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Home News Interviews Subsidy: Nigerians know more than govt people think they do — Agary

Subsidy: Nigerians know more than govt people think they do — Agary

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Dr. Timiebi Koripamo-Agary was the permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Productivity. She was the Secretary of the Ibrahim Mantu Palliative Committee. In this interview with Richard Ihediwa, she opens up on the current debate on the removal of subsidy even as she gives details on how politicians corrupted the civil service.

You are leading a group, the Initiative for Peace and Industrial Harmony (IPIH) which tried to give the Federal Government a platform to engage Nigerians on the issue of fuel subsidy removal. How far were you able to meet that goal?
We decided to give the government the platform to engage unfortunately, government did not utilise the opportunity they had because we had two engagements with labour, civil society and we had invited government to participate because it would have created the opportunity for them to identify the critical voices that eventually drove this fuel subsidy protest. We had created the opportunity for them to engage them and dialogue. Our group, the Initiative for Peace and Industrial Harmony (IPIH) got ourselves organised hoping that we will stop the protest. We did this because from our collective experience in industrial relations, particularly with the fuel subsidy removal, it has always been a pattern; that is government makes a pronouncement, Labour will agitate, protest, call out people for strike, government will engage, government will reduce price.
However, because we wanted to avoid the crisis because of the security challenges the country was experiencing; and we are still having those challenges; we wanted to get the parties to begin to talk. That was what our group did. Indeed, I won’t blame labour or civil society because they were willing to talk. They turned up at the highest level in the two engagements that we organised but unfortunately government representatives did not come.
What is your view about the process leading to the agreement on N97 instead of complete reversal to N65 per liter of fuel?
It is going to be very difficult for our group to tell you how they arrived at N97, we were not at the table during the discussions but judging from the reports in the press, there was actually no negotiation, that is from what the labour leaders had said.
Would your group have created a better platform where we would have had a better deal?
Not a better platform but at least we had set in motion a process for engagement and in those engagements, the issues of the template which we published, that is the PPPRA template for determining the cost of a liter of fuel. I think that if the parties had engaged before the crisis, it was possible that the pricing would have been looked at and that would have been the PPPRA template and the items on the template that the consumers are fighting for. I believe that those issues would have formed part of the negotiation and part of the things that would have been discussed had all the parties showed the willingness to engage.
What is the status of the debate on fuel subsidy now?
We are aware that the labour unions are discussing with the Belgore Committee and we are very hopeful that the contentious issues would be resolved with respect to the fuel subsidy removal. Of course other things have been thrown up and we are all listening to the hearings at the National Assembly; that is at the House of Representatives. However, we are informally reaching out to the parties to continue to engage and dialogue. It is not over until it is over and I think that no party should rest on its oars at this point in time and I think at every point in time, we are promoting social dialogues and discussions on national issues.
Government should not think it is over. While Belgore is talking with the labour unions, I still believe that government should, on a continual basis engage labour and civil society not just on fuel subsidy issue but on other policy issues before they go public with them. I think that there is a great need for consultations before some of these pronouncements are made. I believe that this last crisis was totally avoidable and preventable. We provided the platfoarm for discussions but the frontline officers of Mr. President didn’t think there was any need; but I can say that there is very great need more now so that we can avoid what could be another round of crisis because it is not over. Of course you know that the civil society and Nigerians have their own ideas about how these things should have played out. So government should be ready to engage the civil society and we are always there to provide the platform. And government should be ready to discuss openly and frankly because Nigerians know far more than what some of us in government think they know so there is no point in hiding anything. So it is a question of opening up and accepting some blames where you have made some errors and asking for support so that you can deliver better on promises.
You were in the system. Are you jolted by the revelations from the probes in the National Assembly?
Not really. I was the Secretary of the Mantu Panel and these things were disclosed even at that level in 2004 and 2005.
So they did not start today
I think really that in fairness to the NLC and PENGASSON and NUPENG, they have been raising these issues at their level. Even at points we met with them, they have been raising these issues about the unacceptable activities in the oil and gas sector. In fact the activism of these unions that established the oil and gas industry committee, the precursor to the Petroleum Industry Bill is traced to this. So it has been a long time coming and one would want to congratulate this government that they now want to take on the issue head on and we hope that the recommendations of the National Assembly will be implemented because the oil and gas sector, obviously from what we have all heard and from what some of us had known while we were in government, need some surgical operations, there is no doubt about it.
Lets talk about the issue of palliatives promised by the President. He promised that workers would be paid by January, 20. By what we hear that did not happen. People are also complaining that the buses he provided are very few. Do we indeed have any palliative in the true sense of the word?
Well I don’t want to criticise the SURE document but one of the things I think I would  advice government to focus on is the issue of youth unemployment because if all the money that is going to be saved will be ploughed into creating jobs for our youths it will be good. We have very serious infrastructural challenges so if we put our young people to work to develop our infrastructure, over time we will get it right. You know we have a lot of engineers in different specialisations. So if we put them to work, I think that some of the security challenges the nation is facing will be addressed because some of these kids need some money in their pockets and we must dignify our children; we can’t send our children to universities and turn around and not cater for them.
