Obong Victor Attah
By Omeiza Ajayi
Obong Victor Bassey Attah, an architect, two-time governor of Akwa Ibom State (1999-2007) was during his time in office, chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum, NGF. Obong Attah would also be remembered for his pioneering role in advocating fiscal federalism and resource control, an issue that pitted him against the central authorities at that time.
In this interview, the former governor says fiscal federalism is the answer to the several challenges militating against the country. He also says, the unity of Nigeria must be renegotiated. Attah who scored the Muhammadu Buhari administration high on some issues, however, affirms that “no sculptor can carve a masterpiece out of a rotten wood”.
What is your view on the state of affairs in the country today?
Things that are happening in Nigeria are really very worrisome. There are those who feel some perception of injustice in the system. It is a perception but sometimes perception could be reality. We need to look at the situation holistically, and where there is justification, you correct them, and where there is none, you explain to the people why they should not have doubts or fears. But it points to one fundamental thing, that we are still in the process of forming a country. If we had had one firm country, you would have found that a lot of these fears would not arise; there would be common fears, common to everybody but now they are sectional fears, sectional problems which mean we have not really forged a country and there is an absolute and urgent need for that to happen.
So, do you subscribe to calls for restructuring of the country?
Several people have used that word and have not been able to say what they mean.
The few that have actually attempted to say what they mean either end up talking about going back to the regions as we had them before or adopting the six-zonal structure that had been proposed for Nigeria, which actually is in current usage but has not been sanctioned by the constitution of Nigeria. Others just use the word ‘restructuring’ because it is almost like a buzz word, it is a popular thing to say now. I don’t want to be caught up in the semantics. I will subscribe, absolutely and entirely, to the concept of fiscal federalism. People ask what is the difference between fiscal federalism and restructuring and I will explain. I am convinced that fiscal federalism can be practised with even the 36 state-structure and one federal capital territory that we have today in Nigeria.
And in fact, I can say, it is a must, for there to be peace and harmony, understanding among the federating units. Fiscal federalism suggests that the federating units are coordinate with the centre, not subordinate to it and I will explain the main difference. It also means that each federating unit looks after itself and pays a certain percentage of whatever the constitution may specify, tax or whatever, to the centre for the purpose of the centre administering the entire federation.
The people who argue that how can that be when some states cannot pay salaries are being very short-sighted and they are trying to justify their argument for regionalism or some other larger groupings. Any grouping you have today that is imposed from outside is artificial as we have today and Nigeria is not ready for another artificial grouping.
It would be totally wrong to force the South-South to be one group, the North Central to be one group and so on. What really binds such groups together? Nobody says, and because it does not exist.
Uniformity in a federal arrangement
What I am looking at is, today, in the United States of America USA, there are big states, there are small states; there are rich states, there are poor states. In California, I think it is the one that pays the highest salary to a governor, the governor earns just about $190, 000 a year.
Then if you come to a small state like Maine which is a poor state, the governor earns $70, 000 a year, and the wife of that governor, goes three days a week to work in a restaurant as a waitress to supplement her husband’s salary. But here, because one governor has money enough to fly in a private jet, every governor must fly in a private jet. We are saying that there cannot be uniformity in a federal arrangement.
This is what we have refused to acknowledge and accept because we think that there must be uniform salary. Why should there be uniform salary? Why should the product of oil cost the same where the oil is produced as some distant places where it has to be transported to? These are some of the distortions that we have in our present, so-called, and I use that word without apology, so-called federal arrangement because what we have is not a proper federal arrangement. In a federal situation, you cut your coat according to your cloth. The governor should earn what he can; if he has to ride a bicycle to work, he should in fact ride a bicycle to work if that is what can sustain him and for him to keep his state going.
The governor of Kaduna was the one that said there is more gold in Kaduna than the whole of South Africa. So, why should Kaduna State not be able to meet all of its obligations and put a lot of money into the federation account? I do not want any state putting money in anybody’s hands to go and distribute. I want every state to stand on its own and pay whatever the constitution says states must pay to the federation.
What is your reaction to the administration’s assertion that it would archive the report of the 2014 National Confab given that you were a member?
The people who today are steering the party called APC, were in opposition at the time to the government in place. They did not like the idea because they had this notion that whatever the government does, the opposition must oppose. So, they opposed the conference and I think they are just holding on to that for whatever reason.
Very wrong argument
There comes a time when you have to acknowledge that, well, you did it because you had to do it or you did it because you were wrong, then you change that position.
