Human rights lawyer, Chief Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, has kicked against the zoning of the presidency. According to him, Nigeria needs a president who is passionate about the country, and has the type of passion Ojukwu had for Biafra.
In an interview with VINCENT KALU, the former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, stressed the need for the devolution of powers if the country is to make progress.
How can Nigeria manage the post COVID-19 challenges or crises against the dwindling oil price?
It is very simple; it is a matter of Nigeria having an economic policy that would work for it and that policy will be driven by the sort of resources that we have. We have two main resources – natural and human. Our natural resources are hydrocarbons – oil and gas; and as you rightly said, it is dwindling. In fact, Nigeria’s projected revenue for 2020 is down to about 70 per cent; if we had budgeted N100, we are now left with N30. So, we need extreme ingenious ways of thinking about new ways of making money.
The first way, surprisingly, the government has picked it up, is just to cut the cost of doing business. President Jonathan had back in 2012 commissioned the Oresanya Report to look at the cost of governance, but the report has been lying fallow for eight years, and I believe that if Oresanya Report is implemented vigorously, we will be looking at 50 per cent of government’s spending; in other words, if we have been spending one million naira before on government, a very well implemented report will mean that we will be spending five hundred thousand naira.
Before you look at raising the revenue, you must first look at, how do I reduce the things that I don’t need. Governors don’t need even now, to be going around with large convoys; they don’t need to have special assistants, that makes one think whether they are not aware that we are in a terribly difficult situation.
So the first is that government must reduce how it does its business. I like what Peter Obi said, that the Government House is not a restaurant, where you budget N50 billion or so in the Presidential Villa, not with this president, it goes back to the time of Obasanjo, it is simply a waste. I have been to the Villa many times, and to be honest, I have eaten the food because it was offered to me, but didn’t think it was necessary. These are the ways we begin to trim down our expenses. I have just given only one; there are so many others we can think of.
The second is how do we raise new areas of revenue because oil that has been a resource to Nigeria (I wish that we never had oil, because oil that has been a resource has turned out to be a curse) brought us unqualified wealth and we went crazy and forgot agriculture, which still contributes the largest in Nigeria’s GDP. So, we must return to agriculture. I’m very happy that the Central Bank Governor’s policy of making Nigeria 100 per cent rice satisfied worked. It is a very simple policy, just by enacting a favourable trade policy, the CBN Governor has started to raise the awareness that you can produce tomatoes, rice and all the necessary things we need to feed ourselves. A country that cannot feed itself cannot be said to be a country. If we are thinking of raising revenue we also must be thinking of raising the type of things that we produce locally.
We cannot be importing tomatoe paste when in Northern Nigeria, where I was born, tomatoe is grown and thrown away. Millions and millions of cassava, yam and other products are thrown away. These are the kind of things that add value to any economy; we must look at all the various produce agriculture can give us and produce them, and not only produce them, we must also look at the value chain. It is not just about producing palm oil, how do you convert it to different things like soap, pomade etc.
We must also look at the maritime sector, where Nigeria would have earned a lot of money. Being my field, I have been saying it for the past 20 years that the maritime sector is the next to oil and gas sector, but it suffered neglect. We must look at how to revamp the maritime sector; Nigeria is the largest country in the Central West Africa region. How is it that motor cars that are intended to be used in the Nigerian economy end up in Benin Republic, where they derive all the value added and export them to us, just because we have a very inefficient transport logistic system, so nobody likes to come here and we are losing business.
Eighty per cent of the cargo coming to Central Wet Africa region made up of about 22 countries is controlled by Nigeria, but nothing is coming here because of policy, corruption in the system, and therefore we must attack a number of these policies. I have always been saying that you must not allow your border to be thrown open, here I align totally with Donald Trump; if you allow your border to be thrown open, people will simply come here and dump. Nigeria is a dumping ground, people come here and dump and take away the profit; they just come here, make money and take it out. Even the crude oil that we have, we can’t add value, so what we do is to export it and that is madness. These are some of the areas, but a very big area that we can make money is to enforce our border. The policy of government closing the border is wrong even though the motive was correct, but the real policy is border enforcement; we must make sure that only legal goods, services and persons can come through, by doing that you are encouraging local industries. I have a client, Erisco, he is the largest tomatoes paste producer in Nigeria, in his warehouse, he has about N10 billion worth of tomatoes paste, but he can’t sell because Chinese cheap products are flocking into the market, pushing him out. China has established a huge multi trillion market in the Onitsha- Nnewi axis; they are now competing with the local people; they have virtually destroyed the Aba textile and shoe market; they have knocked them out because they are making shoes at N500, and we are not enforcing the importation of these goods and so they come in very cheap. We must erect the relevant trade barriers so that we earn taxes on anything that is imported; anything that is imported that we also make, we must protect it by high trade barriers. That is the only way to go, there is no two ways about it. By the time you do all of these, you begin to find people beginning to invest in diverse businesses. There is no way a country of 200 million will have no factories, it is not possible; a country of 200 million depending on imported food.
