brought to world-class standard. Take the aviation and hospitality industries, for instance, everything was going to be shut down. How do we ensure some level of succor? So, those were the terms of reference for us and I want to say that given the result that we have seen, it was a success. It was just a transit plan. It was a 12-month plan. It was not supposed to be a plan that would continue to run. As you know, the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan was the plan that was going to end and we were also developing a new National Development Plan (2021-2025). So, we had to come up with the sustainability plan to ensure that we bounce back quickly.

Question: The Economic Sustainability Plan as we know is ended…

Minister: It has ended technically when you look at it from a 12-month perspective. However, some of the programmes are still running. The funds are still available to the agencies that have not got completion and those are the ones where you are getting the funds from the budget because of the N2.3 trillion, it was only N500 billion that was taken from special accounts that is in the budget. The other ones that are interventions from financial institutions based on negotiated rates and conditions are still running. They are not affected by the budget.

Question: For those still running, and for instance, the N10 billion that was supposed to be released by NSIA to couple solar equipment, under what line (or subhead) would they come under since the Economic Sustainability Plan has ended?

Minister: The Economic Sustainability Plan has now been succeeded by the National Development Plan. So, it is not as if there is a truncation. Certain things are still running in the plan. I think the whole idea of me coming here is to let Nigerians know what we did and the rate of success. Why did I say that? There were a couple of programmes. First on the health sector, there were programmes around food security. Remember that at that period, people could not move and even farm products could not move. Mr President had to approve a release of 70,000 tonnes of grains from the Strategic Grain Reserves and then the study also showed that we were losing about 60 percent of whatever we were producing in the country. So, it was also an opportunity to try to provide access to the market for farmers. You know that a majority of our farmers live in the rural areas and 60 per cent of these people live in the rural areas produce 80 percent of what we consume, which is why this aspect of the Economic Sustainability Plan dovetailed into the new National Development Plan where rural development has now been separated from agriculture and we now see it as integrated rural development because for sustainability purposes, you do not just go and put a road in the rural areas around the agro-corridors and think that something has been done. Other levels or forms of infrastructure need to go those areas such broadband technology and the issue of off-grid power. That is why all these are in the plan because it is when you bring these infrastructures to these rural areas that the foods produce in these rural areas can now move. It will attract investors to those areas. Some might just go there to aggregate from the farmers what had been produced. Others may decide to set up processing plants because now that they have power, they also have power to communicate with the rest of the world and to easily move the products. If you look at it from that perspective, about 495 kilometres of rural roads around agro corridors which cut across 366 communities were constructed.

Question: So, let me reel out some of the figures you gave in your presentations about the success of the plan so far. You talked about 1.3 million jobs being retained through the MSMEs and payroll support, 774,000 jobs under the Ministry of Labour and Employment which became somewhat controversial and there was 26,021…I want to ask if these 1.1 million Nigerians benefiting from the MSMEs, ESP Survival Funds are included in the 1.3 million you talked about?

Minister: The total jobs created within the period of the Economic Sustainability Plan and through programmed is about 2.1 million jobs-through the MSMEs, through the 774,000 jobs and through the rural roads and road rehabilitation that took place during the period.

Question: Can we really count the 774,000 as real jobs knowing full well that they were just one-offs?

Minister: Remember the situation: nobody knew what was going to happen. People needed to eat; they needed to survive.

Question: It is true, but I am saying that if you paid one person a one-off, for one month and the persons does not have the job again for the rest of the year. Does that really count as a job?

Minister: They were paid for three months and that was why there was another programme, which is the National Poverty Reduction with Growth Strategy (NPRGRS) where some of these other programmes are going to be revisited to see how they can be sustained. Recall that with the COVID-19, we lost about 57 per cent of revenues. I remember you were at Transcorp when the World Bank made the presentation about our revenue situation where we currently are top from the bottom of revenue to GDP. Resources are scarce and we have to do what need to do within the limits of resources that we have.

Question: We just want to be sure that we are painting the right picture.

Minister: Yes, we are painting the right picture. We said we were doing this for three months and we did it for three months. We kept people alive for three months. But the programme goes beyond that. Work is still ongoing in other areas because you are just taking only the 774,000 jobs. In the health sector, for instance, where this country had only three and a half Molecular Labs, we have built 52 new Molecular Labs.

Question: Health is particularly important. The PTF has kept Nigeria updated about COVID. It undertook of health facilities around the country. The chair of PTF and SGF, said on one of the occasions that he never knew that the state of the country’s health facilities was that bad. When you talk of intervention in health, where would you say the Economic Sustainability Committee was so concerned, where the impact of their interventions can be most felt?