I read where the current Secretary to the Government of the Federation (Babachir David Lawal) said he is so busy with governance and that it would take him about seven days to go through the report; where is the time to read the report? How can you be busy governing without being interested in knowing how the people want to be governed? To me, it is a very wrong argument.
The SGF actually described the Confab as a job for the boys. Was it so?
Job for which boys? Please, tell him that this ‘boy’ sitting here and a lot of other boys know that Nigeria was ripe for a complete rethinking and the rethinking is in there. If he had the idea that it was a job for the boys, then he had better identify with the “boys” because the boys are who he is governing. That is really the point because it was the whole of Nigeria that wanted that conference and made sure it happened. They have to look at what is there and take out what this government can use to shape the country.
What is your take on the struggle to actualise Biafra Republic?
Strictly, Biafra is an Igbo agenda. I am surprised that it is the Igbo as a group that would want to secede because the Igbo, in my opinion, need Nigeria as much as Nigeria needs them. We all need one another to succeed in a true federation.
The Igbo, without too much of exaggeration, half of this Abuja is owned by the Igbo. I do not know why anybody would want to run away from that. Go to Port-Harcourt. Go to Lagos, Kano. The Igbo cannot agree to confine themselves to Biafra. They are not that type of people. It is not the Igbo that I know. They want to go out and when they go out, believe me, in certain areas they always go out and conquer.
If somebody was forcing them to go back to Biafra, they would say no that they want to have their own part of Nigeria but maybe they have a reason and that reason may be coming from the feeling of a certain level of injustice within the federation. And that injustice exists because of the nature of the federation we are running.
Proper fiscal federalism
It goes back to the same thing that I said before, if we are able to just agree to establish a proper fiscal federalism today believe me, the Biafrans would say now they are happy because they can be themselves within this federation.
There are so many other splinter groups that are fighting for their various interests; there is one that said they are not even fighting the Niger Delta war but an Ijaw war; another one said it is a South-South war and they have their territory defined already and their currency is ready. There are many secessionists threats and these arose from the fault lines of our federal arrangement today.
So, this leads me to this concept of whether we should negotiate or not. You have to renegotiate. If you talk about renegotiation, some people think you want to split the country. No, it is like every time they tell you to go and investigate somebody, you think it means you must go and find that person guilty. No, do not forget that they investigated Dr Alex Ekwueme and came back and said in fact, he was poorer than when he went in (to government). The people of Nigeria are dissatisfied with the current federal arrangement or whatever is binding them together now and are saying they want to renegotiate the terms of staying together.
The president quoted Gowon. Gowon had said that keeping Nigeria one is a task that must be achieved. That task was achieved by military means. He (Buhari) is not a military man now, he is a democrat, a politician. So, the only means politicians have is to negotiate. So, what did you mean by you won’t negotiate?
If you want to keep Nigeria one today, you must negotiate the terms and conditions of the people staying together and it goes back to the conference report, it goes back to the concept of fiscal federalism friction.
Are you not disturbed by the resurgence of militancy in your area especially now that the Niger Delta Avengers have ruled out negotiation with the federal government?
Like I said earlier, things that are happening in Nigeria are very worrisome. If I may be simplistic, it all has to do with dissatisfaction. Let’s look at that South-South and what is going on.
As Governors-Elect, we were called to the first meeting with the Ruling Council at the time under Gen. Abdulsalam Abubakar. At that meeting, I clearly remember, Gen. Popoola, I believe that was the name, was asked to give a report on the Niger Delta.
He gave us a report that ended with the fact that the terrain was too difficult to develop. I could not resist it. I raised my hand and I was allowed to speak.
I said, ‘Sir, we are sitting here saying that the South-South terrain is too difficult to develop, how come it is not too difficult for us to drill and bring out the oil?’ When we left that meeting, my younger brother who happened to be the Chief of Air Staff at the time called me and said that I should thank my God that I was not a military man; that I would have left that meeting in handcuffs; that how could I be so audacious to say that? But I could not resist the urge to speak. The South-South has always suffered a lot. I have written a paper and what I tried to explain to this country is becoming quiet palpable.
The South South has the feeling that the rest of the country wants to milk it, pollute it or completely milk it dry and then tell them goodbye. There is that fear and it is not being addressed because the question is why are you preserving all your resources and exploiting only this one? This one that is so polluting. As a governor, I said look, this lack of participation is creating a lot of problems. I put together a company, BEDROCK Oil. BEDROCK is Bayelsa, Edo, Delta, Rivers, ‘O’ for Oil, Cross River and ‘K’ for Akwa Ibom. And I said, give us one oil bloc. We are producing all of these, give us one oil bloc. It did not go far.
