Published On: Mon, Aug 14th, 2017

Those resisting restructuring are asking for dismemberment of Nigeria — Nosa Igiebor  

 

Restructuring and fiscal federalism are touchy issues for different Nigerians for a wide variety of reasons ranging from the blatantly ethnic to the brazenly self-serving and economic. However some Nigerians see within the call for restructuring and fiscal decentralization a mechanism for growing the Nigerian economy in a manner that would ensure sustained growth and development and create a sense of inclusiveness by all its constituent tribes.

Journalist and Public Affairs analyst, Nosa Igiebor believes that those presently resisting the call for restructuring are unwittingly asking for the dismemberment of the country as, according to him, restructuring is an idea whose time has come.
Igiebor made these observations in a recent interview with Business Hallmark’s Obinna Ezugwu. He also spoke on growing agitations for secession across the country, MKO Abiola and other matters.  Excerpts:

 

As an experienced journalist who was very active during the military era of the 80s and 90s, what was it like to practice journalism in those days?

It was very tough, very challenging, but of course it also brought to the fore how priceless freedom of speech is and why the independence of the media is very critical to the development of any nation. When you try to run a free press under the regime of dictatorship, you are looking for trouble, and that’s exactly what happened. Certainly, the obvious reaction was that the media offices of the few, but very dynamic independent media houses were routinely closed down.

Our newspapers and magazines were seized from time to time, and in addition to that, quite a number of journalists, including my humble self, who were perceived by the regime then as enemies of the state were arrested and detained. Like I said, it was a very challenging situation, but we were emboldened by the fact that we were very convinced that it was the right thing for us to do. We did everything possible to ensure that we made life extremely uncomfortable for those regimes.

Did you at some point fear for your life while all this was happening?

Sure, we are human beings, and as human beings, naturally when you are confronted with danger, and the kind of threats that we faced daily during that period, you will be afraid. Not only for yourself, but for your family, friends and colleagues in the office. Everyday we operated, we were constantly faced with all kinds of threat. So yes, we were afraid naturally, but that fear did not stop our heads.

We placed them as it were, on the chopping block because we believed that if all of us folded our hands out of fear, then it would further strengthen the regime, and eventually make it impossible for the people to force them out. We decided that whatever the risk, whatever fear we faced, we had no choice but to do what we had to do.

The media has evolved significantly since that period; now you have the internet, social media which has prompted a debate over the future of traditional media.

Do you share this concern that newspapers and magazines are dying platforms?

No, I disagree. Yes, journalism as we know it has changed for good because of the way information is now consumed. The digital revolution has created so many platforms through which people can assess information other than the conventional print or broadcast medium. To that extent, there is a very persuasive case to be made for in that respect, but it is only in the way information is consumed. Journalism remains what it is.

The purpose of real journalism is to bring those in authority to account, to speak through to power. A good example is what is happening in the United States today. Which media have been in the forefront of trying to unearth some of the things the Trump administration is trying to hide, especially with regard to Russia? It is still the traditional media, Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times; those are the people breaking the news, not the bloggers. Not the hundreds of thousands of internet news sites, but the traditional media companies because they do solid journalism.

There is a difference between somebody sitting in his room, with a laptop and writing his opinion about an event or an issue and real journalism. There is no substitute for real journalism. Again the traditional media platforms are also online, but what matters in all of this is the quality of content.
The new media has also brought with it certain challenges. A lot of people now disseminate information, including false news which has led to the debate with respect to whether social media should be regulated. Do you support the move by the Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, in this regard?

Well, frankly, there is cause for worry even for those of us who are in the profession. A lot of people who have no business being in the practice of journalism, because you require very little investment in digital tools to become a publisher, you find all kinds of who say they are publishing newspapers or whatever.

The quality of what they are offering is not only embarrassing, but sometimes very scandalous. Sometimes, the more false the story they are peddling, the more they attract readers, and they do attract people. They are playing on the gullibility of the public generally who for obvious reasons, have little or no confidence in government. So, anything anybody says about government or any government official, is taken as true.

