Amid numerous precautionary measures canvassed to contain the dreaded corona virus, the Honourable Commissioner for Environment and Petroleum Resources in Akwa Ibom State, Dr. (Barr.) Ekong Sampson, has called on the people of the state to pay serious attention to personal hygiene and environmental cleanliness, even as the state government is set to clamp down on illegal felling of trees in city centres.
Our Magazine had a very elaborate interview with one of the finest economists in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. In this interview, Prof. Chris Ekong of University of Uyo, provides deep insight to a lot of issues ranging from the economic impact of COVID-19 on Nigerians on matters concerning the economy and development in the Niger Delta region. Excepts:
Can we meet you Sir?
Christopher Ekong is my name, a Professor of Economics, mainly Development and Environmental Economics. I teach in the University of Uyo, Department of Economics to be precise. I rose to the position of Director of International Programmes, in the same institution. I have had experience in academics and public service. I have been a Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State for so many years, I have held other position in government.
Currently, I am council member of Nigerian Society of Economic Research and a member Nigerian Economy Society Academy. Those are the things last I have done for now.
Please tell us about the Nigerian Society of Economics research.
Nigerian Society for Economic and Social Research Institute is a national Institute established by the Federal Government to research on social and economic issues. It is located in Ibadan. It has been there for a while and I am a member of that council working there with other members.
What has the institute done in situations like this that we are having the COVID 19 pandemic in terms of researches and economy?
This is a beautiful question that shows at this time, this will show and expose our government. First of all, the inability of our government to coordinate and get it’s research institutions to work for the benefits of the nation is regrettable; even the total and nonchalant attitude of government to consider the institute they pay for or to even fund or sponsor research. In the main, science are, for instance…, I work in the University as the Director of International Programmes, since COVID 19 came I try to put together a group of scientists who individually have done so much work on viruses and on virology. Monocular laboratories, do we have them in Nigeria? You can finish with the samples that you have but you don’t have funding to carry out the clinical test. So that is the challenge and it affects the development of our country because the quality of research and maximization of the results thereof are equal to the level of development in any country.
What are the economic impacts of COVID19 on Nigerian?
Obviously, I have always said the world economy is already in recession because of Covid-19. It has stalled trade, it has reduced global aggregate demand by compulsion, because everyone is locked in, the aviation industry and every industry is gone. Except there is going to be so much stimulus from the government, the aviation industry will die. For many countries especially small countries like us in Africa, if we are not careful there will be famine because this is the period to farm in Africa and if in this period we are locked in and we are not farming there is going to be famine, except government does something. There is going to be inadequate food. In Nigeria for instance there is a lot of insurgency in the north east that is supposed to be the food basket, and now COVID19 has come, nobody is going to farm, what are we going to eat? If you look at Africa, the study I did recently has it that 75% of people are in the informal sector, they are artisans, they eat from daily work. And suddenly we lock them in, that informal sector provided the energy for Nigeria to become the biggest economy in Africa. For example, you lock in market people, mechanics are no longer repairing cars, so what is going to happen?
Nigeria is a mono-economy, we depend on oil, some people say that oil is going to finish and I laugh, oil is finished and will no longer be relevant soon. In the next 10 years oil is still going to dominate the market. The reduction or fall in price is just because of the non-use because shops are closed, industries are closed, but now it is moving up again. Oil is still going to dominate because it’s going to take up to the next 20 years to have another source of energy that is efficient and produce at low cost like oil.
Nigeria has continued to defy many economic projections. Many times the World Bank, IMF would prophesy doom for Nigeria economically. Our out-of-job data is so high out there. But year in year out we seem to be living our normal life. What is responsible for that?