At the time we were hearing that even a hair-dresser got an oil bloc and was marketing it in London and the people in whose land -let me not talk about ownership, because as long as we are in Nigeria, yes, the oil belongs to Nigeria, but so does all the gold and other solid minerals, coal, iron ore and the rest also belong to Nigeria. Why is Nigeria so determined to exploit only one and not any of the others?
So, the fear is there and that fear is not being addressed and do not even tell me that we have given you NDDC; we have given you Ministry of Niger Delta…No. That is not what we are talking about. We are talking about the fact that you should exploit what is yours, use it to develop your place and pay certain amount to the centre.
I should be able to exploit what is in my area and because it belongs to all of us, I will pay whatever is required of me to the centre. Believe me, if we do that, we would see near total or perfect peace.
So, nobody can possibly support criminality. I do not believe in destruction, especially when even that destruction is destroying the area that you are at the same time saying is your new nation. How can you be destroying such a place? The moment you destroy the pipelines, you end up with pollution, so, it is not right what is happening, but we must find a way to address the reasons for these happenings.
Diversified source of power
We must find a way to address them very quickly.
South-South is over-exploited
Then, there is this concept of diversification. When you talk about diversification, people just think it has to do with going into agriculture apart from oil. It is not sufficient. Diversification should come in more areas than just agriculture.
If we had diversified our source of power, today we would not feel it so much, at least certainly not in the effect of these bombings (of oil and gas installations) because today, we are dependent almost exclusively and entirely on the gas turbines and then oil, but if we had had hydro, coal and solar, those boys would see that they are hurting themselves because, we could say, ok, you have cut off the source of power in your area, so you do not have power but the other parts of the country would still have power.
They would see that they are not hurting anybody other than themselves.
And they would see that in fact, it is silly,what they are doing. So, diversification is beyond going into agriculture. You will diversify in several other areas and one of the areas you must look at urgently and you must begin to give confidence to other people who have these resources is in the solid minerals. Go and look at the ownership of Itakpe Iron Ore.
It is a mineral resource but even the community is part of the ownership arrangement but tell me whether anybody was ever consulted before oil blocs were given out in the South-South. You know what I mean? That is why recently I wrote an article and said this Petroleum Industry Bill, let us go softly with it.
Let us be sure that everything is even-handed because if you now come by this bill and treat oil mineral differently from other minerals and give the people on whose lands other minerals are found greater advantages than you have given to people on whose lands oil is found, there would still be dissatisfaction.
So, why can’t we come out with “Mineral Bill”? The 10 percent that was supposed to be given, they said no, that because this one is governance bill. Is that happening in other areas of mineral exploitation? It is a question we have to answer.
Are you still in political retirement?
Yes, I am still in political retirement but that does not mean that I do not have political insights about what is right and what is wrong.
You were one of the founding fathers of the PDP. What is happening to your baby? Why haven’t they come back to ask you for guidance?
Why I laughed is because when you have a baby and the baby decides that he is wiser than the parents and that he is going to go on a mission of self-destruction and you try to caution the baby to no avail…That is what happened to the PDP. You can see that even today, they know what you have just said that there are people who founded the party.
Have they gone to any of those people to say, please help us. You remember the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He got up and went to the father and said, father I know that I have wronged you, but the people who did all these wrongs are still the people at the helm of affairs in the PDP and they are not willing to let go; they have not admitted that they have done anything wrong; instead they look at us as people with old ideas.
They do not look at us as though in anyway we matter. That is why they keep going astray. Look at what is happening to the PDP now, and yet that is very wrong because this country must not be left without a formidable opposition because it is the opposition that keeps the party in power on its toes and doing what is right for the people so that they can be brought back into office. It would be very sad if the PDP destroys itself and there is no opposition. Actually when this thing started, I even said to them, look, learn from APC.
There was CPC, they struggled on their own, they did not go very far. There was ACN, they struggled on their own, they did not go very far. There was ANPP, they struggled on their own, they did not get very far. When they came together and formed APC, look at where they are. They could form the government. PDP, you have lost so much credibility, you have lost so many members. I doubt, it was only a doubt that I expressed, that you can make it on your own. All these people that call themselves Labour, I mean you have members that have gone to Labour and come back; I said you can woe Labour, you can woe APGA.
