Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezeife was born at Igbo Ukwu, Anambra State on 20 November 1939. He attended Salvation Army School, Igbo Ukwu (1947-1949); Holy Trinity School, Ugbo Ukwu (1950-1952); Salvation Army Teachers College, Akai-Eket (1957-1958), University College, Ibadan (1961-1964). He did not attend secondary school, but took correspondence courses to qualify for university admission. He obtained a BSc in Economics from the University College Ibadan (1961-1964). He proceeded to Harvard University on a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship where he obtained a masters and then a PhD (1969-1972). He became a lecturer at Makarare University College, Kampala, Uganda, a teaching Fellow at Harvard University and a Consultant with Arthur D. Little in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ezeife joined the civil service as an Administrative Officer and rose to the position of Permanent Secretary. He was elected governor of Anambra State from January 1992 to November 1993 on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), before the late General Sani Abacha took over power through a military coup. Ezeife was appointed presidential Adviser on Political Matters to President Olusegun Obasanjo in the Fourth Republic. In January 2010, he was among thousands who demonstrated in Awka calling for credible and violence-free governorship elections. In this exclusive interview with The New Diplomat’s Abuja Bureau Chief, AUGUSTINE OSAYANDE, he bares his mind on the current economic challenge, militancy in the Niger Delta area, restructuring, budget padding, Nuhari’s performance and sundry national issues
Recently the Minister of Finance officially confirmed that the country’s economy is now in recession. What is your take on this situation and what are the measures the current government can adopt to address this challenge.
I must first say that people in government must be careful with the words they use. It is not for a minister in government to announce recession to Nigerians and non-Nigerians. It makes a difference if ordinary person says that, many people will not take it serious and it will not deepen the problem. But when a minister in government or President goes about to say the government is bankrupt, are you inviting investors or driving them away?
Well, recession is English language. What we are in in the country is worse than recession. Nobody can remember our going through this kind of economic suffering and deprivation. It has never been like this in my 77 years in this world. So, this is not a matter of looking for somebody to blame. No blame game is necessary now; all that is necessary now is for all us to pray for God to direct us to the right path. We should also pray specifically for our President that God in his infinite mercy direct him to the right path; the right path for the economic welfare of the people he is governing and give him a large heart to forgive some people whom he may have something against and live according to the constitution he has sworn to protect. But our difficulty now is a build-up, it did not happen overnight. At a point, the economy managers were not there, the ministers were appointed a bit late and those who were there did not understand the ABC of the economy. The consequences are what we are seeing now. It is very easy to pull down but very difficult to build. The economy that was built over many decades has been pulled down in two years. So we are in difficulty and the immediate source of the difficulty is well known — the sharp drop in the price of crude oil in the international market. It is true that the crude oil price started dropping before the assumption of the President but the attitude to it was wrong.
It is time we did better study, planning and implementation of necessary economic changes. It is unfortunate that those who have the knowledge are not given the chance to bring the knowledge to bear on the economy. Even when they volunteer and write something, the money people and those who gain from the failure of the country will lobby with money and kill the ideal. I am sure you know that Nigeria is a high-cost economy. So what do you do when you have high cost economy? You try to compete with the rest of the world. You use what you have to get what you want. What we want in Nigeria is increased competitiveness in the world market. About eight or nine years ago, many industrial establishments folded up. It affected one of my very young and enterprising brothers. He designed an equipment he was using to make some iron plates and he was making progress, but all of a sudden the same material he was producing came from China at a market price less than his cost of production and what happened? His business folded up.
I have proposed over 10 years ago what to do with oil price. I said we should use what we have which is crude oil to get what we don’t have which is competitiveness in the world market. Crude oil is fantastically suited for this purpose. Everything you do in Nigeria is affected by the cost of crude oil. Take transport for example, whatever you are doing is affected by the cost of transportation. Things you sell in the market are affected by the cost of transporting them to the market. The cost of transport is determined by the cost of diesel, petrol and this affects the overall economy.
So what do you do to achieve competitiveness in the global market?
