From Taiwo Amodu, Abuja
Chief Chekwas Okorie is the national chairman of United Progressives Party, (UPP). In this interview with Daily Sun, he justifies the compelling need for devolution of power to the federating units in the country. He also admonishes President Buhari to redress the perceived lopsidedness in federal appointments against the growing concern of marginalisation by certain ethnic groups in the federation.
A lot of blame game is going around; the All Progressives Congress, (APC) continues to blame the immediate past administration for the parlous state of the economy while the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP) claims the ruling party has no clear cut policies to put smiles on the faces of Nigerians. What is your take?
Well, I will say yes, it will be difficult not to appreciate the fact that the economy was grossly mismanaged by the PDP administration. I say this because what can now be described as oil windfall considering the price of crude oil at that time was grossly mismanaged and the revelations coming out about the huge sums of money that went into private pockets made it clearer while the Jonathan administration recorded very little progress in terms of progress. So, not withstanding the statistics, and data of being the largest economy in Africa, poverty was at its highest level.
So, this new government inherited a budget that was already in place, because it was an appropriated budget, it couldn’t change it and the only budget that can be ascribed to this government which actually reflects its own vision and kind of manifesto is the budget that started from May 2016.
To be charitable and fair, it is only by this time or May next year that you will say that this APC government has implemented a full one year budget to be able to know the level of implementation of its own budget. So, it is to that extent that I will not immediately say that the promises made haven’t been kept. The other part of it is the insecurity in the state resulting in so many conflicts and the dwindling revenue from the only major product that we have which is oil. But that isn’t to say that he has done all that he ought to do, because I am aware and everybody is aware that Nigeria is still generating income. We are still producing and exporting oil beyond 1.5 million barrels per day. The Treasury Single Account that is now being implemented blocked a lot of loopholes that used to exist. The Bank Verification Number has eliminated hundreds of thousands of ghost workers. All of these things are savings and so one expected that this government should have reflated the economy by injecting into it all the funds it promised to inject.
For instance, it realized that it inherited over N3trillion domestic debt owed contractors for work done and it promised to inject over N3 trillion every quarter to settle the owed debt, which would mean that those who did those contracts will now have enough money to return to site and pay those they are owing, including banks and workers that are being owed. That’s is part of reflating the economy. They also made a budget of N200 billion on capital projects. I expect that will now be fresh certificates that will be raised from work done, not the debt.
When those aspects of the budge came out, people like us though not a contractor, though not being owed by government but we felt that government activities will resume, because when activities resume, it trickles down to the man on the street. So, the government for whatever reason is behaving as if all it is interested in is saving money. But how does a hungry person save foodstuff? Your stomach is empty and there is food stuff. You won’t eat it and you say you want to save it, you will die of hunger. So, if it is saving that the government is doing, this is the kind of saving that will not lead to productivity. It is the kind of saving that will not lead to employment of materials and men. So, to me, government hasn’t lived up to expectations.
Even in terms of its promise of diversification, have you seen any clear cut programme that it is really ready to walk the talk?
In terms of diversification, I can tell you that there has been fresh impetus given to agriculture, there has been policy directives to encourage farming as a business. But government for whatever reason has also not paid attention to the general well founded advice that ranches are the way to go because in terms of breeding healthy, more productive cattle, government isn’t responding the way the world is going today and that’s what had led to some clashes that have led to loss of lots of lives. And that is a disincentive to even farming because how can somebody go and borrow money or loan to cultivate a farm and just before it can be harvested, then cows will come and devour his farm. That is a big disincentive to farming.
The other part of it is that government hasn’t been proactive; I would have expected an executive bill to review the provision on the land use act. It was actually a decree that became an act of parliament.
So, it can be removed, amended, so that people who have land traditionally and who can also acquire land by their approach to owners of land can use that same land as collateral to seek capital to cultivate their farm. But now, the land is in the hand of the state by the land use act. In the South East, it is the worst thing that has happened to the people. The governments in the zone haven’t tried like their counterparts in other zones to revolutionise the issuance of the Certificate of Occupancy. It takes about two years or more for a person who has acquired land at exorbitant rate to get government to grant C of O and by the time you eventually get it, you would have paid half of the capital you require to even set up a small factory on the land and this is a very serious disincentive to private investment. So, there are areas that government ought to be proactive to show that seriousness to engage the people to be part of growing the economy.
The raging issue in the country now is the clamour for restructuring. It seems to be an issue that certain individuals in the
North have even joined in the agitation. What is your take?
The issue of restructuring as a matter of fact has become a very popular option. Popular across the country, at least of recent it was gratifying to hear somebody like Professor Ango Abdullahi , top northern irredentists talk very glowingly and supportively of restructuring as a way to open up the economy and make the states become less dependent on the centre and become imaginative, creative and development-oriented which is what everybody has been saying all along. Devolve power from the centre and give more responsibilities to the states and of course, more of the revenue and then of course, they take care. Instead of this rent economy we are talking about, they pay government its own royalty and take care of the rent at the state level.
At a point when Alhaji Atiku Abubakar began to push it, he was like a lone voice in the Northern wilderness and many people thought it was because he has political ambition, that he was trying to grandstand.
But now the likes of Ango Abdullahi, even Junaid Mohammed, those ones that would say that it is over their dead body that you tamper with the status quo are now beginning to see the light, see the benefit of restructuring, of devolution of power, the benefit of true federalism.
They are beginning to see all of those things and so it is no longer a matter that is for the South. To be candid, though the pioneer of this would be the South West, because way back into the time of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, he has always been in favour of true federal structure and events almost made it to be the region agenda, until the South East and South South joined. It became more like a southern agenda and now the middle belt and the core North have joined, with a few dissenting voices that aren’t really critical. So, what is left now is for the government to sum up the political will to embark on it. But with or without the federal government, the
National Assembly has a responsibility, they can go very far in ensuring a greater, more accommodating, less suffocating federal structure. The committee on constitutional review of the House of Representatives already adopted a document on the 2014 document on the 2014 Constitutional Conference as a working document and Senate has similarly promised on resumption they will do the same. If that is done, and they put into consideration some of those progressive recommendations in the document and they pass it on as a constitutional review to give us something that is like the peoples’ constitution and not what the military imposed on us, then, the president will have very little choice there because if he refuses to sign, then the House has 30 days to overrule him and his veto and it becomes law.
But even as you say certain Northern irredentists have backed the clamour for restructuring, the platform of Northern elders, the Arewa Consultative Assembly (ACF), has insisted that whatever anomaly in the Constitution and the defective federal structure can be redressed by the National Assembly. Curiously, that’s also the stance of President
Buhari. How do you react to this?
Well, it is very, very interesting that some people in the North are so scared about balkanisation of the country, because anybody who has followed the history of the country will know that the independence of Nigeria was delayed by the North, because they said they were not ready. So, rather than gain independence in 1957, we now became independent in 1960, because we were waiting for the North to be ready. And I don’t even want to remind people the national broadcast made by General Gowon on his assumption of office that there was no more basis for Nigeria to remain one. All of these things were said and canvassed and then all of a sudden, the same people are ready to die or drown as president
Buhari said, though he was making reference to the Biafran issue, just to keep Nigeria one. But I believe Nigeria can be one, I believe in one Nigeria but it must be one that is less suffocating.
We aren’t saying break up into 36 countries, we are saying let them be federating units that are given latitude to develop at their own pace and contribute to the centre. If we have a bigger, more prosperous country and everybody will be happy, there is no way restructuring, devolution of power can lead to balkanisation.