Former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, and leading pro- democracy activist, Mr Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, in this interview with Chidi Obineche x-rays the Nigerian federal structure, the new government of president Muhammadu Buhari, the Biafran Independence agitation, the political parties, among other national issues.
Why do you think the new government under President Buhari is finding it difficult to settle down quickly?
I have decided to use the opportunity of this end of the year to reflect on how far our new government has settled down. We all know that there has been this state of anomie; nothing is really working in the mind of everybody. The President has finally set up the cabinet made up of basically technical people, who in my view have the strong mandate to deliver on the infrastructure, economy, and other important institutions. So, what we now need to see, as they settle down in office, is the agenda of government in key areas. There has already been a supplementary budget and the 2016 budget is the highest budget ever, in the history of Nigeria, which is between six and eight trillion naira. Government says it will favour social democratic issues that promote pro-people policies. We have already got a chunk of issues that deal with benefits. For instance, giving money to the disadvantaged members of society, youth corps members, people who are unemployed, even though it is difficult to say how it is going to be aggregated- who and who will be the 25 million beneficiaries that are being targeted is left to be seen.
At this stage of national development , do you think the policies being proposed in the budget, which are largely pro- people are necessary?
I think, one can then say that apart from Chief Awolowo, that’s my personal view, I am not saying that I am right. Apart from Chief Awolowo, this is the first time I have seen a government based on ideology. Nigeria is essentially a corporate country. It runs a corporatist policy. Government favours the rich. But the departure here is that government has identified itself as left of centre. This is the first time we are having that. Anyone who is familiar with what left of centre party do, will know that it delivers benefits at the bottom. I have heard Vice President Yemi Osinbajo repeatedly say that government will legalize Chapter Two of the constitution. It is those bundles of objectives and rights that deal with social welfare, education, fighting corruption, health, etc. It has not happened before. I think those are very fantastic and lofty ideals that need to be supported. The war on corruption, though not very clarified, in my view, is perhaps the most serious attempt to deal with people who have stolen public funds. Even though it can still be institutionalized, I think it represents the most far-reaching attempt to tackle it. In order to then shift the programme of government from right of centre to left of centre, you will have people who will oppose it. And that is my major concern. It is not the common people that will oppose it, it’s the elite. So, I have classified those people as conspirators; those people who would want business to continue as usual.
And I might say that I am an elite and that I suffer the impact of the tight foreign exchange restrictions; our law firms cannot remit funds, etc, but that is the sacrifice that we are willing to pay. People have abused the system, and what they want is business as usual. I think, if you summarize what this government is going to do; mark you it hasn’t not done it, the jury is still out. I make no judgment as to whether the government has succeeded. I am simply making comments as to say if you review where they are and compare it with the government of the past, what are we likely to say? I will say without any equivocation, whilst I am happy to have money, I am not happy to have it to the exclusion of 180 million Nigerians who are hungry. Why should I be a rich man and everybody around me is poor? It makes no sense. So, if there is a process of equalizing our natural resources, which is what the present government intends to do, then I am supposed to support it because it makes a lot of sense. But these conspirators will not want such a thing. You will find them both in the PDP and APC.
So why do we have people opposing every government in Nigeria?
And I can assure you if it is possible for PDP to return to power, 70 percent of the people in the APC will cross over; that is how non-ideological our political parties are. So, when you have parties that are not driven by their conviction or ideology, but by their pockets, when they then see that what this government wants to do shuts them out from the usual largesse, patronage and the ‘chop-chop’ they are used to, they are not going to be happy. So, they are the ones that are making the president feel bad. That is not to say that the President couldn’t have done things better. For instance, the delay in appointing his ministers which ought to have been done earlier, the lack of clarification of what he is doing, and that’s why I don’t see why he should have two press secretaries- Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu; what are they doing? It doesn’t happen anywhere else.
Are you then saying that the government is not properly reported? What is lacking in communication, in your own view?
