- Replace Amnesty With Massive Development Of N/Delta • Way Out Of Recession
Born into a prominent family in Okop Ndua Erong, Asutan Ekpe in Ibesikpo Asutan Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom state, on the 20th November, 1938, Obong Victor Attah primary education was at Native Authority School in Calabar, and later, his post-primary education at St. Patrick’s College in 1956.
The following year he earned a diploma from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). He gained a degree from Leeds College of Art and a postgraduate diploma in Building Science from Liverpool University in 1965. He also won a scholarship to study at Columbia University in New York, where he obtained an MA in Advanced Architectural Design and Planning.
He also attended the Kennedy Graduate School of Governance at Harvard University. After completing his education, he practised as an architect in the Caribbean, New York, and Nigeria. He was at a time, the National President of the Nigerian Institute of Architects. Victor Attah was elected governor of Akwa Ibom in 1999 on the PDP platform and was re-elected in 2003. He was elected Chairman of the Forum of the 36 Governors of Nigeria in 2003. As governor, he applied his skills in architecture and city planning to modernise Akwa Ibom, earning him many awards. This includes the International Award for Leadership Role in Governance from the Nigerian Family Association in Sweden, the Face of Good Governance by Africa Today, and the Key to Africa (Leadership Excellence) Award by the prestigious President Kenneth Kaunda Foundation.
In 2001, Victor Attah travelled to the United States in search of foreign investors. The visit produced tangible results. He promised to improve telecoms, electrical power supply, and air transport infrastructure, and to replicate Silicon Valley in Uyo. He planned to build an airport in Uyo before he left office in 2007. He also laid the foundation for the establishment of the Akwa Ibom State University of Technology.
The New Diplomat team of The Chairman and Editor–in-Chief, OMA DJEBAH, Editor, KAMAL TAYO OROPO, Associate Editor, LAOLU ADEYEMI and Editor, Business and Public Policy, OLAMILEKAN OKEOWO sought him out and engaged him on sundry issues in the country. In a vintage performance, the Obong opened up on how fiscal federalism is the way out for Nigeria, why the country’s unity should be discussed, how to get out of the economic recession, as well as, other burning national issues. Excerpts
People have spoken about lowering the interest rate, which was rejected. Many have also talked about pumping a lot of money into the economy; which seems to be generally acceptable, but the question is where will the money come from? To this end, some people are saying sales of assets is the only way forward, while others kicked against it. But as far as I am concerned, it will take some dialogues to arrive at the best possible solutions.
The country is in the vice-grip of economic recession, what would you prescribe as the way out?
We should not deny the fact that, after the war, a lot of money was pumped into public works, even though, it looks like we didn’t fix our problems directly. Yet, we got people to fix things then. Britain added something to that. They developed some new terms with different economic basis. I believe getting people who are truly ready to work is one of the answers we can have to mitigate this recession.
The question of where do we get people to work would come to mind. But the best answer is that the problem lies in our past. We did not get to where we are overnight. I am not the type that plays the blame game, but I will say the problem came with the leadership of the country in the past. Diversification of the economy is not new to any of them of the past leaders. Nigeria used to be truly a really diversified economy, largely based on agriculture.
It was largely diversified until the time we decided that oil alone can take us through; which was not true. Some of us have talked over and over on this issue and sometimes people think I was criticizing the party that I belong to. People assumed I was engaging in anti-party posturing because I was criticising the party too much. But that failure to diversify and save for the rainy season was my reason for the criticism. I was really shocked to see that Sweden had a similar situation and all that saved them was the saving they had during the harvest day. All they used to take care of the disaster that occurred in their country was without the external help.
Nobody lent them money. We all know it’s good to save for the rainy day, but we don’t want to do that, and that is the problem we are facing now.
The governors insisted that federation account must be reduced to zero or nothing in the account. If that is true, before we reduce the same federation account to nothing; we should have pulled away what we needed for the rainy season. We never did that and that is why we found ourselves where we are today.