Minister: It is true that the PTF went round the country to look the federal tertiary institutions and what they saw was really bad and considering the illness that was on ground then, there were four critical areas for us to intervene. One was the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for the frontline health workers; two was the need to build Isolation Centres. You could see what was going on in Europe where they could not find enough space. Nobody planned for this; three, there was the need to Intensive Care Units (ICUs). That was another area of interventions for us. And, then, the last but not least was the setting up of Molecular Labs because you have to know the diagnostics before you can know what is wrong. Before the ESP, if you were leaving in Sokoto or Port Harcourt or Lagos and there was a suspicion of Lassa Fever, they had to take the sample to Irrua Specialist Hospital in Edo State, and God forbid, before they come back, the person is gone. That was how bad the situation was, but today, with the intervention of the ESP, you don’t need to leave your state. All thirty-six states are now covered with Molecular Labs. In fact, the fifty-two federal tertiary institutions now have Molecular Labs and they can do all forms of diagnosis. We don’t need to take any sample outside the country or from one end of the country to another. Two, for each of these hospitals, we put in money to build ten-bedded ICUs.

Question: Honourable Minister, sorry to interrupt you. I still know that samples are still being taken out of this country as a result of sequencing. Is it that we are not capable or that we do not have the human capacity because it is one thing to build while it is another to have men who can really man these facilities of do this work? I just needed to make that point because this is something that just came to the fore.

Minister: When did this come to the fore?

Question: That came to the fore this year.

Minister: This January 2022?

Question: I do not know if you missed it in the news. Did you see it in the news at all?

Minister: I did not.

Question: Especially when Omicron came to the fore, there were revelations about Omicron and sequencing because it was discovered in South Africa and as to whether or not Nigerian was able to discover variants of this particular COVID. There were deficiencies in that. I don’t know if you heard…

Minister: Nigeria is able to do those sequencings and we have got the state-of-the-art equipment and we have the capability and we have the people to do that which is required. The only issue is that there are some of the centres that need to be certified by the NCDC before they can be put to use.

Question: So, while we wait for that to happen, if there are areas the impact can be felt, it would be in the area of building Molecular Labs, but aside that, yes, we saw the tent, the temporary structure put for Isolation Centres…

Minister (cuts in): We went beyond those temporary ones. It was within the first couple of months that you had those tents. But Molecular Labs had been built. Isolation Centres had been built and I have been going round the country to see for myself what has been done. We have also got third party monitor because I cannot cover everywhere. I am sure you saw the situation in Port Harcourt when I went to the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital. For the first time, I complained about what I saw there because it was totally different from what I had seen at the other ten different centres across the country that I had visited. A lot of progress has been made. It is just that things seem to be normal now. Take your mind back to the early months of COVID-the fear that gripped people, how worried people were. In fact, those who used to come to take your sample, you see how they would usually kit up. Do they do that anymore? No. That is to tell you we did well with the sustainability plan. In all of these institutions, they have enough Persona Protective Equipment (PPEs) for two years. We also had to go over and beyond to get some hazard allowance for some frontline workers. So that became a labour issue later. It was not at the instance of the medical professionals. It was at the instance of the government to say that the frontline workers should be given some form of motivation and once that was done, every medical professional felt that it was something that they should get. It was part of the Economic Sustainability Plan.

Question: Five million jobs were to be created in the agriculture sector for boosting the sector and guaranteeing food security…getting 20,000 hectares of land in each state for agricultural purposes…What the is the level of cooperation by the state government to be able to achieve some of these things?

Minister: With the Economic Sustainability Plan, we had a lot of work with the states. They were pre-informed of what the plans were and we also got their buy-in. In the agriculture sector, what was more important was the issue of post-harvest losses because when you are looking at increase of acreages- 20,000 to 100,00 hectares, it was more for the future. What was done in those areas where states had provided land was land clearing in preparation for the future. But the issue then was that what we were currently producing, for instance, for every 10,000 tonnes, we were losing 6,000 tonnes; and, so, that was a low-hanging fruit to be dealt with and that is why the issue of those rural roads was very, very important; and I recall that when I went to Imo State to monitor some of what was going on, I was even surprised that in some areas where I came for, they were already waiting for inauguration of some of those roads. This is how fast it was and the community people were really very happy to say that in the past we would have lost all of these products that we have, but now it is easy for us to move these products to the market. In fact, we no longer eve go to the market; the market comes to us for us to buy these products. So, for the 20,000 to 100,000-hectare cultivation, it is more of a futuristic plan which is also in the National Development Plan and that was why those five million that we planned for is not mentioned in the number of jobs that we have created.

