Says leadership crisis dimming Our hope at independence
•Nigeria hasn’t learned any lesson from the past
•Money may decide outcome of 2023 election
•lt’s only fair for a southerner to succeed Buhari
By Dayo Johnson, Akure
As Nigeria celebrates her 62 years independence anniversary today, the former Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF and former Finance Minister, Chief Olu Falae, in this interview with selected journalists, spoke on the nation’s journey so far and a number of other national issues ahead of the 2023 general election.
How has the journey been in the past 62 years of Nigeria’s independence?
Sixty-two years ago, I was a first-year undergraduate at the University College, Ibadan. I was very optimistic, very happy that we were going to become independent and the giant of Africa will finally rise and shake the world and give Nigeria its place in the world. But unfortunately, almost immediately after independence, the crises began; the crisis in the western region, the declaration of the state of emergency, followed by the operation “wet e “ in the Southwest, the first military coup in January 1966 followed by the civil war, and military government after military government, coups and counter-coups. It is unfortunate that it has been a breathless journey of crisis management.
The hopes we had at independence, I’m afraid had not been achieved largely because of the crisis of leadership, both military and civilian. We were very hopeful but gradually the hope dimmed and I pray that the fire of hope will not finally go out.
Were there people who foresaw what coup happen in future and kicked against the move by the colonial masters to grant Nigeria independence at that time?
Most Nigerians were looking back, erroneously jubilating including myself. But there were a few people, a minority of Nigerians who thought we were not ready for independence, they were called names. One of them is Adunni Oluwole, a lady. She had a party called ‘Egbe ki Oyinbo ma ti lo (The party for the white man not to yet).
She said if the white man had to leave at that time, we would enslave one another. And to demonstrate that, she tied a big chain around her waist and got some of her boys to drag her through the streets of Nigeria to show how we would treat one another after the departure of the white man. She was called a sellout, a conservative, an agent of imperialism. But events have substantially proved her right, sadly say. Yes, there was a dissenting minority who were abused and humiliated. But events have proved that they were nearer the truth than the rest of us.
Where did we get it all wrong?
We got it wrong from the very beginning. The intolerance demonstrated by the then federal government of a virile opposition in the western region was the foundation of the crisis. The then federal government engineered, exploited the disagreement within the ruling party in the western region and turned it into a major issue within two years of independence declared a state of emergency. That was the beginning. They wanted no other voice but their own to be heard, no other force should be allowed to rear its head in Nigeria. It is this intolerance that sets events in motion that are still haunting us.
What’s the way out to restore the nation’s dying hope?
When this government came in seven and half years ago, we have only one major security threat which was Boko Haram, but since then they have multiplied. We now have ISWAP, bandits, herdsmen and other violent groups which the government appears unable to effectively eliminate. And without security, there can be no development, there can be no governance.
In those days, if the military took over the government of any country and was seeking recognition in the international community, the question they would ask was, are those people in a position to guarantee the security of their citizens? If the answer was yes, that was 50 per cent toward recognition. In other words, security has always been regarded as very important because if there is no security, nothing else can happen.
So, for the hope not to disappear completely, the new government coming in next year must be able to effectively within the first six months of its tenure eliminate security threat. In other words, candidates for the presidency must sit down with serious-minded people and meditate on what to do to eliminate security threats.
I use the example of President Yar Adua who engaged the insurgents in the Niger Delta; with a mixed strategy of accommodation and suppression, negotiating with them, reconciliation, and amnesty. So, through a series of combinations, he was able to substantially reduce that threat in that region. I want to hear our presidential candidates tell the nation before the election what they will do in specific terms with timelines about this insecurity. Without dealing with that, the rest is a joke.
If there is no security, the farmers will leave their farms, no foreign investors is coming here to invest, Nigeria investors themselves are scared, those who can move to other countries have done so and others are moving out. If you read the papers, almost 10,000 doctors have left Nigeria.
So, in that kind of situation, hope is dying. To prevent the hope from being finally extinguished, there must be an effective programme for dealing with insecurity. What one suspect now is that it appears there is some kind of collaboration between the security threat and some of those who are supposed to eliminate them. So they must find a way of breaking that if it is true because without dealing with security, there is very little you can do.
If you are able to deal with security, the next major threat is the financial crisis. This government has said that 92 per cent of its revenue will be devoted to servicing debt, not repaying the principal, leaving only eight per cent for running the government, paying the salaries of serving officers, paying their pensions, paying the police, the military, immigration, customs, send money to the embassies abroad, subventions for all the universities and polytechnic. Can eight per cent do that? The answer is no.
As an economist and a former Minister of Finance, the danger here is when the government is hard-pressed for money, the tendency is first to borrow but already we have borrowed beyond our limit. I suspect that both domestic and foreign lenders will be reluctant to lend to a borrower who is virtually bankrupt, so that route for meeting financial needs may not be open. My fear is the only route left is printing currency.
