Abuja — It was a battle of ideas, yesterday, at the third in a series town hall meeting, organised by the Arise News Channel and its partners, where three of the leading presidential candidates – the Peoples Democratic Party’s Atiku Abubakar, Labour Party’s Peter Obi and the New Nigeria Peoples Party’s Rabiu Kwankwaso – took on four critical issues of poverty, education, health and human capital development as central to the growth and development of the country, preparatory to the 2023 general election.
Transmitted simultaneously from panelists, both in the Lagos and the Abuja studios of Arise Television, the programme jointly anchored by seasoned broadcasters, Charles Aniagolu and Adesuwa Omoruwa, was the second the candidates appeared on, having featured in the maiden edition of the Town Hall dialogue last month.
Aside the Arise News Channel, the other media partners were Premium Times, Vanguard Newspaper, The Punch Newspaper, The Guardian Newspaper, Daily Trust Newspaper, Leadership Newspaper, New Telegraph Newspaper, Sun Newspaper, The Cable news portal, Nigeria Union of Journalists and the Nigerian Guild of Editors.
In addition, the town hall engagement was also streamed across the major social media platforms, including YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and many of the cable televisions.
The candidates, however, aired their views, in sync with their manifestos, on how they planned to address those issues, which were considered germane to the development of the country, post-2023.
Atiku, while speaking to Nigerians, assured the people that if elected president next year, his administration would ensure that poverty rate in the country was reduced to the barest minimum.
The PDP candidate, who urged Nigerians to be fair to the PDP, said when the party was in power, the poverty rate wasn’t as high as it was presently, adding also that he would removed the bottlenecks stifling access to funds by tertiary institutions, as part of ways to addressing recurring strike action by public universities’ lecturers.
According to him, the current system has bottlenecks, because when government released funding for universities it always went into another agency, and that the agency stifled the universities from getting these funds.
On healthcare, Atiku advised that the issue of primary healthcare should be addressed, lamenting that government was not investing enough in the medical sector.
Assuring the Nigerian people that he would provide them with his health status if need be, the PDP presidential candidate said, he might not be able to use Nigeria’s healthcare facilities, because there were limitations that needed to be addressed.
Atiku, who addressed rising medical tourism, advised that private sector partnership would help increase the number of quality hospitals in the country.
He therefore, promised that his administration would look at the constitution and determine how to ensure that local government’s funds were directly allocated to the LGAs and applied in the best ways possible.
“When I assumed office as VP in 1999, I was placed in charge of LG allocations. I gave instructions that all LGA funds should be transferred directly to the LGAs. After nine months, the governments of the states protested and said it was illegal. We must look at the constitution and determine how to ensure that local government funds are directly allocated to the LGAs and applied in the best ways possible.
“The most important thing is education – to get our kids educated. And not only educated but rightly educated. And then they can make themselves available to the private sector for growth, which is the engine room of the economy. When we were in power, the poverty rate was not this high.
“We implemented these NEEDS (National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy) and SEEDS (State Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy), which significantly reduced poverty. I believe the programme initiated by the PDP government, which brought down the poverty rate in Nigeria, should be sustained.
“We need to first address the issue of primary healthcare. After addressing this, which affects the majority of our citizens, then, we can focus on the secondary and tertiary levels. The truth is that, we are not investing enough as a government in the medical sector.
“Another issue is medical tourism. We need to sit with the private sector and tell them we want them to invest in the health sector and that we are ready to offer incentives. With the right incentives, I believe Nigeria’s private sector will invest adequately in the health sector.
“On poverty, the poverty rate wasn’t high as this. Nigerians should be fair to PDP. We have got all the statistics both national and international, the most important thing emphasised by Peter and Rabiu is education. We have to get our kids educated by the time you educate them, you find that they become readily available to the private sector, who should be the engine of growth,” Atiku said.
Taking on budget deficit, the former vice-president said his administration would first block government wastages in terms of spending to save money.
Seemingly expressing support for subsidy removal as part of his plans to raise money to meet up budget deficit, Atiku said his administration would continue with privatisation as part of plans to raise money.
He said: “We must first block government wastage. We started removing subsidies while we were in office. We were to remove it in four stages. We did two stages before we left, but no one had the leadership and courage to see it through.
“Another area is that we make sure we continue with the policies we have set, for instance started removing subsidies, when we were in office, we removed subsidies in four quarters. After we left, the whole thing froze; nobody had the courage in leadership to continue.
“We will continue with privatisation, for instance, the case of our moribund refineries, they have not been working but we are expending a lot of money there. With privatisation, we can raise so much money to meet up this deficit.”
Justifying why he was the best candidate to lead the country come 2023, Atiku said given his experience, he was the most qualified.
He argued that, Nigerians should look at their performance, when PDP was in government from 1999 to 2015 and that of the present administration of All Progressives Congress (APC) before making decision on who to vote for next year.
His words: “Nigerians should vote for me, because one, I started as a civil servant. I have an experience of civil service bureaucracy for 20 years. Thereafter, I began my political career, the fight for democracy.
“In the fight, I went through a lot of challenges, assassination attempts and so on. I was elected governor of my state and because of my contribution to the party, I was nominated as Vice President and we won.
“I believe since the return of democracy in this country, the party, which we formed performed very well, up till now there’s no other government that performed better between 1999 and 2015. I believe with my experience, Nigerians can’t afford to elect another person other than me. Nigerians should compare our government and the current to see, who served this country better.”
