By Alemma-Ozioruva Aliu
Col Paul Osakpamwan Ogbebor, retd, is a businessman, a leader in the Niger Delta and founding member of the Pan Niger Delta Forum, PANDEF. He was a pioneer cadet of the Nigerian Defence Academy, NDA. Among the 61 cadets of Course 1, he was one of the 34 that graduated and is one of the four still alive today. In this interview, he shared his thoughts on the state of the nation and the way forward for the country.
Assessment of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration so far.
It is only if you have a military background or vast in military history that you will understand and know that Buhari has achieved so much. As at May 2015, Boko Haram insurgents were flying their flag in about 15 local government areas, meaning that they took over part of Nigeria. As of May 15, 2015, 26 states were unable to pay salaries. As at May 2015, the Federal Government borrowed to pay salaries of April and May 2015.
To fight insurgency is more difficult than fighting a civil war. And the kind of insurgency we are fighting is not just an insurgency. We are fighting external invaders, that is, the problem on the ground. Insurgents are civilians that are mobilised to cause a revolution and take over the existing government but that is not the aim in this case of Boko Haram. They are not out to take over the government.
From intelligence reports, all they are doing is purely to gain grounds, harass Nigerians and then get logistics to finance and support whatever is their motive because till today we are not told what their motives are. What are they fighting for? These are just strangers from North Africa, Syria and other places looking for where to settle.
Such people are very difficult to deal with. They are fighting without an aim, yet they are coming in numbers. They are just coming to the country to fight, what they are fighting for, we don’t know.
The militants in the Niger Delta said they want more of the resources exploited from their place. That is not what Boko Haram wants. All they want is: Nigeria is very fertile, the borders are very porous so they want logistics as much as possible and again, they find that Nigerians are very vulnerable so they recruit young Nigerians to be used in other places. Those are the people we are fighting with. Can you imagine the resources we are committing to fight them? If we had put these resources to build Nigerian railways, electricity or other vital projects, we could have covered all the cities.
If you are not a military person you will not understand what Buhari has done since he came to power. At the time he took over in May 2015, we had only four Divisions of the Nigerian Army. Today, we have eight. We had two naval bases in Lagos and Calabar, today we have four. We had only three Airforce bases in Nigeria, today we have five.
Can you calculate how much was spent on creating these bases? As wealthy as America is it will be difficult for them not to talk of Nigeria that is struggling. We have deployed resources to strengthen our armed forces to be able to take care of these insurgents that I call invaders, so we have achieved a lot.
Nigerians forget so easily. Before May 2015, we were having suicide bombers from place to place, we were losing many people every day but today it is no longer like that.
In warfare, just like we say in Benin when you beat a child, you leave that child to cry. If you are slaughtering an animal, after cutting the neck, there is a reflex action; that is what we are having now. Boko Haram is no longer organised, you cannot say this is the local government they are now occupying. You cannot say this local government is closed down now and the economic situation is grounded. All the states of Nigeria are functioning. There is fear of insecurity but now what we are having is a reflex action. In terms of security, Buhari has achieved a lot. I will score this government about 85 per cent on security.
He also said that he will fight corruption. In 2016, he was in South Africa and he addressed Nigerians where he said he wished this was a military government. You catch people red-handed, they have stolen so and so the amount of money, they didn’t say they didn’t steal and for three years nothing has happened to them.
You think of even people whose cases are in court, they went to contest the election and won. What kind of country is this? If you were the president, will you not be fainting? So I know Buhari very well, he could have fought it but the country is not ready for it, they don’t see the evil of corruption.
There is a difference between corruption and stealing. Stealing is if I take your thing, I have deprived you as an individual but corruption is: something you gave to me to enhance this area that I live in, I will collect and put it in my pocket. By that, I have deprived so many people -this generation and future generation of something to build on. That is corruption and that is why many developed countries fear it because it is worse than any offence you can commit anywhere.
When you talk of corruption, my recipe is like what we did in the time of Yar’Adua when he declared six months of emergency on the economy. We should also declare six months of emergency on corruption. Give him a free space; let us set up special courts and clean the stable that is only when we can achieve something about corruption and start afresh.
When you talk of the economy, at the time Buhari took over, 26 states were unable to pay salaries you know how much bailout was given to them. Fourteen local governments were flying external flag; you know how much was pumped into those ones? If the money had been pumped into the Nigerian economy we could have been booming today.
