…Private sector has destroyed economy
…Power should be devolved to states, not regions
By Chioma Gabriel, Editor Special Features
Third Republic Senate President, Senator Iyorchia Ayu, from Benue State, assisted in the 1998-1999 campaign to elect President Olusegun Obasanjo on the platform of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP.
He also held several ministerial positions under the regime of Obasanjo till 2007 when he fell out with him and left the PDP for the Action Congress.
He headed the campaign to elect Vice President Atiku Abubakar as president on the Action Congress, AC, platform in April 2007. He was perceived as a political godfather of former Governor George Akume of Benue State.
In February 2007, Ayu was arrested and arraigned by a federal court on charges of terrorism. He was later released on bail. In this interview, Ayu, among others spoke on the recent youth uprising across Nigeria and blamed it on the failure of current government to integrate the youths and give them a place in the scheme of things.
What is your take on the recent youth revolt across Nigeria?
Actually, it’s not the first time the youths have resisted policies of government. It happened during our generation and the generation after us when we had the ‘Alli Must Go’ protests.
However, this one is different and more serious because it was predicated on a number of things. Firstly, between 1999 and now, there has been an exponential growth in higher education. We moved from six universities in the 1970s to over 160 private and public universities. We have many Colleges of Education and polytechnics. So, when you put the population of all graduates churned out from these institutions into the job market, it is over two million graduates annually and there is no corresponding growth in the economy.
Nigerian government, particularly the current government thinks that by throwing little money at people, they will satisfy them but the reality is that the economy is not growing. The graduates being churned out every year know their rights. They know the education they acquired doesn’t guarantee them a good life and therefore, they are not happy. They are very angry because subsequent governments unlike governments in the 1960s and 1970s which laid emphasis on mixed economy, that is the economy developed by both the public and private sector no longer exists.
Previous governments realised Nigeria has a weak private sector and that if they rely on that alone, the economy will not grow. That is why previous governments intervened in things like the steel industry, the petro-chemical industry, the automobile industry, the cement industry and many others to boost the economy.
But suddenly, we have a new set of leaders who are throwing everything to the private sector. Meanwhile, in many states of the federation, there is hardly anything called the private sector. Even nationally, what we call the private sector is a group of parasites who corner government contracts and don’t even execute them. Therefore, they are basically depressing the economy and they include even the most celebrated ones. If you dig into their economic practices, they are very shady. Some of them don’t pay taxes. Some of them don’t actually add value to the economy. They penetrate government agencies like the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, and they contribute largely in depressing the economy.
We have never had a leadership that will address these issues and therefore, they are putting a large number of people in the job market who have no jobs.
So, what is happening today is a revolt of the youths because they have realised the current leadership does not understand how they can take care of their needs. Tradermoni is not going to solve the economic problem. When we were in government with General Obasanjo, we advised that we should reduce Nigeria’s foreign debts and he listened and carried it out to the letter. He paid off the foreign debts and by the time we left government, Nigeria hardly owed foreign debts.
Heavy debts, shrinking economy
Currently, we have embraced foreign loans of all kinds and that is saying one thing. The economy is not expanding but getting worse. When you add that to the injustice we see in this government that is very parochial where every appointment has to come from a specific part of the country, the Islamic North, it becomes disastrous.
All appointments even in the oil industry go to the North and when people look at that, there is no justice and you can only build a plural society like ours on justice. General Buhari has divided this country tremendously along ethnic, religious, and regional lines. So, it is easy to mobilise people along these lines. When you look at it, the security situation he said he was coming in to resolve has worsened. It did not only worsen in the North-East, it has worsened even in the president’s home state , Katsina. His local government area is under siege by terrorists. It has worsened in Zamfara, it has worsened in Kaduna.
So, it is not only Christian states in the North that are being slaughtered up and down. The slaughter house has been extended to his home state. So, people are not happy with this government. It’s a failed government, a coalition of different tendencies that has not developed a coherent programme or tackled the problems of the country.
I believe that we should go back and re-address the issue of the economy, re-address the issue of justice and equity in the country. As long as we have not done this, I believe what has just happened is a dress rehearsal of a much more serious problem that will come in the future.
The police are not fully back on the streets. Do you think we will get out of this?
We will get out of this but we have a lot of things to do. You don’t leave the economy of the country in the hands of the private sector. They are very destructive. I was in government and I’d seen what they do. When the time comes, they tell you that the problem is with the politicians.
Social class responsible for our problems, not politicians
Today, the angry youths see the problem as the politicians but very soon, they will realise that their problem is a group of social class that is working against the interest of the people. The youths then will attack everybody not just the politicians. It is a question of a clearer understanding of who really is responsible for the destruction of the economy. So, everybody will be a target.
If you look at what has happened across the country, not only were key politicians’ houses attacked but also places where food was stored. That is to tell you that they didn’t just go for anything. They went for food. There’s hunger in the land despite the propaganda of investing in agriculture. They have not got it right. There’s serious hunger in the land.
