As a veteran journalist, author among other portfolios, you have followed developments in Nigeria over the years. When you compare Nigeria of today with yesterday, would you say we have made any progress?
Yes and no. Yes in the sense that like the rest of the world, we have embraced new culture, new technology; everybody is carrying a mobile phone, computers and tablets all over the place. That’s a quantum leap from what it was way back, and the speed with which this has happened is also remarkable. So, like the rest of the world, there has been some progress, but in terms of our political evolution, in terms of our economic revolution, and even social evolution, I would say that regrettably, we haven’t done as well as we should given all the factors at our disposal. In terms of what our endowment entitles us to, we have not done well at all.
How or when did we get it wrong as as a country?
This again, is open to debate. Some people will tell you that we got it wrong the moment the military intervened in politics, others will say we got it wrong the moment we shifted from agriculture, industry and moved after oil royalties. It’s not a one factor explanation, if you say military rule, there are also countries like South Korea where the military had intervened, but has been a force for good. The military in South Korea saw itself as a force for good and they actually prepared the society for democratization which was built on economic transformation of the country. When the hour came to remove them out of power, it was logical; a consequence of political evolution predicated on the economic work that they did. So our failure cannot be blamed on military intervention, we are not the only country where it happened. A good number of what you call the Asian tigers, at one point or the other, had military, but there has been both political and economic transformations in those places. Even in Africa, there was military in Ethiopia, it was the military that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, today Ethiopia is blazing a trail with rapid economic development, and this was the country that was the poster boy for starvation and famine, and there is no oil there; it is landlocked and drought stricken, but they have been able to transcended the limitations in their environment. Today, their economy is growing fast. There was no military coup in Kenya, and although it is doing OK, it is not developing in the same pace as Ethiopia. Therefore, to attribute our failure to military is to be intellectually lazy.
At the same time, you also look at oil. the coming of oil wealth is not a curse in itself, it is the abuse of the opportunities that brought us here. Again, some of the countries that are leading today in economic development, if you look at the golf Arab States: the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Iraq which was bombed out and completely flattened as a result of war, but they came back. If you go to those countries and see the amount of infrastructural development, you will understand that diversification of the economy is not a rhetoric. Here, we have been talking about diversification since the early 60s. For us, it is a manner of speaking, not a policy direction. In the golf states, what they have done is to use oil wealth to build an alternative economy which now thrives on tourism, knowledge economy and other things. If you go to Dubai, you will be ashamed. I have businesses in those places, the infrastructure is first grade, electricity doesn’t fail for one second, water supply is adequate, sanitation is there. Some of the biggest airlines in the world such as Emirates- when the Emirates started, the Nigerian Airways had more aircraft than it did, so what is it that has changed? Therefore lack of determined and focused leadership, lack of policies that are sustainable as well as accountability is the problem. Again, don’t forget that most of these golf states are not democracies, they are monarchs, but these monarchies are more accountable than our elected officials. All we do here is to use democracy to legitimize stealing. Every four years, we go to the polls to license a new set of thieves.
Are you suggesting that monarchy…?
I’m not suggesting anything, what I’m saying is that if we want to do democracy, let us do it properly. Singapore is democratic, but it is focused, a small city state but one of the biggest economies in the world. Per capita income is above $50,000. Now, I have discounted oil wealth, I have discounted military rule, which brings us back to quality of leadership and governance. Who are the leaders and what kind of government do they run. If you look carefully, a good number of the things that (Goodluck) Jonathan started have been discontinued. So every four or eight years, we wipe off whatever was started, start a new set of things. There is no sense of continuity, no direction. I have done work for a number of countries, and I can tell you that a good number of those golf states know where they will be in the next 50 years. They know how many kilometers of road that they will have, how many kilowatt of electricity they will generate, the rate at which their population is growing and how they are going to provide educational opportunities to them. Here there is no strategic thinking in government. It goes down to quality of leadership.
You mentioned Ethiopia and Singapore. These are countries with peculiar history, Ethiopia parted ways with Eritrea, Singapore broke away from Malaysia. In Nigeria, some groups are saying they want out… Is there a lesson here?
