CHIEF Olu Falae, a former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, was a one-time Finance Minister. Falae bares his mind on zoning of the presidency in 2023 and other burning national issues. Excerpts:

S’West govs have done well with Amotekun
Says unregulated visa policy is disastrous
On medical tourism, Buhari should lead by example
FG should give priority to power generation

By Dayo Johnson

Olu Falae

What is your take on President Muhammadu Buhari’s New Year speech, where he said he is quitting politics in 2023 without talking about moves by the north to stop power shift to the south?

We have been advocating merit for a very long time. Let the best man emerge and give us good governance. But our people said no until the power had gone round all the various parts of Nigeria. We should adopt meritocracy. A more competitive merit-based system is what will benefit us.

The thing has been concentrated in one part of Nigeria in the North and it should go round the various parts of Nigeria. The problem with that concept is that zoning is not even in the Nigeria Constitution. It is what each party defines it to be in its own Constitution and to the extent that there is no restriction on zoning in the constitution.

Any zoning in any party constitution is null and void if challenged in the court of law. The right of a Nigerian to contest the presidency is defined in the constitution in terms of his age, education, status and all that. Once you fulfil the requirements you can run for president.

For a party to now say, in addition, you must come from a particular part of Nigeria that is wrong. The party’s constitution is imposing on the citizens an additional qualification which the constitution does not recognize.

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So, the whole thing, first of all, is unconstitutional and therefore, chaotic. What is being pursued by PDP cannot be exactly the same that is being pursued by SDP, APC or ADC. It is when we put it in the constitution that we will agree what is zoning, how long it will last.

What processes it will follow, who starts first and who does it last. That is not defined, it is chaos. Let me take Ondo State for an example, people are talking of zoning of the governorship position. They are using the senatorial districts as a basis.

Again, it is wrong. These three senatorial districts in this state are created for the sole purpose of electing senators. They are not created to change anything. So when you apply something created for something else, you are breeding confusion.

For example, take the three senatorial districts in Ondo State, because Papa Ajasin was governor, will the Akoko people believe that they have been governor because they come from the Northern zone? Is an Ikare man an Owo man? Is Owo an Akoko man? Central here, because Mimiko has been governor, the man from Akure and Idanre says we have done it.

Who are the ‘we’? We have not done it? And when you go to the south because an Ikale man has been governor, will an Ilaje man or Ijaw man agree that he has been governor? In this situation for example, if you want to do zoning, my view is that it is the natural sub-ethnic groups that can be used.

For example, Akoko is a zone, Owo is a zone, Ifon is a zone. Akure is a zone, Idanre is a zone, Oke-Igbo, Ikale, Ilaje. If they are the ones used and the wealth has gone round, everybody will feel satisfied. This zoning thing is very complex. If you have a normal situation, it should be merit, let the best man be president or governor, because it is in human nature people want to monopolize.

Until we have a system which will permit meritocracy in terms of the quality of the candidate and the integrity of the electoral system. Until we have that, there must be this kind of crude unconstitutional rotation which we have.

To the extent that the present President is from the north, I think the next President should come from the south. It is not a system I like, it is not a system I want but until we do what we need to do, is to maintain fairness and balance and confidence.

There is this believe that allowing the Northern agenda to continue post-2023, will not only be unfair but create instability. Do you agree?

Definitely, it will be unfair and provocative to allow the Presidency to continue in the North post-2023. If the President were from the south now and people are saying it should remain in the south, it will be unfair to other Nigerians.

You said it is the turn of the South to produce the president, which particular area of the south should power return to?

I don’t want to get involved in the messy politics about that one. Two major divides in our country, North and South. What was amalgamated in 1914 was North and South? The fair thing is for a qualified and respected southerner to be President.

But the South East is yet to produce the President since the south-west has, would it not be unfair shutting out the south-east this time around?

