By Henry Ojelu
Activist and lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, in this interview, spoke on the security and economic challenges facing the country and what the Federal Government must do immediately to arrest the situation. Excerpts:
Last week, there was a controversy over fuel price increase by the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency, PPPRA. What is your take on the issue?
With respect to the attempted fuel hike by PPPRA which has no power whatsoever to make the announcement accredited to it, I was made to understand that based on a security report that Nigerians were prepared to challenge the increase, the government came out to apologise. But as far as I’m concerned, the government is merely buying time because the International Monetary Fund, IMF, has insisted that the prices of fuel be determined by the so-called market forces.
You will recall that when the last announcement was made, the government came out to say, ‘we’re under high pressure from the IMF and that henceforth, market forces would determine the prices of petroleum products in Nigeria.’ But it appears that the government has realised that ultimately, it has to factor insensibility, sensitivity and concerns of Nigerians.
If the government had thought that with the agreement reached with the Nigerian Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress, there would be no protest in Nigeria, that’s no longer the case.
As we saw last year, the ENDSARS movement did not involve the NLC or the TUC, yet it organised one of the most successful protests ever held in Nigeria. So, I’m convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that any unpopular measure would be fought by Nigerian people whose patience has been overtaxed by the government.
Are you against the government bringing back fuel subsidy?
You see, I’m not going to apologise for the irresponsibility of the Nigerian government. I am not going to enter into any debate about fuel subsidy. This is an oil-producing country, which in the 70s had four functional refineries. On yearly basis, a huge sum of money is earmarked for fixing and maintaining the refineries.
If those refineries are not working, if new refineries have not been built by the government, if we now have to import fuel from abroad including from African countries that do not produce oil, there can be no justification for visiting the irresponsibility of the government on the Nigerian people.
Again, what do you call subsidy? The government claims that smugglers are moving litres of fuel from Nigeria to neighbouring countries. Again, do you blame the Nigerian people, if the government cannot curb the criminality of smugglers? All the suggestions that have been made to the government to curb the menace of smugglers have been rejected. So, I cannot offer any apology for the mismanagement of addressing the challenge of supplying fuel to Nigerians.
Other oil-producing countries including Angola, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia etc, apart from meeting domestic requirements are making billions of dollars from the export of fuel. In Nigeria’s case, what we are making from the exportation of crude oil is allegedly spent on the importation of fuel. It is a disgraceful act on the part of the government.
Take the issue of smuggling, for instance, I have suggested to the government that merely building mega stations in those neighbouring countries, and selling fuel at a controlled price, will render smuggling totally unprofitable. After all, our banks and telecommunication companies are operating in our neighbouring countries. Why is it so difficult to build mega stations in Benin Republic, Togo, Ghana and other places?
Niger has oil, Chad has oil, and so what is the big deal? I have said it before now, it is not rocket science to build modular refineries. Within nine months to one year, the government can build modular refineries. Can you imagine that top officials of the government have announced to Nigerians to expect a miracle when the Dangote refinery commences the refining of fuel? Isn’t that a shame that a government is saying that a businessman, an individual, can build a refinery that will refine 600,000 barrels of oil per day while the government cannot maintain four refineries and build new ones? It is not acceptable.
Do you think that perhaps, some people are deliberately making the system fail?
No, the government has swallowed hook, line and sinker the neo-liberal policies dictated by IMF and the World Bank, whose implementation have continued to pauperize the Nigerian people. The government has not been able to confront its imperialist masters with homegrown ideas in addressing the monumental crisis confronting the economy.
If you are following the debate in the National Assembly with respect to the diversion of over N4 trillion by the NNPC, between 2010 and 2016, as confirmed by the Auditor- General of the Federation, they said the money was used to fix pipelines etc. For goodness sake, there are scientific solutions for dealing with pipelines. In one of the offices of the NNPC, you can install a system that will monitor all the pipelines in the country.
But the NNPC is not prepared to acquire the system. So, the N4 trillion was alleged to have been spent on maintaining pipelines. But as far as the law is concerned, all revenues generated by the country shall be paid to the federation account. The President cannot spend a dime without appropriations. So how can an agency of the government say publicly, that they will spend N4trillion without appropriation?
That can only happen in the Banana Republic. So these are the issues. Nobody is in control of our country, hence the PPPRA could just wake up one day and say ‘oh, we are going to sell a litre of fuel for N212, and the President as the Minister of Petroleum Resources, was not aware and nobody has been fired.
These are the issues we have to address. Is there governance in the country? Does anybody care about the rule of law? Because by virtue of section 6 of the Petroleum Act, it is only the Minister of Petroleum Resources that is empowered to fix and determine the prices of petroleum products, not market forces, not PPPRA, not NNPC. I didn’t write the law. If you want to transfer the power to fix and determine the prices of petroleum products to market forces, you have to amend the law.
