Prof Julius Ihonvbere served as special adviser to president Olusegun Obasanjo on Policy and Programmes Monitoring. He also served as Secretary to the Edo State Government (ssg).
He is currently a member of the House of Representatives, representing Owan Federal Constituency of Edo State. He speaks on insecurity in Nigeria, the new minimum wage, leadership, rule of law, among other issues. Excerpts:
Nigeria has been in the throes of insecurity for a very long time. Only the other day, a serving judge of a high court was abducted in a bizarre dimension to the spate of kidnappings in the country. Of what impact is this on the nation?
Well, it is very painful when you hear of anyone being abducted. It is not something that any nation should take lightly. First, it creates a general atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. It has a tremendous impact on the economy. People are afraid to move around, to make visits to friends and family, they are afraid to get into nightlife, dinners and so on. The economic and social activities are frozen. The economy, therefore, suffers from this situation. The confidence of the people is broken. People rush home after work without completing their work to hibernate. Some do not even wait till closure of work before dashing for their homes. It paralyzes a nation. Investors are scared because of the safety of their investments. Insecurity has the capacity of reducing the nation to a failed state. Sincerely, this is worrisome. The lingering insecurity in the country does not show that we are on top of our game in public and private security.
Would you give kudos to the security forces on the way they have managed to tackle this insecurity challenge so far. This is because, the more they fight against this challenge, the more its frontiers are extended?
I think that the security agencies in the country and their officers are doing their very best. They have really been tenacious in the engagement and have been able to contain them to the level it is at the moment. They recognize the enormous challenge it poses to their image and professionalism, they recognize the significance it has on the country, and they know the implications on the survival of the nation. But I think that the real issue is that they have not been able to deploy contemporary approaches in the battle. They are dealing with bandits, they are dealing with people you don’t see; they are dealing with people whose methods sometimes are not statutory. You don’t know what new methods and tactics they want to adopt; you don’t know the sophisticated nature of their weaponry; you don’t know the nature of the terrain they have gained ground on. You don’t know their priorities and the content of their thoughts. These are some of the challenges that they have and which they have managed to contend with so far. They are not sleeping. I think the security agencies need to sit down together and brainstorm to have unified measures that will address the problem.
If you were the president of the country and the country is going through this parlous state, what would you do?
There are many things I will do. First is to have a proper security summit. It is not a question of one or two voices. I will bring in and sift from several voices – what challenges the institutions have, what is it that they are doing, what are the wider implications of the battle, the technologies that are available to be sourced and can be deployed. We need to look at the whole gamut of the challenge and where assistance can be tapped and any other emergency measure that will contribute to the arrest of the scourge. Secondly, is what the National Assembly is doing now by providing the resources that are needed. Fighting insecurity is not like a walk in the park. It consumes enormous resources. The security agents have to be motivated. They have to be well equipped with technological gadgets that must be superior to that of their opponents. Thirdly, is to take the issue of the challenge away from Abuja and the state capitals to the interiors where the fight is raging, engage the community leaders, youth leaders, traditional and religious leaders and other relevant leaders of thought. It is when you engage people, you carry them along, and you empower them and get the best out of them, that more impetus for victory is ignited. These bandits live in the forests and these people who should act like stakeholders understand them more than the security agencies. Their assistance and collaboration is vital in the victory against the criminals. An agenda should be formulated and they will know how to provide information to the security agencies. We will give generous incentives that will thwart any pre-conceived plot of sabotage. We will institute measures that will encourage gallantry and ensure confidence built on trust. I will commission study groups or tactical groups that will look at some countries that had the challenge of insecurity. They will visit these countries and find out how they were able to overcome the challenge. How did they deal with the situation? What measures did they adopt? What obstacles did they encounter in trying to confront it? How did they organize their forces? We need to get all the fine details, analyze them and adopt those that are good in our circumstances. And, of course, I will have my key officers speak on the issue. How many ministers have you heard speak on the insecurity in Nigeria? How many commissioners apart from those that are directly affected have you heard speak on it? It is a general problem, which is elastic in nature and can conflagrate the entire nation and, therefore, every hand must be on deck. When people begin to see it as a general problem, no criminal element will be bold to operate openly again. A combination of these factors will do the job. I think that is what people are not doing yet.
The new minimum wage for workers has been in the front burner for some time now. Are you satisfied with the way it is being handled by the government? What is your general attitude to the issue?
It is unfortunate that the states are not making it easy. The average Nigerian worker is not doing well. Income is not up to expectation. My attitude to it is that the new minimum wage should be taken seriously so that the income of the workers will have more value to them. When you look at the N30, 000 new minimum wage and the things that go with it, you will understand the situation more. With this amount which is tied to things like transport fare to work, house rent, feeding, school fees, healthcare bills and other sundry expenses, nothing will change in their lives. When you look at all the sub-heads involved, you will immediately know why the agitation has been long and sustained. It will not make up for all the items it is supposed to take care of. This is where I am worried. If you look at all of these, what will a worker do with N30,000 in a month? If anything, it should be an amount for further negotiation. I am not satisfied with the amount and the delay. I am miffed that some states are even saying that they cannot cope with paying the new minimum wage, when all they need to do is to reorganize their finances, remove some irrelevant, frivolous and bloated expenditure. When you pay workers more, you also expect them to put in more into their work to the advantage of the employer. In Edo State, when Adams Oshiomhole was the governor, he was paying N25,000, even when the minimum wage was N18,000. I think that the governors should wake up. They should take this matter seriously. I commend the Federal Government for finding it necessary to enhance the wages of the workers at this time when the economy of the nation is not looking too good. There should be no room for objections. It should be implemented immediately.