When people say that Nigeria is a poor country, no, it is the policy; there must be the right monetary, fiscal and trade policy to encourage people who have talents to invest money in business to do so and when they do so you create employment. The current figure by the National Bureau of Statistics has about 90 million Nigerians living under extreme poverty. Why shouldn’t they when everything here is imported. People import and export all the profits and leave Nigerian with nothing.
What COVID-19 tells me, and I hope that should be lesson is if we can say never again shall we be found so wanting, I think Nigeria is on the road to greatness. It is doable; it just requires a strong government with the right policies, right fiscal policies, and right monetary policies. I’m happy that the CBN Governor, who I must point out for a particular praise because without his intervention funds in diverse aspects of our economy, we would have gone down. He has done a lot to keep the Nigeria economy afloat, and I wish we had many other Emefieles; if we had 10 Emefeles and 10 Dangotes, Nigeria will be a very rich country.
We must stop these importing the Western models. Look at what South Korea has done, it is one of the tenth strongest economies. What they did was to pick about the likes of 10 Dangotes – Kia, Samsug, etc and supported them, give them advantages and they are huge, their contribution to the South Korean economy is about 64 per cent, and what they bring in terms of employment is about 30 per cent of the market and what they export is about 70 per cent. The South Korean model is a very effective model that we can use. The Chinese model is another model that we can use. This Western , new liberal fundamental model we are copying from the US and UK can’t work for us, we must develop our own locally driven market.
I can’t believe that no one can see the potential of the Onitsha- Nnewi axis; the Onitsha- Nnewi-Aba axis can put N20 trillion into the economy, but you got to put the right structures as there are no roads from Onitsha to Owerri to Aba, from Onitsha to Enugu, there is no road. From Onitsha to Owerri to Aba, I once counted 165 checkpoints, so, why will anybody want to do business in that environment, but these are the productive areas. The same thing with the North, if you go there, you have Almaijirai. Rather than promote the Almajirai to be people in agriculture, they just left them. This is the first time I have seen Northern governors speak about Almajiri, before it was politicized; they now know that Almajirai are not from my own state. So, we have the manpower whether in the North, West, or Southeast to put together a great resource that can make Nigeria great, it’s very easy, however, we need thinkers, but unfortunately we don’t have them.
Is it in this situation that restructuring the country becomes imperative?
I don’t like the word, ‘restructuring’, which means we must get everybody to agree. Whether we like it or not, the Northern Nigeria doesn’t like to hear restructuring. If they don’t like it, we must listen to why they don’t like it. They feel like restructuring means breaking up Nigeria, whether that is right or wrong, we must do the needful because what we are really looking at is how to devolve power from the centre; how to make the centre weaker so that states and the local government can have more authority.
I will not press the word, ‘restructuring’, rather the lesson we should learn from this big problem that has faced us is that the entire Nigeria state must be alive and responsible. The federal government can’t do it all, it must surrender some of the powers it exercises to the states in the matter of Health, Education, Agriculture, etc to rebalance the federation. If that is what restructuring means, well and good, but all I know is that Nigeria’s political process endows too much power in the centre and so the components at the bottom of the pyramid have no value, except go to Abuja every month to collect money.
If we want value to be added to all 36 states and the 774 local governments, the issue of Nigeria will be rebalanced is necessary, whether it is called restructuring or devolution of powers is not the point, the point is that we must rebalance; we must redistribute powers so that everyone is necessary. If your strength is industry, do it; if it is education do it; if agriculture do it; whatever strength you have in your area, do. Like the old days of groundnut pyramid, cocoa pyramid, palm oil, if we can get it back, Nigeria will be a great nation.
You have always kicked against rotation of presidency, but in a country where ethnicity and religion are strong factors in determining who wins presidential election, how will the minority ever get elected to Aso Rock?
The reason they all want to be president is because the president is the only relevant person, but if you have relevant small presidents in different and diverse sub nationalities, there are some people who will like to be presidents of sub nationalities. For instance, Nicholas Sturgeon the First Minister of Scotland had no interest in being prime minister of UK. His interest was how to make Scotland strong. In the UK, you have four sub national governments, all of them fighting for their own people, you might talk at the level of the Prime Minister of UK, Boris Johnson; but there is North Ireland, there is Scotland and there is Wales. If you are a senior advocate of Scotland, you can’t practice in England. Your area of limitation is Scotland. The system has been so organised that you need not put all your energy, as it is in Nigeria to be the president because to be the Nigerian president doesn’t mean that you can give the contract for the river port in Onitsha, it is the governor of Anambra State that controls it. To give the contract to construct road from Onitsha to Enugu will be the governors of the Southeast.
