· Buhari needs a stronger team; his ministers are too arrogant
· Nigeria’s problem started at independence
· 36 states unviable
Dr Olisa Agbakoba, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), OON, is a Maritime Lawyer but he is widely acclaimed for his Human Rights Activism. He has dedicated the last three decades of his life to fighting for the common good. This he has been doing through the apparatus of Nigeria’s foremost and oldest human rights organization, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) which he founded.
A former NBA President, Agbakoba is also the Principal Partner and founder of Human Rights Law Services (HURILAWS), an NGO that specializes in advocacy and law.
His passion for his country is ever-burning, perhaps this has to do with the fact that he was born on the 29th of May, a day designated Democracy Day in the country. He is quick and ever ready to offer his ‘two cents’ on national issues. This, he demonstrated again when he spoke to LEKAN OKEOWO on sundry issues that could facilitate development in the country. EXCERPTS
What is your assessment of the political situation in the country?
I started the first Civil Liberties Organisation in Nigeria over 30 years ago to fight bad governance and I have been in this struggle since I was an adult. So there is a problem which we need to sort out.
The problem of this country started at Independence. Only Chief Obafemi Awolowo got it right when he sat with Nnamdi Azikwe (ZIK) and the Sardauna and said, “let us sort out the various issues before getting independence”. But, Zik and Sardauna said “no, we don’t trust this colonial master”. So the three parties did not get a common agreement, they just took the patched up agreement into Independence. On hindsight, that was a big mistake, because, having failed to agree, when power came they couldn’t agree.
The problem escalated when the North teamed up with half of the Western Region, with Chief SL Akintola, to form the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP). The other half of the North teamed up with ZIK to form the United Progressive Grand Alliance (UPGA) and Action Group (AG). Since then, we have had this criss-crossing of carpets. This APC, PDP cross-carpeting did not start today. We have never had any real Nigerian in a political party that will espouse doctrines and staunch belief that “I am in this party for the benefit of Nigerians”. I think what President Buhari should do with his integrity, whatever is left of it, is to resolve Nigeria’s political problems. 36 states are unviable; that is why they are all broke — apart from Lagos. So, why don’t we have a serious discussion on how to have a viable Nigeria based on a new and true, balanced federation? That is my view.
I was at the National Conference and I had thought that former President Goodluck Jonathan would have implemented the recommendations. So, if we can resolve our political crisis, then we can grow. Nigeria has the capacity to be great, to be among the top ten countries in the world.
There are indications that the country is broke, you also said there is need to stimulate the economy, how can this be done?
Nigeria is broke; if you look at the broad vital signs, you could say that Nigeria is technically insolvent. But, economists, people who know how to bring money out of rocks, abound in Nigeria; people like Chike Obi and Bismarck Rewane and I begin to wonder why those in power won’t call these people who have the ideas for solution.
And, I will say this so that the Minister for Transport, Rotimi Amaechi, can hear this. When I met him and told him I have ideas that can move this industry forward, I detected a form of disinterest in him, and maybe he thought I was looking for contracts. He should be coming to see me, not the other way round. I am not looking for contracts. That arrogance has to stop; it is very important. Most of the ministers think they are doing us a favour. Their arrogance is making sure they are not getting top advice.
There are people who can bring money out of the woods and how do we do that? For example, let us assume we are looking for N100trillion which sound very big. You first determine what your debt ratio is. Do you know what Nigeria’s debt ratio is? It is only 5%. So we are good to borrow. Borrowing is not a bad thing, forget this idea of criminalising debts. But when you borrow, you must do it with good purpose. So, Nigeria can easily borrow N50trillion, all the country need to do is dedicate one oil well where there is huge reserve of crude and say to the international community of lenders that “this is the asset”; it is called securitisation — using the assets that you control to borrow money.