How do you look at the stand-off between Oshiomhole and his godson, the governor of Edo State, Obaseki? Is it not polarizing your state?
Yes, I think it has been lingering for some time. I believe that the governor has his own issues he wants to address in his quarrel with the national chairman of the All Progressives Congress, APC. What is confounding is the way they handled the inauguration of the House of Assembly in the state. I strongly believe that it did not conform to the laws of the land and the tenets of democracy. It was an illegality and I am even more surprised that they have opted to stick to it despite the observed flaws, which they know. I cannot sit down and watch that kind of illegality take place and keep quiet about it. The state House of Assembly is an institution and should be seen as that. When the House of Assembly is not functioning as it should, the National Assembly has the right to intervene and that is why the House of Representatives has been mandated to intervene. It is the responsibility of the House to ensure that normalcy returns to the state legislature. In this process, the governor and all the managers of the state have ignored every move to do the needful and restore order and constitutionality to the legislature. We are not going to follow any illegal process in this regard. We will follow due process and the law. We cannot build something on nothing. The least we expect is that all members should be inaugurated and leave them to do their job. We are pained that at this stage of our democratic development, things like this are still happening. The House is not an arm of the executive. It is not a department of the executive. They should be allowed to operate independently as an arm of the government. Manipulating the members, installing some and not installing others, handpicking the Speaker and using thugs to chase others around is an unacceptable level we are witnessing in the state. It will not stand and all lovers of democracy in the state and beyond must stand against it. The resolution of this impasse is very simple: inaugurate the House; call all members of the House together and inaugurate every one.
I want you to look at comparative leadership in Nigeria, beginning from 1999. Where did we get it wrong?
Beginning from 1999, it was a bit wobbly, because we still had a lot of military mentality. People still carried about commanding, and there were dictatorial tendencies associated with the military. It showed in much of what we were doing, the temperament, carriage and conduct of our leaders, and the general atmosphere of politics and governance in the country. As you know, under the military, the judiciary remained, the executive remained, it was only the legislature that was always sent home. We were still in the learning process, and you know that Obasanjo himself confirmed that it was just a matter of time for our democracy to mature. In his second term, he corrected most of the observed flaws. He set up an economic team, brought in professionals and technocrats. Now, the transition concept then came with a lot of issues. There was issue about the leadership and acting president, there was issue about the rule of law and the constitutional provisions, there was issue about the abuse of power and the arrogance of power, and there were issues about so many things. But a bad democratic arrangement is better than military rule. In spite of the transition difficulties and the fault lines, we managed to waddle through. But some of the things that we inherited continued to remain with us till today. The political fault lines have remained with us. There are still tensions about religion, ethnicity, and corruption. Obasanjo made the move about fighting corruption, but I can tell you that today, it is a huge project of the Buhari administration. The president is fighting corruption with all integrity and seriousness. We have not addressed the institutional effectiveness in the system and this is a major problem. It breeds and encourages corrupt practices. We are looking at infrastructure. We are an oil producing country with so many creative minds. But this has not translated into buoyancy. The roads are bad and criminals hang around the pot-hole-ridden spots to attack people. The infrastructural decay and even the lack of it in many areas are a source of concern. The airports are overloaded because people are afraid to travel by road because of kidnappers and bandits. So, they go to the airports. So, when you go to the airports, how many airlines do we have to serve the travel needs of the people? Unemployment level is rising. Look at the army of angry, despondent young people all over the place. People graduate from schools and roam the streets looking for elusive jobs. The economy is not expanding. There is still no synergy between agriculture and industry that will be put at the disposal of the economy for maximum benefits to the nation in the productive sector. The supply chain is non-existent. Look at how Nigerians are suffering living in houses without water. Look at private schools littering the landscape of the nation. They say crèche schools but there are no crèche grounds for the children to play. The facilities in the schools are sub standard, if there are any. The fees and conditions of schooling are exploitative with minimal government intervention and control beyond lip-service press releases. I think we need to have a strong conversation on how to develop the country, enthrone accountability and responsibility in governance, build our infrastructure and ensure effective and efficient service delivery in governance.
Do we have rule of law and order in Nigeria? Where do you place it in the scale of the poor showing?
If I have to give you a proper assessment of that, I will start by saying that we do have a constitution, but how many Nigerians have and know the constitution? Is it a living document? We have a legal system. How many people have access to it? The legal fees are very high and the vast majority of the people cannot afford it. If you can afford the legal fees, you know how the judicial system is. If you look at the level of impunity in the country you will understand why the country is not making progress. People do things believing that they can get away with it. They believe that if you have money you can buy justice, you can buy rule of law. It is not enough to have a police force, which by the way does not have enough officers to perform the statutory functions assigned to it by the constitution. It is not enough to have a court system in place even if it is not functioning the way it should. There must be a clear synergy between these two bodies. There must be a culture of constitutionalism. The culture of constitutionalism is when the people are mobilized and sufficiently educated and sensitized to understand the constitution as the grundnorm of governance and engagement of state institutions with the people. That doesn’t exist here. If you look at other countries, even in Africa like South Africa and Ghana, you will see that constitutionalism and rule of law drive the machinery of government and that is why they have made more progress than Nigeria. Are you surprised about the progress and turn around in these countries where impunity is less? In a country where the elite build its own local government system, and allow it to pass as normal is doomed. And what I mean by that is that the elite have very little faith in the government that they set up.