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Government must make business of insecurity unattractive to security personnel and collaborators – Amuta

Government must make business of insecurity unattractive to security personnel and collaborators – Amuta

Chidi Amuta, a publicist and former lecturer at the University of Port Harcourt, in this interview with Zebulon Agomuo, deplored the worsening poverty level in Nigeria among the masses while the political elite lives in material comfort. He also flayed the choice of palliative announced by the Federal Government, saying that cash transfers as a strategy for poverty alleviation were a wrong approach. The former chairman of Directorate of Food, Roads and Rural Infrastructure (DFRRI) during the Military Government of General Ibrahim Babangida’s regime, in the Old Imo State, also expressed optimism that insecurity can be resolved because it is manmade; pointing out that government must make the business of insecurity unattractive to security personnel and their collaborators. Excerpts:

You are 70 years. You are older than Nigeria by seven years. If Nigeria were to be a human being, at 63, from what you have achieved as an individual; would you say the country is a responsible man?

I am often amused by the realisation that I am older than independent Nigeria. Nigeria as a nation-state is still young on a comparative basis. But of course, historic Nigeria is an ancient reality. In real terms, Nigeria is as old as the illustrious histories of its component civilisations.

Having said that, our experience as an independent state bound by a constitution, institutions of state and common subjection to changing common political leadership has been as undulating as the experience of an individual of equivalent age. As individuals, we go through developmental stages with the attendant challenges of different ages. Nations also go through their own stages.

So, let me look at Nigeria as a younger sibling in relation to my own experiences at 70. As an individual, 70 is perhaps an age of ultimate consequences. You may not be able to correct some of the mistakes you made along the line. Biology is no longer in your favour. You, therefore, stand face to face with the consequences of the mistakes you made over the last seven decades. Whatever you cannot change, you atone for or pay dearly for.

I think the scripture that allocated 70 years as a fair tenure for the average human was mindful of our vulnerability to errors. With that time frame, it is expected that you are in a position to take stock and avail your society and family of the benefits of hindsight and the rewards of experience.

But the time allowed for a nation is almost elastic. At 70, a nation is relatively young. It is not likely to expire because of the passage of time. With age, a nation can only either grow and mature or stagnate and ossify. Older nations with a solid foundation and orientation grow into civilizations: China, the United States, and India. Some nations grow old but fail to grow into global influence but instead remain museums and artefacts: Greece, Egypt, and Italy (Rome) are now more like museum places of past greatness and forgotten glories. One thing is definite: chronological age is no measure of the greatness of nations. Grow into greatness or endure into irrelevance seems to be a guiding rule on the matter of nations and the passage of time.

But some young nations leapfrog into great nations to be reckoned with in relatively short spaces of time. Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam. When a nation ossifies and displays all the signs of decrepit old age in spite of being as young as 63, then something is wrong. That is my fear and concern about Nigeria. In human life, the signs of old age are unmistakable and biological- stiffer joints, less energy, blurry vision, a bit of memory loss, organ degeneration, etc.

But in a nation, the signs of decay are systemic. Economic decline and stagnation, political decay, military and security incapacity, loss of influence, etc. At just 63, Nigeria seems to have come full cycle into avoidable decadence, displaying all the symptoms of decrepit old age and disrepair.

But we should also concede that given the circumstances of its birth and history, Nigeria is perhaps entitled to most of the misfortunes that have impeded our progress. We have had an avoidable civil war, an endemic and debilitating sectarian polarity, immense diversity, disruptions in our political system from civil rule to military dictatorship and back again, etc. We have also had the oil curse of squandering unmerited and unearned wealth and a rather disgraceful political elite.

To have survived these dysfunctions and still remain united is perhaps remarkable. So, there are grounds for conditional optimism but much work still needs to be done.

When people describe Nigeria, it is always with regret. What do you think is the problem with the country?

That is a bit of an unfair question. You cannot reduce the failings of a nation to a single factor. But if you insist, it remains the same old problem of leadership which many thinkers including the legendary Chinua Achebe have since identified.

We do not seem to have been as lucky with our leadership as we have been with our followership. Our citizens are world-class performers and achievers in most fields. But our leaders are not even local champions. They tend to be embarrassing specimens of our variety.

However, the permanent note of regret about our country is based on a comparative paradigm. As an elite, we tend to compare our performance as a nation to the achievements and status of our peers in the international arena. In our peer group of nations, we have done very badly. Look at South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. Nearer home, look at Rwanda, emerging from the crucible of war and genocide to show up as a promising African nation. Look at Botswana and even Kenya. Give and take allowances here and there for local historical peculiarities among these nations, you will still come out with the sad conclusion that the Nigerian story can only attract a sad conclusion.

If you notice, the citizens seem to have learnt how to move on and along irrespective of the quality of leadership. For instance, the immediate past president, Mr Buhari, spent eight years in power literally doing nothing. The nation was on its own, literally on autopilot. People learnt to live their lives, to protect themselves from danger as much as possible and to fend for themselves as far as possible in very difficult economic circumstances.

People are getting tired of waiting for positive purposive leadership. While waiting, a wave of cynicism and permanent despair has seized our people. Somehow, they have come to believe that honest positive leadership is hardly possible here. So, whatever leadership each new election season springs up is greeted with the same habitual cynicism because our successive leaders never fail to fail and disappoint.

