Otunba Lateef Owoyemi, the Otunba Jadiara of Ijebuland and former president, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, ICAN, has served in many capacities and contributed to the economic development of Nigeria. An astute management consultant, his firm, LOP Consulting Ltd, has remained an active player in nation-building in the last 33 years.  The 73-year-old, who was a good companion of late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, spoke to BASHIR ADEFAKA, in Lagos on issues bothering on Nigerian politics and economy. Excerpts:

WHAT is your take on electoral reforms and controversies trailing zoning in the country?
They are very controversial issues. Zoning was reasonable before and it’s still reasonable. It was done to assuage a hurt and injustice. Now, I believe if any part of Nigeria has produced the President once, there is no need to zone it to that part any more. Zoning should not be a matter between Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo. We are not the only people in the country. It is especially important for the minorities.  Zoning should only be for the minorities.  I’m ashamed that people who had been heads of State in this country or Vice Presidents are still running around for zoning when they can contest election!  It means they didn’t leave good records behind. It’s of no use. It’s like a man of 40 years saying

‘I’m going to look for my father for me to be able to get a wife to marry.’

The issue of zoning again is misunderstood really. When you zone a position to a particular area, does the area gain from it?  No! It is only the friends and those who are close to the zonee (beneficiary of that zoning) that take the benefit. If you know the President very well, whether he’s from your zone or not, you will benefit.

Zoning won’t help Nigeria

Even if he is from your hometown and he hates your father, or your father’s family, your people will not get any benefit from that government. But people rush as if when the job is zoned, their problem is over.  It’s not true.  We have seen some leaders in this country who were appointed to positions on the basis of quota. Have their people benefited? In any case, it’s a contradiction. You can’t say a leader should function nationally and be broad in his outlook and at the same time you are talking about zoning. It will not help Nigeria.  The earlier we kill this idea of zoning and federal character the better.

Did Pa Obafemi Awolowo, whose political school you attended, practice zoning?
When I used to be with Chief Obafemi Awolowo in his Committee of Friends, before his demise, he was the presidential candidate of his party and he appointed a lawyer from the East, Philip Umeadi, as his running mate.  And I went to meet him and asked: ‘Papa, why did you appoint two Christians and two Southerners as presidential candidates?’ He said: “It doesn’t matter Otunba.  Even two children of the same family, two Dikkos, Umaru Dikko and his brother who was then in NEPA, can run the country if they can run it well. It doesn’t matter if they come from the same family. What Nigerians want are credible, good leaders not where you come from or whether somebody from the North, somebody from the East. That does not make anything at all. What Nigerians want are performing leaders! If the President is from one village, the Vice President is from another village and they can perform, what’s wrong with that?”

Papa said so. I later went with Umeadi to Kaduna to look for governorship candidate for the Unity Party of Nigeria, UPN, at that time. We couldn’t get anybody; I told Awolowo, and he was not happy about it. So, really, we had a ticket of Obafemi Awolowo/Umeadi, Southwest/SouthEast! And it was credible at that time. It was not a matter of zoning. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa was not Prime Minister because of zoning; Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe was not President because of zoning. No! It just emerged like that and we were very comfortable with it. It is the military that brought the idea of zoning because they see governance as share, I share. Take your turn, I take my turn. I don’t think this is good for the country and so the earlier it is scrapped the better for everybody.

President Goodluck Jonathan reportedly admitted that corruption was responsible for Nigeria’s dwindling economy.  Do you see the EFCC and ICPC as capable of withstanding this parasitic problem?

This corruption issue has two aspects. We have seen the effect in terms of EFCC’s activities but what is the cause of it?  There is no way any Nigerian will spend N100 million to become Local Government chairman, N1 billion to become a Senator, N1 billion to become House of Representatives Member, N2 billion to become a governor, several billions to become President and there will not be corruption. Corruption will continue because people must take back the money they had expended on elections. That is not being addressed at all!

Chief Lateef Owoyemi

What is your take on plea bargaining in the crusade against graft?