After all, we have a printing press, so we go there and start printing money and as you print money, the naira becomes more and more valueless. I pray we don’t get to the point we call hyperinflation or galloping inflation. I pray to God that, that never happens here because it will destroy the country completely. If it happens the currency will become very useless as happened in the former republic of Germany between the two world wars. The German Deutsche Mark became so worthless that sailors were using the currency to sew shirts which we may arrive at unless we have committed people running our government and at that point, all these questions about religion will disappear because poverty has no religion, hunger has no party, hyperinflation does not respect zones.
Insecurity and financial crises, those two are the most potent threats to this nation.
Running a modern state is not just for anybody. A state as big, as complex as Nigeria, requires a team at the governmental level, a team that knows that the naira has an alternative, a team that treats every unit of income with respect and not a government that just spends money without planning. Again, we have abandoned planning. When I was in my prime in the public service, we have what we called the four-five years National Development Plan that will set out what the government will do for the next five years, sector by sector. We had that plan guide action, but there is nothing new. No major company in the world operates without a programme. Powerful Ministers are just spending money and getting money, that is how we got to this place.
I’m praying and hoping that the new government will see this as an existential threat to Nigeria between problems of insecurity and financial crisis.
Whoever becomes president must have the courage and integrity to address the restructuring of Nigeria, without which there can be no stability in Nigeria. And fortunately, for the new president, we already have in existence the report of the 2014 CONFAB where I had the privilege to have served as the leader of the Yoruba delegation. It is not just the report, we already have a draft constitution for Nigeria based on that report, produced and approved by that CONFAB. The incoming government can take those two documents and in six months give Nigeria a new constitution if they want to solve the problem. But the tendency will be that those who are happy with the present arrangement will want to hang on to the present arrangement.
After 62 years, we are still in crisis, clearly, this arrangement has not worked. For how long do you want to hang on with it? That is another problem that is as serious as others. That is why I say we have a multiplicity of crises, each of which must be addressed in detail by whoever wants to be president.
Don’t you think that restructuring is only a southern agenda?
The northern region is divided into 19 states. In those 19 states, there are states that are in the middle-belt region that are anxious for restructuring as any part of the south. If you add that to the rest of the south, two-thirds of Nigeria will vote for restructuring tomorrow. We are in a democracy, you cannot allow a minority to dictate the future of this country.
If you have any doubt about the validity of restructuring, put the proposal to the people in a referendum, and analyse the result zone by zone, state by state. Those who don’t want can stay out of restructuring. You cannot keep all of us under a constitution we don’t want because the minority says they don’t want it, we are in a democracy.
In the forthcoming 2023 election, there’s this probability that Nigerians may vote for competence or along ethnic lines.
I don’t know how it is going to go. But I suspect it will go according to money, how much money you spend. I think ethnicity and religion have played into the background. We have heard that money, plenty of it, not N5000, N10,000 or N50,000 but $10,000 to every voter. And that is what might decide the outcome of the election.
But if Nigerians insist on what I’m recommending, holding these candidates to publishing what they would do, you may be surprised that may change a lot of things.
Why do you think the 2014 Confab recommendations were not implemented by Buhari’s administration?
Some of us had to persuade the President through several interactions to convoke the conference, so by the time he convoked it, he had about eight months to go. When the report was out, there was no time to implement it but that is not to say the incoming government shouldn’t have implemented the programme. But Buhari said he won’t even read it. This has suggested that what he said showed that the leaders from the north seem not to want restructuring but not all of them. We are all seeing the need for restructuring today because we were able to demonstrate that restructuring benefits everybody.
The report was going to lead to the establishment of developing solid minerals located predominantly in the North, so it is an attractive thing to restructure if you recall, during the colonial period, Ahmadu Bello favoured a more decentralised government and during the CONFAB discussions, although in formal discussions, what you said tended to be the case. But in what you call private discussions at night, we set up what is called the bridge and an unofficial group of leaders from different parts of the country. But telling you frankly, you will be shocked that some views are similar to those you think do not agree with it. Let me give you an example, in the open conference, those of us from the west proposed a return to the parliamentary system of government because it is cheaper, etcetera.
There was opposition, mainly from the North but in the unofficial discussions at night, I was shocked to hear them say, yes, we believe that the parliamentary system is the best form of government but because Obasanjo has used presidential power for eight years, we too want to use it for eight years after which we can then come together and adopt a parliamentary system of government. That is Nigeria! Many of us agreed on many of those things but for political consideration, we didn’t come to an agreement.
Do you see the next administration adopting that recommendation?
I don’t know, I don’t know those who are coming, I don’t know what they want to do but I just thought that I should tell them the minimum we expect from them. The minimum is for them to publish the well spelt out programmes for dealing with the crises that face us as Nigerians, that is the basis for which I, for example, can say I will vote for this person and can’t vote for this one but not on the basis of where he comes from or whether he’s a man or a woman, a Christian or a Muslim.