On the prescription of selling assets, the Federal Government is not the sole owner of NLNG, even though it is the sole owner of NNPC as we speak. The one that she owns entirely is not making a profit. I remember there was a time when the managing director of NLNG was being accused of not remitting money into the Federal Government account. His response was that NLNG doesn’t return money to the federal government account because the government is just a shareholder. He said, NLNG only pays the dividend to NLNDC who invested on behalf of the Federal Government.
Meanwhile, NNPC which is solely own by the Federal Government is not remitting all and no one is accounting for that. One can see that all assets owned by the government have not always been accountable. Even when they seem to be successful; they are not accountable.
But when you have the shared ownership, others stakeholders ensure it works because of their shares. Others, who are also interested in the investment, make sure that they are not only successful but also accountable.
I don’t like the initial threat by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) labour on plans to shut down the nation’s economy without having any serious discussion with the Federal Government on the sale of national assets. Their new approach to the issue is, however, better. I was glad to read that NLC has set up a committee to engage the government.
Instead of engaging the government on the reasons why they wanted to sell the assets and to understand the government; they are threatening to shut down the government. What if tomorrow the government explains itself on why it wanted to sell the asset and you find no reason to shut down the government anymore; what would they have gained? And some of these people already have a mindset that it is so and so the person that wants to buy.
Ironically, if it is their brother that wants to buy, these set of people will say yes expressly. I implore Nigerians to always reason with the government. Let us be honest with ourselves, it makes sense to sell. There are some certain assets that started out solely as government-owned that are no longer in government’s hands at all.
If you want your government to succeed, criticise, bring out reasons, don’t be so quick to input motives whether religious or tribal and all that kind of sentiments. If we are really thinking about a country; engagement is the best approach. If we are truly thinking of a unified country; we must always engage the government before taken to any other means.
For instance, NLC can engage the government on why government assets should or not be sold and possibly advise appropriately. Yes, there are lots to receive through privatisation, yet, we must critically consider the one that could be kept for the strategic nature of the country.
I believe a lot could be saved through privatisation, sole ownership by government and shared ownership. I think we should just look at what we can sell out of the FG’s shares. The one that is solely own by the government; we can look for ways of generating revenues for the government through shares. We have five branches of NLNG, the Federal Government can think of selling certain percentages in the five branches and become the sixth shareholder. What is wrong with Nigeria having the sixth chain in terms of long terms investment.
Privatisation of the refinery could also make it work, but the government should stop fixing the price to attract investors. As long as the government keeps fixing the petroleum price, nobody will be willing to build a refinery in the country, because the number didn’t add up at all. As a governor, I had a license to do a 100, 000 barrel a day, but nobody was looking at my direction because of the price benchmark. Once they show you the price of buying crude oil, the cost of refining it and the expected profit margin; they only asked me, to tell my government to buy everything they produced and sell back to the citizens at any price of choice.
At the end of the day, they insist on selling their petroleum products at an economic friendly price. Dangote is building because he believes there will be total deregulation before completion of his project.
Anyway, I believe Nigeria is getting there gradually. Before, the price goes for N143 in some places, but now it goes up to N145. If the crude oil price goes down very well; why should anybody sell at N145? But if it goes up; why should they sell lesser than the cost? We should allow the price to equate balance and we would have an economic friendly offer for investors.
Largely, we have to decide what we really want to sell. You would recall that the Presidential fleet is part of our national asset we have had people saying, ‘sell, sell.’ We are telling the President, ‘you must sell, you must sell.’ Is it really what we want to sell? These are issues that should be dealt with.
On diversification, everybody has been talking about agriculture, but for me, the solid mineral is also critical. We cannot ignore the area of solid minerals at all.
If we are going into agriculture; we must do it in a very scientific manner. I was very pleased that government made an honest statement that about 70 percent of the nation’s farm produces goes to waste because of lack of storage facility and ability to process.
