By Hugo Odiogor
Prof. Akin Oyebode, a lecturer of International Law and Jurisprudence at the University of Lagos, is a renowned academic and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ado-Ekiti. He was the legal adviser to the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) between 1991 to 1992 when Professor Attahiru Jega, presently Chairman of the Independent National Commission (INEC), led the union.
In this interview with Vanguard’s Hugo Odiogor, Oyebode spoke on the character of the INEC chairman, the enormity of the challenges facing him and the infantile state of the Nigerian nation after 50 years of self rule. Excerpts:
A lot of Nigerians have invested hope and confidence on Professor Attahiru Jega led INEC to conduct a free, fair and credible election for Nigeria. As someone who knows and has worked closely with Jega are these expectations not way off the mark?
Well, I can only go by people’s antecedents. Yes I worked closely with Jega in 1990 and 1991 when he was the then president of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), I was the legal adviser of the negotiation team. I know that he exuded confidence, he was a Senior Lecturer then and we were Professors but he was leading the team, he was in charge. I know that he is somebody who refused to be compromised to the extent that he rejected the hotel accommodation offered by government at Eko Hotel.
Instead, he preferred to sleep on a mattress in one of the rooms on this campus. He did not want to give the impression that he has been suborned by the powers that were. I know that he had become a Vice Chancellor and had been a functionary of a sort for Obasanjo (Consultant to Iwu’s INEC). So a lot of water has passed under the bridge, but despite that, I think he has a lot of personal integrity.
But INEC is not a one man band you must look at the Commissioners working with him, somebody like Madam Ayoka of Idi-Osi notoriety. So you have some Commissioners that worked with Professor Maurice Iwu that have been retained, these are people who have nothing to recommend them for that job, so Jega has to watch his back, like I have said once, he has been given a poisoned chalice. Looking at the historical nature of the job it is a daunting task that confronts him.
As I said, will is not enough, if you look at the environment around him (the bureaucracy), but knowing Jega, rather than being done-in, he will quit, he has a lot of promise, I believe that President Jonathan has a point to prove to the West not necessarily to you and me, I think he wants to show the Western world that we can do it. That if the Afghans in the middle of a civil war, the Iraqis with bullets flying, not to talk of the Palestinians with occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Liberians, the Sierra Leoneans could do it. What is the claim of Nigeria to be the giant of Africa if we cannot organise an authentic voter register which will not have the names of Mandela, Michael Jackson, Clinton or Tyson or whoever? So something went wrong in the last elections without serialised ballot paper on the basis of which the then Hon.Justice Oguntade nullified the election rightly in my view because when you have ballot papers that are not serialised then it is a perfect recipe for rigging and then thumb printing and all these things that made the charades of elections we had in 1999, 2003, and of course the worst election in Christendom in 2007.
Nigeria does not have a good reputation in doing things right so that is why I believe that somebody like Jega would want to put a stop to Afro pessimism by saying that this country can get it. We have put a lot of hope and wish in just one name and we pray that he will not betray the trust. If you look at the country generally you will notice that the country is pregnant with change, the masses are yearning for a better life.
When Goodluck Jonathan emerged President with the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua on May 5, 2010 there were a lot of hopes that for once we have a leader who had the educational prerequisite. How would you assess his regime so far?
With due respect to Dr. Goodluck Jonathan he is an accident of history. Joseph De Milster used to say that people get the government that they deserve and the question you have to ask is whether Dr. Jonathan is the leader that Nigerians deserve. The last 6 months have been more of the same and when he made his declaration he told Nigerians that he has nothing to offer. He committed a faus pax, it was like a statement attributed to him at his debut at the UN when he said that he came with an empty mind when he meant to say that he came with an open mind.
I think that Nigeria now is looking for people who will bring a radical turn around in our affairs, a transformational leader in the modes of Nuhu Ribadu, Raji Fashola, Pat Utomi, Adams Oshiomhole and perhaps Abubakar Umar, people whose track record can give us conscience to cheer and confidence to carry Nigeria along the correct political path. I am not sure whether the antecedents of Dr. Goodluck are as such as to give me that hope.
And without prejudice, he looks to me like a reasonably pleasant guy, he looks self effacing, he looks a little but too humble. We want a bolder person who can put his hands on the plough and someone who has an idea of where he wants to take Nigeria to, what are his game plans? He must convince people like me that he has an idea of what he wants Nigeria to be. We need a work plan. There should be an immediate plan, a short term plan, medium term and a long term plan. He looks to me like he is politically vacuous and that constitutes part of the problem.