I would rather like to see either Femi or Garba, one is the press secretary, reporting the president’s diaries, but the other one will be reporting government activities. If for instance, government makes us believe that it has recovered a lot of loots running into about N10 trillions, why don’t we know about it? Why must we, those of us who are informed, not have access to information that ought to be in the public domain? So, government is not communicating enough. It is that failure to communicate that gives the impression that people are not clear where the president is going. But because I am in trouble, I do know where the president intends to go and I have made up my mind that we need to assist him in reminding him of the need to communicate what he wants to do in a strategic way, create alliances to overcome the conspirators. Barack Obama was faced with this challenge when the conspiracy of the Republican party wanted to prevent him from doing something so basic- that I can’t understand who will not want it- allow 17 to 20 million Americans access cheap, free health. Why was it opposed? It was opposed by a group who wanted medical cost to remain high; they didn’t want socialised medicine. So, here, we told the president ‘remove subsidy’; economically, it makes sense, in the context of wastage it makes sense, because if you remove it you are likely to check the leakage, the waste and the stealing that have been going on. But must we throw the baby and the bath water away together?
To remove subsidy will have a multiplier effect in the economy. Immediately you do that, the pepper seller in the market will increase price. So, those that will be ultimately affected will be the very people the president swore an oath of office to protect. So, while I with my economic sense will say that subsidy should go, with my social service sense I will oppose it. But there’s a third way, and that is to make sure that it is done well. Is it difficult for government to say, why not give every Nigerian a subsidy of fuel of N30, and ensure that it is actually delivered. It is easy. So, the fact that there is corruption in the subsidy process is not the reason for the neo-liberal argument that the World Bank is proposing to say subsidy should go. Rather let us find a way; why can’t they tell us ‘let’s find a way to eliminate the corruption?’ I am sure that we have economic eggheads that can deal with that problem. If the problem is that it is mired in corruption, why not encourage the president to reform the subsidy regime in a way that makes it possible to deliver it to the people.
So, I don’t accept the argument that the way to go is to remove subsidy because it is full of corruption. So, it is time for Nigerians to understand that they are entitled to benefit from government; that’s why they pay tax. But Nigerians must understand that the ones who benefit from government policies are the conspirators who want the subsidy to go so that they can turn to the refineries.
The government has announced a few policies which are basically harsh and anti- people. Do you not think that will make a lot of people oppose the government?
It is important to queue behind this president and see whether he will deliver, if he fails to deliver, that’s when we will challenge him. If he hasn’t even started and the conspiracy of the elite is saying to him, devalue the currency, allow us to trade in forex, let us do the thing as usual, then we will all be broke. Meanwhile, I have seen a few things that excite me, but I remain cautiously optimistic. I will not say I am overtly sold because many governments of the third world are known to disappoint, but let’s back this man who has said ‘ I am for the people’. If a president says, ‘I am for you’, the other one comes to you and say, ‘I am for the rich’, who among them would you back? Of course, you’ll back the one who says ‘I am for you’. We must also hold him accountable for all his campaign promises.
What is your comment on the raging social media legislation?
I was very happy to see a very vigorous lobby in the National Assembly. Sometimes, the media do not understand their power. Don’t underestimate the impact of what you say or what you write. They have serious impact. I think this issue of the cracked political foundation needs to be addressed by President Buhari and finally resolved, because it started with the British giving us a cracked political structure. By 1966 the republic collapsed.
Attempts by successive governments-beginning with Murtala Mohammed up till the Jonathan administration- to tinker with it have failed. So, what I will challenge Buhari with is to resolve Nigeria’s logjam. I think it is straightforward. Today Boko Haram, now Biafra. All those Biafra agitation is because they feel excluded. There has to be a policy to include everybody in the discussion. Show me my room in the house is what I want to know.
Show me where I will stay. If I am a polygamous father with fifty something children; there will be a fight if all of us live in one room. Show me my room, that is Biafra agitation, no more, no less, and they are being manipulated again by the conspiracy of the elite. Any time you see a demonstration that is well-planned, somebody is behind it.
Who is funding this Biafra agitation and to what end?
