By Chidi Obineche
Chief Guy Ikokwu, a lawyer and former National Legal Adviser of the defunct Nigeria Peoples Party (NPP) in the Second Republic, in this interview says Nigeria will split-up before 2023 if it is not restructured, and equity, social justice, and devolution of powers to the federating units implemented.
He also speaks on other key national issues, including xenophobic attacks on Nigerians by South Africans, the national economic index, poverty, Value Added Tax, federalism, among others. Excerpts:
In the course of the xenophobic attacks on Africans especially Nigerians, by South Africans, there have been various reactions and suggestions on how to handle it by the affected countries. What is your own attitude and prescription towards it?
The South African xenophobic attack was a premeditated one. It did not just spring up or came out of the blues because the government and the high ranking authorities in the country were definitely in support of it and encouraged their youths and the police to do what they were doing. As far as I am concerned and African and international relations are concerned, that is not the way to go. It undermines the brotherhood of Africans and if we can undermine the solidarity of Africans and relationship among us in all respect what will other foreign nations do to Africans. We will then lose the ability to withstand whatever confrontations and challenges, whether economic, political, or cultural from other parts of the world against Africans as a people. You can easily identify an Asian outside, you can easily identify a Chinese, you can easily identify a European, and even an Italian is different from English when you look at them, but Africans essentially look alike. It is difficult to decipher or tell who is a Nigerian, a Ghanaian or a Gambian from a South African Zulu, or Kenyan. This is why the attacks no matter the reasons advanced for it is perplexing. So after all the struggles we have had to liberate ourselves that they have now become worse than the former imperialists is heartbreaking. Again, the Nigerian government has not responded properly to this challenge. They have allowed a situation where people are destroying what they thought is South African investments in Nigeria like Shoprite. These are institutions that are under franchise. They actually destroyed Nigerian investments in Nigeria without knowing it. But there are South African investments in Nigeria which should have been South African investments in South Africa. Institutions like the MTN, the banks, the media as represented by DSTV and so on. Let us take the MTN, for instance, which remits not less than $8 billion by way of dividends to South Africa, and realising that the South African President is in fact a major shareholder in MTN, that should have advised them better. All that Nigeria needed to do was to withhold the repatriation of their dividend through the Central Bank and use it to get compensation for Nigerians that have suffered economic losses in South Africa. This is the way international affairs operate, because in international affairs we have what is called reciprocity- you do me, I do you; you treat me well, I treat you well. That is at the bilateral ladder. Just to be at the receiving end as our leaders had done is very demeaning.
We also have reports that some Nigerians have turned down the offer by the government and Air Peace to return home. What does that suggest to you?
Economically, is Nigeria better than South Africa? That is the core issue. Many people are leaving Nigeria because of the poverty in Nigeria. Nigeria has become the poverty capital of the world. Can you imagine how Nigerians are living as migrants going all the way to the Sahara desert? They, against all odds, try to cross the Mediterranean sea in order to enter Europe where they hope to meet and live in el dorado? Some of them drown in the attempt, others are sold off as slaves and they face all kinds of indignities. Those who succeed in crossing are faced with the challenge of precarious living. You see Nigerian migrants being sold for $400.The merchants of death decapitate their bodies and sell them as body parts to make money. It is a very terrible situation and I imagine how anyone would allow his daughter or son to go through the desert in order to become a merchandise of body parts. If the Nigerian situation were better, no Nigerian will migrate in that kind of condition to go and drown in the sea. The quantum of disservice we did to ourselves is unimaginable. Nigeria has become the poverty capital of the whole world because of our attitude to governance and inept leadership.