I’m saying let us agree that it should come to the south. That is the first step. If you don’t take that first step, you will cause unnecessary complications. There are people who are saying it should be North now. So, let’s get consensus now that fairness requires that it should come to the South in the interest of fairness, stability, and justice. Once that is agreed, you will now limit the area of the contest and it will go on to which person, which party. There are infinite divisions.

If eventually the Presidency is zoned to the south-west, will you support the candidacy of Bola Tinubu?

I have retired from partisan politics. On Election Day, I’ll cast my vote. I’m no longer a member of any party or a supporter of anybody on a routine basis. No. I meant it and I still mean it. I took that decision because I believe I felt within me that I have served Nigeria well in my time and I needed to give other matters priority in my life, like my family, like my children, grandchildren and the community where I’m the head, my church. Those are areas of my life which I now think I ought to give more priority, time and attention to.

So, don’t ask me about individuals who want to be President. I vote on Election Day but don’t ask me which party and which candidate I will vote for.

What should President Buhari do differently this year to tackle insecurity and address the nation’s dwindling economy?

I think he should consult more widely on both security and the economy. Before he announced the RUGA, he should have opened a channel for Nigerians to have input. If he had done that, many Nigerians would have made suggestions. I would have made suggestions. But when there’s no suggestion, we just heard from the blues that they are going to set up colonies at the back of my house for those who kidnapped me. I’m going to oppose that. The last time I had contact with them, they kidnapped me, humiliated me and macheted me. So, those are the type of people you are bringing close to me. I’ll naturally oppose it.

When I was in government, we addressed the issue of desert encroachment in the north as well as reducing grazing land and watering facility for cattle in the plan. I’m talking of 1962, 64. Some of the things we did was to encourage the states in the north to plant what we called shelter beds so as to slow down the rate at which the desert was coming to Nigeria. We also encouraged them to set apart grazing reserves for cattle and to have boreholes and dams to ensure that there will be enough water. All these were to take place in areas that are home to cattle. In terms of space, the buck of the space in Nigeria is in the North.

He should give priority to power generation because if you don’t solve the power problem nothing else is going to work well. We need power for everything. He should also have a special task force on employment creation. It is not something that can be solved on a routine basis.

South-West governors have just launched a security outfit codenamed Amotekun, what are your expectations and the modality it should take?

First of all, I think it is welcomed that for the first time, on a regional basis, our governors have agreed on something to be done about security. That they even agreed on something to improve security, we should clap for that before you even open the box and see what is inside.

They can implement it within the existing powers and structures. For example, we have the forest guards in every state, it is functioning now. The forest guards have the power to arrest those who infringe the law on timber, you can even use that for the core of operational method that we are using the existing forestry legislation and apparatus that broaden its mandate to include the arrest of those who do violence to crop that is planted by man.

These are managing tress that is planted by God. We will see the details if there is a need for additional laws because the law that established Forest Guard is a state law. It means that the governors recognized that whatever is being done centrally from Abuja is not adequate.

I hope the governors have identified the major threats in their areas. If the herdsmen, who come to a village and drive the people away by force in order to leave there, the Amotekun must be able to identify that as a major threat. So, it must be made to achieve the aims and objectives.

Don’t pre-empt or prejudice what you have not seen. When they unveil what they want to do, then we can look at it. Then, if you have any reservation about any aspect of it, we will mention it with a view to getting the system improved so that it can be more effective. We should not be negative about it. Some of us, who saw a bit of local security arrangement in the colonial period, there was regional police and native authority police

The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, has accused the Federal Government of treating criminals with kid gloves and the government had fired back that it will not tolerate religious rascality. What’s your take on this?

Criminals should be treated according to the law but they are human beings. A man who commits a crime has made a mistake. In civilized societies, they are punished and sent to prison. Once he is there, he is treated as a human being with his rights intact. But the due punishment must be given. Even within that, they must be treated as human beings and as citizens of Nigeria who will come out of prison and rejoin the Nigerian society.

