Chief Olu Falae is a former Finance Minister, Secretary to the Military Government and a former presidential candidate of the Alliance for Democracy (AD) and All Peoples Party (APP) merger in the 1999 general elections. In this interview with TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI, the elder statesman speaks on the need for restructuring of the country ahead of the 2023 general elections, Chinese Loan and other sundry issues. Excerpts:
During his inauguration in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari said ‘I belong to everybody, and I belong to nobody’. Five years into his tenure, do you think the president has really lived up to his promise in terms of appointments, developments across the country and in other sectors?
That was not what he meant. I think what he meant was that he will be the President of all Katsina people. We are all seeing that for ourselves. The appointments made were heavily weighed not just in favour of any ethnic group but of his home state of Katsina. When he was challenged on this, he said he only appointed those he knew. You are not elected as President to govern those you knew; you are President of all of us. So, there is no question about the fact that the President is sectional in his appointments; there is no argument about it. The question is, what are we going to do about it?
Why do you think APC leaders are not willing to speak out on this?
On why many APC leaders in other parts of the country, especially the South-West are silent about it, I am not in APC or any of the other political parties but my suspicion is that those who think that their political career will be advanced by not rocking the boat, by doing what the Northern components in the APC wants that through that they will get what they want, they will not challenge whatsoever the President is doing, no matter how wrong it may be. It is all about self-preservation. That is my suspicion but I will advise that you interview them. Ask them that, all these things that is happening, why are you people not speaking out? They will tell you that they don’t want to be isolated. They can get what they want within the party. That is more important to them than liberating their people.
The major opposition party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is calling on the President to resign over his handling of affairs of the nation. Are you in support of this call?
PDP as a party is free to demand what it wants. I don’t have to agree or disagree with them. That is the view of the PDP and they are entitled to it. The question is, will the resignation of the President end the crisis in the country? Let’s even assume he resigns; who takes over from him legitimately and can solve the problem of Nigeria? You must think matters through. We are trying to find a solution. In my opinion, if the President
listens to them and says ‘ I resign’, will Nigeria be better? The answer is what I have told you. It is not about the person occupying the office. Whoever you put there is bound by the constitutional provisions that are extant; he is bound by the political reality on the ground and he will behave according to the dictates of those realities.
There has been controversy over Chinese loans and the fears that we may have ceded our sovereignty to China. As a former Minister of Finance, how best do you think this can be handled?
When I was Minister of Finance, I started the process of getting rid of Nigeria’s external loans; the Paris Club loan. I was the one that went to the then Head of State, Ibrahim Babangida to Paris and I negotiated with Pierre Bérégovoy, the Minister of Finance of France the first debt swap. I persuaded and said Nigeria owes France so much money; we’ve given you physical documents which you are keeping in your treasury as evidence of money Nigeria owes you and we will pay interest on those piece of papers quarterly. Maybe the paper is due for redemption in 10 years’ time but you know we won’t have the money to pay. I told him since you have French companies operating in Nigeria, they are raising Naira loans in Nigeria to run their business. Why don’t you agree to ‘Nairanise’ these piece of papers for the benefits of French companies. By so doing, the French companies will take that piece of papers and convert it to Naira here. So, if its $100m worth of Nigerian debt instrument that they bought from their own government, they bring it here and get the Naira equivalent and put it in their account to run their companies. So, Nigeria’s debt in dollars in France has gone down by that amount instead of asking for dollars that we do not have. We call it debt equity swap. Those companies are using the money to increase their equity in Nigeria; so they are swapping debt for equity. So we agree that 10 percent of what we owe them was converted to Naira and that reduces our debt by that amount. Unfortunately, the man (Beregovoy) died within three months. I am just saying this to let you know my intimate knowledge of and familiarity of the debt issue.
You claimed you facilitated the Paris Debt relief for Nigeria during the Babangida administration, how come former President Olusegun Obasanjo is taking the glory as if he initiated the process?
Go and read my book ‘The Way Forward for Nigeria’ produced in 2005, I proposed what Obasanjo eventually did. I looked at various methods of reducing external debts and said the most effective way is to use what we have to buy what we need. Since we are not earning enough dollars to pay our debts but we have oil companies operating in Nigeria; and the Federal Government has equity at times 50 to 60 percent in these companies. I said in 1988, when Nigeria sold 10 percent of our equity in Shell BP, we got $1.2 billion. As at the time I was writing, the same 10 percent will be worth about $5 billion. So, if were to sell 10 or 15 percent of our equity in all the oil companies, we will raise the $30 billion we were owing. We will reduce our equity in the oil companies and use it to clear our debts and be independent again. I also said once we are able to raise the dollars, we will them even though we were supposed to pay the debt in 10 years, we will pay it tomorrow and I said they will accept. So, instead of $30 billion, we will pay $18 billion because of discounts. That was why I said I will eliminate Nigeria’s debt in six months when I was campaigning. But by the time Obasanjo was to do it, we have succeeded in earning more dollars and as such, we didn’t have to sell our equity again. All these things are in my book. Does Buhari understand all these things I’m talking about? Can he understand even if you explain to him? That is why we are accumulating debts now. Oil is going down; the rest of the world are moving away from fossil fuel and they are going into gas and solar. So, we are not developing the capacity to explore solar energy.