Question: Why we raised the question was that the timeline said twelve months. We are wondering if it was futuristic, that was not included in the plan…

Minister: Like I said, the Economic Sustainability Plan midwifed both in the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) and in the new National Development Plan. So, you don’t say that because you had a plan and that plan period has expired, you abandon all of what you have done. It is like a man and a woman agreeing to get married and say they are going to have four children. They are not going to have all of those children in the same year. Even if the woman gets pregnant, there is naturally a period of pregnancy that the woman would need to go through. The issue is this: is there cooperation with the states? Yes. Are the states providing land? Yes. Is land clearing going on? Yes. That is a process. It does not mean that right from Day 1, once you start it, you would have everything planted.

Question: Technically, the ESP has stopped because it was supposed to eb a twelve-month plan. I suspect there will be a succession plan to the Plan. I am not talking of the National Development Plan. In order to ensure that the agricultural section of the plan is sustained, what the is the sustainability plan for this plan?

Minister: The National Development Plan (2021-2025) is the sustainability plan for the Economic Sustainability Plan and that is why we knew the National Development Plan was going to come. That was why we gave a twelve-month period for than plan and what you referred to- this other aspect -was not supposed to come from the N500 billion. As I did mention, the N500 billion was the one that, in real term, had a twelve-month period because it was based on the budget and the budget has a life span of one year. But the other programmes in the Plan which are facilities from financial institutions continue to run and so those do not end because they are not limited by the budget. What we did was work with Central bank of Nigeria’s negotiated rates and ensure that the interest rates were single digit and moratoriums were also given and then we also set the crux areas that had to be covered. So, it is something that is still running and that is the bigger part of the sustainability plan because the total stimulus package was N2.3 trillion, but government was only providing N500 billion from the limited resources that we had and the N500 billion was got from special accounts.

Question: Let us talk about the job component because we are dealing unemployment which rate is 33 percent. In that plan, you said part of the successes was creating and saving two million jobs. In that same 2021, the report by the UNDP and the National Burau of Statistics showed that 20 percent of full-time work force actually lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, which incidentally was the time the ESP was meant to be operating. You said two million jobs ere created and retained… What are the plans to fully recover those jobs…?

Minister: First and foremost, when we say government, government is not just the Federal Government of Nigeria and what I have reported is the contribution of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to either saving jobs or creating jobs. What we also reported are the numbers from the programmes that were based on the ESP for the one-year period. We did not cover other programmes outside of the ESP. We did not cover the numbers of jibs that were created. We did not add up the number of the jobs that were either saved by the states or created by the states if any was done. So, you have the Federal Government; you have the State Government and you have the Local Government. It is all of this that make up Government. There are several good things that happened with the Economic Sustainability Plan, as I went round the country for townhall meetings in Kano and in Lagos where a group of persons who were trained in ICT and VSAT installations told me that they had set up a WhatsApp group where they communicate with one another. They are beginning to employ people. We don’t have those numbers and those numbers have not been added to what I have reported. There were two ladies who told me that they went through the VSAT training but that through the course of installation, there were heights they had to climb and because they are ladies, they were unable to do that. What they now do with their WhatsApp group is to reach out to their male folks to come and help them. They are beginning to pass on jobs from one person to another. Where some are finding so much to do, they are passing some of these works to their other colleagues. I found out that this is also happening in Port Harcourt, but these numbers have not been captured. There are lots of groups that have come out of the Economic Sustainability Plan. In the beginning they were expecting that people should just be dying on the streets, but that did not happen; and it did not happen, not because we folded our hands; it did not happen because something was done. And, I think that we need to recognize that fact, that government did something. One of the objectives of the plan was to ensure that the economy did not go into deep recession. Some countries are still battling recession. Some of these so-called advanced countries. But we had our recession for two months and we came out of it. That is something that is good. Even inflation, a few months before the restriction, inflation had started trending up, headline core and food inflation, and it went on and on for eighteen months until April 2021, but since then, we have seen inflation trending even though it is still high, it is now on a positive trajectory trending downwards-talking about headline inflation, core and food inflation.

Question: We would like to know how many jobs were created because we know how many jobs were lost. Twenty percent, one out of every five full-time employees actually lost their jobs according to that report. Quickly, I would like you to talk about the challenges of ESP in crating jobs, bearing in mind that at that time there was a Twitter ban… Was that a challenge for you in creating jobs?

Minister: It was not a challenge for me and I think the Twitter issue has been settled. I think that is something that is good, negotiation had been held’ agreements h been made, and we are back on stream. I think that was what was important. Was it because Twitter that we were losing jobs? Nigerians were still having other forms or ways of communicating, but really, this is not the reason why I am here today. I would like to concentrate more on the Economic Sustainability Plan.

Question: Could you talk a little bit on NSIA funding solar power Niger with N10b with 5 million households…

Minister: Again, this is an area which I don’t have the details. I can speak a little bit more on the N500 billion because we control the release of those funds and to say specifically to whom funds had been released and for what they had been used. But for other forms of interventions that are outside of brief, I do not have those details.

