Fresh from the February 2019 Presidential Election, the Vice Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and former governor of Anambra State, Mr Peter Obi, has expressed deep fears for the future of the country.
In this exclusive interview with The Sun team of senior editors in his Lagos residence, he talked about a legion of issues, including debt issues, unemployment, governors security vote, among others. The former governor advocated legislation to prevent the abuse of security votes, both at the national and state levels.
Obi decried the high rate of unemployment, warning that it is a ticking time bomb, which has to be urgently addressed for the good of the country. He also proffered solution on how the country can be taken out of the woods and how the economy can be brought back on track. He spoke with Eric Osagie, Onuoha Ukeh, Femi Babafemi and Chinelo Obogo.
How has your experience been since the presidential campaign and election? When you look back, will you say that it was worth it?
It is worth it for me because no matter what, you have to think about how to contribute in building a better country. We have no other country except this one. I am urging everyone to make the sacrifice of being part of building our country. Most people would say that there are too many problems in getting involved in politics. It is true, but the country won’t get better if we are not involved.
Have you regrets?
No, I do not. Whatever happened is part of life. People will always say that if you step out of your house, there is a possibility that you can die of accidents and if you remain indoors, there is also the possibility that you can die of hunger or any disease because you didn’t go out. Yes, there were issues of harassment, but I tell people that we cannot go on like this. If you have a country where everybody is being hounded, no foreign investor will come in.
You made a statement during the debate that we cannot shut our shops and be chasing thieves. What did you mean by that?
The analogy is very simple. Nigeria is not the only ‘corrupt’ country in the world and it is not the most corrupt. Big nations, such as China and India were, at a time, far more corrupt than we are now. It is not possible to have a nation of saints. Such a nation does not exist and we cannot claim to be saints. In trying to rid the society of corruption, we have to pursue the vision of building a nation. The future of the nation is far more important. You must draw a line between yesterday and today. What is more important is to secure today while gradually trying to recover what you lost in the past. If you are focused on the past, you will miss tomorrow. Our economy is getting worse because we are focused on yesterday instead of focusing on tomorrow.
I have been a governor for eight years where I inherited schools that were not working. As you know, schools in Anambra were shut down in 2001. We were backward in education and health and the state owed several years of gratuity. My predecessor started some work on the roads, which was very good and I commend him for it. But in the eight years of my administration, we became number one in education. We won the Bill Gates award for health. We had the best road network and we became the best in financial management. If we were focused on the past when schools were shut, we would not have achieved all that.
You believe that focusing on the past is a major distraction?
You can give the past 10 per cent of your time and concentrate on your present and future.
At the moment, the new minimum wage has been approved by the Federal Government, whereas some governors are still owing the N18, 000 minimum wage. How do you think governors can face the challenge ahead?
Those who owe salaries can do better. Everybody can give an excuse for owing salary, but for me, you are not supposed to owe workers. When people work, they ought to be paid. Also, owing pensions is even worse. On the new minimum wage, the onus is on governors to sit down and find a solution. These things are achievable; it all depends on how you manage your resources. If we could do it in Anambra, any state can do it.
But some states are too poor to afford the minimum wage. How do they cope?
It is not an issue of poverty. It is an issue of proper resource management and prioritisation. I have consistently said that the cost of governance is too high. There are things that can be cut down so that there will be resources to do what you want to do. I have seen where states decorate streets during the Christmas while they have not paid salaries. When I was in office, I was told that the entire state capital of Awka must have streetlights and I agreed that some place needed them. But I also knew that none of the schools in the state had light; so I told them to give me the cost of having a generator in each government school throughout the state. They gave it to me and I bought a generator for each of the over 500 schools we have in the state. We had to ask ourselves which is more important.
The EFCC chairman accused some governors of instigating insecurity in their states so they can take more security votes. Do you think it is true?