And then, he is a hostage to so many forces, ethnic, Niger Delta, fiscal federalism. They have held him hostage. The Edwin Clarks of this world and Oronto Douglas; he needs to evolve a Pan Nigerian agenda. He needs a spin doctor to help him articulate the problems confronting the polity and elaborate the panacea of effecting this turn around. A man is as good as the men and women around him, no leader has all the answers.
I don’t know members of his kitchen cabinet. He needs those that will help him articulate the issues and configure the ways and means of actualizing these dreams. It is not enough to have dreams. You must have the ability to operationalise your dream; I still remember as a young child who was growing up in Lagos; we used to see the posters of Chief Obafemi Awolowo with messages like: “Freedom for All, Life More abundant”, “A man with a plan”. I don’t see that happening now the closest we found along this line was MKO Abiola’s “Fare well to poverty”, you don’t have such catch phrases that could galvanise the people and give hope to an otherwise hopeless people.
Nigeria is in disarray, let’s face it; we are almost a failed state. So, you need somebody who can recreate the possibilities that are visible for the country, that is the type of leadership we are talking about. I see the likes of Nuhu Ribadu, Pat Utomi and all these younger people to rise up to the occasion.
Even when you have seen some glimmer of hope in the likes of Ribadu, Nigerians are not warmed up to them. We are still talking about the likes of IBB, Atiku, Buhari and what have you, what is wrong with the thinking of the followers?
I want to suggest that a lot has to do with the media which dictates the public and social agenda. That is what Professor Philips in America described as “mediacracy”, we are living in a world of the media, the media sets the agenda and if the media fails to project these young people it will be too bad.
These people that you have mentioned are already established names, they have been around for a while, like IBB, Buhari, Atiku, they have either been presidents or Vice presidents. People know them. How many people, for instance, know that Mohammed Aliyu Gusau played a crucial role in bringing IBB to power in 1985? If you remember when he was the defense Attaché in London and his role in engineering the coup that brought IBB to power, then you stop to take him serious because he would not be the first man with security background to come to power. Remember Vladimir Putin in Russia, so we can say that it is you media people set the agenda because it is the stories that you put out that people read to form their impression.
Having said that we must look at the experience of Barack Obama in the United States, he is a ready example for these young people to emulate and I think that Nigerian contestants must look at modern means of communication, face book, internet, in ensuring a larger profile in the public consciousness.
We are now in the 21st century and if it could work for Barack Obama why not here?
Of course the younger ones who can appreciate this form of communication are now in the majority and many of the middle class people even sit at home on Election Day. We are talking of a message that will sink with the hoipoili.
The interest of the people must be roused, they have to be conscientised. You ask yourself; how did MKO succeeded in doing it? MKO had a larger than life image but he had a message of hope for the people. When he won the election, the market prices reacted, the prices of bread, rice and other food items went down even before the annulment by Ibrahim Babangida and co. It was a measure of confidence that people had in the system. I won’t write off the Nigerian masses yet, they are capable of rising and making the right political decision, if the powers that be will let their votes count. Don’t mind the people that you see that attend these events that give the impression that these men you mentioned have the people behind them, these are rented crowd.
They do not attend these events for nothing, they are promised certain incentives to do so. Remember the pandemonium in Minna some weeks ago by those who went to Eagle Square. I saw the leadership of National Association of Nigerian Students coming out to say that they endorsed IBB, I am sure another group would come out to say they were not a party to that. You saw what happened when a renegade in the South West politics came to say that the South West has endorsed IBB.
Of course that was disclaimed by the Yoruba Council of Elders who said that nobody had their mandate to make such a statement. So, you always find people who are hired pens and hired guns to perform on behalf of whoever hired them. That is part of the manipulation that I am talking about. Things are not always what they seem and perception is very critical in politics. Which is why the media is very important.
What will you regard as the greatest achievements of Nigeria after 50 years of independence?
The greatest achievement, if one can call it that, is the fact that Nigeria is still in one piece that is we still hang together instead of going our separate ways. Again, we can say that thank goodness, Nigeria survived, but having said that, we can ask ourselves, how successfully have we really survived? We survived 30 months of civil war, the oil boom, so called, has turned into an oil doom, the Nigerian economy has taken a beating in practically all the sectors of human endeavour.
If we are going to be honest to ourselves, we have become under developed, we have had growth without development. When you compare the public infrastructure: roads, housing health and even social services like education, pension arrangement for retired Nigerians who you call senior citizens, we have not done well. Don’t forget that Nigeria said it produces largest amount of petroleum in the world, we are supposed to be the 8th largest exporter of petroleum products but it is a paradox that we import refine products. Like Claude Ake will put it, we still suffer from a “dis-articulate economy”.