I proposed that we should estimate the quantity of crude oil needed in Nigeria to satisfy the local demand for petrol, kerosene, diesel and other petroleum products. When we know the quantity, we adjust it because some part of it will leak into our neighbouring countries and then the estimated quantity would be dedicated to Nigeria’s domestic market. That means if the products are used in Nigeria, we are not comparing price with anybody. In other countries, it can be N1million and here it can be one kobo and there is no problem. We dedicate it to the economy and make sure that we use the funds to bring down the cost of production. How do we do this? We commission people to refine for us locally or internationally. The cost of refining is the only thing that is mandatory and if it is refined internationally, it will include cost of transportation. You can see we have come back to cost of transportation. With that, we can fix the price of petroleum products the way we want it to be. Whatever you are doing, in order not to subsidize, you would make sure that no private sector person imports petroleum products from abroad. If there is need to import, the government must subsidize and if they don’t subsidize the price will get too high and the economy will be destroyed like we are doing now. I made this suggestion as far as President Obasanjo’s period. I presented it to President Yar’Adua but he was not very attentive when I presented to him because he was not feeling fine. In fact, a week after I presented it to him, he left for treatment. I presented it to President Jonathan, but he did not have time to look at it and I have also presented it to President Buhari. Whether it reached him or not I don’t know. But I wrote something and send it to the presidential villa addressed to the President. So this is the problem we have and this problem is aggravated by the corruption in Nigeria.
There was a period that Nigeria was diversified economically. That is, multiplicity of economic activities that if one went bad (like crude oil has gone bad now), other areas would sustain the economy. But what happened, the moment we had crude oil and we started to earn significant revenue from crude oil, other economic activities were suspended. Remember the groundnut pyramids in Kano, remember that the palm oil we are importing now the seeds were taken from Nigeria. And now we have plantations that nobody is harvesting. We have tin, columbite that we were exporting. Nigeria was engaged in various economic activities, our textile industry was booming, so was soap and drinks. But with the dominance of oil money, other economic activities started declining, our diversification started to weaken. Not a great percentage of Nigeria labour force has been in the oil industry but when oil revenue increased, many Nigerians started getting unearned income. Some of them from oil sales commission, some from pure corruption because government is getting allocation from oil revenue and they started giving inflated contracts. Something of 10 kobo became 20 kobo and every level of government started hiring people. We started having bloated civil service employment. Where was the money coming from? Oil allocation at the federal government level. Even the number of states and local governments created also helped in increasing the number of civil servants and they are paid from oil revenue. We started going backward and our economy went down. The pursuit of money from oil became very strong and people were no longer interested in economic diversification because of cheap money from corruption and oil. But the main point is that our politicians were not very good in policy making due to corruption. The republican presidential candidate in the United States had once remarked that African politicians focus on carting away the revenue of their country and dumping same in foreign banks. This kind of corruption discourages economic pursuit in other areas because we concentrated on getting rich quick from oil money. That is the basic reason for what we are experiencing now. The foundation of what we are experiencing was laid far in the past and I think it was the military who laid this foundation.
Another major challenge the current government is facing is militancy in the Niger Delta area which has reduced the oil production. How do you think the government can adequately address this problem?
I must thank and praise President Muhammadu Buhari for not responding to the problem with the so-called “crushing” mentality. Nobody will like to be challenged and if you are the President, you will not like Niger Delta small boys to be challenging you. So, for him to cool down and adopt dialogue deserves commendation. I have written something in the past appealing to the Niger Delta Avengers and other militant groups to kindly give negotiation a chance. If you insist on violence, no government will like the appearance of a failed nation. That is, a nation where the government is not in control. But if you are from the Niger Delta area and environmental disasters have caught up with you and then and they say over 80 percent of the oil wells in your area belongs to people from the North, That is life without honour. You were not born inferior to anybody because God who created everybody deposited the oil in your area. God decided where we were born, we have no hand in this matter and if you happen to be born anywhere, you will defend that place. So if you come out and see this kind of things and nobody wants to listen to you, you are going to keep fighting to defend your area. One of the good ways to look at the issue is to recognize that some people have good case and see how to make them happy. On the other hand, you know that somebody is in charge of the government and the government cannot be seen to have failed. So, you don’t just go ahead to do the impossible. It has to be a fair negotiation and compromise comes in. There is nothing better than this. Fortunately, most Nigerians understand this, but a few Nigerians are yet to understand their own interest and sometimes they oppose what is in their best interest.