In 2014, the last year of President Jonathan, rice was selling at N8, 000. Today, rice is selling at N38, 000. And the price of every commodity in the market has gone up. Even the so called middle class can hardly feed.
There is serious hunger in the land. There are no jobs, there is no production going on and there is no importation going on. The construction industry is dead. Everything has come to a standstill in Nigeria. We are basically in depression.
#EndSARS protest rehearsal for a bigger problem unless…
So, what happened recently is a dress rehearsal. We better sit together and come up with a clear solution to all this. Otherwise, even in Katsina where President Buhari thinks he’s favouring, Muslims and Fulani people will rise up against him and when they do, he will run out of this country.
When the protests started, the youths were together and spoke with one voice. But along the line, something happened and ethnicism and religion were used to create divides. What do you think could have happened?
All over the world, revolution starts peacefully. It is from a peaceful protest that it changes character and becomes a violent protest. And from a violent protest, it becomes a class war that overthrows the old regime.
So, this one also started in a very organised and peaceful manner. I live in Abuja and I saw what happened. People moved in along ethnic and religious lines and started burning cars, ostensibly owned by some people from some parts of the country. They started attacking people along ethnic and religious lines.
It is not only today. Historically, there has been this manipulation of religion and ethnicity so that a small group of people will continue to rule and destroy this country. Any time there is an uprising against them, they try to use the religious card but the South is becoming wiser and a time will come when nobody would be able to use either of these to manipulate people. And I think it is drawing near because people are beginning to ignore those ethnic and religious cards. That will be the time when it will be difficult to manipulate the youths for any interest.
I still maintain that the problem of this country is not Hausa vs Yoruba or Yoruba vs Igbo. When you look at the big companies, they have Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba in their board of directors. When they are sharing the good things, they forget about where they come from. A time will come when the youths will refuse that kind of narrative. If you remember, it was the women of Katsina that were abusing Buhari. They didn’t buy the narrative that the problem was created by Igbo.
You have a situation in the last election in the North where a very corrupt governor who was caught on camera collecting dollar bribe lost an election but they used force to impose him on the people of the state.
A time will come when Nigerian people will not accept that kind of imposition. So, I think politically, we are moving step by step. If we don’t handle things well, one day it will consume all of us who have been or are in position of government.
Many are of the view that in the midst of all these, the Inspector General of Police and all the service chiefs ought to have resigned or be sacked
The issue is beyond the leadership of security agencies.
Though, all the heads of the security agencies come from one part of the country even with the security problems we have, with this government, even if we change those security heads, nothing will change because there are certain fundamental changes that need to be made.
Look at the Police for instance, even if we remove SARS, look at the road situation. At every kilometre, there are about 10 checkpoints and each checkpoint is serving as a toll-gate for collection of money from motorists. People who are in transport business have to budget money. People going from Lagos to Benin have to budget money for the security agents on the highways. It is saddening and something fundamental has to be done.
The regime says they are going to look at it. I hope they do. Nigerians are not happy the way they are treated by people paid with their tax to protect them. Some of them are police, some are civil defence, and some are VIOs. There are serious problems in this country and we need to look into them.
The issue of emolument of National Assembly members also cropped up. You were a senate president of Nigeria. Should legislators earn less?
During my time, we didn’t have that type of huge emoluments. First of all, the military leadership didn’t even allow us to legislate. We had to play the role of a political national assembly to pressure the military to leave the scene. That’s all we did.
What is happening today is different. I’m always shocked when I hear that a senator is earning such a stupendous amount. If that is true, the National Assembly should look inwards. There’s a National Assembly Service Commission. They should look inwards and address that because Nigerians are not happy with the legislative houses in Nigeria. In a country where people are so marginalised, it does not make sense to hear that a legislator is collecting N10 million. However, I also do understand that the money is not just their salaries but their aides too. Each legislator has aides he has to pay. Each senator has an office in his constituency and he is supposed to go there regularly and he is supposed to have staff working there. The staff have to be paid. It is part of the emoluments.
The thing is that democracy is not very cheap. Even where we copied it, legislators don’t have the same kind of provisions for their own legislative aides and for their constituency offices. I have not studied it to know whether the sums are comparable but I know that democracy is not cheap. When you remove the legislators, you find that the loses are higher because there will be nobody to check the abuses that go on.
I had the privilege of reading the report on power which was headed by Honourable Ndudi Elumelu of the House of Representatives. I was shocked by the damage that was done in the power sector by the so-called private sector , who collected huge sums of money and never did the job that they were contracted to do for the Nigerian people.
The legislators do a very important job but they need to look inward because there is a cry out against them all over the country. They are overpaying themselves. So, I have no objection to a review on how much goes to every legislator.
If the presidential system of government is too expensive, shouldn’t we consider the parliamentary system?
