…Keneth Gbagi unfolds intrigues before Jonathan established 13 universities
…Says Nigeria only requires leader to implement true federalism, not restructuring
By Soni Daniel, Northern Region Editor
Former Education Minister, Olorogun Kenneth Gbagi, is well known in Nigeria’s political, legal and investment circles and remains fearlessly assertive in whatever he believes in.
He has rejected ministerial appointments thrice but accepted once under President Goodluck Jonathan, during which he seized the opportunity to build 13 federal universities, setting a record that may be difficult to beat.
In this interview, Olorogun Gbagi, says Nigeria is already restructured by the Constitution but only needs a leader with the political will to implement true federalism, which is already enshrined in the law. He also asked the government to take advantage of the current Covid-19 crisis to revamp the health sector and invest in critical sectors of the economy to create jobs for Nigerians and grow the economy. According to Gbagi, Nigeria has no business with poverty given the massive natural and human resources that the nation is blessed with.
Do you think the Covid-19 challenge has been well managed given the measures so far announced and implemented by the different tiers of government in the country?
Let’s put it this way, the luck we will have whether you will call it luck or something else is that this disease that came up suddenly- the first fear and the most fearful people of that word death are Nigerian citizens. Ask all of them to lock themselves in one room for three years and assure them that they will not die, they will comply. What this has taught us is if you will agree with me, is that we have failed as a people with regards to our health situation.
You have seen comparisons for instance of what we budget for health in Nigeria as a whole in one year is what an equivalent of a local government in South Africa budgets for the same period, the same in England and other places. It has shown that we don’t have any proper hospital; it has shown that we don’t have a standard health facility, we cannot even manufacture common face masks and a simple thing like hand sanitizers.
It has exposed our emptiness and backwardness to the whole world but there is not point to be blaming anyone but to take urgent actions to address the gaps in order to reduce to the barest minimum the penchant of our leaders and top government functionaries to use scarce public funds to embark on medical tourism to other countries of the world.
The lockdown has effectively deprived the president, governors, ministers, their wives and children from travelling abroad for medical attention and the value we would have had as a nation is now clearly open to us. Again, all the money that people have carried and have hidden in holes, vaults and in the banks cannot go anywhere, the jets and vehicles cannot go anywhere anymore and we are closer to the reality that as humans we are just going to die one day and take away nothing with us.
My take, therefore, is that with the coronavirus lesson, we should all think twice and develop our country which if we do, we will be better than England, China, Dubai and America in a lot of respects. What Nigerians should do is to insist that the wealth and opportunities of this great country should be equitably distributed to all Nigerians by way of good health care, education, job opportunities and other services that add value to their lives and make them live with hope and confidence as dignified human beings created by God.
What do you make of the lockdown of citizens as a means of curbing the spread of the virus?
Of course, the government must rise to take necessary measures to save the pandemic from spreading and dealing a mortal blow to Nigerians, However, let me say that it makes no meaning for you to lock people down without providing the economic necessities that are associated with such a lockdown. The lockdown would only be effective and meaningful if it comes with appropriate palliatives to save the economic interest of the people, most of who depend on their daily work to survive.
For that reason, lockdown would only make meaning if all the federal, state and local governments in the country provide adequate palliatives for the citizens who are kept at home. The government needs to emulate what we at the Gbagi Foundation is doing by sending send food and other basic needs directly to the people especially the vulnerable, the disabled.
Government cannot just make statement about lockdown and deploy security men to block the road and other public places when those who cannot survive without daily work form at least 72 percent of the workers in Nigeria. All I am saying is that it is good for the government to come up with statements and policies in times like these but it is equally important for such decisions to come with a human face in order to succeed and save the intent and purposes of the government. The pandemic will certainly change the way we reason, behave and run our government and force us to begin to look inwards and spend less on foreign goods and services.
But the government is delivering palliatives to the poorest of the poor?
That is what we hear and even see on television and social media but the truth is I really doubt if there is any reliable data the government is depending on to know, who really need the help, how many they are, where they are located and how to get to them in a transparent and all inclusive manner that will ensure that the most vulnerable and indigent persons in Nigeria first get the support before anyone else.
I am saying this because I am not sure if the government knows or has a list of companies operating in Nigeria, where they are located and what they do. I also doubt strongly if the government has any data with which to plan the development of this country and for distributing its palliatives to Nigerians. Such a list should be compiled at the local, state and federal level so that it can assist in planning and development and for the purpose of sharing in times like this.
How do you see the plan by the FG to merge and reduce government commissions, parastatals and agencies? There are fears that might lead to job losses.
