By Alexis Akwagyiram and Chijioke Ohuocha
LAGOS (Reuters) – Nigeria’s main opposition candidate for president said on Wednesday he would seek to privatise the state oil company and other government assets if elected next month, while removing a costly petrol subsidy, to revive the economy.
Atiku Abubakar, a businessman who served as vice president between 1999 and 2007, has promised to double the size of Nigeria’s economy to $900 billion by 2025.
He is the main challenger to President Muhammadu Buhari in the Feb. 16 election. Nigeria’s oil-dependent economy, which vies with South Africa’s to be the largest in Africa, has performed below par since 2016, when it suffered its first recession in 25 years.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation reported monthly group revenues totalling 4.58 trillion naira ($14.9 billion) in the 12 months to September 2018. Oil sales overall account for around two-thirds of government income.
“I am committed to privatising NNPC. Even if they are going to kill me, I’ll do it,” he told business leaders in the commercial capital Lagos.
In a Reuters interview, Abubakar said his privatisation plans would extend further than the oil sector. He said he would direct the advisory National Council on Privatisation to draw up a “very comprehensive policy as far as privatisation of government enterprises”.
“As a policy, we want to have less government as far as businesses are concerned. No sector is going to be exempted as far as liberalisation and privatisation is concerned,” he said. He had previously stated in his manifesto that he intended to break up NNPC.
With unemployment at 23.1 percent in the third quarter of 2018 and inflation at a seven-month high of 11.44 percent in December, the economy has become a key election issue.
Abubakar’s campaign has sought to focus on free-market principles that saw him put in place a programme of liberalisation in areas including the telecoms sector when he was vice president.
The candidate, representing the main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP), said he would oversee the removal of multiple exchange rates, of which Nigeria has at least three.
The central bank has implemented tight currency restrictions since 2015 in the face of low oil prices that weakened the naira and fuelled inflation. Buhari has repeatedly said he opposes letting the naira float freely.
Investors fled in the wake of the currency controls. JP Morgan removed Nigeria from its government bond index in late 2015.
“I will rather allow the currency to float so that we can have a realistic single exchange rate that would be stable. That will encourage foreign investors,” Abubakar told Reuters.
The candidate added that he would scrap a petrol subsidy, which successive governments have retained to keep official fuel prices low.
“I have always been an advocate of subsidy removal. It is a policy I intend to continue until we completely eliminate that subsidy,” he said.
The subsidy has been a drain on government finances. A previous effort to remove the subsidy by Buhari’s predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, raised pump prices in 2012 and caused riots. ($1 = 306.8500 naira)
(Additional reporting by Paul Carsten; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by John Stonestreet)