Still talking about the current economic situation, the federal government has failed woefully in providing basic infrastructure. One basic element is power. You have also water, transportation, environmental or ecological problem to manage and the federal government has not been able to do it. Again among the states, only four of them can fund generation of electricity and even those four, what they are doing is too small to produce large-scale energy for industrial growth. We should make economic units large enough to produce what they need. For example, if we used the six geopolitical zones as a federating unit, you are sure that each unit is large enough for large-scale production of power so that it will be cheap enough for everybody. That makes the case for restructuring of our country for economic effectiveness, but access to power in Nigeria is differential. Those who have access to power may not be those who are motivated for development. That is one of the major problem we are facing, but over time, it would be resolve.
Some people indeed believe that there is need for restructuring the country.
To restructure means to enlarge the unit of government below the level of federal government. It is a necessity and inevitability. Some people are opposing it because they don’t know what their long-time interest is. We know we have diverse social structures and all the conservative or retrogressive systems must go. If your area is bigger and you don’t care about development because you don’t want other people to catch up with you, you want to be at the top all the time. It doesn’t happen again, it has been broken because you are living with other groups which have no future. So ultimately, it is in your best interest that growth and development affect everybody, including yourself. You may find areas that benefit you in a perfect restructuring. Nigeria is diverse culturally; there are some whose sizes are so small that no matter what you do, they will still be minority of minority. But even then, when they are with their fellow minority of different tribe they can get on better than in the place where you think you are swallowing them. With six geopolitical zones being recognized as federating units, the diversity of culture is tempered with and it will not be so sharp again than to continue saying “We are one, we are the same, Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable”.
Politically, if you are to restructure, we will get economic benefits in surplus, the evidence is there. During our colonial period, when we had three regions, all those regions were in competition with each other and they were developing. The East was bursting with development, the West was bursting with development and elements of the North were bursting with development. Corruption was not so rampant because we knew you were going to wherever it was to get our money and you can’t come back and blow it the way you like. Otherwise, we will beat you up. So, economically, politically, culturally and socially, it is best that the country is restructured. I have alluded to those who are thinking negatively about restructuring, they are doing so based on antiquated sentiment at the expense of sustainable development.
As an economist, what is your understanding of the issue of budget padding currently rocking the National Assembly?
I don’t understand a lot of corruption. Whatever you called it, budget padding is stealing and stealing is not good. What seems to be the truth is that part of it has been going on before, but now we discovered it. If somebody has been stealing your money and you did not know and now you know, will you leave him to continue stealing your money? President Obasanjo is very enduring in Nigeria and sometimes he says things because he knows them better than most of us do. He said the National Assembly members are thieves. There are traditions and once they get in there, they become part of it. Padding is one of them, allowances that are beyond comprehension are among them. Actually, when you look at the payment of Senators around the world, you find out that in Nigeria, the senators are getting sometimes more than 20 times their colleagues in other countries, same goes for the House of Representatives.
It is over one year now that the current government came to power, how will you assess their performance?
Well, that is no longer an issue in my view. I believe in Nigeria. I don’t care about my personal interest when I am concerned with things about Nigeria. I notice very early in the day that although the President told us that he belongs to nobody and he is for everybody, and he has taken the oath of office to uphold the constitution, he was not doing that. In fact, what is worse now is the religious division. I saw in one of the social media platforms that if you are going to Hajj, you can change dollars at the rate of N197 to $1, but for other activities it is more than N300, even sometimes close to N400 to $1. Now let me say something that is more important to all of us wherever we are. I understand that the new leader of Boko Haram made a clear Islamization statement that he is going to kill all Christians and burnt down churches. This is not Boko Haram statement. Put in the context of what is going on in the country, he is just saying, from his own angle, what is happening clearly within the country. I understand that out of the 17 educational heads in the country, 13 are Moslems. You take a job from a southern Christian and give to a northern Moslem. Everybody whether you are, a Moslem or Christian, will know that this cannot work and it cannot be in the long interest of Nigeria to bring religious differences and make them worse. As for the conventional assessment of the government, nobody now in his right mind will come to defend the change we bought into. Instead of defending it, they are talking about changing the change and they go deeper than what you may think. So everything is clear, all the promises the party made they have failed to keep and it is clear that they were not making the promises with their mind. If you say $1 to N1, availability of petrol, availability of infrastructure, payment of welfare to unemployed youths, feeding of school children and all that we are seeing are negations of what you promised, what is it to assess, is it the darkness? So, it is no longer important to apportion blame to APC, to the President or to any group, what is important is to pray for the survival and growth of this country. The Almighty God in heaven showered unimaginable resources on Nigeria. God’s design is unmatched greatness for this country, but look at what is happening. Any plant that can be grown in this world can be grown in Nigeria. If it cannot grow in my village, Igbo Ukwu, it can grow in Gembu. Any animal you know about anywhere can be made to grow here. This, in addition to the variety of mineral resources we have which include gold, silver, diamond, copper and several others. I got involved in gemstone business many years ago. I carried a box of gemstones to Bangkok in Thailand where our people were selling varieties of gemstones and so it is in many other areas. All kinds of minerals and I am sure that there are many we don’t even know yet and if you come to human resources, all kind of talents from many, many tribes are available in the country. God in heaven planned for Nigeria unmatched greatness but man is messing up God’s great design for Nigeria. The issue is to appeal to ourselves to look up and pray and realise what we are doing to our future before it is too late.