We have to be very careful with this separatist pressure, I’m going to take you back. How come that under Jonathan, there was no agitation for Biafra? But suddenly there is. How come everybody now wants Nigeria to be restructured? Doesn’t it worry you that the Nigerian leadership have no sense of shame? How come that nearly sixty years after independence, our national discourse has come down to structure. What have we been doing in sixty years? Citizens of other countries that are sixty years of age are not talking about how they want to be restructured, or which constitution to use… how many constitution are you going to write before you get serious with development? When are we going to discuss healthcare; you are interviewing me here, if at my age, you are interviewing me and I have a heart attack, you will be helpless.
There is no phone number you can call to get me attended to. You don’t even know which hospital has emergency services because there is none. When people are involved in road accident, we load their bodies in a pick up vans as if it is cattle. So these issues of development that make us human beings instead of animals are not being discussed. Instead of going up, we are going down, but we are not debating that; we are not debating basic security. When are we going to debate security, housing, reduction of poverty and unemployment? People leave the university, immediately after their graduation ceremony, their woes begin.
Graduates remain dependent on their parents for another ten years after their graduation. It doesn’t worry us, what is worrying us is structure. The same people who argued for creation of more states are the same people arguing for reduction of the states, this is a mere diversion. I went to the South East recently, people were not talking about
Biafra, in the morning those who have jobs will go to their shops, it is probably the unemployed one that carry placards. We have a fundamental problem of being led by very dishonest people, this argument is a diversion; people don’t want us to discuss the fact that two years into the Buhari administration, not much progress have been made in dealing with fundamental issues of our existence. So they gather a few urchins somewhere to say they are giving quit notice. You don’t give people quit notice in their own country, does it make sense? If you want a separate country, even if there was a referendum or plebiscite, it doesn’t mean that you should shift from where you are. All you do is go and get the passport of that country, do the residency requirements of where you are and remain there. We are Nigerians right? Have we said every Nigerian living in America should come back home? There is a lot of ignorance all over the place, and that is creating a lot of tension and heating up the polity and creating a psychology of instability which we don’t need.
If you agree that Nigeria has not worked, don’t……?
Wait, let me talk about this Biafra thing, I was there, we fought it and lost it, it ended there. There is nothing that can convince me that the lot of the Igbo will be better in a small enclave than in a larger Nigeria. Anybody who is advancing that argument is ignorant, he doesn’t understand diversity, he doesn’t even understand the nature of the Igbo. We have an expensive spirit, we cannot be contained in one place.
There is no country in this world that is flying a flag at the United Nations that there won’t be an Igbo man. A couple of years ago, I went to interview President Robert Mugabe and at that time, Zimbabwe was still very brutish, after 7pm, you won’t see any shop open. I needed to buy some drugs across the counter, but there was nowhere to do so, every shop had closed. Somebody from the Nigerian embassy however asked me not to worry, that we would go to Matabere Land. We drove at night, as we were driving, we saw a light in a village, a hut in the middle of Matabere Land, he said let’s go there. We went there and we were greeted in Igbo by the couple who were running a patent medicine store.
What I’m trying to say is that the Igbo have an expensive spirit, therefore if you restrict them in a small enclave, you kill the essence of that expensive spirit. That’s number one. Number two, the Igbo have been accused of being very entrepreneurial, hardworking and productive, the Igbo man does not sit down somewhere and wait for manner to come from heaven. People with that kind of spirit need space, they need a market for their goods, services and ideas, and Nigeria gives us an automatic market, you don’t need a passport, you don’t need a visa, you don’t need entry permit. I would have been more satisfied if the Igbo were producing all the goods and services that everybody else would need. Why are companies interested in Nigeria? Simple, the population.
Why is America fixated on China? The population. The desirability of Biafra must be rooted in a rational assessment, yes there is marginalisation, I’m not happy about it, if I go to Abuja and I go to the presidency, and I look at the portrait of those who have ruled Nigeria, I don’t feel happy that there is no Igbo man apart from Zik who was ceremonial, but that’s a different thing. I’m also not happy that occasionally we get marginalised and edged out, but during Obasanjo’s second tenure and Jonathan’s presidency, we had very good number of Igbo people occupying positions in government, if that is what people are looking for. But if I’m made a minister tomorrow, it is not going to affect the life of even people from my village.
So, that’s not the issue, the issue is that Nigeria is not being run properly, it is not run like an equitable democracy. If it were to be an equitable democracy, every Nigerian will get a fair share of the opportunities that exist. People should be very clear, it is in the interest of the Igbo for Nigeria to be equitable because the Igbo are the only group that are everywhere. How many Yoruba people have an equivalent of my office in Aba?
