By Iheanacho Nwosu,Abuja
Prof ABC Nwosu served as Political Adviser to erstwhile President Olusegun Obasanjo. He was later appointed minister of Health. In this interview, he spoke on the ongoing debate over restructuring. He argued that those kicking against restructuring are doing so because they are benefitting from the current warped system. He also spoke on the state of the economy and other national issues.
Are you surprised at Nigeria’s current situation or you expected it?
The current situation of Nigeria was not expected by anybody at the time of last general elections. Neither the PDP which I belong to nor the APC which successfully replaced us, was expecting that more than one year in power, this will be the situation . And what is the situation? Officially, Nigeria is in recession. Politically, we are more divided than ever. The North east problem has not quite ended. If it has quite ended, then there would not be IDPs; everybody would be back in the villages contributing to the growth of the country. To make matters worse, the South East feels that it is not a part of Nigeria under the present administration. Whether you call it IPOP or MASSOB or any name, it is playing out the typical south East philosophy that a person rejected does not reject himself.
Now, you have the Niger Delta Avengers. You see all kinds of militant groups from the riverine areas. No matter what you make of it, It is a move borne out of the fact that the people of the area are feeling unjustly treated.
The economic consequence is that we have our oil export at the lowest level. All these things that I am describing require political solution.
The late President Umaru Yar’Adua applied a political solution and it worked. So, I don’t see why we cannot apply political solution of talking with brethren when people are feeling dissatisfied.
So, the state of the nation is not only bad but requires urgent repair.
There are claims that Nigeria actually went into recession in 2014 when your party was still in power, can you controvert such insinuation?
If there’s anything I don’t agree with, it is a person in charge of a situation finding all kinds of lame and stupid excuses for why things cannot be done. Anybody who goes on that direction means that even idiots can be on power. I am using very strong words deliberately. You don’t have to continue the past for the problem you have been elected to fix. You don’t have to continue to heap the woes of the country on the military. And if there was any good that the military did, you won’t even recognize it .
Some say NPN messed up everything and that was why the military came.
This blame game has been going on. New administration always criticise and blame the predecessor for all manner of things. The only regime that didn’t do it was the one I joined from day one, in 1999. It didn’t blame the administration of Abdusalami Abubakar.
On May 29th, 1999, Obasanjo appointed me. Before that time, he had never seen me. He had never met me. In his right pocket, he had the NNDC bill, left pocket ICPC bill. Both laws are still in existence. Yet the nation was going through serious challenges that time . But he never blamed his predecessor.
What he was only concerned about was that governance has to be done.
I will mention five things quickly. One , he immediately auctioned the GSM liecenses; now telecommunication is all over. We are using GSM, we are using internet. We are using all these and yet some people would tell you that we had 16 years of PDP rot. And most of these people who say this were either PDP governors, chairmen and speakers for eight years.
I don’t listen to that. As soon as the oil price came up, Obasanjo tried to set up sovereign wealth fund. Go and find out the governors who opposed that most, they are the same governors now saying that we didn’t save for the rainy day.
PDP government was the brain behind excess crude account. It got $18 billion debt reprieve.
It was during our administration that we coined the phrase democracy dividend and started looking at the various sectors. The same people who say 16 years of PDP rot, commissioned the Abuja, Kaduna rail line. Did they have a miracle of building it in one year? Accepted, they did miracle, then let them continue doing other miracles.
When you come into a situation, you appraise the situation. If it is bleeding, you stop it and know how best to bring it back to life. That’s the attitude that’s permissible.
Would you say this government is confused or lack idea on how to address the current economic challenge?
I am not in government, I’m not a prophet, neither am l Rev. Fr. Mbaka to see through prophecy how it can be done. All I know is that many Nigerians, good Nigerians have said, if something is not working, try to see how it can work. That’s how I see the word, restructuring. Our federation is not working. It hasn’t been working. Therefore, restructuring is the best thing that should be done now to see if it will work. But I’m baffled that a government that says Change cannot understand change, even when it comes to structures.
You said change personnel, we accepted. Nigerians have voted your change personnel. They are saying change structure. You say no way. How and why? Because the same problem is there, you need to change structure. Change structure is restructuring. Economic change is diversification. If government says it wants to diversify, it has accepted change in diversification.
The old people have been changed, what government is finding difficult is change of structure and I don’t know why? Fine, but it is going nowhere until it changes items in the Exclusive List, even in Legislative List.
We must re-examine that item 39 that says petroleum under the liquid, gas and solid are the exclusive preserve of the federal government. We must ask why we are still finding it difficult to pass the petroleum industry’s bill. These are the cob webs government has to remove. Restructuring is not going back to regions. I’m shocked at that kind of ignorance and nonsense. Who says restructuring is going back to regionalization?
