Tough issues as Buhari meets economic team today

Four months after their inauguration, President Muhammadu Buhari will today meet members of his economic team amid a myriad of economic challenges.

Among other issues, the recent economic decisions by the government, particularly the border closure policy and implementation of the Finance Act 2020 as it relates to the hike of the Value Added Tax (VAT) to 7.5% continue to take a huge toll on the citizenry.

Sources said this would be the first time the president will be meeting the members since their inauguration, heightening speculations that the members have not achieved much thus far.

The members replaced the Economic Management Team headed by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo.

Daily Trust reports that the president had on October 9, 2019, inaugurated the Presidential Economic Advisory Council (PEAC) led by Prof. Doyin Salami.

Dr Mohammed Sagagi is the vice chairman of the economic council while the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Development Policy, Dr Mohammed Salisu, is the secretary.

Other members of the 8-man council include former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Prof. Chukwuma Soludo; Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of Financial Derivatives Company Limited, Mr Bismark Rewane;  Prof. Ode Ojowu, Dr Shehu Yahaya, and Dr Iyabo Masha.

The key issue Nigerians believe should pre-occupy the president’s mind today is how the team could frontally tackle the lingering challenges in the economy.

Former Chief Executive Officer of the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON), Mustafa Chike-Obi, had tweeted on January 11 that, “it is now 4 months since the acclaimed Economic Advisory Council was announced by PMB. We are yet to hear of any concrete policy directives or feel any impact from the EAC. I sincerely hope we hear from them before the 6-month timeline, so it is not seen as just another stunt.”

However, Prof. Soludo confirmed to Daily Trust last night that they have been working. But when asked on the challenges facing their work, he directed one of our reporters to the chairman of the committee.

“If you want an interview on our work, better speak to the chairman of the committee,” he said.

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Olisa Agbakoba in a telephone interview with the Daily Trust expressed confidence in the ability of the EAC team to deliver.

He explained that he was sure the team has been working behind the scenes.

What Buhari told the economic team during inauguration

During their maiden meeting in October 2019, Buhari asked the members to set an agenda that could be achieved in the short term.

He also told them to focus on “developing reliable data that will properly reflect what is happening in the country.”

In a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity after the meeting, Buhari said, “As you develop your baseline study, I would like you to focus on primary data collection.

“Today, most of the statistics quoted about Nigeria are developed abroad by the World Bank, IMF and other foreign bodies. Some of the statistics we get relating to Nigeria are wild estimates and bear little relation to the facts on the ground.

“This is disturbing as it implies we are not fully aware of what is happening in our own country. We can only plan realistically when we have reliable data,” the president said.

The council is also expected to advise Buhari on economic policy matters, including fiscal analysis, economic growth and a range of internal and global economic issues, working with the relevant cabinet members and heads of monetary and fiscal agencies.

‘Economic c’ttee not yet visible’

Analysts spoken to said four months after inauguration with a lot of expectations, the prospect and impact of the council has not been felt directly in the economy.

Our correspondents authoritatively gathered that the council had remained largely inactive over the past four months as there were no elaborate formal meetings to fast track the economy. The members had reportedly met in January even as the agenda and issues discussed at the meeting were yet to be made public.

Before then, our correspondents gathered that the members had been interacting informally by exchanging ideas on how to go about their assignments, especially the Baseline Survey project through electronic mails (e-mails) and telephone chats.

A source in the presidency, who pleaded not to be identified in print, confirmed that the “The council has only met once since its inauguration  but I know the members are interacting and sharing ideas and exchanging notes  informally on how they can go about the assignment given to them.”

Many people spoke to expressed concerns that the EAC, just like other economic think-tank teams before it, might not make much impact on their lives unless Nigerians were updated regularly.

President Buhari had last weekend during an interview with an online medium, The Interview, said activities of the Professor Salami-led team were not intended for public disclosure assuring, however, that the council’s work would be appreciated by the citizenry.

Responding to one of the questions during the interview, Buhari maintained that “they don’t have to play to the gallery in doing their work. They don’t have to do it on the pages of newspapers but rest assured that they are working quietly and efficiently. Results are what matter, and you will see their influence on our economic policies in due course.”

Mounting economic challenges for Buhari’s economic council

Despite the slow growth in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to 2.28% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2019 and Nigeria’s better ranking in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 index, which showed that the country ranked 131 up 15 places from its 2019 spot, micro and macro-economic indices showed that the nation’s economy is still depressed in real terms.

For instance, apart from the spiralling inflationary trend over the past months, with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) peaking at 12.0% in December, the highest rate since April 2018, the poverty level in the country based on latest World Bank report has worsened significantly, with 91.8 million Nigerians trapped in extreme poverty as at June 2019.

This implies that more than half of Nigeria’s population live on less than a dollar (N360) a day.

Again, as infrastructure deficit continues to threaten the President Buhari-led administration’s economic reform initiatives, the nation’s unemployment rate is worsening, standing at 23.1 per cent of the workforce in Q3, 2019, up from 18.1 per cent a year earlier.

Experts say in the face of this increasingly worrisome trend, Nigeria’s debt stock at national and sub-national levels is growing at an alarming proportion.

For instance, latest figures by the Debt Management Office (DMO) in January this year reflected that Nigeria’s total public debt as at September 2019 stood at N26.215 trillion, indicating about 16.88% growth over the 2018 debt stock.

Brick wall over activities of economic council

Efforts to get the views of the chairman, Prof. Doyin Salami, on how far the council has gone in its assignment through calls and Short Message Service (SMS) to his phone number did not yield any result as he failed to respond to either as at the time of going to press.

But a credible source said none of the council members would speak on the record ahead of their meeting with the president and that even then, it is the body language of the president that will determine their disposition to public discourse.

Similarly, Daily Trust investigations at the offices of the Accountant General of the Federation and Head of Service to know whether some ad hoc administrative arrangements or funds had been put in place to facilitate timely meetings of the team showed that not much was done in that direction.

However, an insider in the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF) who spoke on condition of anonymity told one of our correspondents that “if there is any place involved in the coordination of the council’s activities, it is certain that will be the Office of the Chief of Staff to the president.”

The source also hinted that the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Dr Zainab Ahmed, would attend the planned meeting of the council today with the president. When contacted, the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, confirmed that Buhari would meet with the economic council today.

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