Let them stop being a small, tribal party. Suddenly, instead of that, you found another SDP coming up again. Then PDM too. PDM was the founding party, along with the G34 of the PDP. Go and woe all these people and as many as you can gather together, bring them to yourself and transform; do not be so proud of this PDP that you are not prepared to drop the name if it becomes necessary to. You transform into a big, strong, formidable party cutting across because all those parties have strongholds in certain parts of this country.
So, you would become a broad-based national party able to make sure that APC performs properly, knowing that there is another party the people can turn to if they do not. But I think they (PDP) are still struggling to see how they can make it entirely on their own. Today, PDP is not bigger than Labour Party in my opinion. PDP is not more accepted than APGA. Swallow your pride and come together and form a strong party for this country. I think that is what I can say in the form of an advice to them.
Are you satisfied with the policy-direction of the current administration?
In which particular direction? The government is going in several directions. If you want to talk about the way they are fighting Boko Haram, you could not do it better. Even this appointment thing that people are shouting about, believe me, if you analyse it, it is not as nearly as lopsided as people want to claim it is. But in the economy, they really must buckle up and do something about it. They say okay, because we inherited a very bad situation, we have to go through this before we get better…I had defended this government very strongly by saying no sculptor however skilled can carve a masterpiece out of rotten wood. You need to clean up the society a little bit before you can really make something new out of it because if you just pour new wine into old wine skins, the Bible tells you what would happen to that. So, whereas I had defended the government along the line, I must also be the one to admit that there is need for us to do something about the economy, but also, if you want to look at the area of fighting corruption, you could not do it better than they are doing now.
So, in asking me to score the government, that was why I asked you in which direction? In the direction of fighting Boko Haram, yes. Corruption, you could not do it better and there is nobody that can fail to admire what Buhari is doing in that area and to me, it is also still part of governance. He did not have many points. He came with three points. Fight corruption, fight insurgency and provide employment. So, that provision of employment is tied up with the economy and he has invariably done well in those two areas and I want to believe that he is just starting his second year, that by the time he finishes his second year, he would have addressed his mind to that third point and then you have to give him full marks if you like. What I am looking at here is not a situation that causes despondency, at all. Instead, it gives me hope but one area that really, I do not know how government is going to handle is really the issue of what is democracy? You cannot have democracy without proper elections. How do we make it possible for Nigerians to have proper elections so that whoever gets elected is elected by the people? So, that we do not have that type of situation like we are having in Abia today. In Kogi, recently. Before that, Akwa Ibom and Rivers. Look, I do not know, but I do not want to offend anybody – the judiciary, they have a lot to answer for a lot of what is going wrong in our attempt to establish proper democracy in this country.
There is the school-feeding programme by the current administration, a concept which you had tried as governor of Akwa Ibom state. How feasible is it?
Well, the reason why I did not even continue with it is different from the reason that I am going to give you as to why I do not think it should happen now. When I became governor of Akwa Ibom state, my wife went in and discovered that there was a lot of malnutrition in Akwa Ibom and started a programme called Child Development Trust CDT, trying to feed those children. I then decided it would be good if these children of school-age could have one meal per day. Look, people sat me down and said ‘don’t attempt it. The day somebody’s child suffers from stomach ache, or God forbid, somebody’s child dies, it is you who killed through this your meal programme’. I said it was nonsense because it is done in some other climes, but they told me the places I was referring to were not like here where there is so much superstition.
So, they kept talking until I now said, well let me not do this thing because it is entirely possible that a child could take ill from eating this thing and people would be like….Let us even look at a situation where maybe a careless food supplier does something and there is food poisoning and quite a number of children fall ill or some die. It would be, ‘Attah came and killed their children.’ That was the reason I stopped my own but the reason I am talking about this one is that I do not see why the federal government should do it it.
FG has no need bailing out states
In fact, it even has to do with this bail-out thing. Why should the federal government bail anyone out? Why should the federal government bail any state out? There is no state today that cannot pay its salary if you would just bring down your taste and live at the level you can afford. Those who are -in fact, insolvent, should seek refuge in the neighbouring states and fuse. It should be by voluntary fusion. I am sorry, I am going back to my earlier point. There is no reason why the federal government should come and take over the function of primary school education. Even in the constitution, it is not the function of the federal government. Why do you want to do it? They say ok, they are Nigerian children. Then where is the coordinate position of the states to the federal government that we are talking about? The minute you say federal government come and take over my functions, you are now making yourself subordinate to the federal government. And this business of somebody collecting money and sharing it is something that was left for us by the military. We have discarded so much of the military vestiges that we inherited but why are we still keeping this one? If we get rid of this one, believe me, we would see a better country.