•Buhari’s slowness not matching people’s expectations
By Iheanacho Nwosu and Magnus Eze, Abuja
The Chairman, Senate Committee on Finance, John Owan Enoh, who represents Cross River Central has been in the legislature since 1999, having passed through the state assembly and the House of Representatives.
He speaks on various issues as he turns 50, including opposition politics, President Muhammadu Buhari’s fight against corruption and removal of fuel subsidy.
In a matter of days, you would turn 50; what actually makes this birthday special to you?
As an individual, I have really never tried to celebrate a birthday in any formal sense, and finding me now preparing to celebrate my 50th birthday in itself reflects the uniqueness for me of turning 50 not like other times when I turned 49, 48, 47. I mean the closest thing, is my wife doing a surprise birthday party for me; this is the first time I would involve as a person trying to mark a birthday. And I think that it may all have to do with the way the society itself has made turning 50 look like.
Certain things will normally motivate an individual to do anything; some months back I remember I got someone from my constituency, a lawyer; my hope is that on my birthday she is going to be there because am going to give her some recognition as well, because she has come to me to talk about what she thought was being ignored in terms of living in the society; in terms of giving attention to diabetes. She said that we pay too much attention to HIV/AIDS and ignore the fact that diabetes has been the worst form of health hazard and she wanted me to get involved and do something.
I believe that also shaped my tendency to want me to do my 50 birthday. I‘m not an individual who wants to celebrate for the sake of celebrating because after she spoke with me, I had cause to reflect again in a soberly manner how many people that I have come face to face with whom I saw their condition deteriorate from when I knew them to when they became diabetic and to the ravages of the diabetes in them and then got even closer to myself. There is no history of diabetes in my family but somehow my immediate younger brother who has spent 19 years and counting as a Catholic priest is today diabetic.
So, this has actually shaped my attention and I said look, I’m going to turn 50 in the next couple of months, why don’t I organize an activity around that 50th birthday that will bring up something on diabetes, some kind of giving back to the society. On the June 4, I am going to turn 50, what is most important to me really is not the celebration that is going to be associated in turning 50 but the fact that it is going to give me an opportunity to formally launch a foundation for diabetes and it is actually going to get involved in various areas of diabetes whether in terms of how much public information and awareness is created about health habits, whether in terms of having to identify some specific cases of those who have been diabetic and the extent to which I can through that foundation subsidize the medical cost of those who are diabetic and all that.
So, I think that this is more than anything else that seems to have shaped my attention and my interest to make sure that my 50th birthday doesn’t just pass unnoticed and unannounced.
We will focus on my senatorial district with a future plan to expand beyond the senatorial district depending on capacity and ability.
Growing up, did you set out to be a politician?
Well, when I taught the history of social thought as a course to my students as a lecturer in the department of sociology, we encountered serious social theorists that appreciated the fact that every human being is a political animal. The fact that I was a human being made it obvious that I was also a political animal but beyond that, I think that my concern for the society, my concern for people appears to have gradually shaped what my future role has turned out to be as a politician. When I reflected about this some few days ago, I recalled that I stated very early attending a seminary where ordinarily after you finish from the junior seminary, you go to the senior seminary and you have the vocation, you aspire for the priesthood. But I think that my vocation and calling appears to have been the vocation that drove me towards becoming a politician, trying to shoulder the responsibilities of responding to people’s needs. Whether as a student, I found that lure quite evident when I contested election and went to students’ parliament, whether as a lecturer I found myself very involved in politics of the faculty where I lectured and gradually I had to look at the outside shores of the university. And when I ran my first election, I had no plan that I was going to spend the rest of now 17 years in active politics. Somehow, something about my interest appeared to have focused and directed my attention to what I found myself doing today.
Could it be that the university did not give you the platform to render the kind of service you wanted?
I think that is what I believe it was and talking about service, wherever you find yourself, there is always the need to render service. So, you are right to say that as a university teacher, yes I rendered service, but as the desire, the allure grew more and more, the university system became a lot limited in terms of providing the opportunity and providing all what I needed to continue to do so and I think that what I principally did was to respond to that limitation. I needed some platform that will provide a wider scope and a wider opportunity to continue to do those little things that I believe I was doing as a university teacher. I remember when I ran my first election, I had testimonies of things that I did as a university teacher without much attention, without thinking that they meant anything; I found people giving testimonies of that. Students who had encountered me as a university teacher got involved in my campaign in my first election and told the world how much I was available for them in terms of the needs and in terms of the attention they wanted from me. So, basically yes!
