By Iheanacho Nwosu, Abuja
Mr Osita Okechukwu is the Director General of Voice of Nigeria (VON) and a pro- democracy activist. Prior to his current position, he was a key leader of the All Progressives Congress ( APC) in the South East. In this interview, the former National Secretary of Conference of Nigerian Political Parties (CNPP) spoke on a number of issues and happenings in the country. He defended plans by the incumbent administration to borrow $30bn arguing that it will help address the plethora of challenges facing Nigeria. The DG also tackled former President Goodluck Jonathan and explained reasons for kicking off of campaign for the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Concerns are mounting over plans by the APC -led Federal Government to take the $29.9 billion external loan. Many believe it will endanger the future of Nigerians. Are there things those in government are privy to that ordinary Nigerians do not know concerning the loan?
If you were earning N100,000 per month and it has come down to N50,000, coupled with your kids getting hungry, as a good father, what will you do? If you cannot pay your children’s school fees or pay their medical bills, you must find a way as a father. You will either talk to your friends, neighbours or relatives, you must find a way to get the money. As a father, you must ensure that they do not suffer or go hungry. Without those things as the head of the family, your wife and children might even revolt. In the same case, President Muhammadu Buhari has always been concerned about the public good. He works for the people and you have an approach, it helps.
When Buhari came in 1983, he was forced then to look at the best ways to put food on the tables of Nigerians. He came up with the SWAP policy. Today, the only product we have is crashing in the international market. The reserves that could have been kept were squandered. The only option now is to look outward. That is why he is looking at other parts of the world. If the people are hungry, this democracy cannot be sustained. A hungry man is an angry man.
The amount Buhari wants to borrow is considered too much and expectedly is giving Nigerians concerns. Are you not bothered by these concerns?
If I was Buhari, I would have borrowed $50 billion. In engineering, there is what is called super transmitting highway. We generate enough power, but we cannot transmit it. The transmission was not privatized, just like they do in many parts of the world. That is the nerve of the country’s infrastructure. In the proposed loan, some amounts have been earmarked for electricity generation. We need to borrow. For instance, Mambila Power Plant in Taraba State is expected to generate 4,000 megawatts, plus 3,000 already in place. It will gulp about $4.8 billion. People are saying that the future of the country will be mortgaged. But it will be more mortgaged if there is no infrastructure in the country.
Somehow the concern is that Nigerians are yet to see real efforts made by government to take the country out of its current economic recession. The situation has prompted some to accuse the government of lacking the idea to do the right thing. What do you make of such views?
I have been in the opposition for years. I know what and how it feels to criticize. We rely on a product and we do not have control over that product in the international market. People forget that we do not produce oil ourselves. We have a joint venture arrangement with international oil companies. Nigeria has not even paid its own counterpart funding of the joint venture in the last four to five years. We are owing them about $7 billion. Out of that loan, $500 million will be spent on the East West road. This East West road was awarded during the time of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
There are sections of the country who believe that their interests are not being accommodated by this government in the planned loan . One of such is the South East. What is your take?
That is what I am saying. If I am the President, I will be talking about borrowing $50 billion. I will borrow to fix second Niger bridge, fix Enugu coal for gas power plants in the region and do other things. The money he intends to borrow will be used to fix the Lagos-Kano railway lines at $8.2 billion. The way it is now, it takes you up to four days to get to Kano from Lagos. But if the guages are raised up to another standard, it will only take you few hours to get to Lagos from Kano. If you do not improve on the critical infrastructure of the country, there will be more hunger, unemployment will increase. It will lead to more insecurity. Instead of amassing weapons, money should be spent on infrastructure. If we develop rail lines linking up different parts of the country, life will be made easier for Nigerians.
You have always advocated that the South East should join APC. But the argument by some people from the region is how can they join APC when government has continuously alienated itself from the zone. Do you not see sense in such argument?
As I said, do not listen to any merchant. The super highway is for every part of the country. Places like Nnewi and Aba will be the greatest beneficiaries. If there is electricity, products made in Aba will be cheaper than what is produced in China. But that cannot happen because of the cost of generating electricity. Whatever will be done in this country will be for everybody. Our economy is crumbling because there is no electricity. Companies have left Nigeria because there is no electricity. If you can even fix electricity in only Sapele in Delta State, you would have solved problems there. The products that will be served will be Nigerians. The loan is coming from multilateral agencies. It is not coming from one source. It is not also coming in form of cash. For instance, when the governor of Ebonyi State said he needed the Abakaliki road to be captured, the president looked at it and keyed it in. It is the same thing with Aba. Aba cannot be industrialized without fixing the roads. What is being borrowed is for the entire nation. Part of it will be used for human capital development. It will not be based on tribe and religion. Let me talk to those who always say that the Igbo are being marginalized. The Igbo stand a chance of benefiting more from any infrastructural development in the country.