On insinuation, that age may have slowed Buhari down
Government is teamwork. When you talk of age, is he older than President Reagan when he was president of the USA? Look at the lady in Germany (Angel Merkel) is she not older than Buhari? So age is not the issue. The issue is the problems we are having on the ground in Nigeria -structural problems, we are having a system failure.
Bring people from the highest institutions, from performing countries to Nigeria, they will fail because of system failure. People see what belong to the nation as individuals and take them and put in their pockets and that person will go and contest the election and win; you send that person to court nothing happens. So, anybody ruling such people can become tired.
How will you rate Buhari on Niger Delta?
When he took over, pipelines were being broken at will; he invited some of us to ask what could be done. I, Paul Ogbebor, went to the riverine areas to mobilise and meet people and that was how we formed PANDEF (Pan Niger Delta Forum). We and all the people that were breaking pipes came together, met him and articulated a 16-point agenda, he accepted the report.
We were able to reduce the breakage of pipes and militancy by about 90 per cent, there is still something going on today but it is a minimal struggle. People say he is too old but look at what he has done to the Shi’ites. If he had done that to a southerner, they would have accused him wrongly. Some people say he wants to Islamise Nigeria but some of these people are Muslims.
Nigerians have not still understood what development is, they have not still imbibed nationalism and it is not their fault, it is the fault of Nigeria as a whole.
As Nigerians, what do we wake towards? There is no national goal. For instance, before 1960, all Nigerians woke up to say they wanted independence and they worked for it, they made sacrifices to be independent and that was achieved. After then, unfortunately, Nigeria went to war, all the resources of Nigeria were commandeered towards ending the war and getting Nigeria to be one and that became Nigeria’s second national goal.
Thereafter, we have not had another national goal that all Nigerians could be mobilised towards. What we have today is individual goals. Nigerians are the hardest workers in the world but towards individual goals. So, to be able to harness the resources, the energy of Nigerians, Nigeria should now be thinking of having a third national goal.
Many countries have done it. I was in India in 1974 as Deputy Military Attaché. You will wake up and go to a popular area like Tinubu Square in Lagos; between 4 and 6 in the morning, you will find them loading dead bodies, people who died from cold and hunger overnight. And I asked: what can you do to save these people who are dying? They told me that if they put all the resources of India towards saving these people, they could only save 10 per cent, so what they were doing was putting the resources of India towards a national goal so that that national goal would be enhanced to save the lives of the children of these people dying.
And what national goal did they go for? Technological development and on this, you don’t need to have natural resources, all you need is manpower development and brainpower. That is why the Indians today have come up to the level they are. Instead of being net importer, they are now exporters. When I was there, whenever Nigerians come to recruit, you find them coming in millions to be teachers and whatever you can think of here.
Three years ago, I went to India to recruit, I couldn’t get anybody to recruit because their economy has surpassed that of Nigeria. As of 1974, one naira was an equivalent of 97 British pounds and was higher than the Indian rupees but today, one naira is less than one rupee so they have achieved a national goal. I think we should start building towards a national goal.
What is your opinion of intervention agencies like the NDDC that seem not to be meeting its target in terms of quality of their interventions?
Like I said before, one of Nigeria’s biggest problem is a system failure, this is part of the system failure.
The most pitiable situation in Nigeria is that we are still using foreigners for our development and you ask questions they say Nigerians don’t have the competence yet you have Nigerians as chairmen of local government areas, governours of states and president.
If you don’t break an egg, will you eat omelette? Why not develop Nigerians?
In 1965, the Nigerian Army built Jos to Baro railway line extension.
In 1974, I went to Tanzania when they were building the Tarzan railway line from Tanzania to Zambia, they used the military. As at today, there is no officer of the Nigeria Armed Forces that is not having a minimum of the first degree, 80 per cent have Masters between 20 and 25 per cent have PhD, what are they doing?
Our prisons are filled up, what are they doing? Bring these people out, mobilise them to build railways and other things. The railway is the easiest transport infrastructure, we don’t have self-confidence and that is why we are having a system failure. We don’t have confidence in ourselves. We have everything that is required here. It was slaves that built the underground tunnel, the railways in America, in Britain when technology was minimal. Now we have so many universities, we have our children everywhere, we should internalise these things.
