Sen. Gershom Bassey represents Cross River south senatorial district in the Senate. He is also the vice chairman, Senate Committee on Petroleum Upstream. In this interview he advances that the only way to get out of recession is to spend more money. He spoke with RUTH CHOJI.
There are fears that the economy is approaching depression, do you think so?
I am concerned. We are in a recession. When a country is in a recession, it means you are in a period of negative growth. We are seeing the consequences of all the bottom lines like inflation, economic growth, foreign exchange, Unemployment and all the key indices are in reverse.
Some Nigerians have said, enough of game blame but the governing party still believes that PDP, your party, put the country in this situation?
Anybody who is playing the blame game is a bit childish. We voted for this government because we thought they had solutions. The PDP left us with the biggest economy in Africa. We expect that the new administration should be improving the size of that economy. The blame game is neither here nor there, we have to be on deck to ensure that we service the economy.
But how will you assess the government policies so far, in the face of some criticisms from some foreign organizations?
I will not take kindly to anybody insulting our president or government, I will take issues with them. I am a Nigerian and I am proud of my country. I am proud of my leader and government. So I won’t sit down here and support any foreigner coming to insult my government. Clearly, they have made some mistakes because you can see some of the policy reversals here and there, but I think that at this stage, we are not talking about mistakes anymore, we are talking about solutions. Our government and president is a patriotic Nigeria and he is doing his best for Nigeria. Clearly something is slowing him down. So at this point we need to look at alternative ways.
What do you think is slowing him down?
I don’t know, but if I were to advise him, I will say, open up to all Nigerians. You are president to all Nigerians. You don’t have to limit yourself to some people. You can find solutions anywhere, be it the PDP, APC, Labor or none align Nigerians, and you can find solutions anywhere. He should open himself up so solutions can come from anywhere, under any coloration.
Do you think the emergency economic powers that Mr. President is seeking from the National Assembly will give him opportunity to move faster even though some have expressed reservations that he would become more powerful than he already is?
We will not advice that. I am not aware that he has asked for emergency powers. The National Assembly, judicial and the executive have to do their work. The framers of our constitution in their wisdom had a reason why there were separation of powers. If you are talking about speeding up the process, it is okay because all of us recognized that we are in a dire situation. So all of us are prone to speeding up what we have to do, but there is no reason for emergency powers.
What would be your advice to government on how to get out of this recession, what will it be?
We have come up with comprehensive advice and solutions…
But has it been adopted by the executive?
If you follow our debate recently at the senate, we have come up with comprehensive solutions and suggestion that will take us out of recession. Recessions are not new, they have been happening from time immemorial. The panacea for solving or coming out of recession is very well established. The only fastest way to come out of recession is to spend and its to create inflows into the economy.
Is this government doing that?
Well, that is the way we are going, the idea is to start releasing funds into key sectors. In economics, they called it the paradox of faith where you think because you are in a recession, you have to save. That is the mistake most people make. In recession, you spend, you don’t save. We all know that, there are questions like, “where is the money going to come from that we will spend? “How are we going to inject it?” These are the issues and that is how the issue of sales of assets came up.
Are you in support of the sales of assets to generate funds…?
We have taken a position in the senate that we will not support the sale of assets. I am a senator and I am bound by that decision. We have only addressed the issue of performing assets. We did not address the issue of creating new assets and that is an area where the government can look at and be creative. Like sale of oil blocks, road concessions and other things that are dormant assets. There are also solid mineral blocks and so on. These are things that can be created and sold to generate funds quite apart from the performing assets. We do not want performing asset to be sold. But the assets that have not been created or that are not performing are the ones I will advise government to look into.
Nigeria is entering the last quarter and many Nigerian have not felt the impact of the 2016 budget. What is our take on this?
That is why some of the measures government have taken should be reconsidered. From the issue of Treasury Single Account (TSA) and other issues, we need the FG to look at all these policies. The good thing is that, funds for capital budget has been released. Everybody has confirmed that 50% of the budget has been released. I know that there are constrains by the public procurement rules, even now we in the National Assembly we are talking about reviewing these laws so that more inflows can come into the economy. The only way to get out of recession is to spend more money. You spend particularly on infrastructure and of course domestic debt.
Looking at the Niger/delta, what is your take on the renewed activities of the avengers?
This people have been with us since the advent of democracy. Remember the Obasanjo regime where there was the issue of Odi. After Odi, there was an established template, Obasanjo himself recognized that and he entered into negotiations with the militants. We have established a template from then on how to deal with the militants. I am surprised that the new government that came in did not adopt that template because there was no need to reinvent the wheel. All they need to do is to follow that template. Now I am happy that they are back to talking to the militants. It is the only way because in guerrilla warfare, you don’t know who the enemy is. You may be talking, shouting militants, but the man standing right next to you might be one of them and you won’t know. So the best thing is to dialogue with these guys. We have done it in the past and it was successful. I will advise the government to dialogue with them just like past regime have done and it succeeded and we were able to maximize our production.
But what will it take Assuage the militants once and for all?
It will take dialogue. Militancy has taken many forms. There are many grievances in the Niger/delta. So different people are fighting for different things, that is why late President Umaru Musa Yar’adua was wise to engage these people by talking to them. A lot of them are Nigerians first. They want to be Nigerians first. They want be carried along by Nigeria. Sometimes they might become too gregarious but as government talk to them, they will listen…
When you say carry them along, it is no longer news that some zones have been complaining of being marginalized by this government, what you think of this?
It is too early to tell. This government has been in power for a year and some months. I know there are steps put in place for dialogue. These approach of engaging people is the right way to go.
What is happing to the PIB because many Nigerians think, it will reduce the tension in the South/south if passed into law?
A lot is being done. It is one of the bills that was schedule to come up recently but because of various committee schedules, it couldn’t hold, but a lot of work is being done on the PIB. It will come up soon.
Coming back to the PDP, the two factions seems to have calm down but some Nigerian are afraid that it might not be for long. What is your take on this?
Dialogue is still going on, Sen Ahmed Makarfi recently paid a visit to Sen Ali Modu Sheriff in his office in Abuja. So there is dialogue going on and very soon, you will hear that court cases have been withdraw and the party will be united again.
The PDP just lost Edo state and some think that, if they don’t stop the bickering, they could lose Ondo State too?
We didn’t lose Edo State because we were not in power in there. You can say that, we did not win. It wasn’t our state in the first place. But in contrast to Edo, Ondo is a PDP state. I don’t see any reason why the PDP will not carry it. The chairman of PDP Governor’s Forum is the Ondo State governor, Olusegun Mimiko . So it Is a PDP strong hold.