Home Cover Story Buhari plunged Nigeria into recession – Ambassador Keshi

Buhari plunged Nigeria into recession – Ambassador Keshi


Diplomat and former Permanent Secretary Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Joe Keshi says the President Muhammadu Buhari administration lacks the initiative to provide the change it promised the Nigerian people, stressing that the All Progressives Congress (APC) won the election by relying heavily on propaganda, but the time has come to govern.

The former Chairman of United Bank of Africa (UBA) who spoke in this interview with Business Hallmark’s Teslim Shitta-Bey and Obinna Ezugwu, equally identified poor leadership as the bane of Nigeria’s development and spoke extensively on the agitations for restructuring, Biafra and other sundry issues in the polity. Excerpts:

Nigeria is beset by a lot of problems. You have economic hardship, agitations here and there…all kind of things. What really is the trouble with Nigeria from your perspective?

To me, the major trouble with Nigeria is leadership. Within that is the lack of justice, lack of fairness and lack of equity. No matter what we do or say in this country, even if we restructure, if we do not improve the leadership quality, if we we do not entrench fairness, justice and equity, the agitations, the cry of marginalisation… name it, will continue. If we restructure, but we still have the kind of leadership we have, it will come to nothing.

Let me rationalize with a bit of history. Since independence or in fact before independence, the minorities in this country have been complaining. Like in the Niger Delta, there was the Willink’s Commission of 1958 that actually dealt with the issue of the region; the need to pay attention to it, but nobody did anything until they started an uprising. That’s failure of leadership.

At independence, there was clamour all over the country by the minorities, but the only effort made to address it was the creation of the Midwestern region, and that was because the government at the centre capitalized on the crisis in Western Region to excise the Mid West. And of course, that automatically also gave the NCNC an extra region to control. But the Northern leadership was not enthused, neither was the Eastern Region to create separate regions for their minorities, and the central government was certainly not going to break up its power base.

Then, we moved to the military era. Gowon introduced 12 states, not because he considered it absolutely necessary, but to break the rebellion in Eastern Nigeria. He reasoned that if he gave the minorities their own state, they would rise to fight for their freedom. He succeeded, but what happened thereafter was that the successive military regimes now saw that creation of states was fashionable, and they continued, haphazardly, to create states. Of course, there were demands from the people themselves, particularly in the minority areas for the states to be created. There was a strong argument that when these states are created, it would bring government down to the grassroots. That has been done, but we are still crying that government has not reached the grassroots, that lives in the grassroots or anywhere have not improved.

So it shows you something. I’m not against restructuring, but my point is that if we restructure without addressing these fundamental issues of leadership, fairness, justice and equity, we would be back to square one. Everyone wants the states to have more powers, again, I’m not against that, but I do know that today, the state structure is not working. Many are not able to pay salaries, yet people say the states should control the police force, how can they fund the force? Primary school teachers are not paid, secondary school teachers are not paid.

But for me really, the Nigerian police had lost its essence, particularly under this administration. I also want to talk about the reckless deployment of the military in civilian spaces; it is dangerous; we are misusing the military. I saw somewhere were they said that Operation Crocodile Smile is to sharpen the military, that shows you the paucity of ideas even in the military hierarchy. Where on earth has anybody deployed troops to sharpen their skills in civilian spaces? If you want to sharpen your skill, go to the training ground and do that. Or tell the president to send you to Syria to support one side.

Again, the press release made by the military for the Python Dance in the South East for me was unbelievable. That they want to go and fight terrorism which doesn’t exist in the East, they left where terrorism exists in the North East to come down to the East. They said they want to go after kidnappers, but that’s the job of the police. They want to go and remove those creating road blocks; again, that’s the job of the police. It is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly, Nnamdi Kanu has just been a rabble-rouser, and a country with good intelligence outfit would have known that. Yes, he had support among motorcycle riders and the unemployed because there are no jobs. And this was why you left Maiduguri to say you are going the South East.