However, I think the way out is not for government to enact a law that would attempt to regulate the practice of journalism on the internet or wherever. I don’t think that’s the way out because any attempt for you to regulate might lead to a constriction of the space for people to express themselves. But of course, that freedom comes with responsibility, and I believe that organs like the Nigerian Union of Journalists, Nigerian Guild of Editors and Nigerian Newspapers Proprietors Association can come together and find a way of addressing the challenge.

Let’s talk politics now. It’s been more than two years since the APC came to power amid great expectations. Looking back, are you satisfied with what the party has achieved so far?

Well, obviously I’m not satisfied. Most Nigerians will say the same thing, they are not satisfied. There is a general air of frustration; of disappointment and as a matter of fact, even betrayal. A good example is this raging debate over the need or otherwise for political restructuring of the country.

Of course, top members of the party, including the National Chairman, Chief John Oyegun, are now saying that restructuring is not the major concern of the party for now. But people have reminded him that restructuring is one of the prominent items listed on the party’s manifesto. The simple question I ask people is whether Nigerians generally are better off or worse off than they were in 2015 compared to now.

The answer will tell you the whole story. The good thing is that there are many members of the party that have come out themselves to say they have disappointed Nigerians, that they have performed way below expectations and have not lived up to their promises. I still believe, however, that no matter how cynical we might want to be, given their track record so far, I still want to believe that the remaining years of the administration will afford them an opportunity to try and reboot and get things really moving in a way that the public will begin to feel the impact.

The argument with the APC has always been that they met a very bad situation when they came to power. You don’t think that given this situation, it would be unfair to judge them after two years?

You see, the problem of the APC is that they created so much hype in those months preceding the election, made so many implausible promises. They won, but now that they are in government, the reality has dawned on them. The non performance they try to blame on the previous administration, nobody is buying that from them.

They said that in the first six months, they said that in the first one year, we are now into the third year of their administration and they are still blaming the previous government. In any case, like I have repeatedly pointed out, if you say you met a bad situation – in 2015 when they took over in May- if you met a bad situation, your obligation was not to make that bad situation far worse than it should be.

The least you were expected to do was to stabilize that bad situation and put policies in place to make sure that you turn things around. And over the next several months or a couple of years, you take us out of the woods. Here is why the argument of blaming the previous administration lacks merit, President (Muhammadu) Buhari, did not have a government in place until November 2015, a clear six months after he was sworn in. He had no cabinet.

And since there was no cabinet, there was virtually no government. That was why the economy simply nose-dived, because there was no policy; nobody was in charge. So you cannot on the one hand say you met a very bad situation, that the economy was collapsing, but on the other hand, for six months, you did nothing.

That’s why I said their contention that it is the PDP lacks merit. One major mistake they made is that they discontinued with some of the programmes of the last administration. For any country to develop there has to be continuity of programmes. The development process is an incremental process. But the problem we have in Africa, especially in Nigeria is that either at the federal or state level, a new government comes in, or the first thing it does is to demonize the immediate proceeding government and rubbish everything it had done.

Whereas what should be done is to find out what projects are ongoing, what they are meant for and see how they can be built upon. I recall that during the campaign, they said the PDP didn’t do anything, but in 2015 or last year, the Minister of Transport, (Rotimi) Amaechi said he didn’t know that the Nigerian Railway was working until he became minister.

The mistake they made was that they condemned everything the previous administration had done and decided to start all over. It’s like trying to reinvent the wheel, they were not elected to reinvent the wheel, they were elected to provide a more effective way of making things work for Nigerians. So far, the verdict is that they have failed spectacularly, and have only themselves to blame.

But they have also pointed out that oil price collapsed when they took power, which according to them, is one of the challenges they have?

That is just another convenient excuse. I ask you, is it because oil price collapsed that President Buhari failed to name his cabinet six months after he was sworn in? And during that time, the economy went from bad to terrible.

You will expect that a government that said it met a dire situation would have responded immediately which would have involved immediately putting a cabinet in place, come up with policies and programmes that like I said, will stabilize the situation, then work assiduously in the next year to improve on it. If you say a situation is bad, and for six months you did nothing, it doesn’t add up. And when they say that the previous government didn’t do anything, I laugh.