This issue of plea bargaining is very controversial. I believe whomever is found to have stolen money needs to be punished depending on the amount that he’s found to have stolen.  Some people should be in jail for 30, 40 years without any government coming up to give them reprieve. It is when you know that if you steal money and then you are caught, you will never be able to enjoy it that you will desist from the act. Somebody has stolen N100 million; you have taken about N80 million from him and then he still has N20 million to spend. It will still be useful and he will still be able to be very comfortable.  I don’t recommend death sentence, I mean death by hanging like they do in China, but he should be in life jail which cannot be aborted until about after 30 years of service in that jail.

What should be the government’s economic policy especially as it affects industrial development and unemployment in Nigeria?

The government is trying. The principles are now a bit more stable. But there is still a lot of smuggling and adulteration of products, which must be addressed if you want to let the industries move well. Power must be addressed in a holistic manner. It’s better in the last 12 months or so now when you can now get diesel easily without having to queue. However, there is still one important component we have not done for the consumers.  Government must adopt a policy whereby workers and people in paid employment are enabled to consume the products coming out of Nigerian factories.

Controlling amount of credit

We must also learn from the lessons of Europe and America where there was so much credit to the consumers and it backfired. By controlling the limit, the amount of credit that any employee can have, especially through the cooperative societies, I think this will help a lot. The three legs of economic development in the post-meltdown period are simple government policies, stimulation of producers and stimulation of consumers. Without the three being present, the economy will continue to falter. They need definitely to stimulate the consumers by providing cheap money under controlled environment; possibly in liaising with the private sector.

What is your take on restructuring of the polity to ensure true federalism?

On the issue of federalism, we are sitting on a keg of gun powder in two respects.  Number one, within 20 to 25 years, oil will dry up in certain parts of Nigeria. Those oil producing areas have been vandalised. There can be no agriculture, there can be no fishing, there are no roads, there is no electricity, and there is nothing in those areas. When their oil dries up, the people have to move to another part of Nigeria and invade it in large numbers. We are not yet addressing that problem. The issue of federalism, therefore, will come either by force or by sensible management. By force, I mean that one day, somebody may just come and say look ‘I’m no longer part of Nigeria and I want to keep all I have.’ And there will be shock and awe because by the sudden cut off of the revenue, which is mainly  sustaining the country now, there will be upheaval. Those who are going to release the money will say, ‘no, you cannot go like that. We all belong to one Nigeria and if you want to go, there will be war.’  If that happens it will be a disaster.

What can we do as a nation to forestall the looming political and economic catastrophe?

If Nigeria is wise now, we should programme an eight to10 years transition period.

Is that another call for Sovereign National Conference?
Not by Sovereign National Conference but by constitutional means. It can be done. We will say okay before, there was groundnut pyramid in the North; cocoa in the South and everybody was happy with what they had got. It can still be done. The minerals in the North are not being harnessed by official method.

Transiting from unitary to proper federalism

People are just pirating it and stealing it and just taking the money abroad. Let us take one year to study the programme: how do we transit from this unitary federalism to proper federalism whereby the owner of the resources picks 80 to 90 percent of it over time?  You can do that by saying year one, we study the programme by experts. Year two, 10 percent of the resources go back to those areas where the resources come from.  That will enable the other parts of the country that are not producing oil or gas to begin to develop their own resources like animal husbandry, mineral mining, collection of tax and things like that. Year three, another 10 percent goes; year four, another 10 percent goes; year five another 10 percent goes until we get to year eight when 80 percent would have gone to the producing areas. Then only 20 percent will be left in the Federal purse.

That way, you will build up a gradual federalism, which will not cost a lot of destruction and shock. It will give people a long time and long notice to use their money well rather than the politicians that are just sharing whatever revenue they get and then just wasting it or going into useless ventures, with which, if oil dries up today, they will be in trouble.

So, if we can do that, I believe Nigeria will survive as a country because we have got the intellectual capability and the best of intelligence is available in Nigeria. Our cocoa has the best aroma; our oil is of the highest in quality; our groundnut is of the best quality; our cotton is of the highest grade; our minerals are of the best quality; our fish products in the sea are of the best quality.  So God has blessed Nigeria and our people are among the best  in any field of endeavour.

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