By CHIOMA GABRIEL, Editor, Special Features
General John Nanzip Shagaya, a Minister of Internal Affairs under Babangida military regime, represented Plateau South on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the Senate between 2007 and 2011.In this encounter, Shagara speaks on Nigeria at 56 against the backdrop of the current economic recession among other issues, saying the military managed the economy better. Excerpts:
Nigeria is passing through economic recession and has never had it so bad. From your experience since independence, what do you think could have happened?
It is not the first time this is happening. Nigeria has been on economic recession before but it was not this bad. Nigeria had a recession when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was President. I was in the armed forces. But this recession is worse. You asked how we got here but I can say from commentaries in newspapers by financial gurus, communiques issued at various fora, commentaries from manufacturers and others that the reasons are not far-fetched. Reason number one is that we are not a producing nation. We are a consumer nation.
The second is that our economy is dependent completely on oil because we abandoned agriculture. We became an importing nation. We import almost everything including refined fuel. So, I’d say that our economy is dictated by the dynamics of the changing perspectives of oil economy. During Obasanjo administration, we were lucky. The President at that time was very prudent. He was able to save about 65 billion dollars in our foreign reserves.
The succeeding administration did not add anything to it. In fact, it spent all the money. The last administration that Buhari succeeded left only 20 billion dollars in the reserves. And so, to me, who is a non-economist, I know that once you lack negotiating power in terms of the strength of your currency, of course, your currency gets weaker and that is what we are facing, meaning that it’s something that has gone on for over seven, eight years due to our lack of prudence in spending and not saving. In traditional societies, when a farmer harvests so much crops, he divides the crops.
The first part he keeps for the family, the second, he sells, the third, he keeps as seedlings and the fourth, he keeps for emergency. Common sense dictates that we should know that once we don’t have enough in our foreign reserves to back up whatever our insatiable love for import is, then we should suffer what we are suffering today.
There was a time in this country that a dollar exchanged for 68 kobo. How did it get to this stage where dollar is exchange for more than N400?
You cannot go beyond the example I have given you. I’m a beneficiary of the exchange of the naira in the early 70s when one naira exchanged for $2.2, because our currency was strong and because we had enough money in our foreign reserves. And then, of course, when we abandoned production, all our factories became dead. So, what do we do?
It is believed in certain quarters that it was the military that damaged Nigeria’s economy. Do you agree?
How can I agree? I don’t believe that. The military managed the economy better. When I said a naira was exchanged for $2.2, it was a military administration and under Obasanjo and he had a sound economist, a lawyer and a financial adviser in the person of the late Obafemi Awolowo. Sound persons ran the economy of the country at that time. The economy died under a civilian adminstration.
We talked about recession, it has never been this bad…
I agree with you that it has never been this bad. Most of us are lamenting that we have never had it bad in leadership, where one person or a person’s wife will keep thirty-something million dollars. It has never happened, not even in a military administration. There was discipline under the military. But you know when everything is destroyed, criminals rebuilding will be difficult. Strong discipline is required to get things right again.
For the first time, people are exchanging their children for bags of rice. A man left a suicide note for President Buhari. Kidnappers and ritualists and all manner of criminals are on the looses. Can Nigeria ever get out of this?
This is the first time I’m hearing that people exchanged their children for bags of rice. It shows that after everything has been destroyed, rebuilding is difficult. It therefore means that in rebuilding, some discipline is required in our communities and among the people holding key executive offices or privileged positions and that if they compromise their positions, they should know that one day, the system will catch up with them. It’s a very big lesson for everybody.
But I’m one of those who believe that after these hard times we are passing through, things will pick up. Nigeria is not the first country to go into recession. Many great countries like the United States went into the worst recession in 1946 because of the Second World War. Britain went into recession before Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister. She came into power in a recession but, of course, their economy picked up. What is happening now is that we are paying for certain mismanagement of the economy. All Nigerians have to contribute to the rebuilding of this country.
Let me share with you also, that some years back, between 2007-2011, when I was in the Senate, if you remember, the then Minister of State for Finance, Babalola, raised the alarm to the effect that the recklessness and the impunity with which the economy was being run, saying if nothing was not done to check it, by the year 2016, Nigeria will be insolvent. I’m quoting him word for word. He said that Nigeria shall be insolvent by 2016. So, it is not like we didn’t know. Somebody raised the alarm. Later, saying Governor of Central Bank joined him in raising the alarm. So, we had the warning all along and we didn’t care.