Focusing attention on that made me happy because I know if we can preserve what we produce; we are going to have surplus very soon. Again, we have to be sincere with whatever we are producing. When we insist on producing wheat; I have my doubt because certain crops accept certain climates. I may be wrong but I think we should concentrate on what we produce well than what we know less about, just because other people produce them. We can sell what we produce and buy what we don’t produce.
On this agriculture, what would you say is the immediate and medium-term strategy for it?
If you say people need food. How have people been getting food? They have been buying the food by importation. So we cannot suddenly stop importation, but we can encourage production and ensure sustainability. We can also look at what we readily produce, like millet, tubers cassava, maize, yam, cocoyam, rice. We can encourage our faculties of Agriculture to produce. IITA and others should look at how we can improve varieties and we can improve production per hectares. Let the government also explore ways we can start producing every simple tool of Agriculture that will use here in the country. Rather than importing fertilisers, we can produce ours. We should let our fertiliser industries to work. We should also look at the delivery chains. If we produce and we couldn’t get it to the market on time, they perish.
When we talk about agriculture; we should also think of improving our infrastructure, because if we produce good food; transportation is another critical challenge to the growth of agriculture in this country. We often forget the critical role infrastructure could play to agriculture.
I was arguably the largest farmer and exporter of pineapple in Nigeria. I used to send my farm produces by air to London through a big fruit exchange company based in the UK. But by the time the issue of the hanging of Ken Saro-wiwa came up, there was no flight to any part of Europe and I couldn’t sell my farm produces unless we go through Egypt or Ghana and that prevented me from exporting my perishable fruits. And for two seasons, I lost a colossal amount of money, because I had planted my fruits and I couldn’t market.
As God would have it, a friend of mine became the military administrator of Ebonyi State and discovered that a factory was being run by a company called DBY. I kept the factory going by supplying them three ten-tonnes-trucks every day. One day, I got a call from the factory around 3.30pm and I was accused of failing to supply them. I tried to explain that it was not possible; claiming I sent three trucks earlier and another three sets are already getting set to move.
I eventually ordered the new three tonnes of trucks, loaded with pineapples to leave and shortly after then I got information that Iheala, Onitsha, and Benin were impassable. My trucks got stuck and my farm produces were beaten by the sun for days and got spoilt.
Unfortunately; the six trucks of pineapples were spoilt and I lost a huge amount of money. The question is: am I suppose to build a road to connect East and West together because I want to supply pineapples.”
Infrastructure must work to promotes agriculture. Infrastructural support must be there to promote agriculture. If we don’t have that in place; agriculture will not thrive half of the way we desire.
Do you see the government having the political will yielding to some of these suggestions?
I believe this government is determined to make a change and I respect them for that. It is just that we are somehow impatience, but it takes a time to correct some of the things that had gone wrong in the past. There is a recent disclosure that the nation’s food import is already running into billions of naira. Do we want to continue doing this, seeing that we are not producing anything for exportation and our foreign exchange is nothing to write home about? We have to be very strategic with what we produce. All the farm produces we were known with should come to the forefront now.
How do you impress virtue of patience on the masses, when they need something to eat right now?
Where are they getting food before? They buy it. This is why the production of our own food must be encouraged, but importation cannot be stopped suddenly.
Buhari’s government may have to practically demonstrate to the citizens that he is doing something to clear the economic recession. But we must all support the government if we truly desire success. If we keep shouting on government; we would not go far.
When Buhari came in, some people thought he would be a dictator but he has so far proved to be a democrat. Strangely, we still complain about him being a democrat. We should rather allow him to strike a balance in-between firmness and diplomacy. He should be allowed to do things he wishes to do with firmness; yes, within democratic. If we don’t allow him to do that; we would be creating confusion.
I also hope President Buhari comes back the second time. I want him back for a second tenure. I want continuity of his work. Nobody can deny the fact that diversification should be our mantra now.
