Olisa Agbakoba, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is one of the few lawyers whose opinion is highly respected. In this interview with IFEOMA ONONYE, he explains why he has a different view on President Muhammadu Buhari’s first 100 days in office and why he would have advised him differently about giving time limit to the fight against Boko Haram. Excerpts:
What do you think about President Buhari’s first 100 days in Office?
The 100 days matter is symbolic. We should not dwell on it that much. The 100-day celebration is an American experience. The first 100 days concept was pioneered by the former American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he took office in 1933. He was faced with the great depression and the total collapse of the economic system. Banks were closed and businesses completely failed. The 100 days concept is not an accurate yardstick for gauging the presidential effectiveness because the situation and the Nigerian environment have no comparison to the American experience. Notwithstanding, I understand the importance of examining the President’s achievements in his first 100 days in office because expectations were high. The President’s campaign was run on the premise of ‘Change’. The people voted the President in for ‘Change’. It must be said that the change is not going to be seen in the context of new projects or new buildings or the commissioning of new roads or power plants. But, the change will be in the minds of the populace.
An analogy can be made between Nigeria and world renowned physicist, Professor Stephen Hawking. Professor Hawking is the third greatest physicist the world has seen in the last 600 years. I made this analogy because the professor is completely paralysed physically as a result of a Motor Neuron disease, which he suffers from. However, his spirit and mind change things. Nigeria can be seen as physically paralysed, but President Buhari’s ascension has changed the mindset of the populace. Changing the mindset and the orientation of the people is a great achievement. Power utilities are running better, the petrol queues have virtually disappeared, Apapa Traffic is gone. There is order and signs of good governance. All these are still being run by the same people.
The question is: What changed? Their mindsets have changed. This is the achievement of ‘Change’ as a result of the President. To be successful, one must understand the environment, control it and then begin to make a difference. On that, I am satisfied that the mindsets of people have become more positive; more anti-corruption; more aligned with doing things in the proper way.
Unifying the treasury into a single account is the idea of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, not President Buhari. But President Buhari implemented it. So, to that extent, the first 100 days has been successful. In the absence of ministers, how the people view things has changed. It used to be all about the big men, ‘the ministers’, but President Buhari has shown that ministers are not demi-gods. What is important here is, if the President will receive the same accolades he received when he came into office after his four years tenure comes to an end. That, I think is the challenge.
It is too early to judge on the first 100 days, but it is off to a very good start. I hope all the expectations resulting from this mindset change can be met. The first task is to create employment; second task is to inform the people of the economic agenda; thirdly, show how the government will create new development outside the oil sector. These are tangible things and I think the error has been to use the tangibles to gauge the first 100 days. I am using the intangibles to determine the success.
You are among the few that agree that 100 days is too early to judge the president?
No, 100 days is not too early. 100 days is a good length of time to judge a president. But, on what parameters? My parameter of judging President Buhari’s 100 days is different from the parameter that I see in the media. They want to know where the ministers are and what is new. They are judging him on physical parameter, while I am gauging his effectiveness on intangible parameters. What I see different is Buhari’s understanding of the Nigerian mindset and tackling it first before addressing other issues. It is the succeeding period that will be judged.
Firstly, the people need to be patient for the appointment of his ministers. If the ministers fit the mindset that he has developed, it will be wonderful. But, if the ministers are the same typical ministers that we see, that will be below the laid down expectations and mindset of the people.
I also expect the dismantling of the corporatist government. Nigeria is a corporatist country, meaning that we are interested in corporate wellbeing. The Nigerian society cares for the elite and is not interested in the common man. This was also one of President Barak Obama’s challenges. President Obama shows interest in the welfare of the common man, while the Republicans are interested in the corporate wellbeing. Buhari campaigned on the agenda that he shall include the common man. He said that he would identify vulnerable Nigerians. He has set the target at 25 million people and will dedicate finances towards their needs. We have to see that happen. Social issues also have to be addressed, issues such as health, education and what policies the President is going to run on.
The problem is that Nigeria is a very sick country and the president’s prescriptions to cure this sickness and ensure its future must be addressed. It is sick because no Nigerian leader has understood how to manage Nigeria’s diverse peoples. Can Nigeria be governed from Abuja? Is this government going to look at how to decentralise power? We are about six kinds of people in about 300 ethnic groups. Are we going to have these groups empowered in a way that the difference that various groups feel will lead to chaos and civil unrest? The issue of religion is a good example. The only reason Sharia is causing problem is because if a state declares that they want Sharia, it causes tension across Nigeria because religion is in the constitution and it is almost like a national issue. But, if religion is made to be an issue for the state, it becomes the problem of the state because it will not affect other regions. So, when you decentralise and make issues peculiar to those who require it, then it is not a national problem. A lot of our problems that are national are not national.
Do you support people that have been pushing for decentralised federalism?
Yes, I support decentralised federalism and not central federalism where everything is looking at the top. I want us to deconstruct our top federalism and send power down to the bottom. Like in education, it should not be a federal issue; it should be something for the states. It should be state matter. Roads and hospitals are other examples. There are many things that should actually not be the Federal Government’s purview, but the state’s. Thus, should the federal transfer these responsibilities to the state, so that the federal can concentrates on fewer things that affect all of us?
What is your view on the recent appointments by the president?
