Senator Sylvanus Ngele represented Ebonyi North Federal Constituency in the 4th Republic between 1999 and 2003.
The astute politician and statesman who is known to have discharged his legislative responsibility creditably well during his tenure at the Red Chambers opened up to Sunday Sun on crucial national issues, including where the government is getting it wrong on COVID-19 pandemic, what it needs to do, 2023 presidency, as well as how to salvage the Nigerian condition. Excerpt:
How would you assess the government’s response to COVID-19 pandemic? Are you satisfied?
Well, on the side of the government, I can give them kudos despite certain inadequacies, but on the side of Nigerians, our people are difficult. This is a situation where if you are patient and I am patient, for one week, two weeks or three weeks this thing will be over if we adhere to healthcare/NCDC advice. I know that it is difficult for the daily income workers and when you know also that some people are living from hand to mouth, it will not be easy, it’ll be extremely difficult, but problems are for the living not for the dead. It is only when you are alive that you will be able to face your challenges and if you do a little sacrifice and you stay to see tomorrow, I think it is better. The government initially were not prepared, but unlike in Ebonyi, my state, from day one the governor braced up and did not leave anything to chance, he buckled up to the challenges and he started some things people consider extraordinary; why must they do this and that but at the end of the day it paid off. On the lips of everybody in Ebonyi, even the old women in the rural areas, you can hear them telling you that the government said: “We should not come close to each other, so keep your distance”. Even if they used it for jokes in some cases, but they have sent the message that sank on every individual. And it worked because people were conscious of the pandemic early enough and you can see the result there.
Don’t you think that perhaps why those women are keeping to the rules is because the state government made available palliatives?
Of course, it may be part of it, but the major thing was the appropriate dissemination of information, making the people conscious of the situation, giving the people the needed orientation to key into the project. At the federal level, I don’t think the Ministry of Information under Lai Mohammed is doing enough, also the National Orientation Agency is not on top of the situation; it is now that the people started hearing from them. If when the thing started and you start immediately and be consistent, drumming it into the ears of the people they will know you are serious, they will appreciate it even at that early stage and they will be conscious of it and the result is that they will key into it having been convinced in the manner and with the seriousness you started. If America with all its sophistication, fortified in everything, can be losing more than a thousand people a day then you can imagine if this thing (the pandemic) gets to our rural community, what becomes the situation? When you talk about palliative was it not last week that we started seeing them on television giving out rice or beans or garri etc. Most of these things like the palliatives should have been started before now, early enough knowing the nature of our economy and the people. They started doing some of these things lately and I think that our administrative organs should be more up and doing, more proactive. But if you ask me, lessons have been learned. Look at the way our hospitals and isolation centres are being equipped, these things are supposed to have been there in case of emergency, but we didn’t do them. It is just as we now have rice and beans etc in our silos which will take care of food challenge. Look at what Lagos is doing, how they are equipping their hospitals and other health centres and you know that any medical equipment bought or brought at this time will not be discarded, but will be put into use, so we should be able to equip our hospitals more and that is being done now. Thanks to the lessons from this pandemic. With the sharp reduction in medical tourism abroad, we should be able to fix ours. In the case of keeping to hygiene, people, including those in the rural areas are now keeping to hygiene rules, washing their hands, cleaning themselves up, etc; you will see most children growing up with that habit of cleanliness. People are also learning how not to be wasteful, but being economical in certain areas unlike before. We now know that no place like home, meaning that we must develop our own, invest in our land, and build our country.
Are you worried when most Nigerians are still in doubt about the reality of COVID-19?
Yes, I am worried. People must understand that this thing has nothing to do with one’s political divide. You know what obtains here in most cases, if you belong to a different political party and you hear somebody from another political party saying something and you think that the only way to harm the reputation is to disagree, but this one is a different case because you will be doing that to your peril if you think this pandemic is not real. We are aware of what has happened to Brazil and all that. When people refuse to listen to medical experts then the price you pay may be death. But we don’t pray for that, we don’t wish ourselves death. We pray that Nigerians will listen, adhere strictly to medical experts’ advice. This will help us outlive the pandemic and be alive to tell the story.
