June 7, 2009

Attributes of democracy still lacking in Nigeria – Idika Kalu

Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu, World Bank economist, was, at various times, Minister of Finance; Transport and National Planning. The chairman of BGL Plc is also a member of the National Think Tank. Kalu was a presidential aspirant on the platform of the National Democratic Party (NDP).  In this interview, he bares his mind on Nigeria’s democratic journey so far and other contemporary issues.

Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu

Dr. Kalu Idika Kalu

HOW do you assess 10 years of uninterrupted democratic rule in Nigeria?

Looking from this stand point and back, I would say that it is a major disappointment. Let me start with the very notion of anointing May 29 as Democracy Day. I would rather call it ego-trip day rather than Democracy Day. You see, you don’t build mansions, you don’t build monuments after yourself. You should let posterity build monuments and name them appropriately.

I would think that there are two other dates that should really have been considered. One of them is obviously our Independence Day, that is October 1. I think I support those who feel that June 12 should possibly be termed Democracy Day because despite all the pluses and minuses of the various elections that led us to the final election of June 12, the fact that there was a seeming commonality of interest, which some of the major issues were sublimated namely, issues of geography, religion, ethnicity, Nigerians came out en-masse and voted heavily and put some of these things (geography, religion, ethnicity) behind us. So, if there was any day we should really regard as Democracy Day, that should really be June 12 or whatever will represent the date of that election, maybe the day it was annulled or the day the election took place or whatever is the case.

So, I think we should be very careful how we designate an important thing of this sort. You know I was a (presidential) candidate myself in 2003 and there was widespread rigging. I understand it was even worse in 2007 as it has been acknowledged by everybody. Certainly, the one of 1999 was even more successful than the ones that followed (2003 and 2007). And interestingly enough, both the June 12 (1993) and the 1999 elections were organized by the military. So, I think it is not a very good comment on our democratic process that the ones that have been organised by seemingly civilian institutions have not been as good as those ones.

Nobody is angling after a return to a military administration, certainly not, but all these suggest that we really need to work very hard to perfect our democracy. We are nowhere near what you might consider Uhuru as far as looking up on this date and say, yes, we have evolved a democratic system. You see, a democratic system implies so many other things, free access to vote, free access to stand for election, free access to verify elections, and an absence of intimidation.

And these were some of the things I personally complained very much about. It’s often not really about who won or who lost. It is about the freedom of choice, it is about the openness and the lack of coercion. Those are the attributes of democracy and of course.  For you to vote the right people, there has to be information, there has to be a certain critical minimum knowledge which has to do with information, education dissemination of all the various aspects of the process. So, I think that, personally, the idea of May 29 as “Democracy Day” is like I said, building a monument on to oneself and unveiling the monument. inscribing whatever you want on the monument. I think Nigerians should really think deeply about this and what it means as part of their history.

Justice Uwais Commission made far-reaching recommendations, but the Federal Government does not agree with some aspects. What’s your position on this?

Well, I think I applaud the swiftness with which the new administration got to work on starting the electoral reform process. Essentially, you see, all our problems are interrelated. If there were openness and transparency and a sense of broad consensus, objectivity about some of these problems that we have, then the questions would not arise the way they do.

But, it is not just the issue of whether it should be the president, or the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) that should appoint the INEC chairman. The much people are really getting at is the independence, the objectivity, how truly isolated from any particular pressure is the process. The appointment of the chairman of the so-called Independent National Electoral  Commission, I say so-called, and most Nigerians say so because really, it is a shame looking at smaller countries like Malawi, Botswana, Ghana, name it, you don’t need to call it “independent” for it to be seen to be independent!

The electoral commission should be independent and the fewer words the better. So you don’t print and spend more money, you spend the money giving medicine, etc, to the under-privileged and the rest of it and so many benefits they should be getting, we spend on elaborate “dependent” structures. But, the real issue is independence, objectivity, rising above petty loyalties, political, ethnic, regional and so on. So, I believe that the points that have been made on both sides are valid but they don’t address the issues. These questions have been raised as to whether it is the president that appoints or it is the National Judicial Council that appoints. I mean afterall, it is the president that also appoints members of the Judicial Council.

So, either way, I think we have to solve the problem of leadership at the very highest level. Now, the other question is about how quickly cases should be disposed of. You see, when constitutions are written, they are usually written for the best possible scenario.

It is not presumed that there should be such fundamental violations of elections that cases now become such key protracted issues. Ideally, there should just be minor infractions, collations, maybe delay in elections whether it was sufficiently grave to affect the quantum of votes cast. But when you have the regulations, the constitution governing all these incidents, you always presume you have best scenario so that you don’t expect fundamental issues to arise.

People think our presidential system is too expensive. Do you share the same view?

Well, the first thing is, where you have the right constitution, where you have the right system, I don’t think you can say this is the better of the two systems. It has to be what suits the homogeneity, the homogenous composition of the polity. We practised the parliamentary (system) for a while but the shoving and pushing of the political process actually drove us towards adopting the presidential system where you allow for the size of the country in terms of the population and the sheer heterogeneity, the richness.