Nobody can deny that productivity should be our mantra. Nobody should pray that we should go back to where we started from because we won’t like ourselves. I also desire that all the good efforts of Buhari today should be institutionalised; and not like some legacies that will be abolished after a period of time. Let us say there is Buharinomist going on. God forbid that we go back to where we were before because if we do; we won’t even be able to get anywhere and that will be a disaster.
Talking about policy continuation; why does it appear each government tends to do things completely different from predecessor?
This is because we have not got one country and people still think that they want to do things that will favour their people. If we want to do something that will favour Nigeria and Nigerians; then there will be policy continuation. Unless we start thinking as a one Nigeria; there will be no policy continuation.
For instance, nobody will encourage us to continue with corruption. If we are fighting corruption so hard at a time Buhari is still in office, but I am worried about what happens to the campaign after Buhari must have gone.
There is a resurgence of unrest in the Niger Delta, with all the three gas turbines blown up and complicating energy supply in the country; Is there a way of getting out of the crisis decisively?
What do we have on the ground now, just answer me? Amnesty? Can amnesty be the solution to the Niger Delta problem?
Amnesty in my own opinion is not the best solution to the Niger Delta crisis. In all honesty, it is not the best. The idea of giving money to people as amnesty is not the best for this country. Where is this money coming from at a time like this when oil price has fallen drastically? What are we going to tell the militants and where are we going to get the funds?
Some people are entitled to social security money in America and other developed countries; yet, they shun it for pride sake. Why should we continue to dehumanise the Niger Delta people by giving them money through amnesty?
Amnesty should be a very short and interim thing. The best is to massively encourage all Niger Deltans by developing their place and creating an opportunity for them to make wealth. Let these militants be encouraged to do something with their hands; with dignity, and make money for themselves. There is a need for massive redevelopment in the region.
Meanwhile, the militants blowing up things in the region should also be conscious of the fact that they are worsening the situation and adding to the problems of the region; especially in terms of pollution. They are increasing the pollution that is already bad. There must be a better way of engaging government and violence should be discontinued. But there must be guarantees that the region will be developed and people must see this development coming from the government.
We must contribute to this development and it must not come from oil money alone. Oil has been used to feed this nation for long.
Aside from oil, other means of developing the region and feeding the people must be explored. Otherwise, the fear remains that the people of this nation might just be taking the Niger Delta for a ride by saying, ‘once the oil is finished; they can go.’ We must also support each other in this country and work as one. We must create a sense of nationhood and support each other. We must know that we are one nation. I was quite amazed to hear the trillions of naira being earmarked for the real development of the North-east compared to how much money that have entered NDDC for the development of the region since inception.
There has to be an equitable sharing of resources so that everybody can make up their minds in contributing to the nation’s development. This lead me straight to the issue of fiscal federalism; which is the only thing that I know will help this nation.
Nobody was jealous of Chief Obafemi Awolowo (first Premier of Western Region) when he established the first television station, free education in the Western Region. Nobody felt he was cheating the rest because they were not able to do the same at that time. And this because we had a good working fiscal federalism; where you use what you have to get what you want. You only bring a percentage of what you produce to the centre, which holds us together.
Unfortunately, the military does not understand anything beyond the chain of command. You will not expect that a military Head of State to sit there and tell a governor from the oil producing state to use the oil to develop that state. It was the military who started the idea of bringing money together and sharing it, but, the military has long since gone, why are we still keeping the operation of the military with us? Why can’t we allow all the vicissitude of the military go out with the military? And one of the things we should have done away with is this business of somebody bringing money and sharing out; determining how much a governor should earn.
For instance, it is not right for a governor, say of Lagos State, to earn the same amount with the governor of any state that has lesser resources. People are making excuses that some states are not viable. All the thirty-six states of the federalism are viable; quote me! If a state is not viable, it is because the governor concerned has made it unviable. There was no state created without the people bringing memoranda showing the means by which they can survive.