But is it not the impression that some of those canvassing for it have created?
I don’t think so. Those canvassing for it somehow say, go back to it, some say make geopolitical zones regions. Restructuring is let us change the structure. What is the structure? There is too much power at the centre. Federal government has too much power, too much responsibility, too much money, too much to waste.
But PDP government resisted that during its own time?
Because the PDP government resisted it, because the military put it there, because the NPN didn’t do that does not mean that the APC can as well keep throwing it to everybody’s face. It does not mean we won’t do that. So, what is the change? Nigerians voted for change.
I thought change was if it is not good for the country, we will do it. Is there anybody who has not seen that federal government has too much power and too much responsibility? Is there anybody who does not see that over 60 to 70 per cent spent on recurrent expenditure is wrong? Is there anybody who does not see that the federal government has over 800 parastatals and that it is wrong? Is there anybody who doesn’t see that having over 42 ministries is wrong?
Are you also baffled by the level of polarization between the North and South on this issue of restructuring ? Do you agree that those seeking the restructuring do so because of their hatred for the North?
I’m not baffled. My simple answer is that I served in the same committee on the devolution of power with Alhaji Tanko Yakasi during the National Reforms Conference. I knew all that happened then.
So, I will not be unkind to him. But if you say those who want the country restructured hate the North, I might as well tell those who say don’t restructure hate the south, then it becomes conversation of the deaf.
Why is it that people are asking for restructuring? The structure that we have is anti- development. The structure we have is unjust and unfair. I belong to the school that regards restructuring more of devolution of power than regionalization of Nigeria. If people are living all over Nigeria, working all over the country, going to school all over Nigeria, It means that government can be organized according to the wishes of everybody .
What would you fathom as the reason the North is against calls for restructuring of the country?
It was very clear to me at the National conference. Is there anybody who is benefiting from a system and still wants it changed.
The current system gives Kano State 44 shares from local government funding and Lagos of comparable population, 20, Oyo 31, Imo that’s the largest state in South East, 27, Bayelsa that produces a lot of crude, eight.
It is not fair, it’s not just. It is not that they should have equal number of local government. It is that local government all over the world are removed from the central account. They are not part of the central account. They are part of the federating unit account. And on this, there was an agreement at the last National Conference.
Many of them think that if you remove this kind of unjust system, it will not be to their advantage. But what they do not know is that it may liberate their creative energy. It may make them rise to the challenge. Kano can develop and get the same kind of internally generated revenue as Lagos is getting.
We are seeing what is happening in some states that are challenging themselves. Anambra is existing on its own. They are not having problem paying salaries. The state did several things under governor peter Obi and has maintained to pull itself up to paying salaries, investing and correcting its educational system. It wasn’t like that in 2000/ 2001. So, it’s a case of challenging people to develop. I am sure that people will be challenged. But not everybody in the North is against restructuring. We have heard Atiku talk of restructuring and it is not the first time he would canvass that. When we were going for the conference in 2014, I still remember the back page of ThISDAY newspaper where Atiku had a lenghty article and agenda for the National conference and it was on restructuring and how Nigeria should be structured.
Some have argued that he is doing that to get the minds of the Southerners and get their backing politically, would you discountenance such suggestion?
Anybody can feel the way he wants about any person, but that’s not my concern. By 2014 when we went for the conference, what made you think that Atiku, even if he was the presidential candidate in APC, would win on that party’s ticket? So, we don’t know tomorrow from today, so I judge what you see today on its value. I judged Atiku from what he said in 2014. What has happened in 2015/16 and what will happen in 2017-19 we don’t know. So, if you said something in 2014 and you are still continuing to say the same thing today, he should be taken seriously.
On the flip side of the clamour for restructuring, some believe that it threatens the unity of the country. Do you see it that way?
Who has threatened the unity of Nigeria? Nobody has threatened the unity of Nigeria. These are what I call obfuscating issues. Have you seen meaningful people and groups from South east talk about the breakup of Nigeria? Or have you seen meaningful people from the South west talk about breakup of Nigeria? Where the talk is coming is from the North. People don’t want to listen to us that say, look, let’s be fair, money is too much at the centre.
In the principle of federalism, where something can be better done by a state, why put it at the federal government. Why should federal government be sinking your own bore hole? Because I say it is not right, you say I’m thinking of breakup. If there is anything you can take now to the mind, it is that Nigerians do not want to break up. The unity of the country is a concluded matter in the hearts of Nigerians. Nigerians love a big economy, love a big market. That’s why we don’t want to breakup. They are only saying let’s organize Nigeria so that what works for the North, works for the West, East, Middle belt and South south.
