Exclusive interview with the Minister of Mines and Steel Development of Nigeria, Arc. Olamilekan Adegbite. The ministry is the official host of the upcoming fifth annual Nigeria Mining Week in Abuja from 26-28 October 2020.
How would you say the COVID-19 has affected the mining sector in Nigeria thus far?
The Government of President Muhammadu Buhari has done so much in the last four years to create an investor friendly environment, which has piqued the interest of some minors and majors in the global mining industry. It’s just unfortunate that the pandemic struck at a time when the ministry had done a lot to revamp the sector. Like every other sector of the economy, the mining sector has not been immune to the adverse effect of the pandemic. The global lockdown for instance has precluded the import of equipment and machinery vital to mining. Also, investors who had earlier planned to travel to Nigeria for the purpose of investing have had to shelve the idea as the global aviation industry is grounded. Besides, no investor would be happy to go through the new travel protocol that mandates quarantine for 14 days before entry into any country.
Then again, because many manufacturing and construction company have halted production, the demand for some mined products has tapered off. All these have affected the ability of our sector to generate revenue as we had earlier projected. I am not sure any sector of the economy would be able to meet its projections due to the pandemic. In fact, economists expect that the global economy would experience a recession.
What has been the Nigerian Government’s response to the pandemic, specifically pertaining to the mining sector?
The pandemic without question placed all governments across the globe in a precarious situation where they had to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. It was either we took a stand for health or the economy. And most governments, including ours, chose the deep blue sea. We took a stand for health to protect lives and shut down the economy. Without that, a lot of people would have succumbed to the virus, crippling our health care system and ballooning the death rate.
Clearly the government of President Buhari prioritized the safety of its citizens over profit making and this principle trickled down to all the different ministries and sectors in which safety of lives was given precedence. This was why mining was placed in non-essential activity as it has no direct impact on the lives of its citizens. Directives were issued to all MDAs that only those projects in the 2020 budget that have direct and immediate impact on the livelihoods of its citizens should be implemented.
How has the mining community responded in your view?
There’s no denying the fact that the pandemic has affected the mining community adversely. The community is spending this period to re-strategize so that when the pandemic is over we can once again hit the ground running.
Many business people are already looking ahead, at a post-COVID economy. Your thoughts?
Well the COVID-19 pandemic has afforded us a glimpse into the future when the demand for oil would taper off due to the widespread use of electric cars. The price of crude oil is down today as a result of the global lockdown that has restricted the use of cars and airplanes. Transport consumes an overwhelming large percentage of crude oil today. But in the future it would not be so as the sector would be driven by cleaner technology like battery. Hence any economy still tied to fossil fuel would run into trouble.
The federal government is indeed thinking ahead of how we can truly decouple our economy from its addiction to oil. In this respect the mining, agriculture and manufacturing sectors have key roles to play. I also think it will now give African countries the window to begin to earnestly focus on the development of local content and indigenous industrial infrastructure, like what President Muhammadu Buhari is doing with the Ajaokuta Steel Plant now by way of its resuscitation. This will diversify our economy and reduce dependence on oil.
Are we to look at this pandemic as a kind of lesson about how we treat our resources and each other in your view?
Absolutely! For instance, it has truly dawned on us as a nation that we cannot continue to rely on oil to fund our budget. Also, the global clampdown on the movement of people and goods has made it crystal clear to us that we have to develop our manufacturing capacity. Many industries were unable to source spare parts and raw materials due to the international lockdown.
But then again, from another perspective, this pandemic has also shown us how important it is to exploit our natural resources sustainably and treat the environment responsibly. The few months of reduced industrial activity has cleared pollution around the world and made the blue sky visible in many places around the world.
May we ask how you and your family are doing during this time, everyone safe and healthy?
We thank God for his mercies over us. We have been adhering to all the recommended global safety measures and staying hopeful, knowing that the pandemic will pass. Yes, everyone is safe and healthy.