*‘We need more affirmative commitment to governance’
*Says Achebe digging up the past in a wrong way
By Gbenga Olarinoye
How has the subsidy intervention fund (SURE-P) fared since the government introduced it in the aftermath of the protest in January? The vice president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), the body which spearheaded the January protest, Comrade Issa Aremu, provides the Labour perspective in this interview. The general secretary of the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN), also speaks on the state of the nation. Excerpts:
Your view on Chinua Achebe’s book on the civil war, “There Was a Country”, and the indictment of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
The controversy that trailed the book written by Chinua Achebe is unfortunate, it is also diversionary. I think Chinua Achebe, as a respected writer, a legendary story teller, an acclaimed author of the celebrated books: “Things Fall Apart”, Man of the People, has that right to reflect on the past especially the civil war because I strongly believe that if we don’t know where we are coming from, we will not know where we are going. So, it was good that he made an attempt to interrogate the past especially the crisis between 1967 and 1970 when we had the Biafra war to which we lost about a million people. But the question is that in interrogating the past, we need to be careful so that we don’t get haunted by the past.
We should also be careful not to draw inappropriate lessons. I think it’s regrettable that Chinua Achebe took many steps backward with a view to promoting further division, rather than uniting the country. I think it’s completely wrong to do a post-mortem analysis of the dead who can’t reply, it is literary cowardice because he has done many books after the civil war and he had all the privilege to write on the war even when it was hot. In fact, in fairness to Chinua Achebe, he had realized that the war was over and that the problem of Nigeria was leadership, that’s why he wrote a book entitled “The Trouble With Nigeria’.
So to return to it is opportunistic diversion. It is important that writers have the responsibility to unite Africa because the tragedy of Africa today is that we have no inspirational leaders to unite the continent. When Achebe wrote “There Was a Country”, he was not saying there is no more country, there is a country; in fact, the passion and debate that followed his book shows that Nigeria is still alive. Which country does not have its own travail? I mean nobody can say there is no America after September 11; there was America before September 11, there is America after; in fact, America produced more leaders after September 11, and we have the likes of Obama. All the key actors in this drama (civil war), both living and the dead, they are proud Nigerians. Ojukwu sent more people to death as a Nigerian with Nigerian flags than with Biafra, so why is Achebe flogging the dead? Even the leader of that war was proud to be a Nigerian, to be accepted back as a Nigerian than as a Biafran; that’s why when he came back, he was pardoned and was so proud to be restored the title of a General of the Federal Republic of Nigeria not of Biafra and Nigerians were so appreciative to honour him and he was buried as a Nigerian. And Ojukwu post-mortem said to Awolowo that he was not agonizing about who did what. When Awolowo died, he said he was the best president Nigeria never had. So if the key chieftain could say such, what is Chinua Achebe up to? Who is he talking for?
I think it may be convenient for Nigerians in Diaspora to have the comfort of literary reflection but, in that literary reflection, they should not throw us into reverse gear. I think with the burial of Ojukwu, civil war is over and Governor Peter Obi said “ with the state burial given to Ojukwu, conclusively, civil war has been buried; nobody should exhume it again”. I want to leave Achebe on this note but my only counseling is the reaction of our people, the reactions became intolerant. I think we should explain to Chinua Achebe because he has also said it in that book and I think you can’t really engage that book because he said the war still resumes but I think the war is over; we shouldn’t be agonizing about the past. What he needs to do instead of agonizing is to organize his thought for reconstruction and rebuilding of Nigeria. I think Nigeria has the best post-civil war recovery in the world. Today, if it’s not because we are digging up the past in the wrong way, if you ask an average Nigerian born outside the civil war, they never knew we had war before. Igbo are back, the Yoruba are back, from abandoned properties. I think the problem of Nigeria which Chinua Achebe said before is leadership that is parochial instead of thinking global. But how can a global writer just speak of Biafra at this hour?
