A development economist, Prof Akpakpan Edet, shares his thoughts with DANIEL AYANTOYE on the need for the government to lift the embargo on employment amid the high rate of unemployment

Since he assumed office, President Bola Tinubu has rolled out some economic policies. How will you describe the prospect of the policies with the current economic realities?

Starting with the removal of subsidy, it was hastily done. It was necessary to remove it but the government should have allowed for more planning. There should have been a discussion, especially with the labour unions and experts. On the exchange rate, it didn’t begin now. In 2016, about six Professors of Economics, including myself, were invited and we had a meeting with the then Vice President, Yemi Osibanjo, and some ministers, including the CBN governor at that time, Godwin Emefiele. The matter was raised and I told the VP that the way the world economy had been structured would not help us to succeed with the kind of exchange rate policy we were pursuing, which was allowing it to float. The dollar was between N197 and N198 and there was pressure on the government to devalue.

I warned the government not to devalue (the naira) and that they should determine what this nation would fund with the hard-earned foreign exchange. Incidentally, there were about 41 items that were listed that the government was not going to release foreign exchange for. I told them it was the sensible thing to do for the interest of the nation. However, I told them that they should not make it permanent but go and take a hard look at the 41 items and find out from those interested in importing them precisely how it was affecting them and then work out how to help them. I mentioned that the manufacturers, if there were items for further processing that would help production in this country, the government should allow those ones to come in at a lower rate but it should not be free for everybody because It is not in the best interest of our economy that cannot produce a variety of goods and services, cannot operate a floating exchange rate system successfully, it will always work against it.

I told the VP that things would get worse because those putting the government under pressure to devalue don’t know what they are saying. What do we do if we don’t devalue? And I said, don’t devalue, we have to tighten our belt as a nation, and we cannot be importing things the way we used to import. I told him to communicate with the people on why certain things cannot be imported and that if anyone had the foreign exchange to import, he should allow him but not to look for foreign exchange from the government. I also expressed the need for the country to step up domestic production of what the people want most.

In the area of production, how can the government boost the economy with the private sector?

The government can adopt the Public Private Partnership. Government provision is different from production. You get private firms, support them, work out an arrangement with them, monitor and help them to deliver. Private sector organisations are more efficient because the people know the bottom line. Managing an economy is a tough business, especially in today’s world because every other country wants you to remain a market for its product. It is for you to fight against it and tell them that you will buy their product but they must also buy yours and that is the problem of the naira. The only sure way of stabilising the exchange rate of a country like Nigeria is for the country to produce and sell to the rest of the world things that will make other people demand your currency. This is why the currencies of African countries are perpetually falling.

Are you in support of calls that Africa should have its currency to reduce the overreliance on foreign currencies?

It is good and we should work towards that but we don’t have to rush into it. There is a need to check. If we have that, it will make Africa one big market. But there is a need for a plan, and while we are planning, we should take note that because we are going to reduce our dependence on those hard currencies, those countries will be working to frustrate our efforts because such is not in their interest. So, we need to know the problems we are likely to run into and then map out the strategies for dealing with them. We are being exploited because of this close relationship with those developed countries. For example, the things we buy from them; they fix their prices in their currencies, and the things we sell to them, they fix their price in their currencies.

So, who is going to demand our currency? Nobody! Without a demand for our currency, it can never gain in strength. So, we must look at production and do whatever it takes to stimulate domestic production. The point of our economic problems such as unemployment and many others is rooted in our inability to produce a variety of goods and services. We must also learn how to sell to other countries and penetrate foreign markets. Our people at the embassies abroad should be doing for us. They should look at the local market in the country they are in and tell us the conditions so that our people will be ready with their standard and it will be easier to penetrate the market of such countries.

In a bid to ease the impact of fuel subsidy removal on Nigerians, the President established the Presidential Compressed Natural Gas Initiative to substitute petrol for CNG. What is your view on this development?

That is interesting, but is it something that can be done in a hurry? It is not. I heard that a young man converted a vehicle into an electric car in Maiduguri. What the government should do is to get him and help him to expand things. It is good to try many things but we must plan well. Gas is not free and it is not infinite. Not that you do this now and tomorrow, you run into another issue. We need to do our calculations. We need to also consider the maintenance costs of having such vehicles. Do we have the capacity to maintain vehicles that have been so converted?

Most of our problems have to do with the attitude of people in power. We behave as if we don’t know that every nation in this world competes.

For the first time, we have the Marine and Blue Economy Ministry. What is your take on the creation of this ministry?

