Chief Chukwuemeka Ezeife, who holds a doctorate degree in Economics and who has a Commander of the Order of the Niger, CON, award and was Third Republic Governor of Anambra State as well as being a former Presidential Adviser on Political Matters to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo. He was also a member of the 2014 National Conference in this interview, the retired permanent secretary, speaks on burning national issues including economic recession, the debate on sale of national assets and the Biafran agitation, among others.
The economic recession is real. How did we get here?
THE Federal Government pushed the country into recession. Some of the actions are inexcusable. Some are very pitiable. What affects the confidence of economic agents is what they see, what they hear, what they feel. If the government of the country begins to say the government is broke, they (investors) have nothing to doubt. That accounts for so many exits from Nigeria. There were all kinds of normally unprintable things said by our government: that we are bankrupt, we are broke, we are this and that. They took over and within a very short time they started making negative statements about the economy. This is not a matter of blaming anybody. You just look at how many companies have quit Nigeria. I know of a friend who brought in some expatriates to co-invest with him here. They were just about to get started when the first salvo from government was fired that the country should not be invested in, because that is what it means; that the country is broke, that it is a poor economic decision to come here. So, the foreigners ran away and the man is still struggling now to get new partners.
Check the number of companies that were here a year-plus ago and how many are here today. Even the airlines, at least the ones that spoke out, said they had no confidence in Nigeria and that was why they were leaving. I have told many people that the blame-game must stop. Now, that (blame-game) is the most stupid thing to do. If it was the fault of the last administration, let him take us to all the things as they were during that administration. Let him take us to the price of rice that was obtainable before he took over; take us to that petrol price; take us to the exchange rate; take us to the market as it existed; take us back to what it was when you took over. Any blame-game is a waste of time.
What is your view on the issue of restructuring?
The issue of restructuring should unite us. There is no reason for disagreement; maybe we do not even understand. I was recently misquoted somewhere as saying that this issue of restructuring is political. Indeed, it is more economic than political. We are concerned about improving the welfare of ordinary Nigerian people. It is not a matter of the rich. Those who are against it may be feudalists, who do not care very much about the welfare of the ordinary people. What am I talking about? The present states, which are not feasible are spreading hunger and suffering to ordinary Nigerians because the states are too small to cater for the economic interests of their people. I was trying to explain what is called “Economies of Scale”. You don’t have it in politics but in economics. What does it say? When you have large population or space, you can produce anything at lower unit cost than when you have a very small population. Now, it is not just a matter of lower unit cost but also the capability to establish something like power in any state. For now, the capability is not there because the states are too small to afford what it takes to generate power easily. When you are dealing with water supply, power, transportation, environmental problems, it is always cheaper if you have a larger space, so, the issue is very economic and it is ordinary economics, not high-level economics.
Now, the political aspect of it has to do with how to begin to create more states. Ironsi recognized 26 provinces, not states and we said he was going to make Nigeria a unitary system and killed him. Now, after killing him, they wanted to defeat Biafra in war, they started with 12 states and eventually we got to 36 states plus Abuja; and northern military men created the states to favour the North. That is why you hear some people from the North attacking restructuring.
Indeed, the political aspect of it has been taken care of. We can negotiate. Instead of all of us suffering lack of welfare, we can make some concessions to the North so that they can agree to restructuring properly. What is there? Only about four states can support themselves; every end of the month we rush to Abuja to go and take oil money and we have learned not to do anything any more except to share oil money. I am told of some local governments where people only go to the secretariat just once in a month when they share resources at the federal level and it gets to the local government, then the chairman calls people and says, “okay o, e don happen”, and they share the money and go away. States were created to fight Nigeria-Biafra war. After the war, subsequent military leaders from the North created states to favour their areas. That is why the North-West has seven states and Kano has by far more local governments than Lagos.
Bayelsa produces oil but has only eight local governments and we are sharing money based on that. Somebody opened his mouth, a big man from the north, and said, Nigerian oil is northern oil. You see what comes out of our mouth? The North and the South were always treated equal, that was why Ironsi recognized some provinces, equal number in the North and South. The regions were not the same. We had extra region, Mid-West. Out of four regions, one was north, three were south but we then developed a fair system of having six geo-political zones; three in the North and three in the South like it used to be, equality of units.