Whoever made the comment must have observed something; so I cannot say whether it is right or wrong. He may be seeing what I am not seeing going by the job he does. I have been an advocate of ensuring that security vote is in line with the expenditure of government. When I came into office, I observed that our security vote was higher than the budget for education, health and others. We changed that. Security is important, but in terms of expenditure, I decided that education should have a higher budget because the more people are educated, the better the economy. So, we prioritised. We agreed that our security vote should not be more than five per cent of our entire budget. From 15 to 25 per cent, we brought it down to five per cent. I also decided that we would save, even though the Nigerian constitution does not allow savings. I introduced it and it turned out to be the number three reason I was impeached. I insisted that no matter what happens, we must save for the future because our resources are coming from oil, which is a diminishing asset. I decided that our savings must not be less than five per cent and that education, as well as health must be between five and 10 per cent of our budget. We gave infrastructure 10 per cent. Our budget was usually about N100 billion and the budget performance was usually between 70 and 75 per cent. Most of what we did in terms of security was from security vote. Not only that, we said anyone that had a First Class and who was from Anambra State would get one million naira and we paid over 500 people. We took that money from the security vote. The purpose of saying that security vote is money that cannot be accounted for is because it is assumed that you are a person of conscience and that the money will be used judiciously. Being a leader presupposes that people have some measure of trust in them and can be trusted. That is why they allow you some resources, which you can manage at your discretion. That discretion is what differentiates people’s character. In Anambra, we started security programme in every community and we ensured that they all had a local vigilante, which was paid for by the government. Each of the communities had a pick-up van bought by government for the purpose of security. We bought security vehicles for even universities that are not owned by the state government. We gave each university N100 million from the security vote. I visited every community and we gave them money for developmental projects and the money came from the security votes.
But you agree that there are abuses?
I will tell you how these abuses can be curbed. For instance, a government can cap the security votes at five per cent and then increase the budget of other sectors. We did all these and when I left office, the amount I was able to save for the state was N75 billion. You can see that it is a bit reasonable.
Are you calling for a legislation to peg it, going forward?
This is where I question leadership selection process in Nigeria. Even if there is no legislation to that effect, we the leaders should know that. Our leadership selection process is weak. We need to select people based on their character and past performance, which we can verify.
Won’t legislation help?
It will. For me, there should be a guide that security vote should not be more than this or that percentage. There is already a global standard on education and health budgets, for instance. Since the federal is in charge of our security, I expect to see security votes not being less than 10 per cent of our national budget. So, if we say we are budgeting three trillion for instance, one trillion naira should be devoted to security and it should be effectively applied. Across the state, the security votes should not exceed a maximum of six per cent of the budget and also effectively applied. But application is where you must have conscience because I can tell you that most of the transaction in security is cash related. We assume that the selection process should throw up people with good character. Spending security vote involves many things. For example, we were paying the police, the army, navy and civil defence weekly. As you’re paying them, you are also paying various vigilance groups and also taking care of other issues. When I became governor, the army barracks in Onitsha was not fenced. I went to the late President Umar Yar’Adua and offered to do so. That is what security vote ensures. I agree with you on the issue of legislation because if there is any need for extra funds, you go back to the system and explain why you need it, but where it is open ended, especially for an account you cannot explain, it is not the best.
What would you recommend as the best way to fight corruption?
The best way to fight corruption for me is very simple; it is to ensure that money goes directly to where it should go. Do things in a professional manner. For example, as governor, every contrac tor that fulfills his obligation must be paid within 90 days. There might be some, which takes 100 days. With that, if I am a supplier and you say you are going to buy things from me for N10 and I supply it, I don’t have to pay anybody because I know my money will come. Go and ask Zinox and HP. We bought computers from them worth over N2.6 billion and we paid them before they delivered one computer. Go and ask Innoson. They supplied us nearly 1,000 vehicles. We paid him before he supplied. Go and ask Coscharis. We bought buses from him as well. We paid. In education, we didn’t need to go and work in schools. We gave the school management and the Parents Teachers Association money to carry out projects. When we returned schools to the churches, we also gave them money directly for developmental projects. The more money you remove from the system, the more you reduce transaction. Give the money meant for the schools directly to the schools. I agree that total eliminate of corruption in any system in the world would be difficult except in heaven. However, what you need to do is to manage people’s greed. You reduce corruption when you reduce actions that will bring about cash transaction. Incentives for transaction must be reduced.
