Interview

March 2, 2024

Shake up the system, kick out 38 ministers, Agbakoba tells Tinubu

Shake up the system, kick out 38 ministers, Agbakoba tells Tinubu

Dr Olisa Agbakoba

*Says: ‘Tinubu’s state police idea is fake’

By Ishola Balogun

Former President of Nigeria Bar Association, NBA, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, speaks to a number of issues plaguing the nation, asking President Bola Ahmed Tinubu to shake up the polity with more tough decisions, this time aimed at cutting down cost of governance. He says Tinubu should kick out 38 ministers, aides and other pecks of office. He lauds the President on the move to implement the Orosanye report but bares his mind on the constitution amendment committee set up by the House of Representatives. He is querying the unending constitution amendment process in the last 50 years.  Excerpts of the interview with Saturday Vanguard:

The Federal government is planning yet another cash transfer to some Nigerians as palliatives, amid the cries from different quarters that the policy is prone to corruption. What is your take on this?

The principle of subsidy applies across the world.  Every government uses the proceeds to offer palliatives to the aged, the poor and unemployed.  The problem with our own is the method of delivery. 

For instance, in the US, there is social security law.  So, the palliative process is institutionalized, it is not administrative. Even at that, there is a process of verification of people who are entitled. I don’t see how it cannot be done here.  We have a lot of identification tools like BVN, NIN and others that can be used for people who are qualified for the palliative.

I am completely opposed to administrative measures; there is no accountability and transparency.  We are only told that palliatives have been given out to so and so people. The way forward, which my brother, Femi Falana has also suggested, is to institutionalize the social security act. This will identify those who are entitled and you will know the machinery to which it is to be disbursed.

On the larger issue of subsidy, it is really not a bad idea. France has just announced 45 billion euro to subsidise electricity. The budget of the United States is $5 trillion and half of it goes into subsidizing education, free health and support for the aged. The UK pays 200 billion pounds to support the national health system.  On the point whether President Tinubu was right to remove it, Yes, he is right, to recreate the economy, but what hasn’t happened is the consequential follow-up; which is a gap creating the hardship now.

What exactly do you mean by that consequential follow-up? What are those things the government needs to do that it has not done?

I just told you that we need institutional palliative. We need to pass, as a matter of urgency, the social security act which will use existing data to identify people who are entitled to get the palliative.

That hasn’t happened. What we have is the administration, where the government said it has set aside N100 billion for palliative but we don’t know where it is going.

Secondly, imagine if the government says we are going to make education free for two years or everyone who is in the subsidy net will get free healthcare; those are the kinds of things that will cushion the effect of the hardship. We are really going through tough times and I don’t pretend that the government will wield the magic wand and everything will immediately turn around to be good, but we are not seeing the effect of whatever measures are being put in place. 

Where is the money that has accrued from the subsidy removal?  How much has been paid as palliatives, and where is the money going to?  Those are the gaps I will want the government to cover.  If they do so, it is not going to be difficult to persuade Nigerians that ‘yes, this is a very tough period that we must go through to correct the economy.’ 

I am fully in support of correcting the economy, but I do not support the slow pace at which the government is tackling the problem of hardship now.

Government should therefore stop this administrative palliative and switch to institutional palliative by passing the social security act, create a budget for it and make it open and transparent.

What is your take on the implementation of the Orosanye report?

It is long overdue and I commend the President for that.  Jonathan had the Orosanye report, he never implemented it, and so also Buhari.  Look, the federal civil service of about 3million people consumes 90 percent of the recurrent budget every year. 

That does not make sense.  People are saying civil servants will not lose their jobs. The idea is that you have to limit the scope of government.  What are you doing with 48 Ministers?  It is just too big. You don’t need all that, I recommend a maximum of 12.  So many Ministries can be merged and others abolished.  What is the Ministry of Information doing?

All the Press Secretaries in the Villa cover what the Minister of Information does.  Tell me, what does the Minister of Information do on a daily basis? Nothing!  We also do not need Agriculture and Housing ministries.  My take is that the government has no House and does not need a Minister of Housing. There should be a very clean sweep; you can bring it down from 48 to about 10 to 12 Ministers. We should abolish that section in the constitution that says every state must produce a Minister. 

Forty-eight Ministers for what?  If a state must have a minister, let it be in the state. The Federal government is not a place where you throw all the states to be represented.  That is the only way Nigerians can begin to see the reality.  There is a trust deficit, no doubt; yet, the government is telling us to tighten our belts, but we don’t see them doing so.  We see them driving big cars and enjoying the luxury they don’t want us to enjoy.  That is the distrust they need to correct.

With this implementation of the report, do you see this government moving towards cutting costs, I mean in practical terms of cutting down the number of aides, cars and other pecks they enjoy?

I do not see that. Yes, they made some noise around it, but what Nigerians need to see is action. The government should start by cutting the number of Ministers. It should pass a law today to remove that part of the constitution that says every state should have a minister.  Look at the nature of the Ministries and merge them, remove those that need not to be there. 