But back to the point I was making about the states, it is obvious that the states are not working, and if the states don’t work, this federation will not work. In the states there is no capacity, the governors have seized governance; there is no governance structure, there is no properly defined development plan. As I speak to you today, no state in the country is creating employment, maybe in one or two areas where they are doing agriculture. I was in Enugu sometime in March, I spent three nights. On my way back, I asked my taxi driver what the industries in this state are. He said hotels and petty trading.

 Are you suggesting therefore that we should shift away from the current presidential system?

Not necessarily. I used to put it this way, as a result of military rule, which is a command structure, the basis of government was destroyed in this country. Whether you are a president or a minister, you just take it as your powers; same with the governors. One of the worst mistakes we made in the constitution was to add that word “executive” to the governors. They now believe that it gives them power over life and death. If you think that my views are not rational, take a look at the South Eastern states. The cry of marginalisation is genuine, I have travelled extensively in the South Eastern states and in the Niger Delta, but the question I often ask is who is marginalising who?

We all blame the federal government, but nobody is holding the governors accountable for what they are doing. Look at the characters of leadership in the South East since 1999 for example. I mean, for anybody to believe that (Rochas) Okorocha will be a fantastic governor, it is mind boggling. In terms of leadership, the West seems to be getting it better. Just study the leadership of the Eastern states, with probably the exception of Peter Obi.

When I came back to the country in 2004 and started working in the presidency, I remember anytime you put on the television, you find this big advert all over the place “Ebeano” “Enugu is working.” They will show you many things, including a tunnel. And I was fascinated. Then I had the occasion to go to Enugu. From the airport, I became disappointed. I went on to the governor’s place, at that time, the road was bad.

Then when I finished my meeting one evening, out of curiosity, I asked the driver to take me to the tunnel. We went a distance from the hotel, and when we got to a point, the man turned. I asked why he was turning, and he said but that’s the tunnel. I asked where? He said there. I said for God’s sake how could anybody call what was there a tunnel? And the governor, Chimaroke Nnamani was advertising this. That’s to tell you the paucity of leadership in this country.

And these are the people you in the media celebrate. Every year you give them awards. Best governor in health, but the health system is hopeless; best governor in agriculture, but there is no agriculture; best in infrastructure, but no infrastructure… every year, the media sustain this charade. I hold the media also responsible for some of these things, for the debasement of our values. The media do not interrogate enough.

Don’t you think this is so partly because the governors themselves only go to Abuja to collect money?

It is part of the paucity of leadership. The lack of vision, everybody comes to office with absolutely no idea of what to do, but just to take power. The 1999 governors inherited the military structure, so their mindset was that of military mindset. In my state, Delta, for the last two years of a governor, we had no commissioners. They treat commissioners with levity. In the South South, one of the governors once asked me if I had spoken to his desk officer, and I asked who was the desk officer and he said his commissioner. Another colleague who was there asked, how can you be calling your commissioners desk officers?

Most of the commissioners are not even involved in the planning of anything in the states. The governor collects the money and just decides what to do. What kind of character will not pay salaries of workers at the end of the month? But they will tell you that they are doing projects. Is that not heartless? A leader who is worth his name won’t do that.

When you look at the exclusive list, it’s so top heavy with the responsibilities of Federal government. It doesn’t allow other levels enough room to act?

My line of argument is that there are two lists, the exclusive list which is the responsibility of the federal government, and the concurrent list which is between federal and state. The ones in the concurrent list which the governors have to do, how well have they done them? Again, I go back to what I said earlier. If the states don’t work, the federation will not work. Because even in that concurrent list, the states are responsible for primary education, they have the bulk of secondary education. Federal government only controls some universities, and federal colleges. Every other institution relating to education is under the control of the state, and yet, our education is falling. What has the federal government got to do with that?

Health is under state control, same as agriculture. Federal government just provides broad policies and at the same time, like the Central Bank is doing – trying to also put resources in place for states to utilize to do these things. But what are they doing with it? If I’m not mistaken, in 2011, Akwa Ibom budgeted about N11 billion for agriculture, but spent only N900million. What happened to the other N10.1billion? If they had put the whole money seriously into agriculture, Akwa Ibom would have been in different situation today.