Are you bothered about post COVID-19 period or do you think there is no cause for alarm?
I am worried, the economy is down, industries are not working, this is a season for people to plant, but people can no longer move the way they are supposed to, even in the rural areas, and those who are expecting payments from one job or the other cannot get it, so things are biting harder. The situation is like a civil war, the difference is that we are not hearing gun sounds, but I trust God, we will always wriggle out, but we must brace up to face the challenges. We should be more prudent in our spending and everybody should have a second address, by that I mean another thing to fall back to, it may be to acquire a new skill. But above all the government must diversify in their thinking and action. The economic planners should brace up and know that there is quite a lot of challenges in our hands, they should consider the population of the country and all that, advising the government on the best way or areas of diversification. Of course, agriculture should be key among them. The government must find a lasting solution to the problem awaiting us in the future.
Before this COVID-19, we had security issues that made headline news and the establishment of regional security outfit, Amotekun in the Southwest which generated controversy, condemnation, and commendation. Do you think the establishment of regional security outfit is good for the country?
I think that the establishment of such security network is necessary given what is on the ground today. Of course, you can’t sit down and fold your hands and somebody will come and slaughter you like a goat in your house. And what is the strength of our Army or even all the forces put together, what is the strength of our police force, and what is the population of the country? What is our landmass? So, we must come up with such an outfit to protect ourselves, but we must be honest about it, that is just what is important and not a situation where it will be a monster that will fight us back tomorrow, no.
Year 2023 politically is not far. A lot of scheming and political positioning is on course already as different political blocs are strategizing for power, particularly the presidency…?
(Cuts in) I have said it before at different fora and will continue to say it that the Southeast should be allowed, encouraged, and supported by others to take the presidential slot irrespective of the party. We all belong to this country and we all have rights to coexist; 1999 to date is over 20 years running and the Southeast has not had the feel, so what is wrong if it becomes the turn of the Southeast? Somebody of Igbo extraction should be president in 2023 irrespective of party affiliation.
Critics are saying that the Igbo remain their worst enemy and will themselves truncate the agenda if given the opportunity?
They just say that to see whether they can divide our people. Have the Igbo disappointed anytime they give us an appointment? How can they say the Igbo are not united? It’s a wrong assumption; it is a trick they use when they want to discredit the zone. Let the political parties pick their presidential candidates from the Southeast if they are sincere; let’s see how it will not be possible. The Igbo are united.
What do you think is the way forward for Nigeria?
The way forward for this country is for the leadership to understand truly the responsibility they have on their shoulder and do everything that will further unite us and not what will divide us. And if you have a situation we had before the civil war, there was this situation that you can feel free in any part of this country and see the place as your home, anywhere you are you contribute to the development of the area, that place becomes your major concern, just like your place of birth. But what are we witnessing today? The reverse is the case. We need to feel safe anywhere we are in this country, see the country first before an individual, but that is not the case. What obtains now is that each passing day we are even getting deeply more divided.
Some political thinkers point to the errors of structure…?
Good leadership will create the needed stability. When you have a government that doesn’t make you feel inferior, then we will not have any problem, you will not have the problem of accepting me as your brother and I will not have a problem accepting you. You see, when there is good leadership nobody will care to know where the president comes from. But when you keep appointing your kinsmen, locating almost everything to your area, being partial, dominating others, etc then there will be a problem. If there is no equity, fair play, and justice, there will be a problem because you will end up sowing seeds of discord.
If you meet with the president, Muhammadu Buhari what is that one thing you will hinge your advice on?
Don’t worry about that, when I meet the president I will tell him what matters most. I will not give him such advice on the newspaper.