A former political adviser to former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is also a former Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, Mr Akin Osuntokun, shares with TUNDE AJAJA his thoughts on the last presidential election and assessment of the incumbent administration
You were one of those opposed to President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election and people like you were optimistic that the opposition candidate, Atiku Abubakar, had a chance. Were you shocked by the outcome of the election?
No, I wasn’t; it would be unrealistic of me if I was. In Africa and most of the developing countries, the assumption is that the incumbent wins the election one way or the other; the incumbent doesn’t lose election unless their tenure constitutionally expires. To that extent, it has followed the norm of assumptions. People refer to the presidency of Nigeria as the most powerful in the world and it is so loaded that it will be difficult for any occupant of that office to lose an election. Of course, you know we had the pleasant exception of former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 and we know he is a different person from Buhari. They have different dispositions to power and they don’t come from the same stock.
How do you mean?
Buhari is a connoisseur of power. He personifies power politics in Nigeria. If you look at his make-up, he has his origin in military politics; reinforcing his Fulani-Muslim origin; those we associate hegemony with, and of course his persona. He contested the office four times, so you could see that he was bent on being there. But, Jonathan is not someone who is caught in the kind of hegemonic power struggle that the presidency of Nigeria has become.
You also said before the election that those who vote for Buhari, if he wins, would be doubly disappointed. With what you have seen since his inauguration a month ago, how would you place your prediction?
Have I not been proven right? In what respect, for instance, would you suggest that he has fulfilled any expectation that people had of him. See the way the country is going. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo took up issues with the fact that the head of all the three organs in Nigeria (Executive, Legislature and Judiciary) come from essentially the same constituency; the core North. And you have the same thing for the heads of the security agencies. That is very subversive of the idea of national integration, national unity and federal character. Not only that, on Tuesday, they came up with the Ruga Settlement idea, which somewhat started as cattle colony. You saw how the majority of public opinion repudiated it. Meanwhile, part of selling the policy was that it would be up to each state government to decide whether they want it or not, which should be the case legally and politically if they want to use it as an instrument of resolving a crisis. But what has emerged has completely deviated from that conception, according to the Benue State Governor (Samuel Ortom). They are more of imposing it on states now, regardless of their disposition towards it. It not only raises question about the practice of federalism in Nigeria, but more importantly, it is going to compound the situation that it was ostensibly intended to resolve. Also, on Wednesday morning, I read what my friend, the Emir of Kano and former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Muhammadu Sanusi II, said. The emir has enough issues on his mind at the moment and I don’t want to drag him into this, but he said the oil subsidy is a fraud. If the oil subsidy is a fraud, then the President who presides over it, in addition to being the minister of petroleum, is implicated. You pay fuel subsidy of trillions of naira when you condemned Jonathan for paying for this same subsidy. Buhari once said 22 million litres per day in Nigeria was a fraud but now we are paying for about 60 million litres per day. According to Sanusi, Nigeria is confronted with bankruptcy. Why wouldn’t you be doubly disappointed? Can you honestly fault these things some of us point out? Put those on one side. Look at the people in positions of authority and you would find that only two zones essentially are given representation at the highest level of government in a country that has six zones. As a student of Nigerian politics who wishes Nigeria well, the Vice-President (Prof Yemi Osinbajo) is from the South-West and at the same time you railroaded the speaker to come from the same zone. So, the South-West and the core North are holding the rest of the country prostrate. This is not the kind of government we should wish for ourselves because you are going to have the consequences further down the line. You cannot plant coconut and reap cassava. There is no way this kind of power politics would have a beneficial effect on the country.
Already, about three zones, including the South-West and North have also expressed interest in the presidency in 2023, do you think they are trying to take other zones for granted?