Has he articulated his programmes which I think could address the problems? Has he got the character, the knowledge and commitment to implement these programmes, that’s the second question I will ask myself and the answers to those questions will determine my opinion on who to vote for.
What’s your take on Afenifere’s support for the Labour Party Presidential candidate, Peter Obi
I don’t know, I want to remind you that three and a half years ago, I voluntarily retired from partisan politics. I resigned as the National Chairman of the SDP on my own and I held a press conference to announce my retirement they said people don’t retire but I said this would be the first one. In other words, I’ve freed myself from the obligation to support what a political party adopt.
I am not a member of any political party, so I am not obliged to support your candidate but I have the freedom to look at the basis that I earlier explained, their programmes, their character, and their track records that would decide that this is the person I will vote for. But if I were a member of any party, that freedom wouldn’t have existed, I must do what my party wants, so I have freed myself from that. Ohaneze, and Adebanjo can express their views.
Is Adebanjo speaking for Afenifere or the endorsement was his personal opinion?
I have not been an active member of Afenifere for a year or so. I am not going to say that it’s Chief Adebanjo’s personal endorsement, because I have not been active, so I do not know what they have decided and what they have not decided, whether he’s expressing his personal views or it concerns us or the view of the minority, I don’t know.
Do we really need a new constitution or just an amendment of the existing one?
I’ve argued that the present constitution is fundamentally flawed and there is no way you can amend a flawed constitution to get the right constitution. Many Nigerians are persuaded that what we need is a parliamentary constitution for many reasons. What we have is a presidential constitution. How do you amend a presidential constitution to give you a parliamentary constitution Everything is different. You have to write a new one.
Before independence and soon after independence, Nigeria had one federal constitution and later, four regional constitutions, so there were five constitutions in Nigeria. The northern region, Eastern region, Western region and Midwest region. All five were operational at the same time. That was the degree of independence of the region. That was what we got from the British but the military came and collapsed all those constitutions into one.
Each region must have its own constitution that is consistent with the federal constitution. How do you amend one single constitution to generate 36 states’ constitutions? It is impossible, so we need a brand new constitution based on the different concept of a parliamentary form of government, greater autonomy of resources for the states and region with a few strategic functions left at the centre, and then you redistribute resources accordingly.
It will give more resources to the states and the local governments where the people reside. The present constitution is completely different from that, so the amendment is totally inappropriate. I even argued in a book that who is to amend the constitution? I disqualified the Senate and the House of Representatives as unqualified to do so.
We elected members of the House of Reps and the senators to make laws and amend laws for Nigeria, we do not elect them as constituent people to give us a new constitution, they didn’t ask for such power during the election, it is not included in the mandate we gave them, so they can’t smuggle it in their mandate after the election. So, they can’t therefore, perform a fundamental constituent function for Nigeria. They can amend but to write a new constitution, you need a constituent Assembly.
Then, I went further to say that if we must have a new constitution, every major ethnic group in Nigeria must be represented in doing so. I examined that point and at the last count, I examined about 400 distinct ethnic nationalities in Nigeria and as an annexe to that book, I set out how all of them could be represented in the constituent assembly which will not be too large for decision making. So, the reason I disqualified the national assembly is that out of 400 ethnic groups in Nigeria, less than 50 are represented there. Take Adamawa for example, there are about 55 ethnic groups there, how many senators do they have? Three! Those three will come from three ethnic groups out of the 55, meaning that 52 aren’t represented.
House of Reps, maybe they have 10 or 12. Go to Plateau. It is only in the homogeneous West, East and core North that those three areas account for about 75 per cent of members in the national assembly. But they account for about 20 ethnic nationalities and they’ve taken 75 per cent of the seats, the remaining are shared. In terms of ethnic representativeness, the national assembly does not qualify to give us a new constitution because it is a minority institution. So, I delved into it comprehensively and so the conclusion is that we need a brand new constitution given to Nigeria by a truly representative national conference. But the CONFAB of 2014 wasn’t as representative as what I advocated but it is far more so than the national assembly.
What are those lessons that Nigeria has failed to learn from the past?
Nigeria hasn’t learned any lesson at all. For example, in 1983, there was mayhem here in Ondo State, when the electoral body announced the person who lost the election as the winner. Omoboriowo was the governor, hundreds of people were killed, houses were burnt, and there was chaos. That has not stopped the rigging of elections till today, have we learnt a lesson?
In 1965, the election was massively rigged in the southwest. During ‘Operation wet e’, people were burnt alive. Recently, the Accountant General was alleged to have stolen N109 billion, has he learnt any lesson? So, we don’t seem to learn lessons. We think we are smarter. Nigeria has never been this challenged, we face an existential challenge and we must get it right this time around if we are to remain one united country.
You’re an advocate of power returning to the South, is that still your position?
Definitely, the two zones that are critical are North and South. A Northerner will be going out in May 2023. After spending eight years, I think it’s only fair that a Southerner should follow after him, otherwise, you have a situation where presidential candidates from the same North will rule Nigeria for 16 years and that wouldn’t be fair.