What President Buhari needs to do is exactly what the late President Yar’Adua did. And I think that has been the most political master stroke ever in Nigeria’s history. He resolved the Niger Delta crisis so easily and unbelievably. He reached out; he developed a number of confidence-building measures to get those involved to the discussion table. That can be done with Boko Haram and the Biafra agitation. But it cannot be done in the context of a centripetal federal system where Abuja is the only landlord and local government chairpersons have to wait for the governors to come back from Abuja and give them their handouts. You wait for another month. That cannot happen. You first of all free the system which is in a logjam. The federal system is so constricted like a boa constrictor; nothing can happen at the state level.
A situation where it has been patterned in such a way that nothing can happen at the state government or local government level is not ideal. So, we need to see a new federal system. In doing so, we need to have a final conclusion to this process. My recommendation is that the president should propose a bill for an act or set up a small technical committee on national order. The first and urgent task of this committee will be to work on a Bill for an Act of the Union of Peoples and Nationalities of Nigeria. The bill must resolve the Nigerian fault lines and contradictions. We may consider adopting a new name the ‘Union of Nigeria’.
You talked about the late Yar’Adua’s approach to addressing the Niger Delta crisis; are you recommending some form of amnesty for the Biafra agitators, or financial inducement or what?
If that is what needs to be done, yes, because in putting down insurrection you consider certain realities. Oil price at that time has dropped by almost 50 percent and therefore you have to recognize that the insurgents have a lot of power and they knew it. In negotiation, you’ve got to look at the balance of power. Boko Haram has a lot of power. If Boko Haram transforms into an international movement, we’ll have a new crisis that we can’t deal with. We haven’t gotten to that point.
So, it makes sense to consider whether settlement helps the process. I don’t know if that would help, but if I were to take that decision and I know that financial settlement can help the process I would do that and that’s what Yar’Adua did and it worked perfectly. In fact, Yar’Adua told the Niger Delta militants that, “look I am not your problem, your problem are all your governors” and he gave them all the figures that showed that the governors had collected so much without developing the place which led to the establishment of the Ministry of the Niger Delta. That formula is on; if you go to the East it is clear that the place is war-torn and no employment takes place. So, you’ve got to know what you can do there. And this is not a new thing; America did it in the Marshal Plan to get Europe off the ground. So, we must do all we can to preserve Nigeria. I don’t know how many of you understand what will happen if Nigeria is balkanized. If you will have a war the type we had in Biafra today, Nigeria will cease to exist. If it would take some billions of naira, that the elite are stealing anyway, to resolve the problem, what’s the big deal? What is the problem with giving money to the poor people; money that the elite are stealing; there’s no problem about that; after all, the country belongs to everybody.
You said you commend government on the TSA policy, but that it needs a little bit modification. But some people complain that it is already crippling the economy; starving government agencies and private operators of the needed funds to do business?
What I said is that in my mind, I don’t work for government; government has introduced the method to stop the bleeding. If you are in business or you are appointed to run a company and you are given a mandate; you checked and found out that you have about 100 accounts belonging to the company; you say, no I can’t have this, I must streamline things. But the problem I think that is giving rise to seeming criticism, not just of the TSA, but of the entire process is that government has not been as responsive to avoid pain. It needs to be very quick, but it is not. You are doing TSA and you are depriving all government agencies funds to run their activities. They must make sure that the ultimate purpose of government is not defeated which is that they can run; once that is done, then the problem is solved.
But you can’t tell me that, like in Ogun State where you have about 500 different accounts that it is useful; this is according to Kemi Adeosun, the finance minister. What TSA has done, and that’s the point I don’t understand why this same government cannot make it very clear, that we were net borrowers from the banks. So, what was happening was that, I am the President of Nigeria and you are my ministers, all of you have done deals and put money in different accounts, taking bribes from interests from them. We come to the cabinet meeting and we say we need to borrow money from the banks. We go back and borrow the very money that is our own at 15 to 20 percent.
So, TSA has centralised the money to something like 12 trillion; the next thing I thought the government should have done, which it has not is to now drop the lending rate. The work of the Central Bank is to control the lending rate; so now that government has money, it should say, as a matter of social policy, we are capping the lending rate to three percent. That is the rate at which they lend to commercial banks and the commercial banks will in turn lend to customers at a determined rate by the CBN.