When he wrote “Things Fall Apart”, it showed that his thought was global and that is the bane of Africa, everyone starts to return to the village. I want to say for Nigeria, there used to be part of forthright tales in the 70s, we liberated South Africa, we liberated Angola, then literary writer from Nigeria must be global in his thinking. The new war we need in Nigeria is war against under-development, war against power failure, war against hunger. There is no country that doesn’t have its past. America went to civil war but there is no writer that will make a meaning that America experienced civil war. No writer can sell in America because you are writing about slavery, they have moved on, an African has become the president of America. I think we need to move on. On the last note, I think we need to be encouraged that he recommended Nelson Mandela’s leadership, but even that one is academic. If it is found out, Nigeria produced Nelson Mandela, we liberated South Africa, it’s our struggle, Mandela said so that when he needed money to start the struggle, Nigerians gave him.
Let Chinua Achebe leave us and watch his thought. Mandela was not digging the past, he said there can’t be a future without forgiveness. Today he has built a rainbow in his country in which even the whites are now more depressed to say Mandela should not live longer. Chinua Achebe must also follow Mandela’s line; you can’t be saying you are recommending Mandela when your literary thinking is that of Malema, a youth who is raising up literary xenophobia and was kicked out of the ANC youth wing recently. Regardless of their shortcomings, we are proud of the founding fathers of Nigeria. Chief Obafemi Awolowo was a hero in his own right, he died a patron, he was a regional prime minister but he ended up as somebody who wanted to become the president of Nigeria, not as a village leader. Ojukwu, in his own right, said he (Awolowo) was the best president Nigeria never had, so who is he (Chinua Achebe) talking for? So, we can’t go back to the war. “There was a country” was a very mischievous title, there is Nigeria and there will still be Nigeria.
What is your take on the raging controversy between the Federal Government and the National Assembly over the benchmark for crude oil in the 2013 budget?
We should be talking of the developmental objectives that 2013 budget aims to realize. I think we should be able to put the horse before the cart. I think the cart in this case is that ‘what do we want to achieve with 3.9 or 4. something trillion naira budget in the year?’. From my point of view and point of objectivity of labour, I think the critical developmental ends in this matter are very minimal. We have voted so much money for physical security, I say so much money because close to 1 trillion naira was voted for physical security last year. But we have always been saying this, in labour, that physical security that is not complemented with economic and social security cannot be sustainable security. So, beyond the physical security, I think we need electricity or power supply. And now we have environmental challenges occasioned by climate changes, we call it flooding which has to do with lack of proper management of the environment.
Now, these physical challenges can be addressed by massive job creation, reviving of industries, and we need current intervention. Now if we start from this level, then you ask yourself, what should now be the benchmark to drive the agenda? I said the need for benchmark is divisionary because the position of the Federal Government, as articulated by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has not been driven by development agenda. She is rather comparing, talking about other OPEC countries, namely, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Iran who benchmarked their oil money because they ran for other things. But those countries are not facing the same challenges facing Nigeria. As I am talking to you, Saudi doesn’t have uninterrupted power supply, it has no problem of drainages, the roads are clear.
Here in the forest, cars are grounded in the pathway which we call road. We couldn’t even cross the River Niger and somebody is talking of benchmarking, it doesn’t make sense. I think we should be driven by development agenda. And if we say development agenda, we need more resources both at the federal and state levels, so you can’t have a low benchmark. I think those who are pushing for 80 dollar benchmark are more rational because the developmental agenda we have is 80. In fact, we need to benchmark more than 80 to possibly 90 because we need this developmental agenda as, in the long run, we are dead; in the stone throw, we must survive.
So I think the finance minister is being academic and Nigeria is not a classroom. We are talking of people who are grounded; you are not going to clear the Niger, open up the waterways with peanut; you need money to do the dredging, you need money to clear the bridges, you need money to finish the express way; Lokoja-Abuja road, you need money to open up Kaduna-Ilorin road, of course you need more money to even have uninterrupted power supply.
85 Dollars Benchmark
So I think we should be moral rather than being academic to meet our needs. The last of the challenges is that whether it is benchmarked at 80 or 85, you must also tell us the base level.
What is the quality of the spending? Does the money reach there? What was the benchmark last year? How much releases have been done this year? Again, we also have the debate in the National Assembly and I support the Reps who say you don’t spend for next year when you have not shown us what you spent in 2012. So, it’s commendable that the president has moved very fast to submit the 2013 budget this year but he must also show that the one they gave him last year, he has finished spending them; otherwise, we have crowded expenditure where people are grounded.