You will now have strong Ministries that are able to deliver developments for Nigeria, and not administrative ministries. We are running a lot of processes based on the colonial government that needed these sorts of processes.  We have never had a real shake-up.  This is an opportunity for President Tinubu to absolutely show us that he is standing by his words to cut the cost of government.  If you cut the cost of government, it will reduce the recurrent trend from 90 percent to about 20-30 percent. 

That will make a great difference because you will be looking at about N2 Trillion that you can put into the Social Security Act to produce institutionalized palliatives for Nigerians. We really need to see some shake-ups.  We need to see some roots-and-branch reforms, where you will feel the shake.  I am at present not feeling any shake, I don’t think most Nigerians are feeling the shake.  That informs what the President needs to take into account,  he should shake the system. 

It is because a lot of mafias who are in the system, government, and private sector will oppose the President, but the buck stops at his table and that is why he remains the President. He told us ab initio that he would take tough decisions, just as he has done on the subsidy, he should kick out 38 ministers and leave 10 to help him develop Nigeria.

How far do you think the steps taken by the House of Representatives in setting up a committee with a view to amending the constitution would take us to the promised land?

If you listened to my speech when I presented a guest speaker address to Senate President Akpabio, the President was also there, I said we cannot spend 20 years amending the constitution.  Every National Assembly creates its own process to amend the constitution.

The 6th inaugurated its own constitutional review process; the 7th, 8th, 9th did the same.  Now, the 10th Assembly is doing its own. Why? It is simple.  All the National Assembly needs to do is to make every member work on the areas of amendment at a special session, look at some of the National Conference report, and look at it clause by clause. This can be done in two weeks. I don’t support this elongated process of amending the constitution while we are dying. So, when this four-year tenure expires, the 11th Assembly would come and start its own process again.

Why didn’t they take it from where the 4th assembly started and do the review in two weeks. Truly, there is no sense of urgency in this. They don’t know that the National Assembly cannot be going on holidays when Nigerians are dying. They have to work round the clock. We need to see government work at a very high speed because the problems are enormous; and you cannot cure the problems with this kind of slow pace where it takes forever to pass a bill.

The state police approved by the President is also part of the issue the committee will look into, in view of the security challenges facing the country, how can this be achieved seamlessly?

The issue is that the country is made up of diverse people and any constitutional scholar will tell you that when you have a large number of diverse people, then the constitutional tool to make them stronger and stay together is federalism. So, we have accepted that concept as the true verdict. 

The next question will be ‘what is the nature of the constitution we need;’ not singling out the state police as if it is the big issue.  The big issue is that the federal government is not actually the federal government. It is a unitary government that runs the entire Nigeria. From the judiciary or Supreme Court to the Police; the states are just totally helpless without power and they run to the federal government to collect pocket money every month. 

So, I’m not singling out State Police, I am singling out the process by which massive power is devolved from the federal government to the states. There are 68 items of power that are exclusively reserved for the federal government, and I can give you two that should not be there.  One is Police, and two, the issuance of Driver’s license.  Tell me why the federal government should be issuing the document that ought to be done by the local government. Tell me why the Federal government should be issuing marriage certificates.  That is supposed to be for the local government.  Again, the federal government has no prisoner, maybe Nnamdi Kanu; so, why are the Prisons a federal government exclusive matter? This should be for the states and the local governments. 

So, when you decongest the Federal government, it becomes limited and more efficient and focused in the delivery of its main duties like defence, foreign policy and the likes.  But they are taking so many things, so there is need for devolution of powers but what the National Assembly is doing is piecemeal amendment.  They will amend and amend. They have done about 50 amendments over the last 50 years that they can do in one month.  We need to know that we are a nation of diverse ethnicities.  Give to the states what is due to them and the federal government what is due to it and there will be balance of power and we will have peace and security.

By the way, the state police they want to create is fake because what they are doing is to say that the governor shall have power to appoint or remove the commissioner subject to the approval of federal authority.  So, there is no change.  Just like the electricity act, which is another fake law, where the federal government says the states can now generate their electricity but they need to be granted permission by the National Electricity Authority.  You see, they are not ready to give us power.  The challenge is now before President Tinubu  to say, ‘I am devolving authority and power.’ If he does that, you will see a change in Nigeria.

Amidst coup d’état in some countries in West Africa, ECOWAS is facing the challenge of maintaining unity as three of its member states are pulling out of the regional body, are you concerned about this development?

I am not concerned. I am worried. In fact I am sad. Why do you think all these are happening? It is because the political class is providing bad government. If the government is popular, there will be no coup.  The lesson for us in Nigeria is to look at what is happening in our region and say we don’t want a coup. To do that, we really need our government to deliver.

We don’t want an uprising that is popular.  As a result, we need responsible and accountable leadership. That is what keeps away coup de’tat. Boris Johnson lost his job because he broke the lockdown rules during covid-19 pandemic, after attending a gathering on his birthday in June 2020.

He was photographed while holding a bottle of coke in his hands, and they held him to account for breaking the rule.  He apologized but he lost his job.  That is accountability.  President Buhari married off his children during Covid-19 and spent billions of naira and nothing happened.

So, when you find coups happening in our region, the question to ask is why are these happening? It is happening because we have failed governments around Africa. Some are sit-tight leaders of over 40 years, is that not a source of worry?  There must be accountable government everywhere to keep away coup de’tat.