I think the oil sector graphically captures this inadequacy in the way we carried on. You know that Nigeria has suffered brain drain. We have some of the best and brightest brains in the continent, but the best and brightest that we have in this country have voted with their feet. And if you poll this younger generation now those who are below 40, they will say that their future is not in this country, they’re giving up and going to embassies and consulates looking for visas to check out because they don’t see their future here.
If you remember that about 60% of the Nigerian population is below 25 years, that is a terrible indictment on the state of affairs in this country. We don’t have a favourable investment climate, and in fact we have had what you can call de-industrialization, with some of the industrial enterprises winding up or relocating to our neighbours most notably tyre producing factories like Michelin. Don’t forget that Dunlop which used to be a prime player has gone into real estate and what have you.
The textile industries have been comatose for quite a while and there are only tepid efforts to resurrect them. We have graduate unemployment and apart from mass unemployment, we have under employment and as our people say, the devil finds workshop for idle hands. So there is no future for our graduates and if you ask them why are they going to school? They say that they are thinking of playing music or playing football. Nobody is talking about value added activities in terms of productive effort, every body is out to cut a corner and make it fast. And the Nigerian economy has become like a big casino.
Look at the depression in the stock market, no body wants to invest in the Nigerian economy. Nigerians that have money want to invest abroad, South African Stock Exchange or British economy. So there is massive capital flight in this country and you have minimal foreign direct investment so the entire scenario is alone like a helpless situation.
At the time Ghana turned 50, they had more optimism about their future. At a point we were having a kind of historical parallel with Ghana in terms of military coups etc.
Now Ghana seems to have gotten it right, yet we are still behaving as if we are a military region?
You are perfectly right we have had a civilian dispensation but we do not have a democratic order. I mean changing the paraphernalia of political actors is not the same thing as having a democratic order. In Ghana for instance, they have had three instances of defeating the sitting government. We have not had that example and unless and until the opposition is able to defeat a sitting government we cannot start pulling out the drum and singing “Kumbayee.” Apart from that, Ghana upon independence was lucky to have Kwame Nkrumah who gave them a perspective. The political leadership is so critical like Nkrummah himself used to say seek ye first the political kingdom and every other thing will be added unto you.
Nkrumah used to say that the independence of Ghana was meaningless until the entire Africa was liberated so you have a pan Africanist who was well educated and who gave Ghanaians the direction. In Nigeria where did we end up? We ended up with a grade two teacher who really did not know how to galvanise, and challenge and harness the abundant resources that God has given us, to transform the society. You had Tafawa Balewa who used to luxuriate in the description of being a golden voice.
Golden voice of what? So you can say that comparing Nigeria with Ghana is like comparing apples with oranges. I agree with you that our history has been running parallel with that of Ghana, but you can see the way Ghanaians have been carrying themselves. You can see their body language; they look contented, they look focused, they look almost self satisfied, responsible.
Look at the oil that they recently discovered, they said they don’t want to repeat the mistake that Nigeria made. By the end of the year, they will start getting the oil out of the ground and out of their continental shelf, look at the leadership they have. Attah Mills was Vice Chancellor of Legon, a law professor.
Look at even the former president, John Kuffour who is an Oxford Trained Lawyer. Even Jerry Rawlings who was just a Flight Lieutenant in the Air Force, you can’t compare the cream of the political leadership that Ghana has been lucky to have with ours that have bungled and messed up the Nigerian political experiment. So quite sincerely I think Nigerians have to eat humble pie. We are giants with clay feet. Nigeria has over 100 universities, we are churning out all manner of well educated people but they have nothing to do. They are selling recharge cars or riding Okada, Nigeria is a study in contradiction, paradox of paradoxes is what you can call Nigeria because we are still very much at a neo-colonial state, we’ve not gotten our acts together and our leaders have not been properly schooled in what needs to be done.
Achebe got his finger on it when he said that the real problem that we have is that of leadership. If we have good leaders, then every other thing will fall in place, you can say it is egg-chicken situation, but I think that the real problem with Nigeria is both structural and managerial. The economy is still very much neo-colonial then, the leadership as I said is not well schooled in how to effect a turn around in our destiny.
Look at the social system now, Nigerians have descended into prayer homes and spiritual enclaves, factories are being turned into conclaves or prayer homes for these spiritual homes or the factories are used for reception theatres for weddings and for all sort of things. These are manifestation of a decrepit economy.