Festus Lola Osunsade, PhD, is the founder, Centre for Common Interest Matters. He is a retired top official of International Monetary Fund (IMF). He made great impact in Kenya and Tanzania from his economic policy contributions. His last place of service was in Nigeria. He worked directly under Vice President Atiku Abubakar during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime. He is the initiator and creator of Poverty Alleviation Programme under President Obasanjo in 2002. In this interview, the octogenarian’s main concern is a better Nigeria. He talked on why he recently formed Centre for Common Interest Matters, his experience as IMF senior representative, as well as his lifestyle among others.
How was it working as IMF representative in various countries?
I travelled round all continents while working with International Monetary Fund. I worked in North America, South America, Asia, Middle East, Africa. I went to all these countries, I had to stay there representing the various offices in these countries. I found out that no country can help us except we help ourselves. The money spent on transportation in many African countries, good road, aesthetics in the capital city, some of them are less than what we have spent in Nigeria. How come we have such bad roads here, how come it takes so many years to build a 100 kilometers of road between Lagos and Ibadan? That road can be built in less than a year. Are we saying we have not got the money? We haven’t got the money, we haven’t got the technology, we haven’t got resources, we haven’t got the know how? Why do we have to give three companies to build 100 kilometers? When you go to America, on the highway, you see inscription, ‘Taxes at Work’, when they are building roads. Here, there is no accountability. This is where the context of Ombudsman comes in. In England, in other countries, the citizens have the right to go to the office of the Ombudsman to file a complaint about the presidency or activities of government. The Ombudsman is an independent person, he is a very experienced citizen in the country either from the civil service or law or any profession. He’s given the mandate such that people can come and lodge all the complaints against the government on projects and the way forward and they will file the complaint, and publish and it is read by everybody. It encourages people to see that there is hope, there is avenue for them to lodge their complaints. It also makes those who are carrying out these projects to know they should do best practices in their projects. In this forum we want to set up, we just want experienced, successful people in their respective careers to come and talk on what is the core need that would help to reshape this country. I’m sure people would want to hear from someone like Dangote talking on the way forward for this nation. This centre is one for ideas, we are going to promote peace and stability in Nigeria. We are not talking about Yoruba people, talking for Yoruba people or Igbo and Hausa talking for themselves. There are so many problems before all of us, we want to talk about these things. We would invite people from all ethnic groups and learn how to live together.
Is your project being funded by anyone?
Money doesn’t change society. It is ideas that change society. Tell me what money has changed in world history? Nothing. The man who has brought the most change in the world, Jesus Christ did not have money, at all. In fact, he didn’t have bank account and yet everyone respects him. Same thing with Indira Ghandi of India and Nelson Mandela in South Africa, so if you want to change society keep your money, bring out your ideas on the table. If your ideas are good, people would molest you because your ideas are different from their own. I don’t want to be the president of Nigeria but I’m interested to see that things happen and I can help to change lives of people. If you see the combination of available resources in Nigeria and the impact of those resources on the quality of life of the people, the gap is not necessary. If those that don’t have work to do come and don’t want salary, come to this office we would give them assignment to sweep the streets, clean the gutter , give them some money to take home to buy bread. It breaks my heart to see people (boys and girls) roaming the streets, with nowhere to go. They just want to get out of the house, take a walk and find if somebody will charge them up. We can address some of those problems without throwing money at them . We just mobilize them. We discuss and arrive at some conclusions. Our NGO is Centre for Common Interest Matters. We are taking off soon. It will be a discussion forum first, we are mobilizing matters of common interest. Adam Smith wrote a book in 1776, it is not from the generosity of the butcher that we have meat on our table. You think the butcher is giving us the meat? He’s pursuing his own interests! We want a situation where we can make society benefit and we also will benefit. I want to make it clear that I’m not interested in any politics. I don’t want to be in any political party.
Tell us a bit of your growing up?
I’m a village boy from Ondo State. A hilly part of Ondo State called Idanre. I was a very bright kid. I kept winning scholarships. I spent three years in primary school in Idanre. I went to high school and University of Ibadan. From there I went to Oxford University. I taught for sometime as a teacher of Economics and Finance. I’m writing a book now on Economics in Yoruba language.
How do you unwind?
I spend most of my time thinking. One of the things that bothers me is that, why is it that a country like Nigeria that is so rich and so envied by most of the world, how come we remain in so much poverty? That is what I have not been able to reconcile or find answers to. And especially, I think our youths and young ones are all scattered, and therefore their potentials are not fully developed. All these things, I stayed awake all night to ponder. What are the answers and that’s one of the reasons I’m embarking on this Centre.
How do you intend to fund this NGO?
I don’t want to be richer than I am now, although I’m not rich. But I really want to live in a society where people feel that they are okay. I don’t want to stay in a society that everyone is unhappy. Many people in this country are not happy. It’s not a matter of money. So the question is, let us find out how we can talk more to each other, what lessons we can learn in the way forward. It doesn’t matter to me that we call ourselves a democracy, we have had elections thrice now since I have been coming to Nigeria but nothing has happened. What does election mean when it doesn’t make life better for people? So I want us to talk more together. It’s not fighting, it’s not shooting, let us see the indices we can draw. I think there is great potential in that sense. If we dialogue more and see how we could learn, that was how we got independence from the British.
You have worked in several countries. Which one would you say is your favourite?
Outside Africa, my favourite is Brazil. Oh, God Almighty, Brazil is fantastic! They eat well, they dance well, they have good looking women and they enjoy themselves. I went to a place called Vasco da Gama; it’s an ocean view, we sat in a bus, a girl came and sat close to me. She had nothing on. No brassiere. She just came out of the ocean and sat down. She said, “excuse me, are you from Africa?” They let go, they live well, they don’t tend to be who they are not. Brazilians want to be seen as who they are. They love African people, especially Yoruba people. I went to a place Copa Cabana. I went there to eat and this woman came there and said, “Yoruba?” She just brought out a bottle of brandy and she said let’s drink. They enjoy themselves so well and they love to dance. Today, Yoruba is considered an official language in Brazil; 29 percent of Brazilians speak the Yoruba language. Professor Soyinka and his people are doing so well in that area and the present Ooni of Ife, they are doing a lot, there’s nothing to add to what they are doing. Although I want to see what I can do to be the blue factor, to bring young Nigerians together, I see that we are wasting our lives by not putting together resources that make us really great. And what are the resources that make us great in this country? Our drive as people. Nigerians are not lazy, we are very hardworking people. Who is a pessimist? A pessimist is a badly informed optimist. Nigeria has the best water resources in the world. Our forest resources have no reservoir and we are not starving, we are feeding well. We found out we can feed ourselves with all the rice we eat. If we can feed ourselves, we have enough water to cultivate, enough water to drink, we have no problem, except we worry about politics.
Having lived in all these countries, do you speak any of the languages?
Yes. I speak Portuguese, Spanish, English and French and of course Italian. I speak a lot of Swahili also. I worked in Tanzania, Kenya, Sao Tome. I’m planning attending Goethe Institut and Alliance Francaise to perfect German and French. I love languages. I want to teach some people all of these languages and learn other people’s language in exchange. I want to speak Hausa and improve my knowledge of Hausa and I would teach the one I know in exchange. I’m presently learning Igbo language. For the NGO, we are going to have a free day where we teach French language. We would ask the French embassy to support us. West Africa in the next 20 years will be one country and Nigeria should lead by example by letting its people to trade freely in Abidjan, Dakar and other Francophone countries. If I have my way I will make all civil Servants in this country speak a bit of French. How can we be leaders of ECOWAS and we don’t speak French?