Question: Could you possibly tell us the criteria for selecting these 5 million households and how to situate them?

Minister: Now, you are going deeper into more technical things. That is why the various MDAs have various capabilities. They determine what they do. Mine is just to do the fund release, monitoring and evaluation.

Question: Since the National Development Plan is supposed to feed into and continue from the ESP, what should the people expect? Should they expect that the NDP will reach out to them and continue those projects where they are needed?

Minister: If you look at it very critically, the NDP is supposed to be driven by the Organised Private Sector (OPS). We expect that about N350 trillion would be required to do this, and of this, almost N300 trillion is coming from the OPS; whereas government is just supposed to contribute about N50 trillion where the Federal Government brings in about N30 trillion and the States bring in about N20 trillion. In the conceptualization of the NDP, we had to ensure that the development of it was driven by the OPS because it was supposed to be a private-sector driven plan while our role as government is to facilitate the plan. What we have done in liaison with the private sector based on previous plans and ERGP, what are the things that are militating against the private sector from not only running but also flying. That is why for the first time, we developed volume three of the plan. In the past, there was only one volume which was the plan. This time, we developed three volumes: volume One-the plan, volume two contains the prioritized projects that have been costed; and then volume three is the legislative imperative. We look at the various laws that we have that are working against the ease of doing business, and, therefore militating against the private sector from doing well. We also look at the various policies that are also working against the private sector from driving the economy. So, the ESP was more from government intervention whereas the National Development Plan goes much more beyond government but also the organized Private Sector and then the sub-national government.

Question: The NDP is ambitious looking at the size alone, it is twenty times the size of the 2022 budget and the private sector is to drive it, giving over 80 percent of the funding. Can the private sector really bring that much to the table?

Minister: Right now, when you look at Nigeria’s GDP, 90 percent of it is private sector. They are already doing that but what we are trying to do is to make it much, much easier. When you referred to the budget, the budget that we have is not a national budget. The number you looked at is the federal government budget of Nigeria. A national budget would be the budget of the Federal Government, the budget of the 36 states plus FCT and then the budgets of the 774 Local Government Areas. That is when it is national. You have to add those numbers. Even where you put all those numbers together, it is still only 8 or 9 per cent of the GDP. I don’t think the plan is too ambitious. We had captains of industry in the development of the National Development Plan. Atedo Peterside was the co-chair of the National Steering Committee. We had the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN); we had SMEDAN, Nigeria Economic Summit Group, Nigeria Economic Society. We brought in all the players who should know what the issues are in the private sector, who should know what the challenges are and how they can be removed. We were quite open with this. We did not come to dictate to say that this or that must be done. For the first time, we developed a plan that is bottom-up, truly developed by Nigerians, and not using consultants. In the past, consultants sit down to write the plans and send to both the State and the Federal Government that this is the plan. But this time round, it was totally different.

Question: Have we been using foreign or local consultants?

Minister: I think it has been a combination of both. But the difference this time is that Nigerians. There were 26 Technical Working Groups where we had over 1600 Nigerians working- youths, women, persons with disabilities, etc., were all involved in the conceptualization of the plan.

Question: What would say is the biggest lesson we leant from the implementation of the Economic Sustainability Plan?

Minister: For me, a lesson, which was positive is that with the plan, there was strong monitoring. We say that of you expect something (from a plan or project), you have to inspect it, because what is not inspected will be lost. That is why my Port Harcourt visit again comes to fore. I was disappointed with what I saw in the isolation centre; it was totally different.

Question: But they claimed that you were in a hurry…

Minister: That I was in a hurry to do what?

Question: Did you see the post briefing?

Minister: I saw the post briefing where they did say there was a communication gap and that the equipment were removed out of Isolation Centre because of Omicron in order to fumigate the place. They did not tell me that while I was there. If I was in a hurry, why did I insist on going into the building, they showed me the building and I said we should go in. But they told me it was a red zone, that I could not. I said I visited other hospitals and I used PPEs. If the doctors and nurses can go in with their PPEs and are safe, I should be able to do the same thing. They then told me they could not find the keys to the building. I said we should go to the Molecular Laboratory and when we come back, the key would have been found. It was really that drama that got me very suspicious and when I went in, the place was empty. There was not a single equipment.

Question: Do you intend to keep up the inspection ad we move into 2022?

Minister: In fact, later today, I am visiting NIPDR in Abuja in continuation of my inspection and as I said, I cannot go round all the projects. So, what I have been doing is randomly choosing where I go. I just give like a day’s notice that I am coming. We have got third-party independent monitors to go round the various projects.

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