By WILLY EYA
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Not many people who voted for President Goodluck Jonathan in last April’s general election are happy with his achievements so far. For such people, he has failed to meet the expectations of majority of Nigerians who enthusiastically supported him in the exercise. One of those in this school of thought is constitutional lawyer and human rights activist, Fred Agbaje. In this interview, he bares his mind on various national issues. Excerpts…
With the year gradually coming to an end, how do you feel with the state of the nation especially with regards to insinuations that some states are bankrupt?
You must look at the factors threatening Nigeria’s political economy first. Do not forget that the constitution in section 3 has described Nigeria as a federation. If the nation is a federation, it means that the states that constitute the federating units must continue to remain as a federation. I keep saying it that the problem of this great country is not the constitution. There is no constitution that is perfect.
Our problem has to do with our leaders and the implementers of our constitution. A good man in the saddle of political administrative affairs will turn around a bad constitution to achieve good for the people. When I was growing up, my grandfather told me that if you give a bad hoe to a good farmer, he could still turn it around to achieve success. The implication of this should not be lost to us. Can we amend Nigeria’s constitution today to abolish those we think are economically and financially unviable states? Apart from the constitutional hurdle such an exercise would entail, what about the money required to carry out such an exercise? What about the political socio-cultural pressure that would be associated with it?
In any case, why did government not consider those factors like economic viability of such states; in order words, what we call the financial sustainability of such states before creating them. Because the government of that time just wanted to score cheap political point, it started turning local governments to states and hamlets to local governments and states where they are supposed to create more local governments, they refused. The same principle was applied to state creation. Areas that are supposed to have more states, they refused to give them. I come from Akoko edo, the oldest local government in Nigeria today. It was created out of the old western region as far back as 1957.
It is the largest and the oldest local government in Nigeria today. Akoko edo is almost three local governments merged in one. Etsako that is nearest to us has been split into three but because the people of Akoko edo local government do not have anybody in government to speak for them, we lost that opportunity. What I am trying to establish is that there were no clear cut criteria; otherwise if there were such criteria, why was Akoko edo not created into two or three local governments like its neighbour, Etsako or Owan local government which has also gone into two or three?
I am not going to mention states and I agree with your question that there are states in this country that are only called states for the purposes of collection of federal revenue. In practical terms of their viability, they are not better than local governments. There is no other source of money that goes to such state apart from the federal allocation. In such states, Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) is nill. You can imagine such a situation where you create such states and even give them more local governments. In other words, you are creating more local governments for the states as well as the innocent Nigerians at large.
This is because we are going to use part of my tax to develop such states. I am not from there. To make matters worse, some of these states said drinking of alcohol is bad and prohibited but they partake in sharing from the tax paid on alcohol produced in other states. They enact unworkable laws to retard their states and yet revenue coming from other states that have liberalized their economy, that have allowed brewery to be established in their states, and for people to consume alcohol and for people to pay tax, those who do not want such a liberal economy would come and share in the tax.
Where are the equity, morality and fairness? That is why I said when you see such things particularly when it comes to going to Abuja to collect federal allocation, they remember their states. Ask them, what other thing do they do to generate money other than waiting for the federal allocation. Like in the Anglican Communion where I come from because my father died as an Arch Bishop of the Anglican Communion, one of the things he told me was that when people begin to ask for diocese in the Anglican community, in those days, they created them but these days, we ask them do you have the resources to back the diocese you are asking for? Can you pay the Bishop’s salary? Can you pay the staff of the Bishop? Can you pay the staff of the Cathedral? I am only giving you a background to my argument.
What is preventing the Federal Government from doing the same thing? Oh! If you want Anioma State, the question is do you have the resources to sustain the state or you think you would be sharing the resources of the other states to sustain it. Like a state that has 57 local government areas sharing the resources of 20, how does that work? That is why there is no development anywhere in the local governments of Lagos States. This is because it is just logical that you do not give food meant for two people to five. How will it work out? Some people would go hungry. But like I told you, it is all for political reasons. Those who are clamouring that the states should be merged, yes, let us merge them but it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for such a merger to succeed.
