As part of effort to address the issue of massive job loss to expatriates, professional bodies and experts in human resource management are calling on government to strengthen its monitoring mechanism to mitigate the ever rising unemployment rate in the country. In this exclusive interview with Linus Aleke, a retired senior civil savant and the Managing Director NNAM-Power Concepts LTD, Mr. Ike A. Chioba appeals to government to take the issue serious. But however blamed the situation on acceptance of certain foreign loans which in most instance, insists that certain number of expatriates must be allowed into the country to help execute the project for which the loan was given. He added that government needs to lift the embargo placed on employment by the military junta in the early 80s to create what he described as succession plan in the civil service, while lamenting the absence of middle level officers in the civil service. He also spoke on other issues. His excerpt:
Unemployment in Nigeria is becoming alarmingly too high, while the private sector leads the way in employment generation in other climes, Nigerians are looking up to government to create all the jobs. Why is our case different?
Our own case is not different but what had happened is that we left our infrastructural facilities to decay and decompose over time to the extent that companies that were very buoyant before now started to provide for themselves facilities that government should have provided to enable them grow and compete effectively. For example, companies now provide their own electricity, provide their own borehole, they buy their own diesel and in some cases this diesel are not even available for them to buy and carry out their activities. And because of these problems, most companies that were doing well in Nigeria folded. Remember Dunlup, remember Michelin tire, and remember the textile industries in Kano, in Kaduna, in Aba, in Isolo within Lagos metropolitan, all these industries folded. The only industry that survived was the food industry and that was because people must eat food no matter the economic situation. But the critical industries have all folded up. Most warehouses built by these industries had metamorphosed into churches. So that is why unemployment is on the increase, government is no longer recruiting because of economic down turn and the private sector that would have come to the rescue had also gone under, due to absence of basic social amenities. Nigeria has to go back to the drawing board to revitalize the private sector players. More especially now that the emphasis is on micro and small businesses and like I had always told people, small businesses is the way to go. If a small cottage industry is built in every locality in Nigeria, it has the capacity of absorbing fifty unemployed people from the localities. Then the remaining can go to states and federal level to take the few available opportunities. We must seat down as a nation and prioritize our needs than standing and complaining, we must work things out because he, who fails to plan, they said plans to fail.
Nigerian Immigration Service has also come under intense criticism for their inability to effectively manage migration issues, what is responsible for this perceive incapacitation on their part?
Nigerian Immigration Service is doing their best under the circumstance. Our borders are porous, you see people walk in every moment from neigbouring countries of Chad, Niger, Cameroon etc. it is not that Immigration service do not know what to do or do not want to do the right thing. I can assure you that they do, but some times, the system makes it difficult for them to do those things that the law requires from them. Of course I know a lot of them that take their job seriously. They are doing their best but they cannot go beyond what the environment provides for them.
Can you utter without fear of any contraction say that Nigerian Immigration Service has enough manpower to carryout their constitutional duty diligently?
Certainly not, you do not even have to go that far, around March last year, they wanted to recruit about one thousand personnel which was truncated because of the unfortunate incident that led to lost of lives. They wanted to recruit that one thousand because they needed more personnel and I know that they needed much more than that one thousand personnel but that was what their budget could carry. I am telling you this because I was in the system then and as an insider, I had certain privilege information about happening in the system. As we speak, I can authoritatively tell you that they need more tan five thousand men to function effectively. On yearly bases, people retire from service and they are not replaced. When was the last time they recruited personnel? That of 2014 was truncated; they would have also recruited for 2015, because as you promote people, you create vacancies at the entry point. There are lots of vacancies in the service but because of paucity of funds and budgetary provisions, the service is unable to engage more people that will help do the job effectively.
Is the ministry of Interior or Nigerian Immigration Service to be blamed for the truncated 2014 recruitment exercise?
Let’s be realistic here. There have been a lot of investigations on that particular issue. The Senate had investigated the matter so who am I to apportion blames. Don’t also forge that I was a staff of the ministry at the time, so I am not in a position to blame any person or institution. The relevant body had investigated the issue and has sent their report to government. Therefore it is the duty of government to make the findings public as well as punish those who were indicted by the panel report.