The fact that the president is from a particular region is of no consequence to an average Nigerian, but the fact is that giving others a chance fosters a sense of belonging. We have very few formulas left to rekindle a sense of nationalism and nationhood among Nigerians and to convince them that this country could work. Obasanjo, a Yoruba man, was President for eight years; our current Vice-President is also a Yoruba man, if you have the consciousness to build a nation, which you should have, is it fair for that same region to show interest again? You see, this clamour by the South-West and the North are an indication of how things have gone wrong in the country. Barack Obama (a former US President) used to say that what you do when no one is watching is more important than what you do when someone is watching, which is talking about conscience. The sense of fairness, morality and nobility are all missing here and we should worry that this is not how to build a just country. The country as it is now is prone to divisiveness and so many frailties; hence this kind of politics is too dangerous to the health of the country. With all these insensitivity and cruelty, you would find that almost all Nigerians are alienated from the country one way or the other. That is why what the Chief of Army Staff (Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai) said about soldiers not being prepared to fight is happening. I tell people that the greatest problem Nigeria has is political mismanagement. The standard text is ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’. If you do, will the South-West or the core North say they want to produce the president in 2023?
What then is the solution?
This is why we talk about a structured federalism. For Nigeria to succeed in the structure that we have today, whoever is president must be detribalised, nationalistic, wise and a good man but of course you are not going to get that. That is the sense in restructuring because what Nigeria is going through is systemic failure; it’s not something that institutional pieces could fix. The whole system is a rot; look at how everything has been perverted. The notion now is get your own and move on. At the level we are, if you are in a position of authority and you don’t make money, your family would almost curse you. The systemic failure is why you have an army that is not an army and it’s like that in all areas. How do you justify a situation that the best way to address the insecurity in the country is by appointing almost all the heads of the security agencies from one part of the country? You see the disequilibrium everywhere and there is no way restructuring will not be inevitable. It’s even worrying that the leadership of the country sees nothing wrong with that and that is very depressing.
But the question some people ask is if restructuring can tackle all the problems in this country?
We have gone beyond the level of fixing each problem one after other; it has to be a systemic response. If a former CBN governor tells you that Nigeria is confronted with bankruptcy, then there is a serious issue. In fact, restructuring may be too late as a panacea for the problems that we have. It’s either we do it proactively or it is forced on us by extraordinary circumstances; the country can implode or collapse on itself. Any society that would prosper must be rooted in the correlation between productivity and reward and the correlation between hard work and reward. That is not the case we have in Nigeria today, where the belief is for you to grab what you can. Can anybody say what we have is fairness or patriotism? What we have is almost an inverse. We throw money at all the crises we have, like insurgency. Why, because you cannot appeal to people’s sense of patriotism. You have to relate with them at that base level; come and get your share but how many people can you buy?
Where did Nigeria get it wrong?
The thinking of those who prescribed the model of federalism to Nigeria was far superior, in terms of their knowledge of Nigeria, their commitment and their preparedness, and I’m talking of the British colonialists, who created Nigeria, and those who are referred to as Nigeria’s founding fathers; Ahmadu Bello, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, etc. Who in Nigeria before and now do you think know Nigeria more than those people or has the love of Nigeria more than those people? They all sat together for years and it wasn’t through a coup that Nigeria got its independence; there were so many constitutional conferences that led to the independence constitution. Do you think you can throw all that away and not get things wrong as we have it now? The extent of our failure as a nation is in many respects the extent to which we have deviated from that independence constitution, which gave us federalism. I tell people that both in theory and practice, that constitution has been vindicated over and over again. Nigeria up till 1966 is qualitatively different from what we have now. That was why I said the mentality of those Nigerians about our society is different from that of those of us who came after them. I don’t know whether Ahmadu Bello has houses anywhere, maybe he has a modest house. I have my own reservations about imperialism and such things, but you cannot fault his commitment and dedication to the development of the northern region. It is obvious. Of course, you can say more than that for Awolowo in the western region, likewise Azikiwe. A bunch of young guys in 1966 came together and violated that federalism and threw it away. To all extent and purposes, it was an accident, how then can you say you would choose an accident over the norm? When it was violated, we kept reinforcing the jeopardy. The development from that 1966 was that Nigeria became totally captive to power politics and from which we have proven incapable of extricating ourselves. They took Nigeria from four regions to the 36 states that we have today. The basis of the creation of some of the states was even ridiculous; some to compensate girlfriends. You see, those of us asking for restructuring are only asking for restoration. When are we going to start the important job of reclaiming the country to what it should be? Do I still need to tell anyone that the hard work has to start?