Do you feel the government is not marginalizing the Igbo?
I do not think so. I have made this argument several times. Nigerians gave Buhari a four-year mandate. We have not done two years yet. Let us imagine that he does eight years. I have told Igbo that in the fullness of time, Igbo will benefit more from President Buhari’s government. The Igbo supported the PDP. There was a time we had people in government more than any other part of the country. The only thing they did was that, many of them became richer. Pius Anyim built a road leading to his village. But the Port Harcourt Enugu road and other roads in the South East collapsed. All these roads collapsed when we had people everywhere in government.
What you are saying is that it does not matter if the Igbo are in government or not?
Okonjo Iweala created the hardship in the country. Government’s policies were nebulous. They shared the money and insisted that government did not need to invest. Why am I saying so? There was a time during the 16-year reign of PDP that the Igbo voted roundly for them. There was a time a barrel of oil was $145. Did they use it to fix roads in the South East? Did they use it to fix electricity in the South East? They did not. Professor Barth Nnaji and Prof Nebo headed the Power Ministry. Did they restore Enugu Coal? Did they fix the second Niger bridge? Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan only created few millionaires in Igbo land and other parts of the country and left so many people poor. That poverty is what they are reaping. Nobody in Igbo land wants to know who created the hunger.
During the 16 years of PDP, those in the opposition, including you were against saving in the Sovereign Wealth Fund. How come that, suddenly, you are now singing that PDP government did not save?
My brother, it is a wrong-headed argument. On May 13, 2010, when our sister, Iweala awarded a multi-billion dollar contract to a Chinese company to build a refinery, did we stop it? On that day, excess crude account was about $17 billion. How come Jonathan gave over $2 billion to Sambo Dasuki to be sharing to everyone as if it was their money.
You keep talking about the failure of PDP, whereas, most of the campaign promises made by APC, some argue, have not come to fruition. Why are you turning blind eyes to issues concerning the APC government?
I do not blame them. You know human memory is a factor. A certain woman who was Permanent Secretary in Bayelsa State, claimed that she had over $15 million in her account and women in the South East and South South are protesting in her favour. That money is not small. If Obama was accused of $1 million, he would have been impeached. When we came in, we did not know there was so much corruption in the system. We did not know that oil prices will crash. We went for a meeting with the budget office. Some people suggested that workers should be sacked because of the overhead cost. President Buhari said no. He said he was pro-people. In Voice of Nigeria alone, we have 1,130 staff. The worst of it is that, wrong people were recruited.
What is your view on the belief in some circles that President Buhari is handling with kid gloves allegations of corruption against some key government appointees?
Please do not say that. You were there when Buhari’s spokesman said the president has ordered that those indicted be probed. If you do not believe that it is something, it means you are one of those who do not believe in this government. Democracy is not a revolution. Every growth recorded in democracies, have been incremental. If it was when Buhari was Head of state, he would have been dismissing people. But democracy is different. There is the rule of law. This is what President Buhari is following. He has said those indicted should be investigated. Anybody who is found culpable will be prosecuted.
Why are you already talking about a second term for the President?
We are doing that to enable Nigerian people know that this foundation Buhari is laying is needed to be nurtured to maturity. This Voice of Nigeria, we are here as tenants. But with Buhari’s support, we are going to have a decent office. If Buhari had not come, the man who used public funds to build where we are packing to next year, would have inherited the house. Now I know why people opposed to Buhari are doing that.
You do not see the worsening poverty in the country affecting his ambition?
It will not affect him. In the next one year, Nigerians will begin to see what Buhari has done with the little money saved. This agency’s website was tepid, but it is difficult now. I inherited N1.2 billion debt. If we did not come, that debt would have increased. That is why we are telling Nigerians to be patient. This hardship was inherited. In the next few years, Nigerians will reap the harvest. People opposed to Buhari are against what he is doing. Buhari means well for everyone. He has mobilized contractors to site, even in the South East.
President Obasanjo has told Buhari to stop complaining and do his job, what do you make of the advice?
If Obasanjo was to be probed, maybe they would have asked him where he got the money he used in building his private university. The whole earnings he had would not have built the house where he is staying right now. Let him not say much. If he tries it, we will open his own Pandora’s box.