How do you see opposition politics in Nigeria from 1999?
So far, in the course of the growth of our democracy, I think that there is really no role for the opposition in our politics. I mean it, the only part of the country that has played opposition, let me say more or less successfully is the South Western part of Nigeria. Where I come from, the South South zone for example and most other geo-political zones of this country and generally, there is still no real room for the opposition. This is not the first time I have been in opposition in government. When I started my politics in the House of Assembly, the government of my state was a PDP-led administration, and I got elected into the assembly as an APP lawmaker. It’s quite frustrating so far; our democracy may develop later, better and finer to accommodate and therefore give some sense of satisfaction and fulfillment to people who are in the opposition but so far, not so. As a Minority Leader in the Cross River State House of Assembly then, there was about nothing that I didn’t try but because of the impatience of our system with the opposition, almost none of those things that we tried then, worked out the way we wanted. So, you find that even those who are in opposition themselves are in a hurry to become part of the ruling party to the extent that when we started in 1999, the impetus for the strength of the PDP had already been put into the political process. The PDP more or less had won and because of that, in the course of the first four years, by the time it got to 2003, more than half of the people that found themselves in opposition in 1999 had become members of the PDP. Unfortunately, three years into the assembly, I became a member of the PDP. So, somehow 16 years after, the PDP as a ruling party lost power at the centre. If you go and check out the position of the two parties at the conclusion of the last presidential election, you are going to find out that they’ve been a lot movement from those who had contested and were in PDP by the 2015 elections into the APC. This has been the defining element of opposition politics in Nigeria to the extent that a ruling party gets into government and only loses power out of its own internal contradictions and differences not because the opposition party remains in opposition and appreciates its role and therefore tries to sell its own agenda and what it sells is able to get it back into power by the next election. So, we still need quite some time to appreciate the beauty of opposition politics, to appreciate the fact for example that opposition politics plays a significant role even in terms of the development process of any democracy and of any country. Unless we get up to that point, I think that we will still be lacking in terms of one of the essential ingredients that is responsible in the growth of the country.
Are we not seeing all that because of the character of the political actors who are desperate to be in power?
I don’t think there is anything so very uniquely different from a typical Nigerian politician compared to his counterpart anywhere else. I think that it is more of a function of even the socio-political structure that also exists within the country. The structures and institutions are so skewed in favour of the ruling party to the extent for example that you make little meaning as a politician when you are not a member of any particular ruling party. So, it is not so much what is inborn in the Nigerian politician that makes him so unstable and to want to belong to whomever has won all the time; it is more in terms of what is available at the disposal of the ruling party in terms of the institutions and the structures that existed in Nigeria. By the time we get to a point in which our institutions begin to truly work as institutions, right insensitive to whoever is at the commanding height of government, I think that it is also going to have its own implication; it is also going to impact on even that typical Nigerian politician that you may want to describe in the words that we have already described.
Drawing from your experience in government, what do you think that is making it difficult for us to get it right in terms of development?
I think that basically, it has to do with leadership; that somehow the rest of the people will follow if they have the right leadership, the right leadership attitude. I give an example; and I am not saying that things will automatically get sorted so dramatically and so very quickly because of the bad state of things; it is going to require a little bit more time for us to get a Nigeria of our dream, in terms of development, and in terms of all those good things that we expect of any country. I give an example, I am not in the APC but we have the APC administration at the national level. Who is the head of that administration?
It is President Muhammadu Buhari; say what you want to say, what is my thinking and perception of the man Muhanmadu Buhari? If our greatest challenge today as a country is corruption; without prejudice with the manner in which the war against corruption is being pursued, in looking at the individual as Muhanmadu Buhari, I believe he is an embodiment of a no nonsense man in terms of corruption. I believe for example that Buhari will not steal Nigeria’s money.