The salary wage in Nigeria is about the highest in the world and we need to reduce it. I would rather ask the government to make facilities available to private agencies to participate in economic and development issues. The government should not retrench people but should create atmosphere to create more jobs for the people. In the course of establishing the 13 new universities that I championed under the Jonathan administration, we successfully removed close to 12 million people out of unemployment. Government should not make the mistake of retrenching workers at all. That was why when I prepared the memo for the creation of additional federal universities in Nigeria; I advocated that the first generation universities should be sold to their owners: Vice chancellors and their workers to generate research funding and create better pay for them.
To be candid, no country in this world develops better with government funding. The private sector needs to be encouraged to generate employment and job opportunities for the greater number of citizens. The whole arrangement of tying Nigeria to one source of income is responsible for the economic crisis, joblessness and lack of growth we currently experience in the land.
That’s perhaps why many Nigerians are calling for restructuring to make things work better and allow states to generate and manage their resources and only pay appropriate taxes to the centre
For your information, you are already restructured. There is no need to cry over what you have power over by law, you are restructured. I do not subscribe to you talking about restructuring because it makes no sense to me; it’s like saying oh, I am taking permission from you to go to the toilet and I am in my own house. Constitutionally, as we are seated here today, we are restructured. What we need to do is to sum up the courage and ask our leaders to implement the constitution 100 percent. This whole idea of coming cap in hand to government to collect dough is not working. We are restructured from my point of view; Nigeria is properly restructured.
We only need leaders, we need people from all the states of the federation to do what they need to do regarding the laws of this nation.The litmus test of our restructuring is the COVID-19 crisis because as you can see the President couldn’t instruct the governor of Anambra to lockdown, what he did to Lagos and Ogun is out of respect because they belong to his party. Ordinarily, he couldn’t have tried that if those states were not APC states. So, what I want to say is that the country is restructured. However, the people must have to go back to understand the meaning and responsibility and jobs assigned to themselves. This is what I find inadequate. Now, with the East not accepting that is a misnomer with all the money assigned to the East, did anybody stop them from generating internal revenue? Is there anybody stopping anybody in Delta, is anybody stopping anybody in Ebonyi? It doesn’t work that way. What I am saying is that Nigerian stands restructured; we need capable people to understand a restructured federation to do what they need to do.
You stridently championed the establishment of 13 federal universities in the country at a time many were complaining that Nigeria already had too many universities. What was the rationale for such large numbers?
I have told you that Nigeria has all that it takes to be better than a lot of countries in the world. Our problem is short sightedness. It will interest you to note that I did not discuss the universities with anybody. Not even my president, the only person who was privileged to know what was on my mind that morning was my Permanent Secretary, Prof. Afolabi who I called and gave a firm instruction that I wanted to create the universities.
You must first and foremost remain selfless in order to serve society better. To date, one of the problems we have in this country is selfishness and it is killing us. I told my Permanent Secretary that early morning that we needed to establish one university each in every state of Nigeria where a federal university didn’t exist. Two, I wanted one polytechnic each in every state of Nigeria where none existed at the time.
Three, I wanted to create 16 Colleges of Education in 16 states of the federation where such did not exist. I took demography of the country and I realized that in some states they had a compliment of a federal university, a federal polytechnic and a federal college of education while others had nothing or something. But the process of establishing the universities became very intriguing to say the least. The memo I was to present to the Federal Executive Council the following Wednesday did not get to me until 2:45 am of that day whereas it should have been circulated to all council members at least by midnight.
That the memo appeared on my computer at 2:45 am meant that I had a burden because in the morning I would have to lobby all the other 41 ministers to support my memo before I present it or I face the prospect of withdrawing it or presenting it and not getting endorsement. It was a serious challenge to me. I had an embarrassing day that morning, as I was entering the council chambers the Secretary to the Government of the Federation was standing with the Attorney General of the Federation and I just heard, hey, minister, come here. That was the SGF and I felt very humiliated in that I would have told him off if he had done that to me on an ordinary day. But I had to take it because I wanted to serve Nigeria. Again, I looked at the man’s age and had to show him some respect by going towards him. As I met him, he barked out: What is wrong with you?” Last week you passed one university in Delta which was the Petroleum University. Everybody did not say anything about that one because that is your place and you have come today with 12 universities, 14 polytechnics, and 16 colleges of Education? Who do you think you are? Go and withdraw that memo or I will kill it once you present it to council.
But as the SGF was threatening me to withdraw the memo, President Goodluck Jonathan was just walking into the chambers and the door was promptly shut and we began the FEC meeting.
To ensure that the memo would not see the light of the day the SGF had mobilized most ministers from his area to block it but I still summoned courage to present it as the first memo for that day since there was no other one in alphabetical order before mine.