This is because they have tasted what is referred to as statehood. They have worn the garb being called a state. I was not surprised when in a seminar I attended recently, somebody was calling for the country to go back to the three regions. His argument was that the states developed better under the old three regions. This splinter look you call states has become the sword of Damocles that would mar the nation’s political and socio-economic growth. It has retarded Nigeria. Three states that would have been one and harnessing their resources together and ensuring their growth, you have split them so that one out of the three viable states is sustaining others. The law of osmosis does not work that way.
Osmosis would tell you that there is always a movement of water from the weaker to the stronger. That should not happen to state creation. We are practicing federalism and the Federal Government is controlling all the resources and the constitution disallowed the states from reaping the benefits of their natural endowments. Constitutionally, the Federal Government is in control of all the resources. That is thievery; your are robbing Peter to pay Paul. How does that work? The constitution sanctions the Federal Government to give oil producing states 13 per cent under the principle of derivation. If you give 13 per cent to the states that produce oil, what happens to the remaining 87 per cent? That is why there is do-or-die for federal appointments, the Federal Government and the control of Abuja.
Everybody wants to be relevant in Abuja because they know there is so much there in a country that calls itself a federation. I want to say that instead of 13 per cent to the oil-producing states, it should be the other way round. Give the Federal Government 13 per cent and the states 87 per cent. When this happens, let us see whether the states would not develop. The implication would be far reaching. The issue of do-or-die for Abuja would reduce. The clamour for the control of Aso Rock would reduce. The state would now be able to develop. A state like Rivers and others in the Niger Delta area would now be able to develop at their own pace. I can assure you that such states would even have their own Central Banks because they would have excess and other states can now borrow and pay interest.
Those who have abandoned the production of groundnut and cocoa would go back to them immediately. The groundnut pyramid, where are they? The cocoa industry, where are they today? We have abandoned our natural endowments. How can a country grow like that? That is why I say that unless there is a restructuring of our federal pattern in favour of more resources to the states, Nigeria is not likely to move forward.
When you look at the exclusive legislative list, it does not even help matters. This is because matters that are ordinarily supposed to be for the states are all lumped under that exclusive legislative list. How can a country develop when in areas that a state could effectively legislate on for their growth, you take it off them and give them to the Federal Government. That is why I laugh at some of our constitutional drafters. As far as I am concerned, they have overburdened the Federal Government and made the principle of federalism to stand on its head.
What is your opinion on the intended removal of oil subsidy?
To answer your question, I want to be guided by the constitution so that Nigerians would know who is at fault. On the removal of fuel subsidy, I can only justify my position constitutionally. Of course, as a constitutional lawyer, I must be backed by my constitution. Section 14(1)(B) of the constitution says the federal republic of Nigeria shall be a state based on the principle of democracy and social justice and that the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government. It did not just stop there. Section 17(1&2) of the same constitution says that the state’s social order shall be founded on the ideals of freedom, equality and justice. It went further to say that governmental actions shall be humaned.
The same constitution went further to say that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria. In other words, sovereignty does not belong to the government or to some people in government. It belongs to everybody whether you are in government or on Ikorodu road as a peasant work. If sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria and the constitution says the security and welfare of Nigeria shall be the primary purpose of government, and that constitutionally the actions of government must be humaned, why will the government start talking of oil subsidy removal when the people of Nigeria to whom sovereignty lies say we do not want it? I do not know whether you are following my argument.
Various organizations including Non Governmental Organisation, the labour and the rest of them say they do not want it because it would further aggravate our poverty level. It would lead to increase in inflation. If you remove subsidy, prices of commodity would skyrocket. Even those who are flying would also incur the wrath of this economic mindlessness on the part of the government. Everybody is united in saying no to oil subsidy removal. But because the Federal Government and the state governments are intellectually lazy and economically arid, they believe that the only way they can pay the N18,000 minimum wage is to adopt hook, line and sinker the proposal that have been forced down the government throat by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) through the office of the Finance Minister, Mrs Ngozi Okonjo Iweala.