Now, let’s use the six geo-political zones as federating units that enables each unit to be big enough to take care of the needs of the people and benefit from economies of scale. Think about the past when we had the regions, there was “ownership” of regions and therefore, not too much corruption. If you squandered our money, we could literally kill you but today, “Nigerian money” is like nobody’s money and so people steal anyhow. There was also competition among the regions. Eastern Nigeria was very developed. Look at what Awolowo did in education in the West and it lasted up till today. Educationally, the West is still ahead, the foundation was laid by Awolowo. So, the issue of restructuring should not divide us.
Unfair number of states If the North is so sad about losing some majority institutions, the unfair number of states given to them, we can make some political amends by way of compensation, but they should not go about telling outright lies that oil belongs to the North.
What about the Biafran agitation? What is your take on that?
I can say it many times because it is the truth, our people have some bottom lines, principles, which guide their actions. One of them arises from this statement: Life without honour is not worth living. The second is: He that is rejected does not reject himself. If you don’t feel accepted by your neighbours, what do you do? So, Biafra becomes inevitable when injustice is made permanent. People like me don’t even think of any division at all because I believe that nobody in his right mind would want Nigeria to break up and the people, who seem to be pushing the break-up, the Fulani, are the least well-placed, if we were to break up because they would lose the most from a Nigeria that breaks up.
The Igbo, somehow would manage to survive and thrive; the Yoruba are already surviving; South-South, God blessed them; Middle-Belt, well, they might have problems, being the closest people to the Fulani but the bottom line is that Nigeria is better off with the same people it has now and that there should be no break-up if we think about the long-term interests of each group. Let us look at the Igbo, they feel the most rejected at this stage. What is the problem?
The Igbo come to a place empty-handed, he might even carry faeces on his head to make small money and gradually he gets a kiosk, eventually, he builds a palace in the place. Unfortunately, without knowing it, he would sit in front of his mighty palace and appear to ooze more confidence than the original owners of the land. And, if the Igbo is from Anambra, he may even insult some people without knowing it when he is boasting. Therefore, jealousy would set in and from there to hatred, then the next thing is blood-flow. This is the problem we have in the country. But I am pleasantly surprised at Nigerians.
In spite of what I have just explained, you find some people writing that Igbo are needed in Nigeria. I mean, these are people who can see. The truth is that Igbo are a gift God gave Nigeria. Look at anywhere you are talking about. Ijebu-Ode, go and count the houses. Go to Lagos and even in Abuja here or Kaduna, count the houses.
Another Igbo principle is, “where you live, you mend it”, that is, you develop it. But we have over-done it and people are jealous of them and those who are jealous of them sometimes forget that they did not steal money and those who are Igbo forget that they can get a lot better by studying the people of the immediate environment, giving help and making friends with the local people. The best thing is to restructure now; the earlier we restructure, the tighter the federation. The later we restructure, the more our federation would be more like a confederation. Those who are stealing money and dumping money in foreign banks come back here and talk nonsense about restructuring because they have so much money and they do not want anything that would bring money to other Nigerians.
What is your take on the debate on the sale of national assets? Who will buy them?
National assets are very heavy things. Only those who dumped our money in foreign banks can bring tiny bits of what they stole to buy our national assets. It is a matter of thinking about fairness. When you call the people who have stolen our money, who would compete with them? Let them sell the assets and you would find out who bought them and from where. You would find that it is not a fairly-spread participation. So, it is unjust to compound injustice and to give advantage to the more corrupt members of the society.
The House of Representatives has taken steps to establish State Police. Do you see any merit or demerit in this?
The 2014 National Conference of which I was a member approved state police. Today, with the marauding cattle-rearers, everybody would call for state police instead of the one that is controlled by the Federal Government and which closes its eyes as people are being killed; seeing somebody with AK-47 tending to their cattle and they are not asking questions. So, I think this time, we need it. In the beginning I was opposed to it.