It is too early to speak on that. The government is at its early stages. I know that it may look as if it is one-sided. But, I will like to see all the ministers appointed first before I can comment.
Because of the appointment, some are already saying that Igbo’s are being marginalised. How would you react to this allegation?
I don’t believe in that. This is why I say that that has been the old talk.***** Marginalisation has been an issue that politicians use to promote themselves. So, I won’t buy that. I will buy it at the end of the president’s appointments. When he has finished making all the appointments and this pattern shows, then I can say there is a problem*****. But now, it is far too early. All I see the president doing now is changing the mindset. All the politicians that are from my town, how have I benefited? Honestly, that is the least of my problems. I don’t care where you come from. We are 170 million Nigerians. I will tell you that 169.5 million Nigerians will not give a hoot where anybody comes from. The few politicians who are looking for opportunities are responsible for winding us up to think like them or to start seeing things, which are not there.
If we are truly looking forward to a new Nigeria, we have to be patient. If the President, with his eyes open, throws away a massive opportunity to be a great Nigerian leader, I will be surprised and disappointed. So, I am not going to judge him on the 100 days that he has made sectional appointments. Let’s allow him to run his course.
A lot of Nigerians had hoped that the Boko Haram should be a foregone issue by now. President Buhari has promised that the military will end Boko Haram insurgency in three months. Do you think by saying that the president is on the right path?
Buhari is taking the right steps. But, if I were him, I would not have used three months. Fighting terrorism is not easy. If I were in his shoes, all I would have said would be that I can see a more aggressive strategy to combat Boko Haram. But, there is no way Boko Haram will be eradicated in three months. Even the Americans have not been able to achieve that in the case of ISIS or Al Qaeda. If it is ended in three months, that would be fantastic.
What do you think will happen if Boko Haram is not crushed within three months as promised?
Yes, that is part of the danger in giving a time limit to something as crucial as this. Even though I think he did it to show the Boko Haram people that “We are really going to get you”. It is a gamble that he has taken and hopefully, he can achieve it. But, if I were to advise him, I would not have put a time frame. I would have said that in three months, Boko Haram would be sufficiently degraded not to do much harm. I would not have said they would disappear in three months. Having said that, he has better do all he can to degrade Boko Haram in three months.
You are an active member of the National Conference. What is your view on the conference?
I was at the National Conference and President Buhari promised to take the issue of corruption very serious. As you can see, he started by changing the mindset and it has worked. The next thing he needs to do is to build institutions to make sure that the mindset does not get derailed. He needs to make sure that the institutions that fight the war against corruption, like ICPC, EFCC, the Police are well funded and independent and that no one interferes with their work. They should also be allowed to do their work without fear or favour.
Some people are of the opinion that probes should not be the primary assignment of a government, but to focus more on the people’s welfare. Do you share this view?
Probing is a blindfold. You probe without fear or favour. If someone is guilty, then the person should get ready to be probed. On the part of laying too much emphasis on probing, in the context of Nigeria being a very corrupt country, you cannot help it. I would have wished that the probe issue was not the key highlight of government. It would have been good to have it go along with other things. I agree with you there. The president’s function is to deliver a comprehensive package, probing, fighting corruption, development, new energy sources, education, welfare to the poor and so on. Though they came into power with a very lean financial base, I think if the government is looking at targeting 25 million very frail and volatile Nigerians, they should have announced it. It would have helped. Part of the campaign pledge is N5,000 for the very vulnerable like those unemployed, elderly people. It will be good to announce that now. When I chaired the NBA
Conference that the Vice President attended, he said so. He said that the government is going to be very strong on social welfare. I like this government because it agrees with my soul.
Just like in the Christian world, there are different kinds of Christians. In the political world also, there are different kinds of politicians. This government is called the left of centre. It is a social democracy government. Former President Jonathan’s government was right of centre. His, was a corporatist government. This present government is saying they will include everybody, while the former governments were saying they would only cater for a few. The government that caters for all is likely to be popular. So, if President Buhari is able to achieve the agenda that he promised, he will be a very popular person. We are waiting to see. This is why I say it is not easy to judge him on 100 days. If he does not achieve what he promised, it will be business as usual. In Nigeria, only very few like Chief Awolowo have been able to keep to his promise.
But do you think it is right for a government to probe individuals?
I will be against probing individuals. I will be against the president probing anybody. That is not his function. The function of the president is to recognise that there is corruption. Next thing is appointing good people to fight this corruption. And not for the president to say, “Go after Olisa Agbakoba.” It is for those people that have been given the job to, without reference to the president, do what they have been appointed to do. Otherwise, it will become selective. That was the problem with Obasanjo’s anti-corruption programme because it appeared selective, i.e, it appeared as if it was being targeted at certain people. Nobody should be targeted in the anti-corruption war. It is when you erect the net, if you are corrupt, the net will catch you. But, not that you are taking the net to Olisa’s house. You erect the net for everyone and if you are not corrupt, it won’t catch you. I will personally recommend to the president not to mention anybody’s name. Buhari should set up a strong anti-corruption framework.
Now that President Buhari has publicly declared his asset , what do you think that has proved?
If I were in a public office I will declare my assets too. If you are not afraid, that is when you can declare your assets before you entered office and after you leave office. That is one of the strongest evidence that a man wants to be clean. Since President Buhari and the Vice President have done this, it will come natural for others in government to do the same. This is a good example of leading from the front.