In the work we did at the South South integration project, we came up with ideas about how to grow the economy of the states with focus on agriculture. We decided that the states should focus on agriculture as a way of waning the over dependence on oil. Because in the 1960s, the whole Eastern Nigeria lived on oil palm, we asked the six states to focus on oil palm. In addition, we asked that every state takes a product it has the capacity to produce out of seven cash crops that we identified.

If they had done 50 percent across the value chain the South South will not be talking of marginalisation because the spin off from agriculture would have created massive employment. But nobody did anything. The interesting thing about this story is that if they had actually planted oil palm six years ago, it would have started producing. This was a recommendation we made in 2011, and there are varieties that grow in five years.

You have come to a fundamental problem. How do we select these leaders we are talking about?

Well, that’s where I believe that we need to compaign for more young good people to go into the political system. But we also have to realize that this is like a passing phase. We have to get this current generation of leaders out of the way, and hopefully, we begin to see a new people. But my problem, even with this is that at the political level today in this country, there is nobody that is an inspirational leader who can provide that inspiration for the young ones to go into politics to serve. Every young man that goes into politics will see it as money making venture, that’s the mindset.

In my generation, when we were growing up in Ibadan, there were so many people that inspired us. Like the Adelabus who will go round Ibadan on his white horse, hold a rally, dance with the people… politicians of these days need to go and learn what is called campaigning. Even (Ladoke) Akintola, for whatever you might say about him, was also a fine orator with his very tiny voice and was full of wise cracks, particularly when he spoke in Yoruba.

As premiere, Awolowo’s house was always open. On our way back from school, we went to the tap there to drink water. The day Zik came to Ibadan the whole place was shut down. These were inspirational leaders who influenced all of us. But who inspires the youths today? The Davidos of this world! Who is the political leader that inspires the youths today? Nobody!

When you speak to some people about this however, they tell you there are a lot of young Nigerians, especially those trained abroad, doing great things and to that extent, they say there is hope?

Yes, you are right. Every time I’m close to losing hope, I see people that rekindled my hope. That’s why I say to people that the government in this country don’t know that the people they rule cares little about them; everybody has taken their destiny into their hands, all they just want is for the country to be made workable… provide good roads, electricity and we will do our own things. The youths are also moving towards that direction, it’s only those that don’t have sound educational background that are hoping that they will get job in the system.

When I talk to youths at various fora I tell them clearly that the jobs no longer exist. The bulk of the job being created today is in the IT sector, that’s where the world is moving today. But that’s not to say we should abandon other fields. The point is that a number of people, particularly those trained outside the country have taken their destiny into their own hands. A number of them trained here are also doing the same thing. They surf the internet and they hear about the Facebook founder, Amazon, Google and so on… these are all young people.

They think globally today, even the musicians, though I don’t like the lyrics they sing and the videos they make because they are soft porn, but they also realise that for them to be successful and competitive, they need to think global. So, they started going to South Africa and other places to shoot their videos because those countries have the equipment. Now, look at how it has expanded. A lot of young Nigerians are doing things; they are no longer waiting for government.

But fundamentally, every society that has grown did so by getting its leadership right, once you have a good leader, people will follow. I encourage people to read how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from third world country to first world, and also read the history of Korea; South Korea in particular. It’s all about leadership. These are people that came out of war, but we went to war… Look, there is a lot you can say about the Igbo, but the Igbo are not utilising the advantages they have to grow far beyond their own expectations.

Let me tell you, whether we like to admit it or not, the Igbo control the informal market in this country. You cannot build a house anywhere in this country without speaking to an Igbo man. They dominate the container industry, the drug industry whether legal or illegal, construction, transport and so on, use that to build economic power. Every country that has gone through war has ended up realizing that they must grow from the debris of this destruction to something greater. We are the only one that have done worse; other militaries that went to war have become super powers because as they went to war they also began to develop the military industrial complex.