Look at Suez canal, how was it built? The British government refused, the then world powers didn’t want to help Egypt build the Suez canal. What did Egypt do considering the economic and security importance of the canal? They got one of their contractors, enhanced it and gave it the contract and that is what Arab Contractors is today.
As of 1960, the Israelis found that 80 per cent of their construction was done by foreigners, they stopped it by law and started their own and they started exporting their work. As at today, we have over 200 Israeli companies in Nigeria alone employing Israelis and bringing things manufactured there. Nigerians are highly educated, they are highly exposed, the government should trust them, believe in them, let us stop bringing foreigners to bring development. Why build houses that you cannot live in, why drive on roads that you cannot build? Let Nigerians do it so that they can generate employment and foreign exchange.
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What is your opinion on Fulani herdsmen/farmers clashes and the controversial Ruga policy?
We have been having Fulani in this country, I grew up to meet them, I was in the North for many years as a cadet. We never thought of who is a Fulani, who is Hausa or a Christian or Muslim, we all saw ourselves as Nigerians. I think it is just politics. We are told that the people you call herdsmen today, they cover the whole of West Africa if they are criminals; deal with them as criminals don’t call them big names. Whether they are Muslims, religious fanatics or herdsmen, deal with them as criminals, don’t politicise it.
As for Ruga, I think the Federal Government is making a mistake. It is the fault of the Federal Government. When I was young, there were railways, cows were being brought by train, dropped in Osogbo and from there they are marched to different places. Can you imagine that today, Lagos alone consumes 6,000 cows every day and 20,000 goats and rams, do you know the logistics that will cost? Government is supposed to provide the enabling logistics with these are big-time businesses. Many countries live by selling dairy products. These things we are politicising are economic issues. How many cows are we consuming in Benin, in Enugu, Kaduna and elsewhere? It should be organised. We used to have native cows, encourage people to rare cows wherever they are so that we spare the Fulanis the stress of matching cows across the country.
What we are having now is because the Federal Government did not plan ahead for our development. How do we move cows, goats other animals to the stables?
The problem we have is that there is no nationalism. In my book, I recommended that Nigerian girls should go for compulsory two years of national service in military training once they are 16 and boys once they are 18 years. The aim is to get everybody and give orientation towards a national goal. All countries that are called industrialised today started with regimentation; national service. General Yakubu Gowon did very well by starting the NYSC; we should now make it national service for everybody and not only for graduates.
How do you view the call for revolution by Omoyele Sowore?
First of all, Omoyele Sowore shot himself in the foot. If he had such things in his mind, he shouldn’t have contested for the presidential elections. He failed through the ballot; he wants to come in through the window.
Secondly, what is the revolution? We have heard of Mo Tse Tong, we have heard of other revolutionaries but what is the objective of this one, what is the goal? I watched some people on television the other day who said they wanted revolution but Sowore did not reach out to them so what is the revolution about? Is revolution the only means of making a change? We don’t need a revolution; we have patterns that we can emulate. We can emulate India; we can emulate the Asian countries by educating our youths. When I was in elementary school in Benin here, we were thought how to make stamps, tell stories, different hand works, but those things are not here today. There is a saying that: teach the child what you want and he will grow up to become that.
How will you assess Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State and the crisis he has been having with his predecessor, Comrade Adams Oshiomhole?
Obaseki looks highly exposed maybe because of his background. His grandfather was a very rich man, Gaius Obaseki. He was one of the most educated Benin men and he was in business. He was an exporter and importer, he was also the Iyase of Benin, his own father was also highly read. His mother was a confidential secretary in the presidency for many years until she retired. So, the parental background is very strong. He schooled here before he travelled out so he must have imbibed the culture of development. I think he is a man who is development-oriented and also knows how to use money properly.
He is a thinker and a doer so I think he should be supported to finish his first four years and then may be given another four years to solidify whatever he has started.
I don’t see why there should be any quarrel between them. When Oshiomhole was going he said Edo State does not have money and wanted somebody that is prudent, he wanted somebody who will use whatever is there to develop the state and I think that is what Obaseki is doing.
Maybe Oshiomhole wanted whoever is here to be a surrogate but in the history of the world, those who impose surrogates have problems because the man they want to be answering their name, a time will come when the man will say no.