Another major issue, apart from corruption, is youth unemployment. Some have described it as a time bomb, which would one day consume everybody. People have also linked the increased kidnapping and banditry to unemployment. What are your views?
Unemployment is the number one problem the country is facing and must be dealt with immediately. Unemployment is a far bigger threat than corruption and I will tell you why. The most productive asset of a country is the human being. We now have 21 million unemployed youths in their productive age; that is why this country is suffering from low production because our tax to GDP is too low. Taxation and employment are related. The more productive people are, the more tax you can get from them as revenue. You can’t tax people who have no job or savings. I have been at a place where a man brought a huge bale of used underwear and lots of people were rushing to buy from him. So, for people to go and do that, it means they cannot afford to buy a new one. All I am saying is that we need to do something drastic about unemployment. Employment is what is going to turn our economy around and it is not rocket science. This has been done in countries, like India and China. Less than 10 years ago, Nigeria was number four in the total number of people living in poverty; India was number one and China was number two. Today, Nigeria is not just number one, but there are more poor people living in Nigeria than India and China combined. India and China’s population is almost three billion, so we are not even up to 10 per cent of both and we have more poor people living in our country than both of them combined. Between 2000 and 2015, China pulled out 439 million people out of poverty.
Is it not the corruption of the past that caused Nigeria’s problem?
Corruption has nothing to do with unemployment. Economies are driven by the private sector. In India, they brought a First Class professor from Oxford to be their Prime Minister and he contributed his quota, but the revolution in India today is being led by somebody who came from the system. They saw what he was able to do in his region and brought him to the centre. In our own case, somebody comes from the moon and starts promising heaven. Everybody believes him, but when you put him there, he is confused. So, we need to change our leadership recruitment process and recruit people who have ideas and can also have the political will to take decisions and follow them through. We should also recruit leaders who have record of past performance that is verifiable. It is not about someone that speaks grammar in conferences. I do not think any country holds more conferences and prayer warriors than Nigeria, but see our situation.
Nigeria today owes debts running into trillions. Is there anything we can do about borrowing because the argument has been made that borrowing can be done for infrastructure. What is your view?
Please, go and listen to my presentation on The Platform of May 1, 2017, where I even had an argument with the former minister for finance. Because I am not from the World Bank or IMF, nobody listened to my solution. Our debt is not sustainable; it’s too high, but the minister said they knew what they were doing. I said you cannot know what you are doing when you are using over 50 per cent of your revenue to service debts. They said they want to spend themselves out of recession and that the debt to GDP was low. In resource management that is unacceptable. You cannot spend yourself out of difficulty by investing in consumption. You can only do that if you are investing in production, but if it is consumption, you are worsening the situation. There is nothing wrong in borrowing money, but we should know what the money is being borrowed for. In the past few years, the borrowed money has run into four to five trillion and our capital expenditure in the same period is not up to 50 per cent of that; so where is the balance? Do you know what a trillion can do? By the time the Second Niger Bridge was conceived, it would not have cost more than N200 billion. The remaining part of Lagos-Ibadan road cannot cost more than N200 billion. Even Apapa road, is it not N70 billion that Dangote is using for it? So, what have we used the trillions we have borrowed to do? We need to be more serious over this debt issue. People need to know how much is being borrowed, what it is being borrowed for and the repayment plan. If I am part of the government today, we will not borrow money in a maximum of four years. When I came to Anambra, I shut some things down so that we do not need to borrow money. As I said earlier, there is nothing wrong in borrowing if it is being used for production. China is also owing and their debt to GDP is about 60 per cent. But let me tell you the difference. China today has a reserve of about three trillion. The economy has grown from the year 2000 to today to almost 12 trillion. Their economy is productive and has created huge jobs. In Nigeria, we need about 120 million people to be gainfully employed. We need to support Small and Medium Enterprises; that is where you created wealth.