When the money drops, then the government needs to have a clear-cut idea of where to put it, it won’t be a case of where one minister will put it in his pocket. It becomes a case of deploying the resources to meet the interest which has been clearly defined. You can then look at your aggregate problems and draw out a plan on how you are going to tackle them in five years. Take the east-west road for example, all the infrastructure that you need to put in place, all the rail roads that need to be constructed, all the ports development that you need to do, you can now say “this is the money to do them”. But, in the case where the ministers are faced with empty treasuries, they can only talk, there is no money to work with. Then you ask yourself, “why don’t you go and get the money? How do you have plans and there is no money to implement them?” So, if I am the president, I would ask, “where can we get money, can anybody bring me N50trillion?” And you will find out that a lot of people will give that answer, but, that will be after we have solved the political problems and the country is in peace.
How will you rate this first year of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration?
In appraising the one year in office of President Buhari, we must acknowledge the crisis of the old order and the hope of change. The fact of the old order remains that things were very difficult, there was high corruption, there was insecurity, we had the Boko Haram menace, among others. The pertinent question you then ask is, “how has President Buhari handled them?” In the beginning of this administration, I was cautiously positive, but right now, I am cautiously negative. But I am waiting to see what will happen. In all fairness to President Buhari, he has been challenged by the unenvisaged crisis of governance he met; a technically insolvent country, bailouts and many of those things which meant he was bugged down and couldn’t get into governance.
However, credit must go to him on his anti-corruption programme. However, my problem with his anti-corruption programme is that it’s a rigmarole. The programme has centred on stories that government is doing this and that, which is good. But I must say that if the President keeps looking in the rear mirror, as he had been doing in the last one year, he won’t move.
Buhari’s anti-corruption programme is an equivalent of a driver who is looking at the rear mirror to see what is happening behind. Such a drive won’t move forward. We know that people had stolen money, but what we want to see is an aggressive action plan. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and other law enforcement agencies, don’t have the resources, capacity and the skills to fight corruption. So, the resources we could have generated in the region of N2, N3 or even N4trillion aren’t coming in.
However, I am proud to say that there has been some strong action plan on the part of the Buhari administration in tackling corruption.
The administration has had flip-flops in the area of security of lives and property. We have the herdsmen menace, the Biafran question, and the renewed Niger Delta militancy. However, there have been successes in containing the Boko Haram crisis. So, we need a new counter-insecurity apparatus that can deliver results.
What gives me the greatest concern is the unclear economic direction of this government. I see two competing forces in the Buhari administration. I see state control from the President and I see private sector framework from the Vice President. A good example is the handling of the shortages of petroleum products. Marketers were excluded. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) was asked to solely import and distribute, and it failed. The government ran back to the marketers who now demanded a special rate, and they got N285, the current PPPRA template. So, I see that tension within government. One is state enterprise and the other is private enterprise. This confusion has led to four foreign exchange regimes. First, we have the official rate, the rate for the marketers, now there is the third one for the discos and the fourth one is the autonomous market.
What that would do is breed massive corruption, because people who can access forex at the official CBN rate would offload to the next rate.
So, I’m going to give President Buhari’s government below average in respect of how it has managed Nigeria’s macro-economic issues.
Do you think President Buhari has justified his mandate?
No he hasn’t. But, it is not a hopeless case. He can still justify it. He might not have justified his mandate as of today, but, do I feel that there is hope that if he takes some steps he can justify it? I will say yes.
But, if you ask the man on the street with rice being N20, 000 per bag, with the price of foodstuff shooting through the roof, Nigerians are angry. There is so much anger on the street. The grace is that Nigeria is not known to have a social revolution history, so we are calm. But, Buhari should not mistake that calmness for asinity. It is important that in appraising the past 365 days, our president should get to work, a leader does not delegate leadership, he delegates tasks. We need to see a more vigorous, communicative and visible president as he goes into his second year.
Do you think there is need for a change of guard around the president as he is apparently being given a wrong impression that all is well?
I think the president needs a stronger team. An appraisal is how your team functions at optimum, so the president has to consider if in his second year, his present team can assist him in delivering on his mandate. It is not for me to answer that question. But, it is an important aspect for him to look at. The whole idea is that as a patriotic Nigerian, I want the country to work, to be stronger and I know we have the tools to do this. But in order to do so, we must examine ourselves. So, most of this media chats I do assist me in putting out my voice so that when, in the year 3000, historians are looking, they will say “Agbakoba said this and that”.