The administration at that time didn’t care. Babalola was sacked for daring to say that the economy would be insolvent. I represented a constituency in the National Assembly at that time. I raised the issue. It was discussed, passed second reading, after that, it was no longer deemed fit for discussion because somebody felt at the time that he was being exposed.
Today, we are paying for it. I’m a living example of the fact that there would have been some Nigerians who would have raised the alarm 10, 15 years ago that if they continued to run this country the way they were doing, our country would go aground. And we didn’t care. So, we are paying that price and Nigerians must be told the truth that, amongst us, there are very good Nigerians who spoke out 10, 15 years ago that things were not going well.
Sometime ago, a former CBN Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, alleged that the people responsible for the high cost of the dollar are those who sit in their sitting rooms, buy the dollar by mere phone calls and re-sell at exorbitant prices and that is the cause of this high cost of the dollar.
Yes. I did say that when Babalola raised the alarm that things were not going well, Sanusi supported him.
You said we can get out of this…
Yes, if we remained disciplined, if government begins to do the right thing… Let us encourage agriculture. Let us feed ourselves. If government is trying to rebuild the economy by ensuring that the industries that have closed down start production, if we also improve the mining capability of solid minerals and start exporting, definitely, we will pick up. So, I should be hopeful.
But we should know that Rome was not built in a day. If Obasanjo for eight years saved 68 billion dollars and somebody wiped it off in six years, for God’s sake, it will take another two years, three years to rebuild what damages have been done by the impunity and recklessness in the handling the economy, because some of us in politics have served in the military and we know the cost of handling the economy and I hope that we will come up. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I wouldn’t join those who are lamenting. One should not lose hope when there is life.
Workers are lamenting over non-payment of salaries, banks are sacking workers and people are lamenting…
I am a pensioner. I’m in the village. I share in the problem. I have dependent relations who come to me but I must be frank that I was amongst those in the past few years who were vocal in raising the alarm that the economy must be handled well by the administration as a senator.
So, if you go into the verbatim report of the Senate, you’d find it documented. So, what else can I do than to believe that, because at a certain period in our history, certain things were handled badly and, hopefully, and with good people coming around and with the support of Nigerians, we will be able to overcome? It’s not a matter of crying and pointing at one person. There are one hundred and seventy million of us and there is only one person on the seat of leadership. It requires the contributions of all of us to ensure that we picked the pieces.
Do you think President Buhari has the right economic team to get Nigeria out of recession or are they square pegs in round holes?
I do believe strongly that the man that became the President of Nigeria belongs to the constituency of the thirty-six states of the federation including Abuja, meaning therefore that the search in picking the team that works with him is done through the gift of wisdom that God has given him and also based on the advice of the political party that is ruling and also based on the philosophy of the political party.
So, we all have a share in whatever, round pegs or square pegs in round holes, meaning that there are many more people beyond the President who may have contributed in recommending those people who are working with him. So, it is not enough to be pushing a blame on one person, what are we doing ourselves as individuals? So, I do not belong to Nigerians who because they want to be heard, have to criticise to be noted. No, what is it that we need to do? We have a role, each and everyone of us.
Do you have any specific thing, maybe economic policy you think could be applied to turn things around?
Honestly, I cannot tell that to a Vanguard reporter. If you read a Governor of the Central Bank who spoke out years ago, a Minister of Finance and other ministers like that of Agriculture and Solid Minerals and Minister of Industry, Tourism and many of them, they discussed this matter over and over again. So, they are more competent based on the specialists that surround them.
I think I should leave Nigerians to take a look at all those policies that have been presented and make suggestion to the various Ministers or even to the Presidency direct. It is our right to suggest that which is good for our country and not enough for us to be criticising alone.
Now, in the face of all these, we have all kinds of agitations. People are expressing dissatisfaction in curious ways like we have the Niger Delta Avengers, Biafra agitators and so on…
It is the right of every Nigerian as provided by the Constitution to agitate, just like it is the right of any faithful, any believer, any Christian who believes in the Book of Lamentation. The holy book itself accepts that there are times in our lives that we have to lament. There is nothing wrong with it. It is not a crime under our Constitution to feel the way individuals feel and for them to express what they feel.