All these can be positive attributes. This is what constitutes a rich  culture and I think Nigerians as individuals have demonstrated that our country’s diversity is really a positive thing. So, you now design a system that allows these constituent units, whether they are 200 or 300 different ethnic units, a sense of belonging right from the local government to the community level to the state level to the federal level. You fashion a constitution that allows people to be represented, voices to be heard.

Representation does not mean that everyone of them must become a minister or must become a governor. Obviously, that would be totally counter-productive. But, there should be a right representation where there is a feeling that their feelings, their interests are being carried along. Having said that, where it becomes a burden is where the politicians, the operators now see this as other than an efficient system of administration. So, the burdensomeness, I submit, has little or nothing to do with the size of the country or the system that we have chosen. It has had to do with the issue of leadership at all levels. The multiplicity of positions, the attraction that we have brought to bear on the political process, rather than the entire economic system in which agriculture, industry, etc, can be booming and creating opportunities, in line with the enormity of our resource endowment, so that those who choose to be active politicians are relatively few.

They are not people who really feel this is their destiny and, therefore, it is a livelihood that should be supported with houses and SUVs, Toyota Jeeps and sirens and all kinds of noisy things which distract from addressing the issues of the people – water, education, health, access roads, employment, investing in improved seeds, storage, providing opportunities for value-adding to agriculture and industrial materials. We build the things we spend our money on, food for ourselves and for those we can export to, to also enhance our revenue. We are spending a lot of money on “feeding structures”.

It is totally obscene, it has become totally untenable and it is totally unacceptable. So, let’s not mince words, the burden of presidential system as we practise it has little or nothing to do with the fact that we are running a presidential system. If the Americans, for instance, can have two senators per state, how on earth have we designed a much poorer underdeveloped country like Nigeria to have three senators per state? That’s just one minor example. And that’s the simplest example. Then when you move from there to the perquisites, to the public wage/salary structure, to the perquisites of office, I mean, these are totally irresponsible when you relate them to what we should really do to make sure that we maximise savings that will fund our investments to improve the general environment.

With the exception of some of the very few efforts being made by entities within the federation right now, our structures are in continuing dilapidation. We had the chance to modernise our railways 20 years ago, we didn’t take it. Countries are still running their rail even if it is not the wide gauge, faster, safer and, therefore, have been able to avoid the carnage that we’ve seen on our roads, providing better transportation for agricultural produce from the rural areas to the city centres.

So, people in the cities can look fresher, they feed on fresh produce and healthier consumption. Moving of grains, moving of petroleum products, you see the squalor of our roads because of having to move petroleum products by roads.

So, I believe that we really have been the cause of the burden and not something derived from the system we are operating. It is how we are managing the system at this critical juncture. We should look at things squarely. Certainly, before we clock 50, we should take a drastic surgery of the burden we have imposed on the administrative structure at the local government level, at the state level and at the federal level. All these parastatals, multifarious agencies, the staffing of these agencies, all the heavy perquisites, we should move towards public transportation because that’s what we can really afford.

Yes, I was the first chairman of the mass transit programme when I was transport minister. The emphasis of that programme was railways, was to refurbish Ebute-Metta, Zaria and Enugu rail yards to produce the rolling stock. We were to send a rail all the way from Lagos to Abuja, and Kano to Maiduguri, all these places to be connected across the West through Ibadan, Benin, all the way to Calabar. That should, incidentally, have dove-tailed into the Tinapa progamme! You’re talking about tourism, etc.

With all these problems, how do we achieve our target of Vision 20 by 2020?

Well, over the last 20 years, we have had the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP). The idea of SAP was to move Nigeria from purely primary agriculture, primary crude oil into sustaining manufacturing industrial economy, but again, we didn’t really mobilise adequate resources to fund the programme.

Now, this inability to mobilise enough resources to fund our programmes applies to the time of SAP through to the time of NEEDS I and NEEDS 2, and now we are talking about the Seven-Point Agenda and also we are talking about planning to implement Vision 2020. Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong in having a vision but that vision must reflect our determination to solve all the critical problems that we see impeding our development.

Of course, you can’t solve all the problems in one year or in one term, or in 10 years. But as long as you are set up properly to address the problems, for example, basic problems of power and water supply for the population. There are some indications in cross-country campaign that show that Nigeria is poor and even regressing   in terms of access to potable water, power, education, health, training facilities.

Corruption has affected all these human development index.. For a country that was, 30 years ago, producing some of the best students, now we are at a point where our people are sending their children to Ghana. Our people are going to India for their (medical) operations even though we talk about centres of excellence. The problem is that, one, we didn’t fund the system; two, corruption and waste just further decimated the size of what real investment actually went to fund the system.