With regards to poverty, the Federal Government recently proposed to increase VAT (Value Added Tax) to 7.5 per cent…
(Cuts in) Even the Federal Government increasing VAT, are they really sure of the exact percentage? I listened to the Finance Minister the other day saying 7.2 per cent, a top official of the ministry a few days ago put it at 7.5 per cent. Why are they peddling figures? Do they not know the difference between 7.2 per cent and 7.5 per cent? That difference of point three (. 3) can run into a trillion. Simple calculations we don’t even know as a country. Are you surprised why we are backward almost in everything? Let me say this. The VAT in Nigeria is probably one of the least in the whole world. In other countries they utilise the VAT or their taxation systems not in a discriminatory manner, but in a way that will push the growth of their own country, and they use the resources equitably. The VAT in Nigeria, for Instance, 60 per cent of it comes from Lagos and Lagos is a cosmopolitan area. But when they distribute that VAT, a higher percentage goes up North, even to states that do not contribute much to the VAT system. In the area of consumption, in most areas that benefit much from VAT, there are laws banning Malt, alcoholic beverages consumption which are mainly produced in Lagos and the VAT paid into the central purse. When it comes to the issue of the distribution of the totality of the proceeds of VAT, these states take the lion share. In some of these places, they say don’t drink stout, but if you get there, they drink stout in the night. I don’t drink stout for medical reasons, but I do not impose that on everybody. This imbalance or distributive injustice is also at the core of the perennial problems Nigeria is battling with. This is a total distortion. The monies accruing from this are not even distributed on the basis of federalism. They are distorted on the issues of unitarism. I am a lawyer of so many years standing. I did Jurisprudence. I did constitutional and international law. Students of history and international law often ask me, Chief, what is the meaning of Unitary Federalism? Nigeria goes by the name “Federal Republic of Nigeria”. How can a federal republic be administered in a unitary way through over centralisation? Most of the governing institutions are centralised upwards. Let us tell ourselves some home truth. It is this way because where we have the oil resources is from the South and it has to be unitarized so that the people who do not have it will enjoy it. The day oil dries up in the South and perhaps oil or another prime mineral is discovered in the North in commercial quantities, unitarism will end. The South where there is oil gets very little in percentage terms. Look at the ministers holding lucrative positions. There are six geo-political zones in Nigeria today. Only one zone – the Northwest has the highest number of qualitative ministries in the country so much so that they are holding the rest of the country in stranglehold. They have the commanding heights of the economy. How do you compare the ministry of Labour and Productivity of Chris Ngige with the other ministries held by the Northwest? Unitary system is consumption based, while federal system is production based. There is a population growth of 3.4 per cent per annum and fiscal growth of two per cent which in today’s Nigeria is unsustainable. This is why the economy is in the blues and we have huge foreign debts to pay salaries, vehicles, aides, instead of infrastructure and capital projects to repay the loans. It is abysmal for any developing nation to go the way we are going.
Talking about federalism in Nigeria, how do you situate the position of the governors within the federal framework? As a tier of government in a supposed federal structure are you satisfied with their operational procedures within the system?
Yes, they pander to the whims and caprices of the Federal Government because they lack the capacity to do otherwise. The legal structure at the moment is based on the 1976 and 1979 constitutions. These constitutions are based on a unitary system. These constitutions were drafted by the military not by civilians. The government of the states in the six geo- political zones, if you engage them privately, you will discover that the governors would like to have derivation of powers as it was in the 1963 Constitution when we had the regions. The regions had their own areas of responsibilities and matched them with their resources and financial capacities to be able to execute those responsibilities which they had. Can you imagine that Awolowo would say he will not pay the new minimum wage in the region? Or Imagine Okpara, Ahmadu Bello, or Osadebay getting up from their graves to owe salaries of workers and insist on top of that that they cannot pay the new minimum wage of 30,000? The challenges are enormous and they are dragging Nigeria backwards. They are reeling in their graves to understand that this is what is happening now, and to their eternal credit these are not the things they bequeathed to the country. Those who are leading the nation now are doing it on a deliberate and premeditated principle of governance to subdue the rest of the country in such a way that they will take over their land, take over their resources, and take over their property. You can compare it to the issue of RUGA. They want to use that devious means of RUGA to perpetrate fraud. How can you prefer a cow to a human being? A cow that has gone on the way for about 1000 kilometres looking for grass and food and in the process has lost much weight. They are emaciated and are nothing but muscles. They don’t have much flesh. You use them to occupy peoples land, and farm. They don’t even pay taxes. It is an economic activity. The truth has to be told. Those cows do not belong to the cow herders. Those herders moving about with about 50 or 100 cows are not the owners. The owners of those cows are somewhere else. Between me and you, you know that the only asset that the president of the country has declared is that he owns 150 cows. And in every declaration since he came to office it is the same thing. Meaning what? That the cows do not die, do not bear children, and do not increase in quantity?
How do you generally assess governance at the state level in terms of attitude to federalism and performance?
Some states are trying. If you look at the parameters of poverty or those that owe or those who have assumed the toga of feeding bottle economies in our system, you only find out that it is only about six or seven states that are viable. If six or seven out of 36 states and the FCT are viable, then it is a mass failure. That is why other West African states are laughing at Nigeria. Do you know that today, in ECOWAS, go to Senegal, Cote d’Voire to Gambia, Sierra Leone or even Burkina Faso and you come down to Togo, a statistical release about two weeks ago shows that all these countries are growing on about five per cent to seven per cent per annum, whereas Nigeria the biggest of them all is only growing at the rate of 2.1 per cent. Can 2.1 per cent square shoulders or rank with a country growing at seven per cent? The economic truth must be told. We are borrowing money from abroad to pay salaries and allowances which is economic suicide. The World Bank has accused Nigeria of blundering; the Economic Transparency Index has done the same. The IMF has accused Nigeria of recklessness and financial indiscipline.
And this brings us to the issue of recklessness and financial indiscipline, the Federal Government has just dissolved the NEC (National Economic) and put together in its place the Economic Advisory Council, EAC. What is your reaction?