Of course, there are a lot you can blame the PDP for within the 16 years they were in power; there were a lot that they failed to do and Nigerians demonstrated their dissatisfaction with their performance by voting them out in 2015. But that narrative that they didn’t do anything is false, you are interviewing me now with a smartphone, the Telecom revolution happened under a PDP government, which is (Olusegun) Obasanjo administration.

Today, over 100 million Nigerians can access the internet. You can use your phone to call people anywhere in the world. I know what we used to go through when NITEL was the only phone service provider. The first double gauge modern rail line between Abuja and Kaduna, which president Buhari commissioned sometime last year, was started by PDP administration and completed 98 percent by the (Goodluck) Jonathan government.

However, the lot fail on the Buhari administration to commission it. So why didn’t he say he won’t commission it because it was PDP that did it? If the APC had not come with the mindset that the PDP didn’t do anything, we won’t be in this situation, you build on what you inherited, that’s how nations develop.

The government has suggested that we would be out of recession soon. In fact, some say we are already out. From what you see, do you believe the APC can take us out of recession soon?

I’m not an economist, so I don’t have the competence to question the numbers they are putting out there to justify the claim that we would soon be out of recession. But I treat whatever they say with skepticism because like I have said, there are many things this government has told us which turned out not to be true. They even repeatedly disowned their own commitments.

Therefore, when they say we will soon be out of recession, I have no way to determine whether or not that is true, but as they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating; when we are out of recession, Nigerians will know, they will feel it. If the purchasing power of your disposable income increases, you will know that we are out of recession. If you have a brother who has been jobless and suddenly he is called for an interview and he gets employed, then we will know that we are out of recession.

Until those things begin to happen, and Nigerians can feel change in their economic circumstances, that’s when we will know.

The argument for restructuring is intense. What is your perception of the matter?

It’s obvious that Nigeria as it is presently arranged and run is not working. It’s obvious to anyone, except those who want to pretend, or those who are benefiting from a system that is totally dysfunctional. The argument for restructuring is a compelling one. Former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar has been making the argument so eloquently; a situation where between 70 and 75 percent of federal government budget is spent on recurrent expenses; payment of salaries and allowances of civil servants and overhead costs shows that the federal government is bloated.

When you hear about those trillions in the budget, that’s what the bulk of it is used for. What is left for capital investment is about 20 or 30 percent, and it is capital investment that will drive economic development and growth.

So what are we saying in effect? The Federal government is bloated, it is carrying too much load on its shoulders, and it is not helping the country. Why should federal government have over 600 agencies? In what ways have these agencies helped the country?

That’s the question we should be asking ourselves. All interstate highways are dilapidated, we don’t have motorable roads. These are some of the arguments for restructuring, restructuring is just devolution of power in other words, empower the states more by way of giving them more to do and give them more resources to do it because the state governments are closer to the people.
Again this idea of the entire country depending mostly on receipts from crude oil export, the federal government relies on the law, expropriate resources of these areas that produce crude oil and gas, you take the resources, then at the end of the month, you set up a committee to share the money among all the states.

You create this culture of dependency, therefore you prevent states from creatively exploring their natural resources and advantages to develop their own economies and generate more fund for their youths. That’s the reason why it is urgent, and it is imperative that restructuring is done. A lot of people are equating restructuring with dismemberment of the country, but if your fear is dismemberment that would happen when you continue to prevent the needed change from happening.

Despite this importance of restructuring as you enumerated, the Senate voted against it in the ongoing constitutional amendment. How disappointed were you?

As a matter of fact, I would be dignifying what they did if I say I was disappointed. Those are jokers; it just shows how detached our so called representatives are from the people. If they were correctly monitoring public discourse on these things, they won’t have made that decision. It doesn’t make sense. What they did is not going to change anything, what I mean by that is that it is not going to stop the agitation for restructuring because it is an idea whose time has come. The system we have now is not working for anybody.