Many years ago when I was governor, I found that those who use the powers of governors can abuse state police. I said, for instance, a man is having dinner with his wife and men of the state police storm his house, abuse him and arrest him only on the excuse that the man is also aspiring to be the next governor. What that means is that if we allow state police, when it comes to aspiring to the office of the governor, the state police would behave so callously like what happened in the Edo election, like what INEC also did in that election. America said ours is another brand of democracy. The US Ambassador to Nigeria said what INEC was announcing was different from what were in the wards. The rigging was done at the Collation Centre.
How about plans by the Federal Government to establish grazing reserves and ranches for herdsmen? This brazen islamization cannot work. They even said they would import grass and then, I don’t know if they will take over the cattle to sell to us or leave it to the individuals to sell to us. It is based on ancient practice where people must go about. There is a new technology for fodder production and this technology recycles fodder in just six days. So, you don’t need to move around and even when you want to move the cattle to the point of sale, you truck it down. How callous can our minds be? Are we decaying in the mind? You plant something, you come to look at your farm and you find cattle eating what you planted.
You talk, they shoot you down. What kind of society are we running?
So, the South as a whole declared against grazing reserves; I know because I chaired the meeting of the whole South (Southern Nigeria Peoples Assembly) in Delta and it was a unanimous decision among southern people. I heard that the Federal Government proceeded to give money to some people to twist them but people have rejected grazing reserves. I don’t even support it being done in the North. Those people are also Nigerians and they have right to cultivate. In fact, we are eating more from the North than the North is eating from us. So, we should not allow the cattle to go and eat up the farm produce of the North. Government should encourage cattle ranching not grazing reserves. The Buhari administration said it would not implement the report of the 2014 national conference, describing the exercise as essentially a job for the boys.
What is your view on this? As a member, I know what transpired there. Nigeria for once, working together made decisions. Not all the decisions were palatable to all sections of Nigeria but they were unanimous because you may not agree, but we would persuade you. For the first time, Nigerians met and took decisions by consensus most of the time because voting was scarce. So, if people who should know, people representing every group in Nigeria, that is the greatest achievement of that period and anybody, who says he does not want it is only trying to play sectional game. If you are talking Nigeria, that (confab report) is the answer but if your are talking about sectionalism, well, you go ahead and do your own because you are in power. Imagine what happens when you are out of power. Or, are you insisting on the country breaking up?
The Buhari administration said it would not implement the report of the 2014 national conference, describing the exercise as essentially a job for the boys. What is your view on this?
As a member, I know what transpired there. Nigeria for once, working together made decisions. Not all the decisions were palatable to all sections of Nigeria but they were unanimous because you may not agree, but we would persuade you. For the first time, Nigerians met and took decisions by consensus most of the time because voting was scarce. So, if people who should know, people representing every group in Nigeria, that is the greatest achievement of that period and anybody, who says he does not want it is only trying to play sectional game. If you are talking Nigeria, that (confab report) is the answer but if your are talking about sectionalism, well, you go ahead and do your own because you are in power. Imagine what happens when you are out of power. Or, are you insisting on the country breaking up?
The president made three major promises, anti-corruption fight, war against insurgency and job creation. How would you rate the government now?
No, that’s a lie. There were many things he said. One, petrol price N45, one dollar to one naira and such other things. Even the ones you mentioned, Boko Haram is still there killing people. I said to myself, at the beginning, when Buhari appointed over 40 people and not one south-easterner was appointed, I was talking, I was writing. But when he appointed ministers and I saw the distribution of portfolios, how it was, I gave up criticizing. For example, even today, no Igbo man is in the National Security Council and no group is more populous than the Igbo, none. You see the herdsmen, marauding and killing and government is not concerned. You see in Nigeria of 2016, you kill somebody and say the reason is blasphemy and the government does nothing. I must doff my heart for Ganduje, the Governor of Kano State, who said the right thing. Indeed, I am a Christian but what made me a Christian is because I arrived as a Christian. I did not choose to be. I was Christian on arrival because my parents were Christians. If you are from my village, town or local government, you are a Christian and even largely 99 percent, if you are from Anambra, you are a Christian. So, it is not a matter of choice. Some of us were Muslims on arrival and some were pagans. We had no choice to make as per the circumstances of our birth. If there is a blame, you go to God but, on our part, we only know how to praise God. So, no need blaming Buhari. It is not a matter of choice for him but it may be a matter of how much he knew.
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