In a paper I presented in African Union last year, I told them the only trick Nigeria has is the informal sector. The percentage of Nigerians in informal sector is so large. Even if you say 70% of Nigerians are unemployed, Nigerians are still living very well. I will tell you why. You see somebody who has no job but his children are in nursery school and he is paying through. There are a lot of transferred income in Nigeria. There are a lot of flowing helicopter money in the system that people just capture that is not coming from sources were they are earning. They are just getting it from transfer from friends, politicians, from in-laws and rich elites, and just solve a problem and they move on.
Also people are doing some menial jobs. It is only in Nigeria that working in super market is not a job. Being a gateman is not regarded as a job, but they are earning salary. When such people are listed as unemployed it swells up the unemployment data. Because 3% unemployment in America, or 7% unemployment data in America could even sack a President but consistently we are on over 30% unemployment data but nobody is feeling it because people are working but anytime they are asked if they are working they say NO, because they are not satisfied. A person earns 18,000 naira working somewhere has many farms. As he comes back the children are farming and they will bring vegetables and people buy from them at the end of the month that family grosses nearly 200,000 naira but the data you have on him is 18,000 naira.
Another man has no work but he rides tricycle and his net worth daily is 3,000 naira and if he rides for 20 days in a month, he nets 60,000 naira but you say the man is unemployed. The informal sector is so big, so if we study the informal sector and get data on it we could see how we can locate that informal sector to take care of issues in the informal sector. In Nigeria people are doing one thing or the other, but in that thing they are doing the dignity is not there and makes them think they are unemployed. Because if you ask a mechanic if he is employed he will tell you he is unemployed. Same as these bus drivers we see, they make net of over 150,000.00 naira they are richer than many civil servants but they would say they are unemployed. That is the beauty of our country.
Even if you say 70% of Nigerians are unemployed, Nigerians are still living very well. I will tell you why. You see somebody who has no job but his children are in nursery school and he is paying through. There are a lot of transferred income in Nigeria. There are a lot of flowing helicopter money in the system that people just capture that is not coming from sources were they are earning
There seems to be a serious lack of economic collaboration in the Niger Delta unlike what we have in the South West. What do you think is responsible for that, despite our rich natural resources?
I beg to say that contraption called Niger Delta is a marriage of different bedfellows who were initially at war against themselves. The Niger Delta, what brought us together was the delta, and not even similarity in culture, because these are different people, totally different people.
In 2002 the South-South governors decided to have what they called the South-South summit groups in attempt to bring the southern states together. What they did not understand or have at the back of their memory was that there is interest and that others are always watching to see how others’ interest will affect their interest. That is the way the world is, that is why people are fighting all over the world. This is the richest region in Nigeria. If you are Nigeria, would you allow them to come together, because if they integrate like the South-South, one day they can say they have what it takes, and they want to keep their oil. So the country is watching, they are watching you so they are happy the way you are. Because you dont have within you men that think, men of decision that look into tomorrow, to say if they take certain decisions, their children could be better. So for it to happen the way they want, they bring selfish people to lead us, so you see the leaders we have are so extremely selfish. They pay allegiance to people outside the Niger Delta region, and their work is to make sure they continually keep us at this level of chaotic existence.
See the NDDC, the amount of budget that goes into Niger Delta Development Commission, if that budget was used well, and in every year we do one major project in a Niger Delta state. Lets say we decide to build a 20 megawatts power plant for each state, the money in NDDC would have built those plants.
Or we decide to build a seaport for each state we have one in Rivers, Warri, Cross River, we could say let us develop a deep seaport around the Bakassi region, with the kind of money we have in the Niger Delta, we could have built a referral hospital that even have the big laboratories that would readily carry out researches. The same with education sector, and we say we are giving one standard university in the Niger Delta 10 billion naira yearly to develop, we would have done it. So where is the money? What has the NDDC done with all the monies that go to it. So Niger Delta is just a contraption.