I know young people today are angry. They are very angry with my generation for not doing enough. So I hope that rather than do everything that has been listed in the document, I will ask government to just choose the issue of unemployment and focus on providing jobs for the youths using labour intensive strategies. Let us use them to focus of building our roads, railway lines, housing and agriculture and so on.
I know that when people are mobilised those who want to go into agriculture will do that once they can secure the credit, they will go into agro-allied businesses.  The problem now is that people do not even have the basics to eat, to clothe themselves and to even move around to search for the jobs that are not even available. So the challenges for this government is to deal with youth unemployment as topmost priority and cut out a lot of other things at least for this year. I think that we will go a long way in moderating some of the violence that we are experiencing from our young people because a lot of it is propelled by idleness and poverty.
But one of the major problems in that aspect is corruption. Before you know it one person will siphon the money meant for payment.
With respect to paying the young people, I don’t think there will be any problem if we make good use of modern technology. Once people are biometrically captured and payments done electronically nobody will touch their money. We are gradually going cashless in this country. You can load your card in any bank. We must begin to apply these technologies. So when you get these kids, you biometrically capture them, deploy them and at the time they need to be paid their accounts are credited. I don’t expect anybody to pay people cash. That is where you will be breeding the corrupt practices. It should be biometrically driven and totally cashless. This will cut out all the people who would have positioned themselves to corner part of the money.
A senator once described the NNPC as the citadel of corruption. You were in the system, do you agree with that?
I never worked in that sector so I would not know. All I know is what I hear from the sector unions during meetings.
There is this general public perception that that sector is corrupt. What will be your advice to government in solving this problem of corruption in that sector and generally in our system?
We have laws; so the basic thing is to apply the laws; sanction people who have been caught. I believe that until we begin to name and shame people and not only naming and shaming but go through the process and convict people you cannot solve this problem. If we have the evidence, they should be charged to court and we just hope that the court system will be much faster than it has been to dispose of these cases as fast as possible.
I understand that the EFCC has requested for a special court to fast track the cases. I think it will help because I have a personal experience with the court system. Sometimes cases can really take unusually long time and sometimes it is not the fault of the court but the lawyers who put one injunction or the other to slow things down. So I think if we have the special court, it will take care of that; because we can’t just be talking about corruption without doing anything about it by way of sanctioning people.
There are moves by the Presidency and the National Assembly to cut their overheads in the 2012 budget; but there is this argument that if you cut the overhead of the National Assembly, then the committees would not have enough funds to perform their oversight duties effectively. They might be pushed to rely on executive bodies to foot the bills and that could lead to compromises. Do you agree with this?
No I don’t agree with that. I think they can do the oversight effectively even with the cuts. Most of the agencies are here in Abuja. Yes. I know that sometimes they need to visit the sites but how often do they do that. This is a time for sacrifice. The Nigerian public have been making all the sacrifices and tightening their belts and the thing is about to break. So those of them who are more comfortable should also tighten their belts. I think they can. If we start cutting off most of the chaff and leave the real issues, then they can.
You were in the system so you will agree with me that the bureaucracy is not working despite the much orchestrated SERVICOM. What actually is the problem? How do you think we can make our bureaucracy work faster?
I can tell you honestly that there are a lot of very frustrated people in the civil service. The reason that is so is that because in a lot of instances, you have the tail aging the dog. The bosses don’t know a damn thing and so their subordinates can’t learn anything from them; and these are the people calling the shots and directing affairs. Sometimes people, that is, those who know what to do are so frustrated that they don’t want to do anything. There is so much incompetence in critical places in the system. So with all the best of intention of SERVICOM, if something lies on the table of somebody who hardly has the clue to move it forward, it is going to stay there for a very long time. For me, files did not lie on my table for more than 24 hours. I cleared my table every day. So my subordinates knew that I will request for a file on issues that I sent for them for certain actions.
With what is going on now, the service needs to be shaken up. There are so many people who have no qualifications, they do not have the knowhow and they found themselves as directors and deputy directors and the intelligent ones are at the bottom of the ladder. So how do you expect the system to work? I know that reforms have been done but they were implemented properly and I know that there is another committee taking another look at the reforms. Strongly speaking the civil service needs to be reformed so that we will have competent people manning critical sections in the system.
We have a serious problem. Unfortunately a lot of people are not doing their work. Some ‘oga’ corners and walks away with the money meant for the department and the work suffers. In fact there are challenges. The civil servant has been called all manner of names; while I am not holding brief for them, I must say that the politicians are also part of the problem. One of the major reasons the service is the way it is today is that political appointees come in with all manner of incompetent people and before they leave they dump them in the service. There is no competition, they use the leverage of their office and get these people with no experience into the system and invariably they get to the top. So how do you expect a serving officer who has been waiting his entire career to get to a position of a director and then you bring somebody who came carrying files looking for money for his minister brother and suddenly he becomes the boss? You know that is quite demoralising and it must stop.
In fact time has come that to get into the civil service, you should take the civil service exams. I know people are kicking against taking exams before promotions but if you don’t pass a prescribed exam for promotion then you should not be promoted.
So in all honesty, there is a high level of incompetence in the service.

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