Everything I’ve worked for is mostly located outside Igbo land, what percentage of Igbo wealth is in Igbo land? Less than ten percent. Therefore, the unity, security and stability of Nigeria matters more to the Igbo that to anybody else. The only way the Igbo will find themselves is to get lost in the Nigerian totality, so that your presence will define your absence. When you are removed, things will be lost. If you go to America, in New York, most of the businesses are owned by the Jews. They don’t talk about it, but if you want to know, on the day of the Jewish Sabbath holiday, every other office in New York is closed. They entirely shot down New York. And if you also want to feel the presence of Jews in American politics, you go and look at the ownership of the media. New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, Bloomberg… these are Jews. When the chips are down, they will show you that they are Jews, they will shot down the process, and they are partisan.
Look at Trump, they are giving him hell because his position is not clear on Israel. The Igbo need to deepen there understanding of Nigeria, and channel their investment in that direction. If we want to become strategic in our position in Nigeria, there are certain indices of power, which if you don’t control, you are wasting your time. Money, are we the richest? No, where is our response to Dangote? Do we control the media? No, so you can’t even control the minds of Nigerians.
The point about the Igbo not being the richest is true, but really given the politics of the Nigerian state, do you think that the Igbo can ever produce a Dangote?
I know that a lot of government patronage goes into the making of the Dangotes of this world, fine that’s OK…
Can such patronage ever favour an Igbo Nigerian? You have the case of Ibeto for example?
I agree that the pursuit of equity and fairness ought to be central to every Nigerian, including the Igbo. I don’t want to be treated differently. I will say that I have also paid some prices for being an Igbo person. People I thought in school, who look up to me, some of them have been ministers and all kinds of things two or three times over because they come from other parts of the country. But I’m saying that we are not going to correct that by retracting into our shell.
If you agree that the Igbo have not been treated fairly, won’t you now understand these agitations as a consequence of that unfair treatment?
Yes, part of it is that feeling that this is not fair, it is there. But it is not the whole thing, there is what I call politics of bad manners at the root of it. Don’t forget, we are in charge of five states, which receives money like everybody else. What is is the quality of governance in the South East? Are we holding those governors accountable? If you take the example of the Jews, everything governance in the state of Israel is first word.
Therefore, the Jews that are all over the world funnel their resources home because they know that there is a responsible government at home that is acceptable. The former Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert had just finished serving a jail term because of $150,000. What is the story back home? Are they able to fix the roads? I just returned on Friday, I went to Umuahia and Owerri. Are they able to take trash off the streets?
Doesn’t this your argument bring up the question of restructuring? Take roads for instance, the most terrible roads there are federal roads, power is also centralized. How then do you begin to hold the governors to account when in the actual sense, it is not their responsibilities to fix these roads?
There is need for change, the federal government itself, is it well run? The federal government you have today is a watered down version of what we used to refer to as federal might after the war. I used to teach at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), and I recall that from Ife, I used to drive to Port Harcourt. There were no pot holes, the federal government used to start and finish roads in record time.
Federal government used to decide to build Murtala Mohammed International Airport, they start and finish it in eighteen months. They decide to have another port in Lagos, they build Tin Can in less than 24 months. The question is, what has happened to quality of governance? What has happened to accountability? What has happened to realistic planning and implementation?
Let’s not make that mistake. And let me tell you, there will be no Biafra, no restructuring and no fiscal federalism. Not because I said so, but because you will not expect these anonymous fellows who have become governors on the basis of 36 states to suddenly surrender those privileges. Two, when you restructure, you are going to redraw the constituency map, you expect that those people at the national assembly will preside over their own dissolution?
There was also a time when people got jobs before leaving school, but you would agree that Nigeria had less population at the time, and oil wealth was sufficient. Now that you have a situation where oil is no longer reliable and population is exploding?
I agree with you, but what you do is not balkanisation, what you require is a fundamental reorientation of our federalism, and I can tell you that the existing template of federalism which allows governors to go to Abuja to collect money like you pointed out, cannot lead to development.
It can only lead to corruption because responsibility in government is usually fueled by people paying tax and being represented by those who understand that this is people’s money. If you have an orientation that the money you are collecting from Abuja is nobody’s money, you will misbehave. That is because the federation we have started on a wrong footing.
The military created states, not that the states as federating units negotiated their membership. This is where we got it wrong, if you go to the US, each of the American states, or group of states negotiated their entry into the union at the terms of their entry. And what they want to contribute, not what they want to take. Once that agreement is reached, it becomes the constitutional basis for the relationship between the federal government and that state.