It has to be reviewed based on facts. It is very easy to say the parliamentary system is better because the Prime Minister is in parliament but that doesn’t stop them from also putting huge sums of money for themselves.
Even in the current system, the President, Senate President and Speaker have to carry his members along. If you don’t do what they want, they will remove you and put somebody else who would do what they want. So, when people say that the presidential system is so expensive, what they also don’t understand is that it is not only legislators that spend so much. Most of the money is being spent by the ministries. If you take what is allocated to one ministry, it is more than what is allocated to all the legislators. Look at how much goes to Ministry of Works, Ministry of Defence, and Ministry of Internal Affairs and so on.
Even if we decide on the parliamentary system, we will still allocate to these ministries. I think the problem with Nigeria is lack of accountability. We have to ensure that money is applied to what it is meant for.
For a long time, I have been hearing of Lagos/Benin road, East/West road, Lagos/Ibadan road. Lagos-Ibadan road is under construction permanently. It never ends and it is a short road. Where does all the money go? I don’t think they construct at all.
If you travel from Abuja through Lokoja to Benin, you’d find that since Obasanjo’s time, that road is under construction and it never ends. So, Nigerians are not tackling the problems they should be tackling. Who are doing these roads? It is the private sector who keeps increasing the costs of these contracts. They don’t do the jobs. They collect the money and share with corrupt public officials. The next day, they bring a new bill. So, I think we have a problem that is far beyond people in government.
Devolution of power to states
We need to sit down and find how we can devolve power to the states. There is so much concentration of power in the centre. It is very important that many things being down by the Federal Government should be devolved to the states. With hindsight, I don’t see how we should have federal government running secondary schools. We have gone beyond that. All these unity schools, federal government colleges should be given to the states where they are located. Federal Government has no business running secondary schools and colleges of education. There’s too much concentration on the centre. It makes the centre very attractive. If it is in the states, along the line with the mood of the country today, leaders in the states will be held accountable and be forced to implement the policies passed by the states House of Assembly. So, I’m strongly of the view that we need restructuring but not in terms of having regional government but devolving power to the states.
What about restructuring along regional lines?
I don’t support that, it won’t work. It can only lead to con-federal states and break up of the country. What I think is that more powers should be given to the states and I can tell you that there are many parts of the country that will not support regional system of government. Many people in the West will not agree to go back to Ibadan. Many people in the East will not agree to go back to Enugu. People want states. Even now, there is agitation for states.
In 2014 Conference , which I participated, there were hundreds of requests for new states. What people want is power should be devolved from the centre to the states so that it will be easier to check what they are doing.
Some have said the regions worked better and now, it should be across the six geopolitical zones
My stand is to maintain the state structure and devolve more power to the states. My people in Benue will never agree to go back to Kaduna.
With what happened recently, what do you think will happen in 2023 elections?
We will have an election. I believe Nigerians are wiser. In 2015, they were deceived that they were going to get change. They voted for a contraction of a party that has no history and focus. Many of those who were shouting ‘change, change’ are the very people now regretting voting for voting for Buhari. Some were shouting ‘next level’ in 2019 and I think this is the next level: looting warehouses for food.
I think Nigerians are wise and I think my own party, the PDP which I was a founding member is the party to beat in 2023. PDP has a more serious vision about developing this country. I already told you how we brought the debt profile of this country to virtually zero. We were no longer taking Nigerians money and servicing debts. We had enough money to begin to deploy into the productive sector of the economy but we didn’t do that. The new set of people who came with a lot of false propaganda came in and they started running to China and today, we are the biggest debt ridden country in the developing world. You can’t even see what they did with the money. I believe that in 2023, Nigerians should begin to look at the policies and track record of the various political parties. Whether you say PDP and APC are the same, it is not true. There are serious qualitative differences between the two parties and I believe that Nigerians will be wise and choose a leadership that will go back to where the problems started confronting the country.
During the PDP, we didn’t have all security chiefs from one part of the country. Merit was applied. The Chief of Army Staff was from my home state of Benue, Chief of Naval Staff from another state and so on. People had a feeling of being recognised. States were discussing policies that would benefit them. Niger Delta states were discussing how more resources would be given them. That was when we created NDDC. There were no arguments about religion and ethnicity.
People are still angry with Jonathan because they believe it’s the weakness of Jonathan that brought us to where we are
I think they know better today.
We have oil from the Niger Delta and it’s shared across Nigeria. Why is gold from Zamfara not being shared?
I think there should be a general policy that should be applied across the country. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. So, if we have an extractive mineral in the South-South and it’s for the whole country, an extractive mineral from the North should be for the whole country.
Do you think PDP still has a future in this country?
It is the only coherent party, the only party without alternative. It is a party with a clear programme of development and I believe that since 2015, PDP has been gaining ground. I think it is a party to beat in the next election. The APC is a party in disintegration.
By 2022, the APC will no longer be a party as we know it now. The only party that can hold this country together and develop it to the satisfaction of everybody is the Peoples Democratic Party.