I don’t know what the quarrel is about religious rascality. Whatever happened, we should do justice to criminals and methods should be taken to reintegrate them back to society.

The government recently closed the nation’s borders to check to smuggle, is that the long term solution?

I have never been a supporter of border closure except in terms of war or emergency. If there is war in our country or neighbouring countries that we feel that security is threatening, then it will take whatever measures to protect Nigeria. But to close the border as a means of regulating trade and economic agenda is medieval and often most ineffective and it encourages corruption.

The same reason I oppose price control. During the crisis that led to the civil war when the Federal Government introduced price control, I opposed it. It appeals to those who serve in the forces, the military, the customs, the police that they closed the border because they forced people.

If the reason for the closure of the border, for example, is to make Nigerians buy local rice without closing the borders, you can be more effective. All you need to do is to put a duty of maybe N10, 000 on a bag of Thailand rice of N8,000 and it becomes N18,000 then Abakaliki rice sells for N7,000 or N8,000.

I believe I’m a democrat. I believe that people should be able to exercise democratic rights even in economic matters. We are not in a military regime. If I’m still craving for Thailand imported rice I must be allowed to exercise that right but must be ready to pay a price for it. So the N10, 000 duty I paid on the bag of imported Thailand rice the Federal Government should use it to take care of the poor. That is the most intelligent way to approach such because people will stop buying the rice because they can’t afford it.

Before the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, Nigeria’s cocoa was being smuggled heavily into the Benin Republic. In fact, Benin became a major exporter of cocoa without planting any cocoa. Why? because the marketing board was paying N4,000 for a ton of cocoa in Nigeria but in the Benin Republic where there was no marketing board, they could get up to N20,000. So, the profit was too big to stop smuggling.

You put immigration and customs at the border in vain. You’re merely increasing the number of people who will share the booty. I will buy a ton of cocoa at N4,000 and sell it at the Benin Republic at N20,000, I have N16,000 to share between me, the smuggler, immigration, customs and police and maybe soldiers. That was why smuggling never stopped.

When we use economic measure, we stopped the marketing board from being the only buyer of cocoa in Nigeria. We said anybody could go and buy cocoa, we threw it open. A lot of people went in and lost money because they were ignorant. But what happened, immediately the price of cocoa went up from 4,000 to 8,000 and again to 10,000 until it got to a level as high as that of Benin. What happened? The smugglers stopped smuggling. These examples exist but people don’t want to use economic measures.

You don’t achieve policy improvement in three months. What I’m saying is that experience has shown and proved both elsewhere and in Nigeria that carefully crafted economic measures are more effective than the administrative and forcible implementation of policies.

The price control that I mentioned was introduced which I opposed at the formative stage and I advised my own ministry against because it will bring corruption and it will not be effective. So they announced it.

The labour union hailed the government. It was to buy the support of the workers who were fooled into thinking that price will come down and remain down. In Lagos, in those days, if you want to buy beer, you will go to Ajegunle in the night at two times the controlled price. Was it working? It didn’t work. We said it will not work.

If because you close the border on a temporary basis you have been able to sell more rice locally when the border is opened what happened. You must put in place a system that will ensure at all times that the good things continue to happen because what you are trying to prevent will happen again.

Let’s talk about the new minimum wage.

Again I’m very sad that we are still talking about minimum wage after a lot of disagreement and bitterness. The workers will feel better for six to nine months or one year then they will be back to where they were before.

What affects your standard of living is the quantum of goods and services you consume. It is not the amount of paper money they give to you. As a federal Permanent Secretary, my last salary was N15, 184 per annum and I was living well. You can be paid N10 million a day and still can’t feed yourself.

What’s your take on the N30billion loan the Federal Government is requesting for and presently before the National Assembly for approval? 

Even when I was in government I will only support loans which are called project loans with concessional terms. Those are the types of loans I’ll support. I’ll not kick against loans just because they are called loans.