But today, we are dependent almost 100 percent on imports. I worked with the Nigerian military in Sierra Leone for six years, all the problems that the military have today including in fighting Boko Haram, were the same problem they had in Sierra Leone and Liberia. The war ended in 1990, it means that 27 years later, nothing has changed in the military. Yet, the officers who were lieutenants then are in charge of the military today, but nobody has done anything. We started about the same time with India, Pakistan and the rest, but today we go and buy weapons from Pakistan, we go buy aircraft from Brazil, we send our soldiers to India for training. Don’t we have shame? Doesn’t it worry anybody?

You made the point about the Igbo not building on the war, but could it have been possible knowing that all they achieved militarily or otherwise during the war was destroyed afterwards?

That’s the point I’m making. Again, it goes back to the issue of leadership, the mindset of our leaders. By then they felt they had conquered, oil money was flowing, import was coming in; so everybody focused on imports. We had the money to import, so everybody was importing. But having said that, there is no city you go to in Nigeria today and you don’t find the Igbo dominating business one way or the other, that places them to a great advantage. Germany is a good example; Japan is a good example, even Vietnam.

Germany is not fighting anybody for the leadership of Europe; they focused on rebuilding themselves and today they are about the strongest economy in Europe. German goods are better than most, the Chinese can’t meet it. But understandably, the Igbo came out of the war with the mindset that they have lost so much, and in that process, the core values they used to have before were lost. It now became all about money and competition.

But look, if they decide as a race to take over the economy of this country, let others be holding politics, but just take the economy, little by little, ask them to advertise, we will get involved. One day, we will all wake up to see that there is nothing in government. It would be the private sector doing everything. Again, corruption in government will continue as long as the government controls the commanding heights of the economy.

Look at what is happening in the NNPC for example, the fact that we are back to where we were shows that even if you change the whole management, it will still be the same thing because we have refused to either privatize it or put in place a very strong governance structure that would stop the rot there.

What do you make of the fact that IPOB has been declared a terrorist group? And as it stands, there are even protesters threatening to sue the US for refusing to designate them as such.

No, it’s some rabble-rousing NGOs that some people are sponsoring, and I think they want to make money for themselves. You cannot sue the US government, what have they done? They only made a statement. This is where I think that we are so intellectually lazy, that we do some of the most stupid things. Declaring them terrorists, what does that mean? What we fail to understand is that everything we do, the embassies here will report to their governments in order to enable their governments to be well informed. And they know that these guys are not terrorists, they know that they do not qualify by any definition of terrorist.

It goes back to what I said before the reconciliation was not properly done. The cry of marginalisation in the East was also not addressed.

Let’s also look at the economy under Buhari, especially with regard to debt profile. It is piling up, yet the government insists on borrowing more?

Well, I’m one of those who believe that we have to borrow. Why do I say so? Anybody that does business, in fact, I read one place that you don’t build your own house with your own money. You get a mortgage and pay over time. The problem is not the borrowing. Today, one of the most borrowed countries of the world is the United States; the problem is what we are using the money borrowed to do, and whether that thing would be able to repay the debt. If you borrow and spend it on salaries, we are in trouble. If you spend it on road construction without tolling that road, we are in trouble. If you use it to build schools, we are in trouble.

So, you must decide that whatever you want to use that money for, there is a guarantee that it will generate resources along the line for you to do that. I heard one APC guy saying on TV that if not for President Buhari, this country would have collapsed. And I said that this is propaganda. On what basis would the country have collapsed? The very first day the government came in, they started spending money. Where did the money come from? What would have made the country to collapse?

On the other hand, when you came in, the economy was growing at 5.6 percent, but you basically did nothing; the investing community was waiting to see action, everyone held their money, you did nothing, and the words coming from you were not encouraging, as a result there was capital flight, and the economy went into a recession. Yet, you are blaming Jonathan. You came with message of change, but had no plans for change. There is nothing that demonstrates the complete lack of capacity in this administration more than when you look at what the minister of information does as advert.

In a country where there is so much leakage running into billions, the change you want to do for us is to show a police man collecting N20. And when you got tired of that, the next was to teach us how to queue up at the airport. For goodness sake, Nigerians should think. That is what I’m saying about the lack of leaders with vision.