We can bring down the number of ministries in the country to 30 and run a more impactful government. The thing is that our people in government don’t listen. When I was in government in the Ministry of Finance, they had a desk officer who read all the papers, then summarised everything, and by 12, they would make available to the minister the things that were said about the ministry and in less than two weeks, you begin to get reactions. A government department should go through the newspapers and pick some key things, but if you go to a ministry and ask them, they will say they have not heard. Lack of commitment, low quality of manpower, and then you begin to ask how they were selected.

It has been said that the blue economy has the potential to create millions of jobs. How can this be better handled to benefit the common man?

Where will all the jobs come from? A government that doesn’t pay attention to planning is not serious. And this is what happens when you hire based on relationship and not based on competence. Putting the wrong people in power is one of the issues that have brought us here.

The recent unemployment figure from the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics sparked controversy as the NBS stated that the unemployment rate has significantly decreased from the previous 33.3% (Q4, 2020) to a new low of 4.1%, What is your take on the matter?

It is ridiculous. It is an insult. Before today, I respected the NBS because they held their ground. What they have done now is adopt the provision of the International Labour Organisation which states that you are in employment if you can work for one hour out of 40 hours. How can anybody accept that? I have tried to have a dialogue with the ILO team, but I have not succeeded, and I decided not to bother myself again. Up till now, the NBS has refused to use the ILO but used theirs, which was more sensible. But how did NBS suddenly decide to adopt ILO? If they were aware that the ILO standard had been in existence for the past eight years, why now? Secondly, a 4.1 unemployment rate means full employment. With the current economic realities, will anyone say Nigeria has full employment?

Some say the figure is incorrect but the Statistician-General of the Federation and Chief Executive Officer of the National Bureau of Statistics, Mr Semiu Adeniran, said the bureau followed new guidelines established by the ILO. Do you think this in any way reflected the true position of things in the country?

No. The NBS should throw it away and use the standard it has been using.  Those international organisations that put forward standards have their reasons and their motivations. They only suggest that you are not duty-bound as a country to follow them. Just like the IMF, they are there to suggest, not drive things down the throats of nations. They suggested, consider your local condition and decide what to do. What happens in government now is that our people in power have the spine to stand up to the IMF or any of those international organisations. If I had to meet ILO on behalf of NBS, I would tell them to go and sit down and that this doesn’t make sense in my own country. What income will you earn that will sustain you for the rest 39 hours if you work just for one hour? It is nonsense; you don’t need economic knowledge to analyse it.

Despite the rate of unemployment and underemployment in the country, an embargo was placed on employment by the Muhammadu Buhari administration. Some have said this contributed to the increasing unemployment rate. What can you say about this?

The government may have realised that their agencies were employing people unnecessarily and they were frivolities. Any department that had a need was expected to make requests and justify them. When we blame a government for unemployment, we are not suggesting that the government should be creating jobs in government institutions. The government must manage the economy well so that the economy is vibrant and allows people to go into investment and create enterprises that will create jobs.

Recently, the House of Representatives called on President Tinubu to lift the embargo on employment. What is your take on this?

Our people don’t want to ask questions when they don’t know something, and that is the problem. You don’t place an embargo because the jobs that the government can create are based on needs. If there is a need, allow it, not to place an embargo. An embargo means you cannot employ when there is a need and that’s wrong. What the government should do is direct its MDAs and parastatals that there should be no frivolous employment and they should justify every employment. But the problem is that once a minister comes on board, they begin to share job slots. And you begin to see people calling themselves civil servants everywhere and some of them don’t even have desks.

Will you say this is why we have issues of job racketeering in government agencies?

Embargo creates an opportunity for racketeering because people will begin to explore the ignorance of those desperate to get jobs. But if the economy was functioning, the pressure on people to fall victim to such things would reduce.  So placing an embargo is wrong; the President must ensure it is lifted, and people should be allowed to come in and go out. It will allow for fresh blood and there may be genuine need.

The curricula for primary, secondary and tertiary schools appear not to be sustainable due to the need for the Nigerian youth to embrace self-employment. How can these curricula be changed to meet the current economic realities in the country?

The curricula should not be permanent. The relevant department of the government should constantly look into the curricula, and compare them with the system. The curricula should be in line with what is needed in the system.

Simply put, an average Nigerian graduate in the country is always in pursuit of scarce white-collar jobs without thinking of learning a trade. How can this overreliance on white-collar jobs be reduced?

Overreliance on white-collar jobs can be reduced. First of all, the jobs are not there. People don’t have the skills to do things. There is a need to look at what the skills that the school system is producing are. Is the system providing the kind of skills we need? If not, provide for the production of the skills you need for varieties of industries. When you are setting up a business, you need the academic knowledge that will provide you with ideas, and for you to succeed in application, you need the practical knowledge of your ideas. So, we need to prioritise technical knowledge. That is what those who develop the curricula should be looking at.