Do you agree with the suggestion that market forces should determine the price of fuel in the country?
Market forces exist in the imagination of imperialists. The prices of goods are fixed even by the United States which is the leading capitalist country in the world. At the end of the day, you will discover that the manipulation is perpetrated in the Central Bank which has decided to dollarise the Nigerian economy.
So as far as the country is concerned, there is the Price Control Act which has imposed a duty on the government to fix the prices of essential commodities in the country. We also have the Petroleum Act which has imposed a duty on the Ministry of Petroleum to fix the prices of petroleum products.
So as far as our laws are concerned, there is no place for the determination of prices by market forces.
What is your assessment of the increasing cases of insecurity in the country?
It is the constitutional duty of the police to maintain internal security in the country. The armed forces are empowered to defend the country against external aggression. If you are going to involve the armed forces in the internal maintenance of law and order, the police must have been overpowered and at that stage, the president will go to the National Assembly for permission to deploy troops.
Right now, the armed forces are scattered all over the country contrary to the provisions of the constitution. So the military right now is overwhelmed by the responsibility that is conferred on officers and soldiers. Not even in the military regime were soldiers mandated to deal with internal security as is the case today. The armed forces cannot cope with the additional responsibility of maintaining law and order in every state.
Apart from waging the counter-insurgency operation, it is clear that over the years, the Nigeria police have been rendered impotent due to a lack of adequate equipment, training and motivation.
In the circumstance in which we have found ourselves unless the National Assembly appropriates fund and monitor the disbursement to prevent criminal diversion for the purpose of equipping the armed forces and the police, there is no way law and order would be restored soon. Beyond the change of guard, we must also address other challenges. Do we have enough soldiers and police personnel to guard the country?
Right now, in the night and day, bandits are kidnapping children, including primary school pupils. I think we have gotten to the stage where the Niger and Kaduna state governments would have to close all schools, for now, to allow for the opportunity to review the security arrangement in every school. So, those schools would have to be manned now by security operatives. Apart from asking for ransom, the criminal elements are also waging a war against education in the northern part of the country.
The US Govt. recently offered to assist Nigeria in the fight against insurgency. Should the Federal Government accept the offer?
Recently, an American was kidnapped by a gang of bandits in Niger State. The US Government studied the situation and with the deployment of drones, the bandits were located and the citizen was rescued. It was such a disgrace for a sovereign nation. The hands of our government were tied by incompetence. It is not unusual for countries to assist each other. I am of the strong view that the Federal Government has no option but to collaborate with countries that are willing to assist us.
What about adopting local security strategies?
The mistake that state governors made was in 2003, when despite the provisions of section 214 of the constitution, that there shall be only one police force, the National Assembly was allowed to pass the bill for the creation of the civil defence. The state governments should have taken the creation by that law to demand state police, but the opportunity was lost. State governments must now make their own security arrangements otherwise, what we are witnessing in some parts of the country will be a child’s play.
Because the governors have abdicated their responsibilities to share police powers with the president, the entire Nigeria Police Force is administered and controlled by the president alone. That is one of the reasons why we are in a crisis. The authorities in Abuja decide how many police officers should be sent to the states. These are decisions that should be taken by the Nigeria Police Council. The president cannot appreciate the level of insecurity in every part of the country but state governors would be able at a meeting of the Police Council, to state what the security situation is in their states. The governors must insist on regular meetings of the Police Council.
What about Police funding?
Funding of the Nigeria Police has been addressed by the National Assembly as far back as 2018 through the Police Trust Fund Act. By virtue of that law, 0.05 per cent of the profit of all corporate bodies in Nigeria shall be remitted to the Police Trust Fund. I am aware that deductions from the federation account commenced in 2019. You may, therefore, want to find out why that fund deducted from the federation account and remitted to the Police Trust Fund is not utilised to equip and train the police.
With respect to the Armed Forces under the Buhari administration, apart from the annual budget of the Ministry of Defence, a special allocation is set aside for the procurement of arms and ammunition for the Armed Forces. The National Security Adviser, General Babagana Monguno did say last week that the equipment procured could not be located.
Notwithstanding the denial later, if you read the transcribed version of the interview, you will agree with me that it was very clear that there was no basis for his denial or misinterpretation. In other words, the $1 billion appropriated for the procurement of arms and ammunition will have to be accounted for, otherwise, the commitment of the Federal Government to the security of the country will have to be questioned. It’s not enough to say that under the Buhari administration, money cannot be diverted. Money is being diverted on a daily basis by some unpatriotic elements. What I expect the government to do is to invite the EFCC to investigate what has been bought with the $1billion special allocation.
How optimistic are you of the ability of the new EFCC chairman to deliver on the fight against corruption?
I believe strongly that the new leadership has all it takes to run the commission. But let me warn that the business of fighting corruption cannot be left in the hands of any agency. The people who are the victims of corruption will have to be mobilised to expose corruption and to fight it.