Espousing his ideas, Obi hinted at his commitment to channel petroleum subsidy resources towards proper funding of health, education and human capital development.
This was even as he blamed the federal government over the continued diversion of local government allocation by state governments, saying the government at the central had in the last decade failed to live up to its constitutional responsibility.
He also faulted the rising cases of medical tourism, especially, by the political class in the country, saying those aspiring for political offices were expected to make their health status public.
He said, “The issue of primary health is basic. That is why I said we need to increase investment in the health sector. Our investment in education and health is very low. Our total investment in health in the past six years is N2.3 trillion. That’s too low for a country of over 200 million.
“Essentially, when you look at the issue of primary health care, especially, in the north. So, we need to invest in primary health care, invest in training the manpower especially, now that nurses and midwives are needed all over the world.
“What we need is insurance. We need to ensure insurance like other countries do. Example is what is happening in Indonesia. This is the area we are going to move subsidies in. It’s key”.
Obi, who dwelt on the alleged diversion of local government allocation by state governments as recently raised by President Muhammadu Buhari, said the federal government should be blamed for it, because the issue was solely on the federal government, whom he said has created a communication gap between the government at the state and local levels.
The LP candidate also noted that the absence of security in most part of the states, has chased investors operating at the local government level, a situation he said has denied local councils the opportunity to generate revenue.
According to him, when there is “lack of adequate communication,” the tendency to mismanage or divert allocations of local authorities was encouraged.
Citing how he was able to manage local government resources as governor of Anambra State some years ago, he said, “Go and see how we work in the state and the local government to be able to increase investment in the area of education, in the area of primary health care and other areas.
“It’s the federal government that will revive the productivity, when you return confidence in investors by using the appropriate measure to provide enabling environment that investors can come in and invest.”
Still on medical tourism, he said the practice must be discharged to encourage investment in the health sector in the country, adding that any leader seeking public office, “should be able to make their medical and health status known to the public.
“When I was serving as a governor, I resuscitated some health facilities and I used them and I still use them today. So, I use the facilities here and I believe in them and I can tell you that they are very competent. All we need is to support it and see how we can use insurance to ensure that everybody can be cared for,” he said.
Kwankwaso, while fielding questions on wide ranging issues, assured the people that his government would not allow governors to suffocate the local governments, financially, if elected.
The NNPP candidate held the view that, there was a need to look at the Constitution in order to ensure provisions could be made whereby the local government authorities could get their money derived from the federal allocation.
He pointed out that though there were cases in the past, where local governments did not handle the resources well, but assured that his government would not only ensure that those monies were being sent to the local governments, while local governments would also be encouraged to do the right thing, by way of doing their projects or programmes.
The former Governor of Kano State insisted that stifling the local government shouldn’t be acceptable to any responsible government.
Said he: “So, we have a very robust arrangement whereby we are going to work not only with the local governments in many ways, because you are serving the same people, whether we are in the same party or not. We believe that the people of this country should be given good governance at all levels – state, local government and at national level.
“We will continue to encourage the local government and states to ensure that education is given priority. And, of course, other areas that will help the people – the infrastructure, the agriculture.”
Kwankwaso’s idea on education was hinged on the belief that more investment should be made in the education sector to ensure that each and every child in the country was given the opportunity to go to school at all levels.
On the persistent strike by ASUU, Kwankwaso said the issue with the union demanded a lot of transparency and recalled that when he was the governor of Kano State, the state chapter of ASUU, in most cases, didn’t join the strike, because what was due to the university system was given to them.
He said his government would ensure that all the questions raised by ASUU were addressed, adding that his party’s blueprint on education was in tandem with the issues raised by ASUU.
The NNPP standard bearer pointed out that his prospective administration believed that the best way to go was to massively support education, while also putting in place, a lot of reforms and ensuring that the issue of corruption was tackled.
Pondering the issue of security, which is threatening education in the country, Kwankwaso noted that there was a need to ensure that every square metre in the country was secured, and also stressed the need to have timely and accurate information, adding that security could not function effectively without intelligence and use of technology.
“We have the issue of insecurity and our situation in Nigeria is that people can no longer buy and sell freely, because of insecurity and all these are issues associated with poverty,” Kwankwaso added.
Dialoguing the health challenge, he hinted that his government would do whatever it would take to provide quality and affordable healthcare services for Nigerians.
The former Senator, noted that his government would encourage people, who were interested in establishing hospitals and give them all the necessary support.
“But, on the other hand, I think leaders should lead from the front not from the back. You see this idea that our leaders developed over the years that even when they have malaria, they will travel abroad. Some of them have children in particular countries. Some have children in Britain, Dubai, some have in France.
“I can assure you that I am so happy with my health status, because the last medical examination that I had, someone there, according to the outcome gave me a guarantee of 30 years,” he said.
Promising to set up a health insurance scheme, Kwankwaso assured the people that his government would introduce a lot of reforms into the health insurance system so that many people could benefit from it.
“On the issue of brain drain, our policy is to train as many Nigerians as possible and of course, encourage people – specialists – who are specialised in some areas to come back and work for our country,” Kwankwaso said.
The presidential candidate, while speaking on the foreign debt of the country, promised to renegotiate the repayment of the loans with the creditors with the inability of the country not to repay its debt at the moment.
His words: “It is our intention to sit down with the creditors to renegotiate and ensure that we are given breathing space to start the government in the first place and secondly, to look at all areas of income.”