Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo (SAN), in this interview with TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI in his office in Abuja speaks on the controversy trailing the planned removal of fuel subsidy, #EndSARS panel report, latest developments in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and other issues of national importance. Excerpts:
You granted an interview few days ago where you stated why it is expedient for the federal government to remove subsidy now. However, some Nigerians have said there wouldn’t have been a need for subsidy removal if President Buhari had fulfilled his promise to fix the existing refineries and build new ones. How do you respond to that?
Let me talk about subsidy first before I answer that question in particular. Subsidy is an economic necessity but also a huge political problem. Various governments have bowed to the political side of it. In the past, the governments that tried to take the bull by the horns, the people did not trust them enough to manage the resources that will be accruing to the government as a result of the removal of subsidy. The immediate benefit of the removal is that the government will have more resources at its disposal to carry out projects and other infrastructural developments. But in the past, Nigerians were not too comfortable with these previous governments because of their reputation for profligacy. That is why most of us fought in 2012 during Occupy Nigeria protest during the Jonathan presidency. President Buhari is a leader that enjoys public confidence because Nigerians know that he is not profligate, they know that he does not dip his hands in the till. They also know that he is a president that runs a zero-corruption policy. So, as a result of that, people may have more confidence in this government to manage the resources accruing from removal of subsidy. Therefore, it may be more acceptable to the public if this particular government explains to them what it intends to do with the monies that will accrue to government from the removal of subsidy. Nigerians are beginning to see the commitment of the president to infrastructural developments. Most of these monies we are borrowing, people can see the effect everywhere they go. You see the airport, rail lines, roads, Second Niger bridge and so on. People are beginning to see the visible things that we are using these monies for. With that, they will have more confidence that, if with so little the president can do so much, if more resources are available to him, perhaps he will do much more.
Now coming to your question on the issue of refineries, if you have been following the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approvals in the last seven months, you will see that we have actually approved a memo to rehabilitate the refineries. But this takes time. It cannot be turned around overnight. First of all, you have to first go round the world in search of the best hands, not some quacks that were used in the past. In fact, during Obasanjo’s time, those turn around maintenance were given to local contractors who just pocketed the money and I am sure you know those I’m talking about. Some months ago, we did approve a memo to refurbish the refineries. To that extent, yes, we can now say that Mr. President has fulfilled that promise. He has approved but it takes time to do all these things. In the meantime, whilst the refineries are not fully back on track, you can see that between 2006 and 2018 alone, we spent N10 trillion on subsidy alone. That is about $25 billion. In 2019 and 2020 alone, we spent close to N3 trillion, which is about $7 million on the turnaround. Today, we are doing between N200 billion to N250 billion monthly to subsidise petroleum products. That is the kind of money we need for our infrastructure. If we have that kind of money available to us, we may not have budget deficits and may not need to borrow. The major issue that we have with budget deficit is that the funds are not available. Now, we have even got a deficit budget, you are now saying on top of that deficit budget, we should now subsidise again by N250 billion per month. The reality is that if you keep doing that, the economy will collapse. However, having spoken of the realities, I am not unmindful of the effect on the masses. That is why I said it is a political dilemma. How do you help the masses through this difficult period? My heart is also there too.
Some analysts are saying that petrol may sell above N340 per litre in 2022 if subsidy is removed. How true is that?
I don’t think government has fixed the price but they will not even be the ones to fix it. They will allow the market forces to go to play. But the truth is that this government is really thinking outside the box. The Minister of Finance has said we may have to give N5,000 per month to some of the most vulnerable citizens and we have a social register for that already. We are just hoping that Nigerians will understand and pass through that difficult time. Over time, the masses benefit from subsidy removal because they will have more access to good roads, clean water, healthcare and power supply. Power supply is very necessary for them to boost their small businesses. Artisans like welders who have abandoned their work due to lack of electricity will be able to go back and be more productive. So, the masses will be the greatest beneficiary if subsidy is removed.
You recently said it was out of the jurisdiction of the #EndSARS panel committee set up by the Lagos state government to investigate the activities of Federal Government institutions and officials such as the Nigeria Police Force and the Nigerian Army. But some lawyers have claimed your position has no legal basis. Any response to that?
I wish they listen more to my interview before they responded. Because I made it abundantly clear and I kept emphasizing on it that my views are not the position of the federal government. I am a lawyer, a member of the Inner Bar in the first instance before I became a Minister. So, I’m entitled to my views. Nobody should kill themselves over it. Federal government has not said anything over that so I don’t know what this hullaballoo is for. Since I made my views known on the report, many of my colleagues who are also in the inner bar have called me, congratulating me and thanking me for raising the points. So, if some sections of the press want to prosecute an agenda, you will see them interview only three lawyers that are normally anti-government and they will use it as a major headline in their newspapers such as ‘Lawyers Slam Keyamo’ as if three lawyers are the right statistics for lawyers in the country. Nigerians don’t know some of these tricks of journalism. I have aired my views and whoever wants to attack me should talk law and not attack my person.
Why do you think the report was leaked in the first place?
I don’t know. Maybe it was done by those who have an agenda. You don’t leak a report of a commission. It is the person who set up the commission that you should report to and he will take action on it. But like I said in my other interviews, submitting a Tribunal report is just a process in a chain of events leading to a final verdict. The final verdict lies in the hands of the governor who can either reject or accept it. It is just like somebody who files a case in court and makes a beautiful submission to the judge. Then the person goes about jubilating about on the submission. All the panel just did was to make a recommendation. At the end of the day, what they have done is not judgement but a recommendation. By law, the same law that they are relying on to celebrate the report is the same law that says that the report will be subject to the final decision of the governor. So, you cannot accept one part of the law and reject the other.
The Whistleblower policy of the federal government seems to have died a natural death since the departure of former Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun. What do you think is responsible for that?
I may not have the true picture of what is going on there because the Attorney-General of the Federation should actually be on top of that. Most of the whistleblower things have to go through his office or the agencies under him such as the EFCC and others. So, the AGF should be in the best position to tell us exactly what is going on now. Whether people are doing it silently or not, I may not be privy to such information.