The reason everybody wants to be governor is that, remember, Rotimi Amaechi was once restrained from going to the State House by the commissioner of police; being governor really is a bit pretence, there is no power, so everybody wants to be president. The question you asked in relation to restructuring becoming relevant is that, if you make all the political systems strong, why will anybody want to kill himself to be head of Nigeria. Don’t forget that Ahmadu Bello qualified to be Nigeria’s prime minister, he gave it to Balewa and stayed as premier of Northern Nigeria; don’t forget that Awolowo was the premier of Western Nigeria, he gave it to Akintola and went to be the leader of the opposition. Tell me whether that can happen today; whether Nigerian president can call his deputy to come and be the president, let him go and be the governor of Anambra State. It is not possible. We have to be honest with ourselves and say that we are living in an environment that is flawed, and unless we address the flaw, we won’t be strong.
The National Assembly before the outbreak of COVID-19 has set in motion the review of the constitution, what should be their focus?
One focus is that the president should lead the new Nigerian policy. He is the chief executive officer of Nigeria, and not the NASS. Section 5 of the constitution says, power resides in the Nigerian president. When we remember Franklin Rooservelt that pulled America out of the great depression, it is not the president of the senate or the speaker of the House that we remember; it is the president of the country that we speak about.
The way Nigeria goes rests with the president, whether it is this president or any other president. It is the president’s own ideas that decide the future of a country, so, it is not the NASS. The NASS is part of the process of amending the constitution, but it is the president’s responsibility to say this is what I want to do and he brings everybody into the agreement because you will need all the governors, the NASS, you need to galvanise all the Nigeria’s political process. When the president does this, he does it in the way I have described to make the Nigeria’s political process well balanced and everybody feels part of it; when we are well balanced and feel part of it , no one is going to really care whether the presidency is rotating or not.
The reason there is so much fighting over the Nigerian presidency is because he is the alpha and omega; everything starts and stops at the bus stop of whoever is the Nigerian president and that has to change.
It is predicated that the years ahead may be tough for Nigeria, what manner of president do you expect for Nigeria in 2023, that will be able to rise to the challenges the country will face?
I’m not interested in where the president comes from, whether Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Ijaw, Tiv, etc, I want a president who is passionate about Nigeria; in fact, I want a president whose passion for Nigeria equals that of Ojukwu’s passion for Biafra, even though he did things one can say that he shouldn’t have done, but this lockdown period has given me an opportunity to review a lot of Nigerians’ speeches and videos. Ojukwu’s passion is unrivalled. If we have a leader who exhibits that type of passion, it is the number one thing I’m looking for, wherever he comes from, I’m not interested.
Second thing after this passion is a leader that has got something in his head and he has got a clear political strategy of making Nigeria strong. It is unbelievable that Nigeria should not be among the first ten countries in the world when we have the land, the talents, human resources, natural resources, but we don’t have the political leadership.
I’m looking for a leader of whatever origin that can take Nigeria into the first ten, and I’m not interested whether such leader is from Northern Nigeria, maybe because Buhari has done eight years; if that leader is able to have the passion, the sagacity and the capacity, those are the things I’m looking for; if he can demonstrate that, none of us will ever remember where the president comes from because we will feel the impact of the capacity of the president resonating in our different areas. I, who come from Onitsha will feel that my governor has power. How can it be that the governor of Anambra State has no power over River Niger? Since 1978, River Niger Ports has received about five or more major contracts, not one has been awarded under the government of Anambra; not even the road from Onitsha to Enugu does the governor of Enugu or Anambra know about.
I want a president who will recognize that the governor of Kebbi is the one to build River Kebbi Bridge. I want a president who will make the 200 million Nigerians feel as important as they ought to be. I’m not looking for a president who will stock the Government Guest House with N50 billion worth of food and we all come to eat. I don’t want a president who stocks the medical centre at Aso Rock with N12 billion worth of drugs, yet he flies out of the country for treatment. I want a president who can show excellence. How is it that if you look at this COVID-19 thing, how is that some of the world’s senior virologists are Nigerians; it makes me feel proud when I saw a couple of them in the United States taking parts in the experiments, if these were here they would have no choice. What is it that makes them effective over there and not effective here? It is the political space. I want a president who will call, Olisa, and say, ‘I heard you are the best in this or that, come and do this’, and he doesn’t say, ‘Olisa, I heard you are the best in this , but you are an Igbo man, Hausa man, Yoruba man, Tiv man, Ibibio man, you won’t do it’. That is the only way we can get out of this rubbish. If we don’t begin to access our human potentials, we go nowhere. Nigeria’s human potential is huge. When I was watching this corona virus thing, just between Arise and Channels, they have brought out top virologists, specialists in infectious diseases, but I have not seen any of them mentioned in the Presidential Task Force, something is wrong. It shows that we have a country that is not paying attention to talents. If we are going to play a football march, the usual thing is that we field our best eleven, and because we field our best eleven going back to 1994, all Nigerians are excited. Till today when I tour round the world, and they are mentioning the names of Jay Jay Okocha, and others, these are guys that were given an opportunity because they were the best. We should have a situation where our country looks for the best. That is the only way, and if we do that we will be a great country.