By Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
PROFESSOR Chidi Odinkalu is former chairman, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). He is known for his outspokenness. In this chat, he spoke on some issues in the polity especially the style of the incumbent administration, anti-corruption war and diversion of food items meant for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). He argued it would be illusory for anybody to expect that Buhari government would transform the country.
The nation has been rocked with reports of diversion of food meant for IDPs in Borno but surprisingly the human rights community in the country has been keeping mum. Why?
How is it a problem if the human rights community has been keeping quiet?
Are you no longer concerned about the rights and welfare of Nigerians?
There are no champions in a democracy, the citizen is the champion. If a citizen sees something going wrong , he doesn’t have to wait for the human rights community before he does something about it . That is why everybody votes in an election.
The fact of the matter is that the humanitarian sector in Nigeria has been captured for a long time and the diversion going on in humanitarian operations has been going on for a long time. There is a design flaw in NEMA . The humanitarian entities are supposed to be between the office of the Vice President who is the chairman of NEMA and the SGF who is in charge of the refugee commission. But because of the neo-military hierarchical format of public service organizations in Nigeria, the civil servants who are supposed to make this thing work see it first as a job for the boys and secondly as a mechanism for servicing supposed egos of people who are occupying these senior offices I mentioned.
The civil servants simply wait or use the platform to divert resources to themselves . This didn’t start today, it didn’t start yesterday. It didn’t start in this Buhari administration . It has been there for a long time .
So, is anyone surprised that the humanitarian operations in Borno have been diverted for private purposes? The answer is no. The exploitation of IDPs didn’t start there either. At the NLC delegates conference last year ,IDPs in Abuja were brought in to vote. At the PDP delegates conference in Abuja, IDPs were brought in as party operatives . They were paid money, given T-shirts and face caps and brought in. At the APC delegates conference, IDPs were brought in. They were also given money and used to achieve their purpose.
So, there is a pattern of exploitation of IDPs for narrow political, remunerative objectives. That remains the case. This is why the bigger question to ask is why is it that people have a self interest in making sure that IDP problem is not addressed and eliminated?
How come you and your colleagues in the human rights circle knew about politicians using IDPs and you kept mum?
Who told you we didn’t say anything? Who wants to do something after you have said it is the bigger issue. The same people who are exploiting or diverting foods meant for IDPs are the same people who are supposed to do something after you have pointed it out.
Now, if I see IDPs as serving narrow political purposes why do I have to facilitate their better life or work for them to get a better future? That is the problem. We have for a very long time run a political economy that does not care about ordinary people , about people who are lower than us in life. If we bring up those poor people we would no longer be big men and women . That political economy that is incapable of caring for the ordinary person is the reason we are where we are today. We are in a state of desperate destitution.
Are you saying that even this administration that came on the mantra of change is not concerned about the welfare of ordinary Nigerians?
It is for you as a citizen to decide. For me, I think change in Nigeria requires fundamental rethinking of the way the state is run. With all due respect, I don’t think the current president is capable of doing it. It’s a fundamental rethink of the Nigerian state machine and the way it is run.
Why did you say he is incapable of doing it? Doesn’t he have the capacity or what?
It is not an intellectual issue. A president or a leadership that wants to alter the way Nigeria is run has got to be prepared to run for one term. It’s because he will get serious political battle. He has got to downsize the federal civil service massively . What is our problem right now? Our biggest problem is that everybody in government, especially civil servants and most politicians, see it not as a mechanism for delivering service but as an avenue for diverting resources meant for the general good into their private pockets and for their well being. So, we are spending something in the region of almost the annual budget servicing their needs, servicing their overheads. That makes it impossible for government to deliver services.
The question is why are we spending about 4/5 of our annual appropriations servicing the needs of less than one percent of the population who are in the federal civil service to the point where we can’t fund any other thing and we can’t do any other thing?
If you are going to change Nigeria what are you going to do? First of all, you have got to shrink the size of the civil service so that you can save some money to put to services that mean something. I chaired the National Human Rights Commission and 90 percent of the budget we got was for overheads. People see government institutions as places where you plant your people for jobs , not places where you deliver services. I am in National Human Rights Commission , I am charged with protecting human beings but I am not given the money to provide protection. If you go to do appropriation in the National Assembly they will only give you money to pay staff salaries. You are not going to get money to deliver services , to get paper for those staff to work. You go to the police, you are given money to pay overheads and salaries. You are not given money for paper so that police can take statements. And when police say give us money so that I can get you paper to write your statements you will say they are corrupt. They are doing that because they are not given the money to procure papers.