So, what, I am trying to say in summary is that at the end of the day, the National Assembly seems to be right because they feel the pulse of the people to say the development agenda that we have today with more resources, nobody should tell us to keep money when people are dying at flood camps. Who are you saving for? Dead people? You can see the killings in Port Harcourt, you cannot handle that with poorly funded police.
You must have resources for the police and you can’t do so by low benchmarking. So, for me, to choose between an unelected prime minister whether coordinating or not, who does unequivocal analysis with our demand and those who are elected, who feel the pulse of the people, I think we must go for those who are elected. So, I think the debate is academic, divisionary, what we want is developmental agenda and developmental agenda should come with enough resources because we need more resources especially at the state level. In any case, we are running a federation, so more resources must go to states. What I am saying in summary is that the development agenda that Nigeria needs today is that we need more money and we can do so only with higher benchmarking.
The members of the public are yet to enjoy the palliative measures announced by Federal Government after the last nationwide strike as a result of the withdrawal of fuel subsidy.
No, I think the SURE-P programme is ill-managed; the intervention fund is not well managed. The vehicles that the Federal Government gave to National Union of Road Transport Workers have all broken down. I think what we need is holistic transport policy, it cannot just be called palliatives; palliatives are meant for refugees, we are citizens, and citizens need corporate multi-modal mix up agenda. Government is organizing governance fund, it’s the citizens who must do the talking now; you can’t talk what you said you are doing; otherwise, it becomes pure propaganda, because if it’s done, we see it. It’s what is not enough and visible that people have to celebrate; if it is visible, we see it but what Nigerians see today is mis-governance.
We see people in road transport from Kaduna and Ilorin that will take three and a half, four hours, people do take it in 18 hours. People also see that even to travel by air now, it’s a luxury. The flight that is supposed to leave by 10am does not leave until around 3pm, yet the price is not cheaper. So, what people see is different from what we have been shown on television, we don’t need those dramas because when we see, Nigerians will know.
What is your comment on the 2013 budget as a whole as announced by President Goodluck Jonathan?
I think we need more affirmative commitment to governance and we can see the debate going on in the U.S. about employment and job creation. The intervention of Obama alone has saved General Motors, we are talking of 1.5 billion dollars.
That is America that has already gotten to the top, we are talking of we who are still on the ground. I think the lottery approach of the Federal Government to unemployment must give way to massive affirmative commitment and the Federal Government must learn from the debate about some states who have taken bold action, what I call emergency action, commendable action to solve the problem through public works. On the environment alone, Federal Government can create millions of jobs, we need people to clear the environment, to clear the high ways, to create camps for victims and help them. Some states have created 20,000 jobs, 10,000 jobs and yet, in the 2013 budget, our president is talking of one yam processor, who can just employ 10 more workers, two entrepreneur skills. I think we cannot have a lottery approach to creation of employment.
We need a committed bold affirmative action which, first of all, must be led by government and begin to create massive jobs. Second, we need to grow the real sector of the economy and this can only be done through electrification, revival of industries. I want to hear from the president something more than one yam processor, who has done a miracle to create 10 jobs. I want him to do what Obama has done, to say, ‘I have gone to Michelin, and my intervention has brought Michelin back, brought Dunlop back, and that 10,000, 20,000 jobs have been created’. That is the way to go or to say that due to the intervention of government, 10,000 small scale enterprises employed with an average of 300 workers each, industries that wanted to close down have been revived, not one yam processor that was won through lottery. I think we can’t do lottery, we can’t afford the luxury of a service provider who does lottery with people without delivering service, we can’t do that with employment; we need bold steps and it should be led by states.
The intervention funds to save the textile industry by the Federal Government. Have you been able to access it?
Intervention funds without electrification, without controlling flooding, without appropriate policy to protect local products, it will not work; that is why I thought it is commendable when you say sugarcane to sugar factory, you are protecting them within this budget. To me, that is a way to do things, not a cassava processor who just created about five or 10 jobs.