The point needs to be made that the ability of Nigeria to service foreign loans depends very heavily on our ability to pump oil or sell oil at the international market. From what we all know now, our customers at the international market are already moving away from the use of oil in many areas of the economy. They are already producing and marketing cars that will no longer use petrol. France, America, Britain and Japan, 10 to 15% of the cars they are making no longer use petrol.

They are making and marketing them now. And you can project that in the next five years the demand for our oil will be going down. So, the ability to service our loan and repay them will be going down. We should bear that in mind that we should not create a situation where future generations will find it difficult if not impossible to service loans and repay them. If that were to happen because it has happened before when I was in government when The IMF said we should pay back our loans which we could no longer afford to pay back.

That means the IMF will automatically take the country’s CBN and Ministry of Finance. It is an obnoxious thing that we should not allow to happen. And that is why the Babangida government did not accept the IMF loan because the terms were humiliating. So, we must work against that kind of situation ever arising again.

President Buhari last week preached against medical tourism but does contrary when indisposed.

He should lead by example. Since he became President he has gone abroad for treatment quite a number of times. I’m not saying Nigerians should do it but before he says Nigeria should not do it, he should ensure that hospitals have the necessary facilities. It is not easy for a Nigerian to travel abroad for treatment under the present economic situation. I welcome what he said but he should lead by example.

There are calls that troops in troubled parts of the country should be withdrawn. Won’t this be counter-productive?

Ordinarily, the police are in charge of security but once it is beyond that, the government has the right to bring in the military to overcome the insecurity. In their opinion, if the insecurity is still high it will be unwise to withdraw the military.

There is this proposed common currency for West African countries. Do you subscribe to this?

As one of those first groups of officials for the formation of ECOWAS, I recognized that ultimately the objectives of a common market are to have a common currency. I have always known it from economic theory and I have seen it from the Euro. But I want to remind us that for several decades Britain is in Europe and it never adopted European common currency.

The reason is that if you belong to the currency union, you will lose control over the regulation of your economy and once we belong to the West Africa currency union, you are no longer the sole managers if those forces that stabilize the currency. At this stage, it is too great a risk for us to take because it is not at all clear to me what we are going to benefit from it.

In terms of size and potentials, Nigeria is bigger than all the other countries put together. Unless of course if they will join the naira. It will be suicidal for us to join a currency that will not be in our control. I strongly advise against it. All you need are flexible convertibility of the currency, the Naira, and the CFA.

Are you expressing same fear on the proposed VISA Policy by the Federal government?

They have not told us what the objective is. If it is to facilitate free movement of people, it will be in both directions that other members of ECOWAS can come in without visas and we Nigerians can also go to their country without visa. That is absolutely the minimum condition which is called reciprocity and if it not the question must be asked.

One of the reasons you have a visa regime to the receiving country to know those who want to come to the country. Your embassy is there, they apply and they find out if they are criminals or terrorists. You then filter the process and allow only those who will not bring the problem into the country. Your first consideration is the security of your country which you don’t want to put at risk. You can have a liberal policy. They must apply, be vetted and your embassy staff must have certified them. Unregulated visa policy is disastrous.

In all sincerity, do you think Boko Haram has been defeated as claimed by the military?

We still hear of attacks but it is difficult to know who is attacking who because they are other groups because the economic situation is difficult. All kinds of people get together and do all sorts of things in an attempt to survive tongue extent that the military deployment to the North East is still in place and we still hear of attacks from time to time. I will say that the impact of Boko Haram has been substantially reduced. From what I hear and what I see, Boko Haram is still very much alive and we cannot afford to be complacent.

Your advice to government on the disobedience of the rule of law.

Not just this government. Obasanjo’s government,  any government. The law and the constitution is the only link between us. So, anybody who disobeys that link is threatening to the unity of the country.



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