Somebody has got to envision a Nigeria in which you do not just hire police officers and pay their salaries but you also provide paper and pen with which they take statements, you provide for the disinfectant with which to clean up themselves. You don’t just hire staff at the National Refugee Commission or NEMA so that they earn salaries , you provide money which they are going to use to cater for IDPs and document the IDPs .
Are you being realistic when you recommend that the civil service should be downsized when the country is faced with the problem of unemployment?
I am absolutely realistic . You cannot run a state by relying on government to provide services . There is no way you can run Nigeria the way it was right now and promise change. It is not possible. If you see your role as merely replacing Jonathan’s people with your people, which in my view is what it is basically all about right now, you will not get anywhere. If that is what anybody or party thinks or sees as his role, he cannot promise change. Let me repeat myself, any leader who wants a change has got to fundamentally rethink the size of the public sector of the Nigerian state. People who are related to the president are stuffing their people in the Central Bank of Nigeria and NNPC because there is a fundamentally deformed notion of running the country. We’re operating a state-controlled economy.
We also have a problem if you provide money for these services you talk about and few people corner it. Hasn’t that been our problem?
You are making my point for me. We all need money to be able to do things effectively. The major problem is not money, but the value structure. Our value system has been destroyed by our politicians and all the major political parties. But obviously, the PDP, which was in power for 16 years did more damage. The difference between the PDP and APC is not clear to me. Those masquerading now as APC members were in the PDP. In Nigeria, parties are formed just for people to run for offices. That is the issue. In the absence of a value system, all the money in the world will not cure our problems. That is why I always come back to education, we are not infusing enough values into the system to provide for a country that works. We are not building new schools. We are not providing for the children we are producing so that they can have more than what their ancestors had. What is happening is that we are becoming a more fragmented society. With the way things are going, Nigeria is going to get more toxic. That is my fear. We all get fixated on minor issues. A leader who promises change should be able to provide a bigger strategy than what I see at the moment. What he is doing now is replacing others with his people. That for me is not change.
Does that confirm what people have been alleging that the government is all about nepotism?
I have told you what I see, where he is replacing everybody with his people. That for me is not change. It is subsistence politics. Nigeria is a tremendous country. It takes you to leave this country for you to appreciate our diversity. It’s remarkable. God gave us so much wealth and decided to give us poor leaders. I am yet to see the imagination that will take us out of this place. I am sorry. I speak as an ordinary citizen. I have a stake in this country like every other person. What I have not seen is the vision that can turn things around. The trend over the last seven years and even now, boils down to more toxic politics. People see state capture as the only means to get anything. Whoever wants to run in 2019 will be thinking of replacing Buhari’s people with his own people. Just as Buhari is replacing Jonathan’s people with his own people. That for me is not good. We need somebody who is able to see all Nigerians and not part of them. We need somebody who is able to envision a more capable state. We need someone who is able to envision a more capable Nigerian citizen across the board. These things are not happening and until we address these issues, we will not be able to address our productivity issue. We run an economy that is not based on productivity, but allocation. We allocate jobs, money and everything. Nobody is giving attention to what you allocate. That was why Nigeria, after independence made lots of progress. By 1968 when we changed revenue allocation, everything started going down. Allocation does not encourage productivity. Look at it. Every year, we waste days on public holidays and that is because nobody is thinking about productivity. In Nigeria, the constitution does not really recognise Muslims or Christians. It recognises human beings. They are only two people recognised in the constitution. They are citizens and human beings. We have reduced them to Christians and Muslims. And we always say they are fighting, which is a lie. Politicians create that impression in order to put the country in perpetual conflict and then profit from it.
We have also seen in the last one year, how the government has been trying to fight corruption. For you, is it going in the right direction?