Do you see not listening to this agitation threatening the unity of the country in the future?
I can predict the future, I don’t think it will threaten the unity. Those who are opposed to it will be swept away. There’s a law of nature. The law of nature is that we are young, we grow up and we die and the young people take over. That’s part of the problem we are facing now. A lot of people are in government and who continue to be in government must have idea on how to run the economy in the 21st century that’s likely dictated by market forces led by private sector and controlled by the government. Illustrating it locally, if you are cooking an okro soup, the Igbo man is expecting to eat his Akpu(fufu) from this okro soup.
The other person from the South south is expecting to eat his starch from it. The man from the North is expecting to eat his Tuwo shinkafa from it, the man from the west is expecting to eat his Amala from it. Instead of concentrating on making enough okro, you make a little and then the man with the Tuwo shinkafa runs away with the okro. There’s no way the others will let him do it. So ultimately, we will find that the solution is to make enough for everybody because there’s love for everybody and it will promote affection. I don’t think the unity will be threatened. I think those who don’t want this will be swept away.
Nigeria is faced with a situation where some states are unable to pay salaries and the situation compels them to keep demanding for bailout. Does this development put the country’s democracy at risk?
There is nothing wrong with our democracy. Let’s leave democracy out of it. Inability of government to pay salaries is complete irresponsibility by state Governors. If you look at the people who are not able to pay, they belong to political parties.
Like what Prof. Soludo said the other day to APC in Kaduna, when you leave a PDP state and get into an APC state, the difference should be clear. If you come to the South east, the core APC state is Imo State. It even decreed that people should work three days in a week, a thing never heard of before. Why is it that Anambra is paying? Anambra has increased salaries of workers. The state is doing well in Agriculture. Why is the state doing well? Is Anambra an oil producing state? Imo is an oil producing state from Ohaji Egbema, yet she is not paying salaries. And the federal government in a federal system thinks it should give bailout to them to pay.
This is one principal reason for restructuring. State governments are not subordinate government, they are co-ordinate government. Was Okpara going to Tafawa Balewa to arrange for payment of salaries? Somebody has clearly pointed out that three of the first generation Universities were built by states. The first University to be built was University of Nigeria.
Wasn’t it built by Eastern region? The federal government institutions were University of Ibadan and University of Lagos. University of Nigeria, Nsukka was built by Eastern Nigerian government, Almadu Bello by Northern Nigerian governnent, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife by western Nigerian government.
The West was first to set up a television in Africa from their own fund. Immediately, Eastern region set up its own. They were competing who would have the better secondary schools? Which people will get more grade 1 in school certificate than others? They were competing using state resources. If you had three groundnut pyramid this year in the North, next year you would have 100. We had more cotton, palm oil, rubber, cocoa. But immediately we discovered oil, we abandoned the federal structure so that we can soak up the oil.
We don’t see anything wrong about not allowing states to participate in oil, but allowing states to participate in their diamond or gold. The coal corporation was Nigerian company in Enugu. The entire city, Enugu was built with coal.
These are the things you can revive by simply restructuring, by having a proper federal structure. These are the advantages that will come. We want governors to work for their people and not living above the means of their states.
Former President Obasanjo described PDP as being in intensive care unit, what do you make of the statement?
I personally refrain from criticising Obasanjo. But two areas where I am upset about what he has done is in the area of PDP and the area of governance. President Obasanjo if you recall didn’t form PDP. It was the late Solomon Lar that took the letter to General Abacha who had jailed Obasanjo. So, this PDP platform has been the platform under which Obasanjo was brought out of prison, contested election and under a year of coming out of prison became president for eight years. Just like I refrain from criticising Obasanjo, I would expect that he should refrain from certain things about PDP that gave him the platform under which he did so much good for Nigeria. I believe he did so much good. But the platform you used to do that good, please refrain from criticizing it. A lot of things he is accusing them of, he can see started from him. The worst thing he did was the tearing of PDP card.
Having said that, what I take away from the speech is that democracy is best served by two strong parties, one in government, one in opposition. In developed democracies like in Britain, we have the labour and the conservative. In America, we have the Democrats and Republicans .
But many also believe that there was large scale corruption in Obasanjo’s administration especially the gratification given to the National Assembly members to support his third term project, do you agree less?
Large scale corruption would not have started under Obasanjo’s administration.
Was it not under his tenure that N50 million naira was given to the National Assembly members to endorse his third term?
When there is money given and money taken, you don’t go into it. The facts are known, if the President didn’t want third term, it wouldn’t have been heard of. If there were no money offered, then somebody would not tell you he offered money. But I’m talking of the kind of institutionalized corruption.