What can be done to improve the manpower strength of Nigerian Immigration Service to enable them function optimally?
My brother, this is a kind of open ended question. Like I said earlier, it is not just the Immigration Service alone that is suffering the effect of insufficient manpower. And that is why we have huge unemployment rate in the country. If the system was what it used to be, we would not have found ourselves in this sorry situation. There use to be gradual replacement of workforce in the past; it was not a periodic thing. It was a gradual process, that at the end of every year, the human resource department of the Ministries, Department and Agencies of government look at their staff strengths, take statistics of them to ascertain those who are likely to retire. Then provide for their pension and create the vacancies and forward it to the Head of Service, the Head of Service approves it and forward same to the Federal Civil Service Commission or other recruitment organ of government for employment. Though this process is still in place, but a situation whereby lack of fund prevents government from engaging in this regular recruitment exercise to fill vacated seats in the service it creates another problem. That is not to say that I am advocating for government to employ people that they cannot pay. So it is not easy to just give a one off advice, the system have a lot of complications but I do sincerely hope that the present administration will address it. Not just for immigration, not just for civil service, but other government parastatals and Para-military organizations. You hardly find level 8 administration or accountant officers in ministries today. The system has created a kind of succession gap, during our time, there was level 8,9,10 etc and people were climbing the ladder while others were coming in to fill vacated positions but that is no longer happening.
How true are the insinuations in certain quarters that MDAs no longer advertise vacancies but rather distribute the vacant positions amongst top civil servants and politicians in the guise of replacement?
Let us get one thing straight, no MDA can employ any applicant without going to the federal civil service commission. It is only the commission that is charged with the statutory mandate to recruit for government. Therefore it is good for people to ague or insinuate as you rightly said on this kind of sensitive topic from a point of knowledge rather than just peddling false rumors that are capable of tarnishing the image of certain class of people in the society. I am not saying that connections do not assist people secure employment. As a Nigerian, I know that connection helps a lot in getting employment for qualified relations, or cronies but what I am saying is that there are laws governing employment which are often time adhered to strictly. So if that process was not disjointed in the 80s by the embargo placed on employment by the then military junta, we would not have the level of unemployment rate we are confronted with in the country today. When some of us left the university, we had 2 to 3 job offers and have to choose the best out of it. Companies were coming to schools to beg graduating students to accept their employment offers but reverse is the case today. This is certainly not the Nigeria of our dream.
You were in the public sector for over three decades before joining the private sector, even though you are relatively new at this other end, will you say that there are enabling environment for businesses to thrive in the country?
The most important ingredient for any business to thrive is determination to succeed in whatever thing or business you do. I retired based on age and by virtue of that, I could seat back and live on my pension. But I looked at the knowledge I had acquired over 34 years that I had worked for government in various capacities and decided to establish this consultancy firm with two other of my colleague who had also put same number of years serving their father land so as to add value to the society with this knowledge and experience. If I had decided to go back to my village to join the council of elders and begin to write petitions, it will not help the system. But I noticed that the last place I worked which is very critical to the growth of the economy needs some fine-tuning and far-reaching reforms to make things work in accordance with global best practices. Like the question you asked earlier, people who are not qualified to be in this country are here with us. The system is reaping off foreigners who want to do business in Nigeria ad some other times they are given fake documents. I really want to re-emphasize this issue. When we did our last monitoring and verification exercise while I was still in the ministry of Interior as an acting director, we found out that a sizeable percentage of the companies operating in Nigeria with expatriate quota and business permit are operating with fake document but the unfortunate thing is that they don’t even know. It is only when they come to renew what they have that we look at the signatories and found out that those who retire over ten years ago are still signatory to the document they are presenting for renewal or in most cases you found out that it is outright forgery. Those of us who were signatory to this highly security document do one or two things when we sign expatriate quota which only me that signed it know. That is part of the security measures we devise to guard against these fragrant forgery by foreigners. But the truth is that there is too much forgery with the attendant revenue loss to government. You know they pay certain amount for the services given to them, they forge receipt of these services and forge everything and government looses.
The expatriate issue is no doubt generating serious ripples in Nigeria following the astronomical increase in the rate of unemployment. What are the mechanism put in place by government to checkmate these foreign firms who are in habit of bringing in expatriates whose skill are available in the country thereby creating unemployment?