Our problem in Nigeria is impunity. I support any administration that wants to fight impunity in Nigeria and fight it methodically, in accordance with the law. Now, I have not seen anybody convicted. That is my problem. I do not believe in media trial you do to convict people on the pages of newspapers or on social media. I do not want to read that so and so money was found in the account of a former minister. I want to read it and count so and so in a court of law. The only people who have been convicted so far are those tried during Jonathan’s administration. For instance, the former NIMASA DG was tried during the last administration. You cannot create an impression that everybody in the civil service is corrupt or that everybody in the police is corrupt. You cannot say that the only good person is yourself. You cannot do that. You need all these people to make any progress. In any democratic setting, you are going to make choices and build coalition. When you label everybody corrupt, they will make life difficult for you. Rather than enlisting them, you are alienating them. The government has realised that promising to fight corruption and actually being able to deliver results is another thing. That is why I am disappointed that the best achievement of the current government in its fight against corruption has been the presidential advisory committee on corruption. Now, you ask why you need the committee to fight corruption? You have the police, the ICPC, the EFCC, we have the Justice Ministry and we have state ministries of justice. Why do we need the committee? Honestly for me, it is useless. In my view, it is a waste of time. What we need to do is to make the institutions work. Try people and send them to jail. We have a situation where the minister of justice advises the Code of Conduct Bureau not to make the asset declaration form public. The current attorney-general gave that advice when the bureau sought his advice. And you are telling me that you are fighting corruption? The first thing you do is to make the asset declaration forms accessible. We have this embarrassing situation in which there are allegations made against the chief of Army Staff that he bought a property in Dubai. For God’s sake, the assets declaration forms are not available to people and no one can verify if it’s true or not. It is not fair on him, Nigerians and everybody. The advice of AGF is fundamentally wrong. Asset declaration forms are supposed to be public. What do you want to hide? These are the inconsistencies in this government. There are too many hypocrisies in this government. I do not belong to any political party and as a citizen, I want to give every leader the benefit of the doubt. But the inconsistencies I have seen in this current administration cannot easily be resolved.
There are arguments that the AGF ought not to have taken the forgery case against the Senate leadership to court and what about the AGF’s refusal to honour the invitation of the Senate?
I have no evidence. I cannot comment on that. I think it is wrong for him not to honour their invitation. The AGF should have gone there. When the former CBN governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi made allegations against the Senate, he was summoned. He went there and was very clear. He left there with respect. That saved him very well. The AGF is not just the legal adviser to the president. He is the AGF and minister of justice. If they summon you, you must respond and respect the institution. You may not respect the people there, but you need to honour their invitation. This is a legacy of the military. Under the military, the executive functioned. The legislature was relegated. In comparative terms, the legislature is the least developed. In the last 55 years of our independence, the legislature had been there for half of the period. When they disrespect the legislature, it is actually from the military and it is very wrong. You do not have to agree with the National Assembly, but you must honour them. To say I will not honour your invitation, it’s wrong. I remember as chairman of National Human Rights Commission in 2012, there were allegations of extra judicial killings brought against the police. The police wanted to chew me up. As public servants, we have the responsibility to respect our public institutions.
Some people, especially from the South-east and South-south have alleged that the actions of the current government is further dividing the country. Do you agree?
I believe that appointments do define a region. The fact that somebody is appointed from my part of the world does not mean he will serve my interest. In a country like Nigeria, those things matter. The federal character principle clearly states how you source for appointments. There is also the political thing. When you are able to allow your appointments reflect the interest of every part of the country, you grow a larger following. You make it easier to reach out to people. I have very serious quarrels. I do not think that President Buhari believes in the principle of federal character. If he does not believe in it, he should say so and why. You see the names of NNPC board announced or even the new DIGs. You have the three DIGs from the South who hold ridiculous positions. There are no women too. The women are missing. I believe that federal character is not about ethnicity. It is also about gender. It is about three things. It reflects the ethnic, gender and generational diversity of the country. You cannot have a government run by people of over 50 years. You have to begin to grow replacement for the old people. That is missing from the current administration. We appointed six persons into parastatals under the ministry of information. Not one woman was appointed. NNPC board, no woman or anybody from the South-east. People are going to notice and when they begin to read a pattern, they will start voting with their feet. The president was propelled to power by young people who did not have memories of Buhari of 1984/85. When these people can no longer speak or defend who they helped to bring to power, you begin to have problems. On May Day you do not need them? But you do. This is a democratic system. They are not getting jobs and they are not seeing their interests represented. They are losing identities on many fronts. For me, it is an existential thing for the president and for the country. Any politician who is unable to see a better Nigeria that can work for the people, endangers his own sustainability. At the end of the day, Buhari made a clear statement in Washington when he said the people who gave him 97 per cent of the votes will get more things. I think personally, he was reflecting on what he believes. If that is his belief, he should come out and say it so that people will stop misrepresenting him. People need to know what they are confronting.