Is it right when these lamentations are made violently like in the case of Niger-Delta Avengers, Fulani herdsmen wreaking havoc in Plateau, Benue and south-east Nigeria, apart from Boko Haram and Biafra agitators?
I’m sure that government at various tiers and community leaders are handling the issue of insecurity that you are talking about within our system. But it is not enough to lament without making a contribution as to how we can influence a change. If there are ugly situations in my village for example, it is my responsibility, as a senior citizen and one who has served the military before, to go back to the community to assist in solving the problem.
It will not be right to sit and criticise the television or be shouting for Nigerians to know that I’m still alive. And those who contribute positively are those who are never heard, it is just the same with those who pray fervently for this country. They are never known, they are never heard.
Another thing is that the issue of insecurity is not peculiar to Nigeria alone. It is all over the world. Certain things make people agitate. People in authority can only address the issues that bring agitations but members of the society must also show understanding because it’s members of the society that should support government. In the last few weeks, if you watch the CNN, the BBC or Al Jazeera, you will hear of the killing of blacks in certain states in America. There must be a reason but it’s not enough for people to just agitate.
But in those civilised societies, you’d see the authorities addressing the reasons as to why those agitations come about. And that is what we are not doing in this country. Instead we go about shouting off our heads. And it doesn’t help matters. It only encourages criminals to do what they are doing as against many of us coming out to condemn it. I don’t know how many senior citizens in the South-South have come out to condemn the activities of the Avengers, how many senior citizens who have been in government in the South-East have come out to condemn the Biafran agitation that is going on there. We as members of the society have a role.
The South-East feels it is not well represented in this regime and Nigeria. Don’t they have a case?
Unfortunately, I’m not in government. What I have said is that people have the right to agitate but, at the same time, they should be responsible Nigerians and not aim at destroying because destruction does not mend. And for God’s sake, anyone who starts a revolution does not ever live to see the end of it.
This is how it has always been, so we must be very careful in agitating. Suppose Nigeria breaks apart, what will they gain from it? They still be a part of another ball that is called a country. Would you say if they get what they want, they would be free of problems and crises?
Take a look at the South-South in 1964, Isaac Boro took up on Nigeria. What was the cause? There was agitation of domination by Igbos. Of course, the 1966 coup led to crisis, then the civil war. And Gowon, looking at the agitation by Isaac Boro and his five colleagues, that is the six Ijaw boys, created a state for them. The agitation was that they were being dominated, being ruled by a particular sector or a community in Nigeria. Now, you have your own governor, you have your own state, has it stopped the agitation? It has rather worsened it. So, they moved from domination to economic war.
What did the military administration do after the civil war? Another level of administration was created for them to manage the Delta region. ‘Oh, River Niger is no longer bringing fish, and because of Kainji Dam, our economic strength and power is being reduced’. That was economic war. It was addressed. OMPADEC was created. Now, we have only one source of livelihood as a country and these boys go blowing up the source of the livelihood, the oil wells. They go blowing pipelines. For what gains? They want to create their own country. When you kill every human being, who do you rule over? It doesn’t make sense.
I want you to talk about Biafra…
I’m not competent to talk about Biafra because I’m not in Biafra.
They said the war ended at that time, no victor, no vanquished…
It’s not that they said. The head of state at that time, General Yakubu Gowon, pronounced it, so, it is not that they said.
If the war ended and there was no victor, no vanquished, why are the Igbo in Nigeria still being treated as defeated people and why are they so hated?
I don’t think you are right. I think you have to go back to your Vanguard newspapers where they published the appointees of government since the civil war and then you tell me where and when the South-East was edged out of government.
In this regime particularly?
No, no, no. To make such kind of accusation and insinuation, you have to go back in history. In this particular administration, who is the Minister of Labour?
That is not a core position. Igbos are given inconsequential positions.
I see. Is there any appointment that is inconsequential? I know that the most important appointment is the number one citizen. The rest are all supporting elements. So, whoever, from whatever tribe or religion, is only supporting a man that was voted by Nigerians. The Igbo don’t have a case here.