One of the things the Finance Minister has told them when she was coming to serve is that she must implement the IMF policy which is the removal of the oil subsidy. That is what the government is doing. She said if you are not going to do it, I am not going to serve in your government and the Federal Government foolishly and sheepishly acceded. Let them go ahead and they would see the wrath of Nigerians. They would actually know that constitutionally, the concept of sovereignty can be effectualised and realized by the people of this country. What I am saying in effect is that by the time the government begins to say they want to remove the oil subsidy, is the policy not contrary to section 17(1) C of the constitution which enjoins governmental action to be humane. We are not talking about foreigners here who will benefit from this mad economic policy.
People say they do not want it and you say government must go ahead; let us see who has the sovereignty. But let me say this; President Goodluck Jonathan has every opportunity to make a name for himself and not allow his economically backward policies that are being forced down his throat to ruin his government. There is no sense in the so-called oil subsidy removal. In fact, Professor Tam David West who was former minister of petroleum has told the whole world that there is nothing like that. There is no subsidy anywhere in the first instance not to talk of removal. Do you remove what does not exist?
Even we lawyers say you do not give what you do not have. It is just a fraud on Nigeria when you begin to talk about subsidy. If there is any subsidy, what happened to the ones that had been removed in the past? Who swallowed and pocketed it? Are they not the same people in government? Those who are responsible for the decay in our refineries, have you arrested them? Have you prosecuted them under the economic mismanagement policy particularly under the Economic and Financial Crimes Commisson(EFCC)? Economic saboteurs who are always smiling to the banks at the detriment of Nigerians are advising the government to remove the oil subsidy. They are not doing the government any good.
The cartel in the oil sector believes that it is their birthright to continue to import oil and be smiling to the banks at the expense of the people. They do not care a hoot whether you and I survive or not. It is unfortunate that government has allowed what I would call the economic vampires that have held the oil sector in the jugular. And ironically, because the government is weak, these are the same caliber of Nigerians who will be taking the President and other Aso Rock members on retreat so that at the end, the government would be handicapped and powerless to challenge their activities frontally.
The purpose of government is not to make anti-people socio-economic policies. These are policies that would further pauperise the people. It is the duty of government to ensure that the political economy operates in a manner that an ordinary man can survive. But unfortunately, instead of embarking on poverty alleviation programme, what the government is doing is embarking on policies that would consolidate poverty in the land.
You do not seem to sound optimistic about President Jonathan’s administration. What’s your impression about his government?
Incidentally, I am one of the people that voted for him because I felt that he was a better candidate and that he would move this country forward. But the man has been there since April and it is like the same old song. It is like if you ask me to go back to cast my vote again, I would have withdrawn my vote for Jonathan. I am sure most Nigerians would regret it because right now, what we are seeing is all motion, no movement. They said they have improved power supply to 4,000 and there is no light anywhere. Look at the state of roads everywhere particularly the federal roads not to talk of state roads.
The people in the East have almost been eroded out of their land space by the uncompromising position of erosion in the area and the Federal Government is not even bothered. Look at Lagos/Ibadan road, Lagos/Benin, Lagos/Ilorin, these are all death traps and yet we have Federal Government that is pocketing 87 per cent of the nation’s economic resources. Ask them what are they doing exactly with the resources? That is why I keep clamouring that they should reverse it.
The truth of the matter is that one would have expected that as President Jonathan has been in power since April and as somebody who has been there and completed Late Umaru Yar’Adua’s term, he has no reason not to perform. Instead of belabouring himself with economically retrogressive policies, he should embark on progressive policies that would enhance job creation, address the question of inflation and above all infrastructural decay must be addressed. This is what we need and not the minister of power talking about generating 4,000 megawatts of electricity. Where is it? And incidentally, they are the same people talking about economic sabotage. Who is sabotaging who? Are you telling me that those economic saboteurs are more equipped than the government? Then why are you called a government.
You cannot address the question of insecurity, not to talk of welfare. You have forgotten that one feeds the other one. When you address welfare, you are indirectly attacking the issue of insecurity because they are siamese twins. You must marry the two of them, other wise, you would be a political joker if you think you can address one and leave the other one. If somebody is economically handicapped, the next thing to think is to resort to criminality and unleash terror on the society. Which of the governments, whether federal or state, has any plans on how to tackle the dangerous level of unemployment in the country.
I am an employer of labour and I know how many applications I get here everyday even with our small practice here as if we have become an extension of ministry of justice. This is because the government has not provided the right atmosphere.