Those who insist that we continue with this system don’t love Nigeria. Those who make the argument that there is nothing wrong with the system, or that there is nothing wrong with the constitution, that it is those operating it, yes, we can make an argument along that line, but it doesn’t cancel out the reality, which is that the present arrangement is unfair, it is oppressive and anti development. For instance, on what basis were the 36 states created? On what basis where the 774 local governments created?

On what basis do you have one state with 44 local governments and another with only eight? Then you created parameters for sharing from the federation accounts, and one of them is the number of local governments that you have. So a state that has 44 local governments already has advantages stacked in its favour.

This is a clear example of the unfairness of the system. The more they try to delay it, the more the friction will widen, and I think when you see a smoke, check its source. If it is fire, put out the fire. Don’t ignore the smoke and the little fire causing it or it would become a raging fire that could consume everybody.

Agitations are growing, especially in the South-East where a number of youths now say they want Biafra. There is also threat of secession in the Niger Delta and in other places. Then you have this quit notice issued to the Igbo in the North. How worried are you about these events?

It’s a cause for serious concern. We all should be worried about these growing agitations from different parts of the country. It is a reflection of the general frustration in the land. Nigerians are becoming increasingly angry, and of course, anger leads to restiveness. Take the example of the South East you talked about. There are certain low hanging fruits that we can pluck to stem some of these agitations.

Take the IPOB or the agitation for Biafra for instance; if you do a referendum today, I’m sure, without fear of contradiction that the majority of our Igbo brothers and sisters will vote to remain in Nigeria. But the desire to remain in Nigeria does not necessarily mean that they are satisfied with the present arrangement.

For instance, the South East is the only zone in this country that has only five states. Which therefore, means that right from the word go, they are at a disadvantage in terms of representation either in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Every state is supposed to produce three senators, so if South East has only five states, they will have only 15 senators. North West has seven states, that suggests that they have 21 senators as against 15 for the South East. These are some of the things that should be addressed.

These are straight forward things that can be done to reduce tension. I will give you another example, the recent controversial recruitment by the Department of State Security in which Katsina alone was allotted 51 slots of the new recruits, which is more than the entire five states of the South East got. Katsina is just one state in the North West.

These are some of the things that people look at and say wait a minute, we can’t continue like this. Apart from a political arrangement that is grossly unfair, the government, especially the incumbent government continues to implement policies and take decisions that are fuelling people’s anger.

You worked closely with MKO Abiola for some time. What do you remember most about June 12?

June 12 for me was like a national political awakening. For many of us who were involved in the struggle, especially those of us in the media, it was the first opportunity we had to play a very critical role in shaping the future of our country.

June 12 was a milestone in the political development of this country, Chief MKO Abiola won what I still regard as the freest election this nation has ever conducted, and he won resoundingly. The beauty of that election was that MKO got votes across all the different zones of the country. He won Kano for instance, where his opponent was from.

That’s one of the things that made that election a very significant one, but unfortunately those who think that they are the ones to always decide what Nigeria should be conspired to abort the process. Chief MKO was my boss, many of us worked in his magazine, ‘The Concord.’ He was a great man; we all have fun memories of him.

My greatest pain today is the fact that there is no attempt by anyone to honour the man; his legacy or his memory. When the Jonathan administration tried to do that by renaming the University of Lagos after him, surprisingly, the loudest opposition came from the South West, the zone he was from. Some of the arguments they came up with to me were very puerile.

Some said they didn’t want the honour localized; that the University of Lagos is sited in Lagos, but the University of Lagos is a federal institution. It is not only in Abuja that federal institutions are located. University of Nigeria, Nsukka for instance, is a federal institution. Some even suggested that why not name National Stadium Abuja after him.

To me, that would be an insult to the memory of Chief MKO Abiola because like I have written elsewhere, the stadium is a white elephant project. Do you remember the last time any major sporting event was held in that stadium? Only recently, it was reported that Fulani herdsmen took their cattle there to graze. Is that the kind of thing we should name after Chief MKO Abiola? University of Abuja would have actually made more sense, but I know that the honour that is due to MKO Abiola can only be delayed, it cannot be denied. Sooner or later, he will get it.

 

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