With the presidential election won and lost, Nigerians watch and wait with bated breath for the incoming administration of the President-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari to go into governance and hit the ground running. Nigerians’ expectations are indeed high for the incoming government to improve the economy and curb corruption in key areas especially in the petroleum sector.
Chief Micheal Olorunfemi, an economist and technocrat in the oil sector, agrees that Nigerians’ expectations are indeed high. Chief Olorunfemi was the Deputy Chief Economist in the NNPC when Buhari was Minister of Petroleum in 1977. They met and worked together as a team. During their tenure, they built two refineries and further ensured that Nigeria’s economy, especially the petroleum sector, was placed on the right track. He shared memories on what it was like working with Buhari. In this interview with HENRY OKONKWO, the 74-year-old, also gave a road map for the president-elect in tackling corruption and improving the economy. Excerpts:
What memorable experience do you have about the man, Buhari?
When I got back to NNPC in 1977, I was deputy chief economist. I was fifth in the hierarchy. Ahead of my position are Chief Economist, Deputy Manager, Manager, General Manager, then you get Managing Director before you now get the Minister. Even when I was fifth in the rank, Buhari still feels free to come to me for any clarification on any matter concerning economy. So, that is how I precisely came to know him.
I remember clearly that each time we discuss he is always keen to hear and listen to every contribution made. That impressed me about him. And when he knows you are knowledgeable, he will respect you.
Also, when he knew that I went to the London School of Economics, each time we came to London, he would call me to take him to bookshops. There he would shop for books. I never saw him for one day buy wristwatches or dress, only books. While others were buying other things, he was always buying books. And most of the books he bought are on military history and politics. Those are some memories I have about him.
You said he buys books, but there were allegations that he has no certificate and that he is an illiterate?
It was all political. In 2007 and 2011, the issue of certificate never came up. It came up this time because there is no other way to bring him down. The ruling party saw the emergence of Buhari; backed with a more formidable opposition, as a big threat. They knew he could wrest power from them. So, they threw all forms of allegations and tantrums at him to tarnish his reputation.
$2.8 billion was alleged to have gone missing during his administration. Tell us what exactly happened then
I have commented on this severally. The truth is that no money went missing. NNPC invited an auditing company to audit their books. In doing that, the auditors went about their job and came with an interim report to the management. The report was to inform the management that they have noted that $2.8billion could not be authenticated because they have not been able to see the necessary receipts. Unfortunately, in the whole of NNPC at that time there was no functional photocopying machine. So, they went to Boston on Awolowo road to make copies for the managers. Unfortunately, one of the pages was left there, and that is where people saw it and reacted. People just wanted to hit at something, which is what happened.
And this was the time we had the civilian regime coming in 1979. Chief Awolowo was not able to win the election and Obasanjo handed over to Shagari, and when this $2.8 billion issue came up, Awolowo and others saw it as a way to discredit Obasanjo thinking that the money was lost, when indeed the money was not lost.
And it was during the time Buhari was serving as commissioner; there was no lost money anywhere. They just wanted to embarrass someone.
The $2.8billion became a political issue, eventually President Shagari called an inquiry headed by Justice Irikefe who later became the Chief Justice of the federation. The Irikefe tribunal between 1980 and 81 came out to say that no money was lost.
Eradicating corruption is one of the major objectives of Buhari. Do you see him winning the war?
I don’t know how he intends to attack it and achieve that. Trying to fight corruption head-on is like trying to fight a shadow. The only way by which you can attack it is to go to the political, economic or judicial institutions, strengthen them and institute discipline there. When you have strong and functional institutions, we would have a functional system that won’t harbour corruption. Corruption is the symptom of collapsed institutions, so you have to go and deal with those institutions first to remove the symptoms. And that is what many people don’t know.
Many feel that he has no basic knowledge to handle the rigours of managing a modern economy in a democratic setting, do you see him proving doubting Thomases wrong?
The truth is when you don’t know someone well enough, you might say anything you like about the person. But one of the things you know is that, Buhari as a Minister or Commissioner of Petroleum Resources during Obasanjo regime, surrounded himself with people that are knowledgeable. So, all he had to do at that time is to identify what needs to be done. And he was very good at that. At the same time, he used to have a meeting with the professionals. He would listen to them and on the basis of that, he would know what to do.
If you are talking in terms of capacity to manage the economy, no leader is in a position to do that. You are only in a position to listen to people, understand what they are saying, direct them and give them a nod to go ahead. So, he had that capacity and the temperament to listen, and understand what you are saying and then take a decision or direct you to what you should do. He was very competent in doing that.
During the time of Buhari, we built new refineries, in Warri in 1978 and built the Kaduna refinery and commissioned it in 1980. But today it is a different ball game now because all the refineries are not working. So, the government needs to decide if they are going to leave the downstream sector to the private or public sector. These are things government must define. And it is when they define that, his party or people surrounding him will let people know that. I don’t believe that he doesn’t have the capacity to be able to set government goals and enforce for people to abide by them.
Gen. Buhari seemed to have functioned well during the military regime, do you see him coming to terms with the seeming sluggish decision-making process in a democratic setting?
You are very right. This is a new dispensation where you need to work on the basis of compromise, unlike during the military era where you can take a decision on your own. The military governed with a command system unlike democracy where people have to sit down and reason together. But I believe he has people in the National Assembly that belong to the same party with him and would thus want him to succeed. So, I think they should find a way by which they accommodate each other. They know they have a common objective to be successful. And so I believe they would learn through the ropes.
As an economist and with your experience in the petroleum sector, what are your expectations from General Buhari?
Two major areas I expect him to work on are, the upstream and the downstream of our oil and gas sector. At the upstream, multi-national companies are not investing in the country’s oil and gas because they can’t make profits. Our reserves are depleting because exploration is not done to expand it. Indigenous investors don’t have the finance to undertake exploration. The plummeting price of oil has also made things more difficult.
Two is the question of the downstream, which today is a total collapse. With the refineries not working, we continue to depend on importation of products from outside.
That is why on the question of subsidy, government must have to come out and clear that and remove subsidy. If there are no more subsidies, any marketer can import and sell at the market price. Government would still be there to ensure marketers don’t sell above the market price or exploit Nigerians. The government must stop sustaining deficits in terms of oil and gas.
So, that is a major decision Buhari will have to face, in terms of knowing what to do. And I believe that we the Nigerian people have passed through that stage. We cannot go back to the time government is in charge of buying and selling products. All they have to do is to allow companies to invest, build refineries. Government would sell crude oil to them at the same international price while they buy, refine and sell the product here.
So, you are calling for the removal of subsidy?
Let’s not deceive ourselves because the subsidy paid to marketers is not helping us as a nation.
But past administrations have made the move and Nigerians kicked against it…?
(Cuts in) Yes. But let me tell you, in formulating a policy, sustainability is essential. The government must look and ask what is important to be done. I personally believe we can afford to pay the price. At what price do we buy when the product is unavailable? You find yourself paying more for it. We talk with two sides of our mouths. There is no way a government can claim to protect the common man when he cannot get and use those products. We better don’t deceive ourselves about subsidy. What should be subsidized are products that are evenly consumed by the people. Not product like fuel, there is no moral justification for that.