People talk about regionalism, but regions were artificial creation. I don’t know which region you are talking about; is it the one created by the colonialist or the one that we created? Which region was created by the people? But each state that is in existence today was by the demand of the people, even though they didn’t have the means to create it.
They took their demands to the government of the day which said, ‘yes if you want it, have it.’ What is in existence today is the closest thing to the will of the people, so let them survive. A governor will be buying a bullet proof car for his wife and girlfriends, but a governor who does not have the means will not do that. He only does that because he knows that oil money will be distributed, he will only do things he knows he can sustain.
I marvel when I talk to some people as appear confused to me; especially the talk of equity in distribution. They are the same people asking for restructuring and distribution. What distribution is in a fiscal federal arrangement? There is no distribution; it is the production that is the issue. As far as I am concerned, if any state produces something, that state should use it and pay something to the centre. I asked them, ‘if you have this region, do you agree that somebody should collect all the money and distribute to other region and they say no.’ I then asked them what they want, they chorused, fiscal federalism.
My argument is that why don’t we start from there? Why don’t we just focus on fiscal federalism and begin to work out how best to establish that in Nigeria. I know for sure that this would foster peace, bring development to the country. Given that as the basis, any unit that believes it can do better than its neighbour can do so.
I also noticed something which Nigeria should be very careful of and I am not afraid to say it. The two major regions that are talking about this regionalism are the one with a common language. The Yoruba’s have their common language in all their states, the Igbo’s have a common language too and they are the ones who are vocal about regionalism. The danger is, if Scotland could demand a plebiscite to leave Britain, these two regions are large enough to demand to leave Nigeria too. So, yielding to this regional expression may be the first step towards dismembering this country. The next thing is that they would want plebiscite and desire to go. So, let us stay as we are, it is enough to threaten the country, but, we have to remain as one. Nobody can deny the great benefit of our staying together. If we accept that, let us proceed from where we are.
Speaking of development in the Niger Delta, what do you make of the controversies trailing the Maritime University, Okerenkoko?
There is no need denying the fact that any region in the nation needs more than two or three maritime universities. But running a proper university requires a lot of money and am sure it is being looked into. We have to commend the Minister for Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi, who has been a very astute son of the Niger Delta. He conveyed a meeting recently, and there was a committee raised to look into the issue of the Maritime University, Okerenkoko. However, we can’t talk about Okerenkoko without talking about Oron. Oron has been there for a long time.
He explained himself to the understanding of all, that the ministry of transport is not empowered by its enacting law to establish a university. He even went further to explain that the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) by its own cannot set up a university. So, the university was established on a wrong footing. I think, the Ministry of Niger Delta has a budget for education. The minister of Niger Delta could take up the issue of the university from its educational budget.
But frankly, we have to thank Amaechi for calling that meeting, as the issue was fast becoming an emotional thing and I believe it can go a long way to douse the anger and anxiety of the people of the South-south if tomorrow the government say yes the university should go ahead.
I can tell you from what I know that it is being very carefully looked into. It is important that people’s aspirations are met; regardless of their region and that is part of the development that I was talking about.
The political class, which is the policy decision-maker, is in disarray, the ruling All Progress Congress (APC) is enmeshed in the internal crisis that can explode further any moment from now and rival Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) is not doing well either. What hopes are really there for the actualisation of some of the prognosis you have established?
Do we then abolish the parties? Don’t let us abolish the party yet, but rather let us make them behave like political parties.
When I was building a power plant in Akwa Ibom State and I went to South Africa to meet a minister, a lady that controls what I believe the most powerful ministry in South Africa. She later became the deputy president to President Thabo Mbeki. I gave her a proposal on how we can partner; even if they don’t want to put in any money. After a long discussion, she told me to go to the party office and meet a certain individual and that whatever the party directs her to do is what she would do. I can never forget a statement like that.
