Dr Phillips Nto, former finance commissioner, world bank consultant and Provost, Abia State College of Education, Technical, Arochukwu, (ASCETA) in this chat with Sunday Sun speaks on Nigeria’s 60th independence, problems, and the need for national dialogue, among others national issues. Excerpt:
How would you like to assess Nigeria at 60?
Well, let me start by thanking God for making it possible for the country to still be together after 60 years of independence. We are aware that a few years after independence, just six years after, the first coup took place and after the country was bedeviled by a civil war which again took three years, then from one military regime to the other. Now, we are facing also different social vices ranging from kidnapping, banditry, terrorism, armed robbery, massive unemployment, social infrastructural decay, and many other problems. So, that is why I think we still need to thank God as we are still together as a corporate entity. I may not say so far, so good. Of course, you can see that this particular 60th anniversary seems to be the most agitated since my growing up years. I have never seen this level of agitation from the different strata of the society, from different ethnic groups, it means all is not well and something needs to be done. You can see the Yoruba frantically looking for their Oduduwa Republic, some looking for disintegration, some clamouring for restructuring, all these do not tell good of our corporate existence as a nation, but I believe that even the way we are now, it is still better for us to be united than being disintegrated because each of our regions need something from the other. I do not think there is any region that can make it comfortably without the other if we want to tell ourselves the truth. But it is important the unity is based on equality because a situation where the other regions feel that they are not carried along, definitely, there will be problem, and you will expect agitation.
In recent times there is a deep perception that Nigeria has been deeply divided more than at any other time in our history. Do you share in this perception?
Well, if we are more united we give credit to leadership, if we are disunited we should also blame the leadership because the bulk ends on the leadership of this nation. So, if there is a problem I wouldn’t blame the ordinary citizens, I will blame my leaders in the country because leaders are expected to see a problem before it becomes an emergency. So, I will not blame any other person than the leadership of the country. It is them that have the capacity to change the probability of action for the good of all. What it means is that there is a problem somewhere and the problem cannot be far from injustice, inequitable distribution of resources, inequitable distribution of political positions, and other things. Once there is equitable distribution of resources, equitable distribution of political power, equitable distribution of social amenities you will find out that there will be peace and the people will not care where the president is from. We have over 300 ethnic groups in Nigeria, of course, it’s not an easy thing to articulate all the interests, but it is necessary to do so to ensure that there is this sense of belonging among the groups.
Do you also see the constitution as being part of the challenge because some critics say there is an urgent need to review this present constitution?
Of course, we know that this constitution was drafted and approved by the military regime and there are many problems that are coming up now, which were not anticipated before now. This is a civilian regime and the constitution that we should be using must be one midwifed by civilians not the one by the military. It is one that should be consensus-based. It is important that the constitution is amended to reflect all the interests into consideration.
Currently, the National Assembly is on it to review the constitution…?
(Cuts in) No, the National Assembly cannot handle all the fundamental issues that are thrown up by the constitution. It is important to have a national dialogue for us to have total peace, for us to have the needed unity and for all groups, everybody to be carried along there must be a national dialogue. It will involve all the interest groups, all different groups in our society, ethnic, religious, cultural, etc will come together and discuss and agree on terms for unity. How many are they in the National Assembly? How were they elected? This is far beyond political interest, which members of the National Assembly represent. They are elected based on party platform, but when you are representing people for national dialogue it won’t be based on political party interest, it covers all interests. The old, the young, the unemployed, religious bodies etc, all the interests will be taken into consideration. If you do the review just with the National Assembly, it means you are only taking the major political parties interest, APC, and PDP. I believe it is important we have a National dialogue urgently because as comprehensive as the 2014 Jonathan conference was, a lot of other things have happened between then and now which were not well covered.
As an economic expert, how do you think we can best fix the economy as it is now in doldrums’?
You can’t be talking about the economy when there is political instability. The economy will only work well when politics is stable. From what is going on, the politics of the country is not stable, there is a lot of instability so that even when you apply workable economic theories it will fail. You cannot be talking about a stable economy in a place where there is intense agitation, in a place where universities are closed down, in a situation where strike is the order of the day, where people or groups are threatening going their separate ways, the Yoruba talking about having their Oduduwa Republic, the Igbo talking about having their Biafra Republic, the Middle Belt threatening to pull out etc, so for now what is important is political stability, once we achieve that other things, including the economy will fall in place. Through peace and peaceful coexistence those living in IDP camps because of insecurity will go back to their homes and farms to be meaningful and economically engaged.
How do you see the education sector as we have it today?
Personally, I am worried that the University of Nigeria that was opened on 1st October 1960 is closed down on 1st October 2020. What are we celebrating when our universities are closed down? What are we celebrating when our students are at home? What kind of graduates are we producing? Is it the graduate that can cope with the reality of the moment? What kind of curriculum do we have in the various tertiary institutions? That is where I am worried because a situation where we keep mass-producing graduates how are they absorbed in society? That is why I preach technical and vocational education, that is the only way out of this massive unemployment which we are experiencing now. Every parent aspires to send his or her child/children to the university, but how will the child be absorbed in society? What kind of education is the child given or has received because a situation that the child graduates and starts to carry files up and down looking for job is not a good thing for the society. That is what is leading in this increase in social vices. When a child is frustrated there is nothing much the child can do than going into one crime or the other because the child cannot use what was learned in the university in a useful manner. But if the child is well skilled in technical and vocational studies you will find out that when the child graduates he will no longer be talking about paid jobs rather the person begins to practice what was thought in the university and even create jobs for others. That is why personally, I preach that our curriculum in the university should take into consideration technical and vocational studies so that no matter what you have studied you will have an idea of what to do when you graduate. Can you imagine that now in the country you feel happy or even more confident when somebody doing your painting or POP job is from Ghana or Togo. This is because it is incorporated in their curriculum that is what is lacking in our case.
How would you assess your governor, Dr Okezie Ikpeazu performance so far?
I can tell you that Abians are happy with his performance, we are happy. Definitely, everybody will not be happy, for instance, those that think that the governor is there to share the resources of the state with them and he is not doing so cannot be happy. Some even wanted him dead when he was infected with COVID-19, but God saved him because he is doing what God has sent him to do, which is service to Abians. You are aware that he did not aspire to be governor, but the system threw him up due to his good works and competence where he was.
There is this rumour that you are gearing up for governorship position in your state?
Well, my ambition and interest, for now, is to finish the work, which the governor appointed me to do in Abia State College of Education, technical as provost. In 2015, he appointed me to go and transform the institution in line with his vision and I believe we have done a lot on that line. In 2023, it is only those that are alive can aspire and know whether they will contest or not, but for me the ambition is to finish my tenure and go back to the university to hit the peak of my career. The law of the university says once you are on leave of absence you cannot be promoted, by implication my promotion in stunted, so I want to finish my appointment and then go back to the university and then get to the peak of my career, that is my interest.
What if the situation throws you up?
(Cuts in) Well, I believe so much in the Bible, I believe in what God can do because He sees the end from the beginning. He oversees the affairs of men. Personally, my ambition is to do the desire of my late father by going back to the university after the end of my second term in 2024, so as to hit the top of my university career.