Even countries that had more than we did still went ahead to get some more as long as those funds made economic sense. And then the issue of discipline to apply these funds properly. We cannot run around the discipline and the security and admit to ourselves that we cannot help ourselves, we are forever corrupt, we should fight it, we should apply the legal sanctions. If we don’t apply it, then we really have no basis for having a vision that we are going to get anywhere.

We have to change these things. People who are corrupt must be punished, people who misuse funds must be identified and punished, the system should be purified as it were – the political system, the administrative system, the whole framework has to be purified. When we do that, because of the enormity of our resource endowment, we don’t even have to worry whether we would be in the top 20 or whatever because we’ll definitely be getting there. A lot of these countries have nothing like we have, so by just setting up ourselves properly, which is far more important than the targetting we are doing, surely we would march through to the top.

Despite the war against corruption, there seems to be no end to this cankerworm. What’s the way out?

I think we pay too much lip service to corruption. I don’t think Nigerians should think that Nigerians by definition are the most corrupt. So, something else must be at work here. If you have a system that is not working to engage opportunities, it is making it more difficult for people to be non-corrupt. Fewer opportunities are being created, the pressures are so harsh, the population is growing but the opportunities are not growing commensurately.

So, the way to look at corruption is that it is the failure of other things, and, of course, you have to look at failures of sanctions which should be there to check it. The application of sanctions, the imposition of punishment, the identification of those who divert funds from what they should be used for should be clear and immediate sanctions should be seen by everybody to apply. It’s not that corruption as an entity is growing on its own. It’s because all the things that should mitigate it are not working out. If we are expanding schools requisitely because we know that the population of those who will come in is growing, then the corruption that comes from creating 20 spaces when there should be a hundred would immediately vanish.

If the employment situation is growing  because of requisite investment arising from what is seen as effective demand for the product, then the competition for few jobs will disappear and therefore you won’t need to be bribing anybody to get a form to interview to be selected because opportunities are expanding. So, I think for a change, we should not just lamely address corruption as in the abstract. We should identify all those things that should have served to diminish the incidence and the sheer ubiquitous nature of corruption, namely the continuous creation of opportunities.

What do you consider to be Nigeria’s major strength and weakness as a nation?

Well, the major strength of the nation is its size, the size already connotes the variety of space. Some countries are as large as Nigeria or larger but half of that would desert. Here, we have a large size and even at the farthest north, or the farthest south, you can double-crop or even triple-crop.

Minor sustainable irrigation can create opportunities for fishery and forestry production. Look at the Nigerian entity, we are very lucky on the size and it’s not just the size, but also the endowment of that size and I am talking about natural endowments. Added to that is the population and the distribution of that population. Our history has shown that Nigerians are smart, that they are knowledgeable or trainable, wherever they are.

Along with that is the richness of the culture – music, songs, dance, arts and crafts, and so on. These are the biggest strengths of the nation. Now, why have we not done well? We have not done well because, somehow, we have not identified those things that would sustain us as a community.

You know, we were trying to free ourselves from colonial tutelage and yet, we all look back now and feel that, that system provide a framework in which things were happening to the point in which some people were even lamenting may be we should just go back to colonial status, of course, this is at the depth of despair. So, we should really identify the problems and the weaknesses from when we took off, at “independence”.

Instead of sustaining our educational system, we started experimenting without thinking through 6-3-3-4 and 9-3-4 and all that stuff, we should have probably just stuck to what we inherited and make sure that we expanded the opportunities, created more classrooms, add more teachers, expanded the universities, while sustaining quality. Some universities (abroad) are five times the size of our universities combined. Okay, we moved from parliamentary to federal structure but we didn’t take care to also reflect what we could manage. We were proliferating, multiplying so many things that we didn’t need to multiply. So, our strength is just the very constitution of Nigerian nation — the culture, the people.

What is your take on the Niger Delta crisis?

This is a very current and vexed subject, I feel very bad about that and I think most observers will feel that way, with the size of the Nigerian nation, we should have been able to bring this under control. I don’t think it is nice for us to be waging a war against our fellow citizens no matter what you call it, peaceful action, police action, I think it smacks of failure of the state to be shelling our own people. I happened to be part or whatever of a committee (N-Delta Technical Committee) that was set up a few months ago.

We recommended general  amnesty to all (militants), but  for those that committed criminal acts, the state has all the facilities and time to identify those people and prosecute them, but in the meantime, let there be peace in which the issues of broad-based development can be addressed – the issue of equity, the issue of resource use, the issue of maximising national revenue which would fund development in the Niger Delta, and which can be a base for leveraging a massive development of the Nigerian economy as a whole.

I think that’s what we should be doing, we should be tired of these headlines of JTF fighting MEND and MEND fighting JTF, and arms being discovered here and there, kidnappings and arresting of ships in the high seas, pillaging of the national resources even by elements of the constituted authority who are meant to put an end to these criminal acts. The evidence we see is that this grave lawlessness ramifies through the entire system. And, on the eve of the 50 years anniversary (of independence), we should tell ourselves the truth.