In this interview with journalists in Jos, Mark Longyen, Senior Special Assistant to Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, speaks about the governor’s efforts in diversifying the state’s economy, his foreign trips to China, the US and South Africa, as well as some recent political developments in Plateau State. JANET FADEN reports.
Q. Governor Lalong seems to have embraced economic diversification as the main solution to Plateau State’s weak economy and low income earnings, can you oblige us an insight into his efforts in this regard?
A.The Governor upon assumption of office over a year ago realized the need to diversify the state’s economy away from relying on the dwindling oil revenue from the Federation Account. This was necessitated by the failed state status of the state that was bequeathed to him by his predecessor. He had to think outside the box and find quick-fix and long-term solutions to rescue the state which was literally hanging on the precipice -and diversification is it! The diversification of the state’s economy is hinged on agriculture as the focus and mainstay of the state’s economy.
Q. So how has the governor fared in this regard?
A.In order to achieve this, the governor decided to vigorously seek foreign direct investment through partnerships with foreign investors, meeting up Plateau State’s obligations of counterpart fundings to donor agencies. He is also reviving hitherto moribund state industries, as well as restructure critical agencies like the Plateau State Investment and Property Development Corporation, PIPC, the Agricultural Services and Training Centre, ASTC, among others.
Q. In more specific terms, what dividends have the governor’s diversification efforts yielded to the state?
A. Specifically, the governor’s diversification effort has been brought to bear on the Agricultural, Solid Minerals and Tourism sectors, which Plateau State has comparative advantages, in addition to massive industrialization efforts. That is why the Governor has had to travel to countries like China, the United States and, recently, South Africa, to meet and engage with foreign investors, showcase the state’s investment potentials and seek endurable, viable and beneficial business partnerships with them.
And these efforts have yielded huge dividends in various areas of endeavor. For instance, the state government has signed MoUs with some Chinese firms for the exploration of solid minerals and the development of the tourism industry, which both have huge potentials to turn around the fortunes of the state’s economy with huge financial benefits for the state and its people.
The Heipang Inland Container Dry Port, a Federal Government project, which was built as a cargo airport for the direct exportation of agro-allied products to foreign countries will soon take off, while the popular Jos International Breweries is slated for revival through public-private partnership. Just last week, the hitherto abandoned multi-million naira government-owned fertiliser blending plant in Bokkos commenced the production of chemical fertilizer at its installed capacity. This resuscitation stems from the state’s partnership with an Oil and Gas company and will go a long way in boosting agriculture and food production.
Also, Plateau State has maximized its potentials as Nigeria’s leading rice producer by investing massively in rice production and expects to begin rice exportation by the end of 2017 farming season. Same applies to our other crops which we have comparative advantage, such as carrots, Irish potatoes, tomatoes and strawberry due to the state’s unique temperate, clement climatic conditions, which can be mass produced for direct export or following value chain processing.
Also, the long-abandoned Highland Bottling Company, Barkin-Ladi, has since been resuscitated through public-private-partnership and production has fully resumed. In partnership with another foreign firm, the government has signed an MoU for the immediate rebuilding of the burnt Jos Main Market which was destroyed in 2002 during the Jos crisis.
Right now, the Chinese are into mining-related activities in Wase LG. It is noteworthy that this alone has the capacity to create about 5,000 Jobs. They have also signed an MoU to partner Plateau State in the provision of mass housing infrastructure in all the three senatorial zones of the state.
Q. We understand the government is also buying back its BARC Farms, which was sold out by a former governor of the state for peanuts and that the popular Panyam Fish Farm will soon be back on stream…
A. (Cuts in) You are absolutely right. Former Governor Fidelis Tapgun’s administration, for lack of foresight had curiously sold out the BARC Farms nearly twenty-five years ago to a private individual when there was no recession. However, the present administration, in realization of the need to diversify with agriculture as the driver of the state’s economy, has successfully negotiated for its repurchase from the man who bought it and agreement reached. It is an expansive farmland with which government intends to engage in large scale mechanized agriculture in partnership with foreign investors based on the Australian or South African model to boost food production, create employment and boost internal revenue generation.