That is a vote of no confidence in the vice president. That means they have not achieved much economically. If they have achieved much, the economic template would have remained intact. Secondly, the new body that was inaugurated will be reporting directly to the president irrespective of the fact that the president only recently declared that all ministers and other political office holders must go through the Chief of Staff to see the president. In actual effect, the Chief of Staff is now more powerful than the vice president and is now the de facto prime minister whereas there is no constitutional provision for a prime minister. This is the truth in it. What is being done is a centralisation of the norms of governance. A situation where a group controls the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary is what has been thrown up. What remains is just civilian activism which is to provide the consciousness of the citizenry for a better future. It is not for a revolution. A revolution is a change of mental attitude and not necessarily a violent change. There are countries Nigeria should emulate – countries where you have a high standard of living, least corruption, least crime rate, and highest degree of happiness. Finland; Sweden and Singapore in Asia are examples of such nations. The issues of corruption, crime, poverty are virtually not existent there. People made sacrifices to elevate the interests of the citizens and the countries to where they are today. If the national assembly is reduced to a part time institution, Nigeria will be saving more than a trillion Naira every year. If you put the money saved into education, it will turn our children around and make the country one of the educationally advanced countries in Africa and we will be able to challenge the leading countries in Europe and America in scientific and art breakthroughs. Look at what happened in Anambra State where the children were exposed to ICT skills and they were able to challenge children in those advanced countries in competitions and came first. Let me give you another example. The Almajiris in the North are children who do not benefit from any educational attainment. Their parents are poor and underprivileged. If you take about a thousand Almajiris of about eight years old to states like Lagos, Imo, Delta, etc and keep them in schools with good facilities and leave them there till they attain the age of 15. Do you know that most of them will be our pride as doctors, nuclear technologists and so on. It is a question of brain. They will be able to think and manufacture things and attain a higher level in life. The brain only needs to be activated. ICT is only a dormant entity which is usually brought to life by the human brain.
Let us talk about the 2023 presidential elections. Just a few months after the last elections, there are jostling and positioning for 2023 race going on. How would you like it to pan out in terms of geo-political zones, or do you want the current president to remain in office beyond 2023?
2023 national elections is an anathema for anyone who is serious about moving Nigeria forward. I find it difficult discussing that now. The existential possibility of Nigeria between now and 2023 is very questionable. I can tell you that in some parts of Nigeria there is despair and pessimism. I am one of them. If Nigeria is not restructured within six months, and we enter another year without restructuring, devolution of powers, I am afraid of what will become of Nigeria. If the various entities; whether in the South or in the North; across the various geo- political zones; if they are not given the capacity to think for themselves, it is a forlorn conclusion that Nigeria will break. Nigeria will break if we do not restructure urgently. Let us tell ourselves the truth. Today, Nigeria is not a liveable place in the world. Look at what they are telling us now that Nigeria is the 12th deadliest place for anybody to exist in. Lagos alone has the capacity to stand on its own, generate its own power and maintain its infrastructure, but see the way Lagos has degenerated. It has the capacity to generate its own resources than any state in the country, but that is not happening. With all the potentials for greatness, Lagos like Nigeria is poor and environmentally degraded. Get out of your car on the road and drop N100, you will see the frenetic struggle to grab it by the people and the melee and confusion that will ensue over it. That is the level in the country today and it is shameful. That is why every good plan or intention of government is aborted through corruption. The scramble to outdo each other in the game of corruption which they aptly call survival is enormous. It is absolutely demeaning to be an African in a place like Nigeria. Remember the late Anini, that rogue who was going about robbing people and institutions; he capitalised on the deficiencies he saw about Nigeria to evade the long arms of the law until he was eventually caught. In a particular operation, he went to steal at a supermarket and he and his gang had already telephoned the police in Benin declaring what they were doing. The police sped down there just as he and his gang including his girlfriend was about getting out of the place. You know what they did? He reached out to some bundles of Naira and threw them out through the window. The people that were after him fell over themselves in the bid to get the money. The scramble was so fierce that he cashed in on it and escaped, and they later weaved a story that he was invisible, and that he had spiritual power of disappearing. That is Nigeria. Do you know that on this xenophobic issue, when Nigerians started looting some stores said to have South African links, the police allegedly informed the looters to do it at night. As they were looting and putting the loot in “Keke Napep,” the very people who were to apprehend them were sharing the booty themselves. The condition in Nigeria is such that you can hardly get people who are upright. In Lagos alone, there are more than 10,000 churches and edifices. Nigerians are so religious on Fridays and Sundays, but when they come out after paying their tithes, they become one of the worst specimens of humans on earth. It is abominable, despicable and you can’t compare it with countries where there are no churches and mosques or religious activism. Their religious fanaticism is very high. Nigeria must wake up if it must survive. There is no hiding place for Nigeria anymore. For Nigeria to grow, no one who has been in government in the last five decades that it has been governed with military mentality should be allowed into government for the next 100 years.