You must look at the issue of expatriate from a broader perspective and not just that the foreigners are coming in to take up available jobs that ordinarily should have created opportunity for local professionals, which in turn reduce the scourge of unemployment. In the first instance, there is an existing rule that states that where we do not have the requisite skills to perform certain assignment to certain firm, the firm can bring in expatriates under the ‘expatriate quota rule’ to fill the knowledge gap. But it is usually for a given number of years, ten years at most. However, the rule further states that while the expatriate is rendering the service for which he was brought in, he is expected to train two locals so that when his stay in the country elapse, those he had skilled will continue from where he stopped and there will be no need for borrowing expert in that particular area, having trained two Nigerians. That is what we call knowledge transfer. It is aimed at bridging the gap of such technical expertise that are in short supply in the country. On the other hand, we also have foreigners who bring in their capital or equipment and need to be around to supervise or oversee that investment. They also come under expatriate quota rule but in a different capacity.
What numbers of expatriates are allowed to come into the country from a specific firm under the expatriate quota rule?
There is really no specific number but let us look at some instances that may warrant this practice of sourcing for expatriate. When a company is into a specialized area of business, they may bring in as many experts as they may have need for, in an event where such skills are unavailable in the country or as agreed by the ministry of Interior. The number is usually determined by the ministry, based on the available information to them through the company’s application for expatriate. The ministry does not just grant permission for a specific number of expatriates without first of all looking at the scope of work and the kind of skill and professionalism required to accomplish the job before granting such permission. This is because they also take into cognizance the fact that the interest of local professionals needs to be protected. Therefore, permission will not be granted to any firm that intends to bring in expatriates that are readily available in the country. So it is not fixed, some companies have just one while some others have as many as five hundred or even a thousand.
Is there any mechanism put in place by government to ascertain the real qualification of those coming into the country to work on expatriate quota rule so as to safeguard unnecessary job lose to foreigners?
There are several safeguards, for instance, if you are bringing in an expatriate engineer to work for a particular company in Nigeria, that engineer must possess qualification that is registrar-able with Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria (COREN). If it is a medical expert, he must have a qualification that is registrar-able with Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria. These are the measures, but beyond that two, there are other mechanisms that state that where we have the requisite skills required, no foreigner is allowed to bring in such professionals to come and do the job. The oil industry is taking a lead in safeguarding these jobs for locals. They have Local Content Board which is a brain child of Local Content Act. So when a foreign oil multinational operating in the country submits application for certain expatriates, the ministry will just refer it to the Local Content Board to ascertain if the skills they require are available or in short supply in Nigeria. The Local Content Board looks at the application and strike off the one that are available and recommend approval for the skills that are not available in the country.
Most professional bodies in Nigeria are complaining that these firms even bring in artisans and craftsmen in the guise of expatriates thereby shortchanging Nigerians. What will you say is responsible for that?
It is a difficult situation but some of these ugly practices are fueled by international economic policies. When a foreign agency, donor or country gives you a loan or grant for a specific project, and insist that they want to be sure that that particular project is properly executed, they will bring in their own workforce, artisan and professional to do the job, leaving aside the local professional who would have benefited from such project in term of employment and experience. Most times, these issues are tied to the loan’s terms of agreement. Let’s take for instance, that DFID wants to construct a specialist hospital in Nigeria, they may insist that the contract for the job must be given to a particular foreign company where they have interest and also insist that they will bring in their workforce to do the job if the country is interested in the grant. Under such circumstance, the country will find it difficult to apply the expatriate quota rule. This is because it is tied to a bilateral agreement and he who pays the piper they said dictates the tune. However, I am not saying that there are no abuses in the system, but again we must understand that no system is perfect. Meanwhile the ministry of Interior is working hard to surmount the challenges. I can authoritatively tell you that the far reaching policies of the ministry will no doubt strengthen things because the system had been automated. And biometric are been collated to provide accurate data that will assist the ministry track all these sharp practices. Another disturbing issue in the system is forgery, though I cannot put a figure to it in term of percentage but all I can tell you is that most foreign companies operating in Nigeria operate with forged papers. They only get to know about it when come to the ministry to renew their papers at expiration.