Similarly, Panyam Fish Farm, established by colonialists about 65 years ago, once reputed to be the largest Fish Farm in West Africa, but abandoned by previous administrations, is being revived right now. The state government recently signed an MoU with Solec, a private firm to resuscitate it. The farm has the capacity to generate revenue of about N2 billion annually for the state.
Q. You recently travelled with the governor to South Africa on a business trip, tell us the benefit of that mission to the people of your state.
A. The trip was a tremendous success with great dividends flowing in its trail. The Governor seized the opportunity to address the South African business community, investors, policy makers and some Nigerians residing in the country.
He explained to his audience that Plateau State and South Africa have a lot of things in common, such as tourism, mining and agriculture and urged them to take advantage of these opportunities to come and invest in the state. And it is noteworthy that in all these sectors, which are huge income earners, South Africa provides for us an excellent model to emulate and tremendously tap from.
They were amazed to know that they could come and invest in solid minerals mining in which they are experts, given their rich experience in solid minerals mining like gold, diamond and copper. Investors were equally amazed at the huge potentials available in both solar and hydro power generation, the opportunity to partner in reviving moribund industries, building infrastructure by building 5-Star Hotels, schools, etc, and turn around our industries by resuscitating dead industries or building new ones under Public-Private-Partnership, which could be by way of Build, Own and Transfer (BOT) or 100% ownership, depending on the terms agreed.
Q. What platforms did you use to reach out to these investors?
A. We did this through workshops, group discussions, one-on-one interactions, as well as the Nigerian Embassy and its officials, as well as media appearances. Investors and the South African business community generally were intimated, for instance, on the flexible process of acquiring land in the state through the Plateau State Geographical Information System, PLAGIS, and how they can sit down in their homes in South Africa and access land in Jos on the internet.
As a demonstration of their commitments in this regard, many South African investors have already indicated their interest to come on specific dates to strike deals with the state government in their various areas of interest. So in a nutshell, one would say that Governor Lalong’s economic diversification effort is fully on course, a huge success and a national model.
Q. Last week, the PDP opposition in the state stirred the hornet’s nest when its stalwarts like former governors Fidelis Tapgun and Jonah Jang made uncomplimentary remarks about the Lalong-led APC administration, what is your take on this?
A. (Laughs). Look, I’m not just a trained investigative journalist but also a political analyst and so I’m in a vantage position to know and tell you authoritatively that the whole hullabaloo borders on the high stakes in the 2019 governorship election. The opposition PDP in the state, by and large, comprises political dead woods who are living in a fool’s paradise. The truth is that APC and the youths have taken over power in Plateau, which explains why APC won all the recently conducted rerun House of Assembly elections, and this will be further replicated in 2019. The most influential politician in Plateau after the legendary ex-governor Solomon Lar is our distinguished Senator and former Governor Joshua Dariye, who has ditched PDP for APC together with his burgeoning followers. If Tapgun, for instance, who said he regretted supporting Lalong to win thinks he is popular, let him contest for councilor, not governor, in his ward in Shendam in the forthcoming LG elections on the PDP platform and see if he will win; I’m 100% sure he will lose. As for Jang who rigged his way to the Senate, one tenure is his name because gone are the days of PDP’s impunity and the politics of “16 is greater than 19” in the Nigerian Governors Forum. Besides, if after 8 years of unprecedented impunity and misrule and as an incumbent then, Jang failed to bequeath the state to a PDP successor, is it in 2019 that he can do it? My take is that Tapgun, Jang, Sango, Useni and their likes should simply join hands with Governor Lalong to move the state forward, instead of constantly trying to antagonize and sabotage the administration, under the guise of clearly wanton opposition mischief. Plateau people are politically not naive, they are much wiser now and change has brought them to the promised land, so they can’t gullibly return to Egypt, which the PDP represents.