Now, this doesn’t mean that people working under him will not do so. They are going to do so without his knowledge, if he does know, I believe that he is going to respond to it appropriately. I am talking this in terms of the right leadership, if you have a leadership that will not compromise, in it you begin to have some kind of rebound effect in terms of what plays out; it may be gradual because it is going to require a little bit more people getting together. It’s not going to take Muhamadu Buhari alone as one person; we would need a critical mass of people that can make that impact against corruption, to appear and to have a general effect in terms of our country. So, when I talk about the right leadership, it is that if the leadership is corrupt, of course you know what would follow. But if the leadership is perceived not to be corrupt; now they are too many things; even before the president got sworn in, there were some common talk in various ministries, departments and agencies of government amongst mostly civil servants. ‘Ah! Me I no wan go jail o! This was ahead of the swearing-in of Muhammadu Buhari. That gives you an idea of people’s perception of him, that perception whether you like it or not affects people’s conduct. So, I believe for example that blessed with the right leadership and I have had cause to say this a lot of the times that Nigeria turned out an unfortunate country because in almost everywhere else that you have had the military in government, they have come as people who have come to correct society; so our long years of military experience is such that when civilian democracy started in 1999 for example, it would have been a good take off only if the military had laid a good foundation because it requires some little bit of totalitarianism for you to be able to achieve certain things in a country like Nigeria. And only a military regime can assure you of such totalitarianism.
But in our case what happened? We had a military class of people who even turned out more corrupt than the civilians they took over power from. So, to get things done, given how bad things were, you always needed a military that would rule without regards to rule of law. When we had that kind of military which didn’t do so, our situation became worse when civilians took over government and that’s why we are still grappling with the issues of development as a country. The hope is now that we elected Muhammadu Buhari as president of Nigeria in 2015, that in the next four years, that those who get elected, we are not going to descend any backward any more. We should be able to take it up from there and be able to elect the kind of people that we find incorruptible.
Will you say that this government has got it right in terms of some policy decisions it has made like the removal of subsidy and hiking of the pump price?
Well, generally there is some certain slowness in terms of what this government is doing, especially when you balance it side by side in terms of the expectations of the people. President Buhari got elected with an expectation that made it look like the saviour has come. But there is also a huge difference in what you imagine when you are not in office and when you get into office. When you get into office, it is a different ball game. You talk about the few polices and decisions, well a few have been done properly. This government has shown some will in terms of certain things, but when you talk about the fuel subsidy removal and the increase in pump price and all that, I just wished that the government of Goodluck Jonathan was allowed to implement this policy in 2012. I believe that if the policy that the present administration has announced it is implementing was allowed to be implemented in 2012, we will not be where we are today. So, that’s part of what I am saying that you see differently when you are not in office. And various people have argued and they are correct, that the same people that championed the Occupy Lagos, Occupy Nigeria, in response to the withdrawal of fuel subsidy by the Jonathan administration are the same people today that are in government that are promoting and championing that policy. This has nothing to do with the correctness of that policy; it has nothing to do with whether as a country that is what we need now or not. The fact is that there is a certain realization that what has been announced now is the direction to go. Unfortunately, coming at the time when there is so much hardship in the country, it’s difficult for the common Nigerian to appreciate the wisdom in that policy. Otherwise, if you look at the arguments squarely on their merits, in terms of whether in 2016 Nigeria as a country should continue to subsidize fuel, in the face of all the constraints, in the face of what Nigerians are being made to suffer in terms of the unavailability of fuel in the first place, in the face of the fact that even at the earlier controlled price, that controlled price is only applicable in the major towns, that elsewhere outside those major towns, the common Nigerians may never have got fuel at that controlled price; so who are you actually subsidising?
With your experience in appropriation in the House of Representatives; what was it that the government got wrong in the 2016 budget that led to the logjam?
In fairness to everyone, the 2016 budget is the first budget of this new government, so I think that the problems of the budget started quite early, the controversies started quite early; either in terms of missing budget or no missing budget, that set the stage for all that played out later, whether in terms of ministers coming to appear before their various standing committees and disowning the details of the documents that appear before them. The difference between 2016 and the previous years, namely the years that I chaired the appropriation committee, was that we did not start with controversies in the laying of the document; we did not start controversies with the details as it came from the government; controversies only came after passing the budget. In 2016, controversies tailed even the formal presentation of the estimate of the budget, through the computation of the budget estimates themselves in the various sub-committees and climaxed with the details of the budget that was sent from the National Assembly from various committees for presidential accent. What I can say is that there is about no year that I can remember that the National Assembly has passed a budget and there is no controversy at all; the difference has been in form of the degree in terms of the public appreciation and involvement of those controversies.
How have you been able to dominate the politics of your constituency; you have been winning your elections; what’s the secret?
The magic wand has always been remaining with the people; two, it’s been the grace of God all through. Whatever we are, whatever we become, we can’t be unless God allows it.
Fundamentally for me, the Grace of God in my life has been too strong; it has been exceeding. Number two, I have also not taken God’s grace for granted; I’ve been actively involved with those that I represent. Not just staying in touch for the sake of that, I mean staying actively in touch.