As God wanted it, as soon as the President sat down he said to me Education Minister please call your memo and I began by saying, “Mr. President, I want to christen this memo ‘The Doctrine of Equity”. And, he replied: “We are in trouble; today is today”. As a minister if you produce a memo, you will read the body of the memo then you shut up. Council is more regimented than the military and as such, all the 41 ministers have the right to dissect the memo but you are only allowed to make notes but can’t comment until they have all finished with their observations and objections. You can only reply at the end of their comments. As I dropped my memo, the former SGF raised his hands and said, “Mr. President I don’t think we should waste our time at all because the memo by the Education Minister is the most irresponsible memo I have ever seen. I was Perm Sect. of Education, Perm Sect. of Health, Secretary to Government, Head of Service we cannot afford to waste time, and we cannot afford to play junior life style. I didn’t say a word, we had one agriculture minister from Niger State query how a minister who was appointed only 36 days earlier could come up with such a huge number of universities wondering where the money would be sourced from and how viable such institutions could be.
He was supported by the then Minister for National Planning who also opposed the memo on the grounds that the demand for such large number of universities could cause what he called financial revolution and that he was not consulted and that he knew nothing about it.
God bless the soul of Dora Akunyili, who rose up and told Mr. President that it was necessary to establish the universities for the overall interest of Nigeria. She said as the oldest member of the FEC, she knew what it meant to add more universities to the bouquet in order to improve tertiary education in the country and asked him to ignore the antics of those members of the council who raised issues with the memo. Dora Akunyili said, “Mr. President, I am very disturbed at the level of backwardness of the members of this council. Somebody talked about being everything but today he is the Secretary to the Government of the Federation. I must say that as at today, I am the oldest minister here in this council and I find this minister to be nothing but a genius because of what he has done in this memo which I happened to have read at 3:00 am this morning. After reading the memo, I felt sorry for myself that I have been in a government where nobody has sense in the education sector from independence to date. Mr. President I suggest that we all stand and give this minister a standing ovation for this credible and outstanding work he has done to bring us out of shame”.
The then Minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Godsday Orubebe, stood up and supported Akinyuli, adding, “Mr. President, you don’t have any legacy anywhere for now and I strongly believe that what this minister has proposed today will give you a legacy because if the universities are established, your name will be written in the book of life in Nigeria; so let us not waste our time but quickly approve the memo for implementation. Orubebe was supported by Alison Diezani Alison-Madueke. I was then asked to reply and I made the point so clear that we needed more universities in the country and that the new ones should be given N10 billion yearly for ten years to develop and fill the yawning gaps in tertiary education in the country and move Nigeria forward.
In my memo, I gave statistics for South Africa population and schools, London population and schools, Indian population and schools, U.S population and schools and finally pointed out that Nigeria still needed additional 147 universities to cope with the size of its population and students. I made it clear that while the nation irresponsibly created WAEC, NECO, JAMB and made students to pass all the examinations there were not enough admission spaces for them in the existing universities in Nigeria thereby creating a deficit of 842,000 admission spaces, which are taken up by neighboring countries of Ghana and other African countries.
Before I concluded my response, the President hit the gavel and said, “I hereby create six additional universities in six geo-political zones of the country where federal Universities do not currently exist and hit the gavel to show that the decision is final.
The point that those who even opposed the memo including the former SGF, didn’t see was that some of their states were the actual beneficiaries of the universities. But they eventually apologized to the president and my good self. By the President’s pronouncement, Ekiti was done, Ebonyi was done, Otueke was done. All the other ones were in the north-Gombe, Taraba, etc there was excitement by the time I sat down. By the time they saw how selfless I was in my recommendation for the universities; most of them begged me for forgiveness.
It appears the FG has lost an opportunity to resolve the problem of disruption of academic calendars by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU, a body, which does not see any need for new universities but strengthening and better funding of existing ones. How does the government solve the problem of ASUU once and for all?
We are talking from two extremes: Taking care of ASUU and other University workers which is a continuum on one hand and providing unhindered access for Nigerian children who must study in order to be able to cope with the ever-changing world. As our population is increasing rapidly, we must also provide access for our children to study so that they are not left behind by the others in other parts of the world since we live in a global village.
It may interest you to know that no country runs its academic system by depending on another country where they have no control. It is therefore imperative for Nigeria to establish more universities to provide continuous access for the people. If not for the disruption occasioned by COvid-19, I would say that Nigeria is still short of at least 70 universities. All the 13 we created are currently doing well. It has created additional access for many Nigerian children to acquire tertiary education and millions of jobs for Nigerians, all to the credit of the administration that we served.