Recently the United States Embassy in Abuja issued travel alert warning their citizens against travelling to 20 states in the country. As a former governor, what do you think the states governors can do to make sure that this warning is removed?
Look, the same thing in America’s mind should be in our mind. The security and safety of our citizens should be of primary importance. America values its citizens and therefore would advise them not to expose themselves to danger. We can only work to improve the security of our villages and towns. If you can be killed like flies anywhere, you wouldn’t go there. It is for the state governors to work and ensure security and safety in many areas. There is nothing like security. There has been a change in Nigeria, the killing of people callously. Because you belong to a different club, members of another club will kill you, husband killing wife, wife poisoning the husband.
I want to use your newspaper canvass that this issue of vigilante group has become a major issue and a major source of job. The people should be trained morally to the highest level before you give them a gun so that they know they are coming to defend the people. Now, look at Nigeria, we have tourist potentials all over the place from North to South, East to West but no tourist is coming to a place where he is not sure of the security of his life. So, I am happy you talk about the state governors and I know the responsibility is first with the federal government. But the governors are called the chief security officers of their states. Insecurity is the worst thing in Nigeria. We started with it in the Niger Delta, where some people would kidnap foreigners or other people and it went into the South East and Willi Obiano stamped it out of Anambra. I hope it is not coming back. Kidnapping should be stamped out of Nigeria; every state should have the technology for stamping out kidnapping because there is equipment that would let you see the victims in the bush talking with the kidnappers and with little deviation, you pinpoint where they are. If we are not spending money unreasonably we can acquire this equipment and by when people know that it is not possible to kidnap and get away, the frequency will drop.
What is your message for Nigerians?
Nigerians should know that God in heaven used the British to create Nigeria for a purpose. The purpose of God creating Nigeria is that Nigeria should become Big Brother and rallying point for all blacks in the world. Nigeria has the largest concentration of blacks in the world. I believe God created Nigeria not just to be a rallying point of blacks but also to raise the respect and ultimately to remove the shame of slavery from the face of all black people. God created Nigeria to become a super power economically, to develop its political power. If you have any doubt about this, look at the country, the climate is better than that of other countries. There is no tornado, no hurricane, no volcanoes and no earthquakes in Nigeria. I have mentioned earlier the super abundance of resources in the country. So the question now is “Are we achieving God purpose of creating us? Corruption has eaten so deep into every sub-structure in the social system and it is no longer hidden.
Instead of working for the respectability of blacks, Nigeria is generating shame to the face of every black people and this must stop. We used to called judges “our lord justices” then, but today what most them deserve to be called is “our lord injustices”. Every sector is corrupt, the Church is corrupt, the Mosque is corrupt, trade union is corrupt, market union is corrupt and voters are corrupt. So what we have to do is to remake Nigeria. How do we do that, we sack APC, sack PDP, sack APGA and all the existing political party. Then we will develop an oath the voters will swear to not to compromise themselves. The person coming to an office must sign an oath that his motivation is service to the people and not service to himself and we may end up better with two party systems not the multiplicity of parties that is happening now. Those who were around then when we had SDP and NRC know that if we have continued that way, this country would have witnessed enough capability and progress.