That’s what accounts for the differences in the number of electoral college votes of different American states. The states will contribute contingents to the national army, and contribute money from their taxes to sustain the federal government. Therefore, the federal government in America is a creation of the contributing states. Some states are very big, some are very small; some came late, some early, but all was negotiated.
The closest we came to it was the three regions, and later four before the civil war. Self government was given to the regions at different times, but the army came and destroyed it. The army understood the regions as being so powerful that they can levy war on the national government, so they balkanized it. The army is not a rational force, it is obedience and command.
Are we ready to renegotiate our federal government in such a way that the individual states will decide what powers they want to surrender? But the problem is the sense of entitlement; what amount of money are you going to get? Which leads people to inflate their population, landmass and a lot of things because the bigger you are, the more money you get.
If you accept that we need to renegotiate, isn’t it the essence of the same restructuring argument you say is diversionary?
No, of you listen to twenty people talk about restructuring, they mean twenty different things. So, the question is, what is the restructuring we need? The federal republic of Nigeria as it is, nothing is wrong with it, what is wrong is the way it is organised. I agree with you that perhaps, 36 states are too much. Some of the states are not viable and too much money is spent on entitlement issues. The funds to run the states alone is enough to ruin any country. So, that should go. Why should states replicate what already exists? Some governors have hundred special advisers, what for?
You did book, Prince of the Niger for IBB. Recently he came out with a long statement asking that Nigeria be restructured. What do you make of his position?
People didn’t ask him what he meant, he didn’t say we should dismantle the country, he said we need to take another look at things that have not worked. When he was head of State, there were certain things he said were not negotiable: the fact that we want to live together is not negotiable, the fact that we are a secular state is not negotiable; he hasn’t deviated from that, but he is saying that the internal mechanisms with which we have governed ourselves need to be restructured.
Beyond being my friend, after the founding fathers, he is perhaps the only leader who has operated at the level of ideas, he took nothing for granted, he had the highest number of professors in his cabinet. If it was politics, he would say let’s debate it; if it was a matter of ideology, he recognized that we always have tendencies to disagree, that’s why he came up with the postulation of ‘a little to the left and a little to the right.’ People thought he was joking, but yes in Nigeria, we have people who are advocates of free market, and other people who are for social welfare. That’s why he came up with two political parties.
How do you reconcile the IBB who is an idealist and the IBB who annulled June 12 election?
Well, the man was in power, and no matter what ideas that people hold, you find out that you also have to understand how they relate to power. Anybody who knows Babangida closely will understand one thing, he plays politics, he plays the game of power, but there is one constant, even if he is the last man standing, he is not going to play the power game and perish in pursuit of any course. He is not suicidal, and given what I know… I mean, I was also close to MKO Abiola, he was my friend… the only reason you could still have a Babangida standing there today is that he annulled the election. Otherwise, you would have had a dead Babangida, a dead Abiola, and dead so many people.
Can you lay more emphasis on this?
I’m just saying there were forces, and unfortunately, he also thought that the only way he could save his friend, Abiola was to annul the election.
Let’s talk about the Igbo again. There seems to be this disenchantment with the Igbo elite among the youths. Will you say it’s because the elite have failed?
We have to be careful here because this elite is one term that is used to confuse people. You have people who forge a certificate, maybe they bamboozled everybody with some money and they become elite. The person didn’t go to school, he has no classmates. So, we have to be very cautious here. But I understood what you mean, we do have traditional rulers, we have the intellectuals, the political leaders. But don’t forget that some of the youths are also among the elite by virtue of their education, however, you also have the youths who have been dissapointed, hopes dashed, so I understand that. But it is so everywhere, even in the North, we in the South East are complaining because Nigeria is marginalising us, Nigeria has forced us to adopt higher standard for ourselves, our children going to federal colleges are required to have higher score. It’s painful now, but ultimately it’s in our interest.
I believe that the elite that we all grew up to see in Igbo land, unfortunately, you find out that there is a change of guard, not necessarily to better people, but to different people. My lament in Igbo land is that we are exchanging the Ekwuemes, the Azikiwes, the Oparas, for the Kalus, the Okorochas… all these people who also lay claim to be leaders of thought. But it is for the people to judge the kind of leadership that they are providing, which is why I said earlier that we should look at the quality of governance.