Is that not where TraderMoni comes in?
TraderMoni should be stopped, especially now that the election is over. I can understand that the TraderMoni thing was done during election, but now that election is over, it needs to be stopped and we go back to the drawing board to do things that are very serious. I have been a trader and have managed money.
TraderMoni is N10,000 and if a trader in Anambra gets it and you have to move from Awka to Onitsha, you will spend over N1, 000 to move your goods to and fro. What is left? Even the method for disbursing such funds is faulty. Every community has micro finance banks through which such funds can be channeled. How does the Federal Government know who to give the money? Let us not even go there.
Another contentious issue is the issue of subsidy. What are your thoughts?
Go and listen to what the World Bank and IMF said about subsidy, which is exactly what I said during the debate. I said you cannot pay more money subsidising fuel than your education and health. Our education and health budget put together is about N750 billion, while subsidy is about N1.5 trillion. How many people have vehicles? The indices used to measure vehicles in a country is the number of brand new vehicles, not to go and buy vehicles that are 20 years old. But even if you add that, we have about 10 to 12 million vehicles.
The total number of those who own vehicles in Nigeria is not more than five million because most of them have four each and you are using the resources you would use for 200 million people to cater for the lifestyle of about four to five million people. If we must fight corruption and abuse, let us stop it now, while we look at the past. But you are allowing the same process that you are accusing your predecessor about to continue and chasing people around is tiring. The effect is that the criminals are increasing. Even if we must do subsidy, let us be transparent about it. We should have a peg on the percentage of our budget that can be used for subsidy and it should not be more than that. Subsidy should not cost us more than five per cent of our budget. We must not have legislation over it; there are so many things that a leader can take a decision over without going to the parliament. I went against the constitution and insisted that we must save a certain percentage of our monthly income because it is the proper thing to do. I am not the president and even in my last outing, I would have been the vice president to somebody, but I would have been able to tell the person that this country should immediately embark on savings. In fact, for me, all our proceeds from oil, especially the one they say is excess, should go directly into our sovereign wealth fund without question. We must have a percentage of our money that goes into the fund. This will even help to pay off the debts being accumulated. You are accumulating debt and you are not worried about how the debt would be paid. It’s a serious crisis and that is why everybody is warning you.
What is the way forward?
We are in a crisis and we need to accept that as a fact. When you talk, they will say it is because you are in opposition. Nobody is a better Nigerian than the other. What we want is for Nigeria to be good. Nobody is criticising APC government or Buhari for nothing. It is because they are in government. I can assure you that if Buhari decides to go back to Daura today, nobody will call him. If you feel that you do not want to be criticised, please go home and stay in your house; nobody will call you. But as long as you are there, we have to talk about things that are bad; period. I left office and neither owed salaries nor pension. I actually paid N37 billion in outstanding gratuities of local government and teachers. Above all, I left N75 billion which is verifiable. It is well documented.
What is the issue that made you and your successor, Willie Obiano, to fall apart?
It is not true that every ex-governor is quarrelling with his successor. In my own case, I don’t have any issue with Obiano. I only want my state to make progress.
There are speculations that you made a demand of N6 billion from him and that was the cause of your rift?