When we started gathering the heat was so much to destroy us. When we had the first meeting, the second meeting, at the 3rd meeting, the governors began to fight themselves openly. The Chairman of that meeting was a professor from Delta State, he was the first chairman. Top flight people in Niger Delta were in that summit, good brains but the governors scattered the thing because when Nigerians saw the kind of people that were coming together they became afraid and said NO. We need social reorientation of our people especially our young men because our young men are already worse than the outgoing men because the young men were trained by these outgoing men. They are getting more vicious, they are vicious, they dont care about others. They dont want to know what is happening to the Niger Delta. That is why people could stand up to say that Niger Delta should not be probed. They should not do forensic auditing. I think even if the person who is doing it is a thief let him do. When he finishes also look at him and do his own because this forensic auditing will open a can of worms of the things that is happening to us in the Niger Delta Development Commission. If you know the amount of money that goes into that commission yearly you will marvel.
Just name the projects in Akwa Ibom, they will say roads, one kilometre road, they will go and paint one primary school and say you have done something. Why can’t you build a modern secondary school and handover to the states. So we need to reorientate ourselves. If we have a good person, the next thing they will say NO. That one will not give someone money. We want cultists, the CV to get a job is to have a gun, that is the CV in the Niger Delta.
There is a growing sentiment in the Niger Delta, people are saying if the Niger Delta states are getting 13% derivation fund, and NDDC get huge budgetary allocation plus the 3% of the profits of IOCs go to NDDC, and the Niger Delta states continue to be in this porous state. Is it fair for the Niger Delta states to keep complaining that there are no federal projects in their states?
Well, do you know what each of the Niger Delta states take from the Federal Government? Especially when we realized about 600 billion dollars from oil? Nobody goes home with anything less than 15 billion naira. So what is their wage structure?
What is their wage bill, do we have up to 1 million workers? Are we being fair to ourselves? What about the local governments? What are they doing? If they have a joint account there should be more money. How are they managing it? Do they have a budget or they are just doing things without plans? Our governments in the Niger Delta must sit up. They are not doing well. They should look at themselves. If they say they are doing well, they should publish their budgets. What did they say they will do and what are they doing?
But Niger Delta governors are also crying: no funds?
Ebonyi State is one of the states with the least allocation from the Federal Government. Go there and see the quality of developmental projects in that state. Not just road infrastructure, go and see the schools, hospitals.
In my inaugural lecture I dedicated a chapter to Akwa Ibom State, to give my own unpaid advice to Akwa Ibom. The problem in Akwa Ibom is that there is so small amount of money in circulation in the state. But we have so much money, I mean since 1999. In Attahs time he worked more with local contractors. 70% of our money goes to capital expenditures. Capital expenditure, includes building of roads, and this our economy does not have the capacity to keep that kind of money. If I have 10 billion naira to build roads, for example, at the end of the day, they will go to Dangote in Lagos, for example, and order 10,000 trucks of cement; he buys his rods in Lagos, so the only money that stays here will be the labour, and may be sand. So, 95% of the money goes to outside this state. The only small money in circulation in the state is the 30% recurrent expenditure. In that 30%, Government House and the legislature keep 20% and you know they don’t depend their money here, it is Lagos, Calabar, Abuja and so on. So the small money going round is the one that was paid as salary to workers.
What is your take on the economic team recently set up by the Akwa Ibom State Government, if you were in the team what would be your contribution?
I want to hear from the economic team before I give my own inputs. I want them at this point to look at the informal sector and to also look at agriculture, and not to say that agriculture is for the private sector, at this time we need government investments in the private sector. Government should take over agriculture and partner the private sector; I also want to see them creating entrepreneurs because if you go to China, the Chinese government is the one creating entrepreneurs. For example, how are we engaging Exxon Mobil? So, cant we have two or three people who supply diesel to Exxon Mobil? It is government that must create those kind of people because they must have capacity to own a tank farm. So, cant government do that? The south eastern government created Dr. Pepper, created Dr. Ime Umanah, and many more, gave those grants so that they can drive entrepreneurship. That team is a very strong team.
Sir, thanks a lot for talking with us?
You are welcome.