I came back and told my party; never mind what the party has now become today. We used to have seminars where we discussed how the party should be run. I told this story to my party chairman at that time. He looked at me and said, ‘Obong, have you forgotten that the ANC has been the party in power for many years and that is why they have this kind of control.’ The reason is that they understand the meaning of party and they know what it stands for. The President of the country was even a product of the party. So, it is not the party that should go and ask the President what to do. Rather, it is the President that should ask the party what to do to save the people and bring about the change that the party promised the people during the campaign. But since the time of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, party’s national chairman kneels down beside the President and ask for directions. Sometimes, President shouts at the party chairman and he will concur. The President is a product of the party, but we have not learned how to have an independent political party. The problem between President Nelson Mandela and Ms. Winnie Mandela was brought about by the ANC because they said she was no longer acceptable to them as the first lady. The party can even interfere in your personal life, but here, we don’t believe the party can direct the President. How do you expect the President to have the totality of knowledge? Yet, we would say a cabal has taken over. If a cabal takes over in any government, it means the party has failed, not the product who is the President. We have to develop the political will to determine who is supreme, and that is the party. But then, you find a situation in which some people in the party believe that they are the only cock that should crow. It is not right either. We really must learn how to organise a modern political party and fund it.
Is there any need for another national dialogue to achieve some of the recommendations you have raised?
I wish someone will just call a national conference to discuss the unity of Nigeria. Every time you hear, ‘our unity is not negotiable, we can’t discuss our unity,’ but it is something we have to discuss. It is what we need, to stay united. So, if we can call a conference to discuss how Nigeria can stay together, you will see how we will make progress.
We have been covering up a lot of things and we are just deceiving ourselves. If we feel all is not well, let us go and discuss it. The moment you say let’s discuss it, some people say, ‘you want to break up Nigeria.’ It is better for me if people come together to discuss the unity of Nigeria and give the terms and conditions under which we can be united. For those who doesn’t want us to discuss it, I believe they have a hidden agenda.
Would there ever be a time when everybody would agree on the modus operandi on how to stay together?
There must be. And that means we have to jettison this constitution; not even amend it. Some people went to the President and say you must give certain powers to the local government. Why must the local government feature in any federal constitution? Tell me why? And some will say it is because the local government is not given fair consideration in the constitution. For goodness sakes, we are missing the point. For me, we need to revisit the 1960 and 1963 constitution and see what a federal constitution should be.
But many would argue that the local government is the closest to the people. Indeed. So, what should be their position?
Have nothing to do with the federal government. They are not a federating unit. The only system to have anything to do with government in a federalism are the federating units, which are the states. The local government will know how to deal with their governors. It is not for the Federal Government to tell them how to deal with their government and it all boils down to the issue of the election. The day we start having elections in this country, governors will begin to sit up
Are you suggesting that we haven’t been having elections in the country in times past?
We have been having courts installing governors for us because we politicians don’t allow elections to take place. We run to courts to install governors for us. If elections are done, then people will know they are accountable to the people.
You have been involved in some national confabs, but the results are always kept in the coolers. What should be done with the recommendations of the 2014 confab?
My position is that report should be given serious attention by this government. I still can not understand the statement credited to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Mr. Babachir Lawal, that the report of the confab will take about seven days to be read, that he is busy with governance and that he does not have time to read that report now. I ask, how can somebody be too busy governing to the extent of not finding out how the people want to be governed?
The recommendations of the 2014 confab came closest to how the people wants to be governed and it is moving towards the direction of true fiscal federalism, with issues of State Police, decentralisation of power, saving money, providing money for start-ups for agriculture, solid mineral and exploration, as well as, many other issues. According to the chairman, it was the shortest and the least funded. It came out with recommendations that should engage the attention of this administration. If there should be another one, it is to look at the next step from there.
Let us go and look at the discussion of the terms of our unity. Then we might be able to mould the country out of what we have now. We do not yet have a country, and that is why it is difficult to have a truly national policy.