What demands will I make? I left N75 billion; is it not simple that if I wanted money, I would not leave money in government coffers when I left office? The only governor that left money behind for his successor was Yar’Adua, who left N3 billion. In my case I left N75 billion. The total money I left in dollars was $156 million. If I needed it, I would have helped myself because I was under no obligation to leave such an amount for my successor. But I didn’t take anything. Does it make sense for me to leave such N75 billion, then go back and start begging Obiano for N6 billion? Why would I have access to N75 billion, then I would leave it only for me to return and start begging the governor for N6 billion? Does it even make sense? Throughout my tenure, we were saving in dollars and in naira. One day, you come and I will tell you what Chinese people did that changed their story. It was my study on China that made me decide to save in dollars. A third of our savings was in dollars, a third was in investments. I ensured that Anambra State is the biggest shareholder in International Breweries, that is why Obi of Onitsha is their chairman. I paid $40 million for those shares and it’s almost 200 million now. Since I left office, I have not been paid either severance or a penny from Anambra State. You can go and verify. No one has given me a dime. No one has bought me one tyre since I left. I didn’t take a piece of land belonging to the government. When I wanted land, I bought land from Mrs Asika on which I built my house; it’s there in GRA, Onitsha. I was the custodian of land in the state and I had the power to revoke the C of O of any government land in that same GRA. But when I needed to build, I told my wife that we should go and buy land because we didn’t want to be accused of taking land belonging to the government. Go and trace and see if there is any piece of land in Anambra State that was allocated to Peter Obi or his siblings. I am not claiming to be a saint, because in managing resources, there may be mistakes here and there, but I always tell my people that I want 75 per cent of all transactions to be correct. Go and investigate if there is any contractor who will tell you that he negotiated with Peter Obi on the amount he will pay before he was given contract. We bought vehicles worth N5 billion from Innoson; go and ask Innoson whether he gave me even one car. Ask Leo Stan of Zinox whether I was given one extra computer for the contract we gave to them. The House of Assembly members came to me and said they want to pass a law so that they can build a house for me in Awka and in Abuja. I told the Speaker that I don’t need a house in Abuja because I do not live there. I didn’t make any demand from Obiano. The demand I am making for Anambra is the same demand I am making for Nigeria. Let things be done well so that out place will progress. I know that our President is a man of integrity, but my argument is that integrity is not a measure of capacity to govern. We want him to do more. There is no reason at my age, I cannot criticise a system that is not working. If I cannot criticise, then I am not worth living. We need jobs for our children and creating jobs is not rocket science; it is as simple as ABC. If I am elected and I cannot serve, I go home. I don’t want to be in a place where they will say I do not know what I am doing. IMF, World Bank, Bloomberg and everyone cannot be shouting that things are going wrong with Nigeria and you say that anyone who says anything is an enemy. We were here when HSBC Bank that manages over 25 trillion dollars in its portfolio left, and we said let them go because they do not know what they are saying. When people criticise you, don’t start victimising them.
The incoming governors are currently having an induction and we saw that some foreign ex-governors were invited as resource persons and people are wondering why former Nigerian governors who performed well were not invited to teach the incoming governors?
I watched it myself and I believe that induction is very critical; it is done everywhere in the world. I will slightly disagree with having more of foreign former governors than Nigerian former governors. The foreigners do not know much about Nigeria and they have their own circumstances. You need former governors from Nigeria who can share a better experience. For instance, they invited the former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley. He’s a good man who ran his state very well. But remember that the budget of Maryland is about $50 billion, which is about N18 trillion, twice the national budget of the entire country and four times the budget of the entire states of Nigeria put together. The man does not go for FAAC meetings. Washington doesn’t share money to them every month. He doesn’t have herdsmen issue. Our peculiarities are different. They need people like the former governor of Cross River State, Liyel Imoke, who took over in very difficult circumstances. At the time he did, the state had been plunged into heavy debt because of the way they had projected their future, which didn’t work very well because of Tinapa issue. But Imoke was able to navigate and the state was not plunged into financial crisis during his eight years tenure. They need to learn from someone like him because some of these governors are going to inherit debts and they need to know how to navigate that. Therefore, to bring in someone from the US who did not have the problem of inheriting debts or a situation where they were owing workers several months would not help much. We have sufficient resource persons, like even Babatunde Fashola who was a governor in a cosmopolitan state like Lagos. They can also learn from his experience. Their resource persons should be concentrated locally; that is what they need.