From what you said that the mentality of those founding fathers is different from that of the political elite we have today, is there a possibility that they won’t also plunge the restructured system into a dysfunctional state if the restructuring takes place eventually?
In the American war of independence, one of their battle prizes against the British colonialism was ‘no taxation without representation’. What that is telling you is that if you want to universally apply it to Nigeria, if the revenue of a state, for instance, is largely derived from the citizens of that state rather than run to a paymaster in Abuja, the people would hold that governor responsible for how he utilises their money. If a state derives like 80 per cent of its revenue from its people, the governor would not have a convoy of 15 vehicles because people would ask questions. But because it is not their money, directly, it became a double jeopardy. First, the people know that the money is not directly theirs because the governor got it from somewhere even though on their behalf; individuals didn’t make sacrifices, they may not hold the steward accountable. Second, the governor who received the money also feels he doesn’t hold the responsibility to them because he didn’t get it from them so he can spend it anyhow he wants. They may not say it but that explains the waste, profligacy and mismanagement of resources.
If we continue on this thread, where do you think it would lead this country to?
If we do, Nigeria would be lucky to still survive. You are breaking out in anarchy if you have soldiers who say they cannot fight. It was the Chief of Army Staff who said so. If it came from someone else, they would have said it was their enemy. Look at the rate of kidnapping. Just few days ago, 10 people were abducted from Akure-Ikere Road. I went to attend a meeting in Akure on Monday, many people who wanted to come from Lagos and would have driven like they used to could not get vacant seats on the flight. The flight from Lagos to Akure now is packed full because a percentage of those who used to drive, now go by air. You are in constant state of prayer. Now, if security men stop you, you don’t know who they truly are. You now hear things that make you panic, all a product of a systemic collapse. Imagine what the Vice-President said in the United States about the kidnapping problem when there are indications on a daily basis. I pray that God doesn’t bring the reality to him in a very personal way because that is cruel to the victims of those kidnappings. The fact that it doesn’t speak well of your government doesn’t mean you should minimise or distort what is happening. But this is the kind of personality type that contemporary Nigeria is bringing out. There is selfishness, insensitivity, cruelty, perfidy and all manners of bad things everywhere in government and the tragedy is that the political managers don’t even seem conscious of it.
The President promised to focus on three things – security, anti-corruption fight and the economy, are you optimistic that Buhari would do better in those areas this time round?
Morning shows the day. On what basis would I say I expect things to be different? Buhari is not a magician and there are a lot of things that have accumulated to produce the drawbacks that we have, but he has aggravated them, in my own opinion, beyond any other administration. But, you see, I keep on telling people that political mismanagement is our problem. As President, you need a grand strategy to get Nigeria working, not that you would fight corruption. Let us even assume that he has good intention but it is a non-starter. What we have is a complete rot and Nigeria has become a basket case. And what Nigeria needs most now is what is disappearing, which is a sense of nationhood, national unity, belief in the country, commitment, dedication and integration over and above anything else. It’s about how you get the country going and I have not seen the evidence. If the evidence is having the leaders of all the organs of government, in a very brazen manner, from one part of the country, if you are from the South-East, for instance, how will you feel? It’s an insult. I’m a student of Nigerian politics and I study all these things, so it gets to me more than many others. If Festus Adedayo was appointed as media aide to the Senate President (Ahmed Lawan) and the Senate President was pressurised to drop him, how do you manage such mentality? It’s an indication of how deep the country has sunk. If I were to meet Buhari today, I would tell him to appoint his critics if he wants to get Nigeria going; not ass-lickers or people who are looking for something from him. Can you honestly fault what some of us say or object to? If I’m being sycophantic towards you and I cannot tell you what is going wrong, am I not deceiving you? But it is the man who is telling them that something is not right that they would choose as an enemy.
It’s been a month since the President was sworn in and people are already saying there should be no delay in appointing ministers this time round. Do you think it’s getting late too?
Like I said, morning shows the day. Why should anybody be surprised? You see, people behave as if you can change a left-handed man at 60. I would have been pleasantly surprised if ministers have been appointed by now. Can anybody claim to be surprised? Nigeria requires an emergency solution by capable hands and you have the President acting as if everything is okay.
The absence of all former Heads of State at the June 12 Democracy Day generated reactions from people, was there anything symbolic about their absence?
Of course it was symbolic. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m the one who has unreasonable expectations. If all former Presidents from different parts of this country did not sit together to decide that they wouldn’t go and they boycotted the programme, that is a vindication of those who hold the view that everything is wrong about the way Nigeria is going. For each of them to reach that conclusion not to go, there is no resounding judgment that is more than that and you should be worried. Rather, you have a sanctimonious belief in yourself, but it’s the logic of dictatorship when you have people who fall over themselves like sycophants because of you and they tell you all you want to hear. Inevitably, you are going to end up in that alley of vindictiveness.
There are some of them who come from the North, his region. Not even that alone, it was only Yakubu Gowon that attended his inauguration. That is a sad commentary of our current reality. As I told you, I try to ask myself whether we are the ones being unreasonable in our expectations of him, because I was trained in critical thinking. It’s obvious this style of governance is not working and that is double jeopardy. You need the commitment, sacrifice and dedication of your citizens to develop the society, but the opposite is what is in Nigeria because like I said the citizens are alienated from the country. I don’t want to be seen as being critical of government, but at the same time, I have an obligation to my God and my conscience. I would have preferred to be shamed by a wonderful performance. Worse still is that his style of governance is creating division among people, creating this mentality of ‘we’ versus ‘them’. There was a video clip of Chief Olu Falae where he shared his experience in the hands of some Fulani. Would he because of anything say they are not Fulani when they are? The professor they abducted also said they were Fulani herdsmen. Nobody is saying such is typical of Fulani, but at the same time, you cannot ignore these acts, and they are being overtly and tacitly inspired and encouraged to take law into their hands with impunity. As bad as things are in the South-West today, you can imagine what people in Benue State have gone through in the past few years. You would be adding insult to their injury by imposing this Ruga settlement on them. I’m not an extremist; I’m trained to believe in political compromise as the basis of political stability, but what we are being offered is not compromise, it is what you call ‘take it or leave it’. People would be complaining about something that wasn’t done right, but by the next day they would do something worse. Look at the provocative nature the idea of the Ruga Settlement was brought up and you also have the Fulani Radio coming up. I also believe there is no smoke without fire; I’m talking about the N100bn that was allegedly given to that group. Is that a good way to do things?
Some people have said Obasanjo might become irrelevant politically if Buhari, whom he opposed, win the election. Do you have same fears?
The logic of running a government of exclusivity, division, impunity and dictatorship is that you would need to create a negative personality cult around yourself. When you govern a country in terms of who is for me and who is against me, that is inevitable. The second thing is that Nigeria is travelling in a fast pace towards anarchy. Look at how all former Presidents kept away from him, was that an act of friendship to him? If he sees that as an indication that something is wrong and he does something about it, he would learn a positive lesson. If anybody thinks Obasanjo might become irrelevant, that person is thinking in the opposite direction and what I mean is that his status would become magnified because he would be vindicated. If he’s asking questions, you cannot fault the fact that something has gone fundamentally wrong.
You worked closely with Obasanjo, why didn’t he honour Abiola?
At that time, there were a few occasions in the National Assembly that doing something for Abiola was discussed but it was shut down. You know the way our leaders aggravate tension in the country, especially with the way the issue was presented as North versus South. In the early years of Obasanjo’s Presidency, there were machinations made by people like President Buhari to portray him as being against the North. The Sharia issue was there at that time and he (Buhari) was the same man who led a delegation to Lam Adesina. During that Sharia crisis, there was a Council of State meeting and the Vice-President then, Atiku Abubakar, addressed a world press conference that the council took a decision that parties to the Sharia conflict should revert to the status quo. General Buhari went on air and said it was a lie. Of course, we know the quotes that came out from that address. They don’t like us talking about these things but this is recent history. They are documented. They told people to vote for those who can defend their faith. There was a time in which there was this active northern Muslim opposition to Obasanjo and whatever he did was viewed on that basis. You can imagine bringing up the case of Abiola at the National Assembly at that time. It came up once or twice that I can remember but of course the fate was predictable, so that was the circumstance. Such an issue was divisive in those years. (Punch)
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