Our indifferent patience with a succession of bad leaders is an impressive quality. Nigerians are stubbornly patriotic and stoical. Nigerians want to be Nigerians and nothing else. They, however, have an incurable ultimate optimism that the nation will survive and surpass each season of bad leadership. The nation endures but never gets better in spite of our immense potential, energy and creativity. Simply put, we all seem to have come to the inevitable conclusion that ‘this, too, shall pass’!

But once we can use the democratic process to sort out the matter of leadership, our people are willing and ready to grow and nurture a respectable and vibrant nation. Right now, we have a civil society that is far superior to the overall quality of our political leadership. That contradiction is at the root of our national crisis. The challenge is for our political leadership to hurry to catch up with a phenomenal civil society and we will be right there at the top.

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The last 8 years were very tough for Nigerians. Many have described it as years of the locusts. Could you paint a picture of what you think was responsible for that ugly experience?

I reflect on the last eight years as the worst stretch in our national journey. Very tragic indeed. It takes us back to the crisis of leadership again. Never in the history of modern Africa has a nation placed so much hope in leadership only to get so much disastrous disappointment as in Nigeria over the last eight years. The highest rate of unemployment at close to over 40 percent; the largest known population of poor people on earth- over 120 million living in abject poverty; Nigeria is one of the top 5 most insecure and dangerous places on earth. We share that last tragic ranking with nations like Syria, Libya and Yemen which are in known openly declared wars. See our corruption profile. You don’t need the annual rating of Transparency International. Just do a profiling of corruption-related front page stories in Nigerian newspapers over a 12-month stretch and you will weep. Look at our external and internal debt profiles. Disgraceful. All within a space of mostly the last eight years.

The insecurity is a different story. The rate at which Nigerians are dying needless deaths is alarming. Even during the civil war with armies on both sides with the guns of war trained at each other, at least some days passed without casualties. Today’s ‘peace time’ in Nigeria can hardly go without a few violent deaths each day as a result of insecurity. See the killing fields of Plateau and Benue states alone in the last three weeks! Disgraceful!

President Buhari presided over the most divided phase of Nigerian history. He divided the nation along religious, ethnic, regional and social class lines. Imagine a president that virtually declared ‘war’ on a section of the country, threatening the Igbos of South Eastern Nigeria that he would ‘speak to them in a language they understand’. For this, Twitter scrapped his official handle for which he banned the platform for God knows how long! He still insulted the same section of the country by describing them as a Dot encircled by the Nigerian vicious circle of violence.

So on all indices of governance and power, Mr Buhari remains an unmitigated disaster and the worst nightmare that has afflicted Nigeria in all of its life as a nation-state. Nigerians should remember him by insisting that NEVER AGAIN must such misfortune befall the nation.

There seems to be hope that there could be a ray of light at the end of a long dark tunnel. Do you share in that optimism?

Don’t forget that the Tinubu presidency is just about 50 days old. There is as yet no cabinet. Parliament has hardly settled in. So, it is still early days. However, from the early signals, there is a possibility that in comparison with the Buhari presidency, we could see a marked improvement. I can testify to a commendable pace of governance response. Some of the major policy decisions are in line with long-held reservations about the Buhari era. To that extent, there is some hope. But let us not forget that Tinubu and Buhari are from the same party, the APC. So, we need to see an internal revolt in the party to give room for any policy divergence.

The announced policies so far can only make life harder for the people while saving the government some money to spend on its services. But in general, the new president has to strike a balance between hard economic decisions and the perennial need for government to remain compassionate and look out for the good of the lowest common denominator of the citizenry. We need to look out for how Mr Tinubu navigates this treacherous balance. So, I would insist on conditional optimism for now.

From what could be seen out there, hunger is palpable and ravaging a larger percentage of the populace. What urgent steps do you think government can take to loosen the noose on people’s necks? Are you comfortable with the proposed cash handout to 12 million families?

I have reservations about cash transfers as a strategy for poverty alleviation. As an immediate palliative, maybe you can enable the poorest to enjoy one nice pot of soup in a month with the N8000 promised handout. On closer examination, it begins to look like bribing the poor. When the money runs out in a matter of days each month, the hunger returns and increases.

I would instead advocate greater investment in public transportation, universal healthcare and good education for all as more sustainable mass alleviation measures.

If we must transfer cash to the most vulnerable segments, it should only be for no more than the time it will take to activate sustainable social benefit measures. More importantly, I think the end of subsidy regimes is a unique opportunity to lay the foundations for a sustainable national social welfare programme. But we need to learn from the experience of a country like Brazil. Their social welfare benefits programmes are tied to other wider social benefit programmes. For instance, cash transfers should be tied to enrolling your children in schools, vaccinating them against preventable diseases, submitting your biometrics for national identification, etc. Free transportation vouchers in urban areas should be available to those who pay their taxes, inoculate their children and who register to vote. Most importantly, our public accountability profile is bad. We do not have any assurance that some of the cash transfers will not end up in the private pockets of officialdom.

Without so much as assessing the new administration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu; are there areas you can say it is heading in the right direction and vice versa?

It is a bit too early to assess the Tinubu presidency. There have been bold indications of policy direction. But in the absence of a cabinet and the other ancillary structures and personnel to run a government and implement the bold policies, we still have no implementation mechanism to test the policies in real practical terms.

The end of the subsidies regime is good. But the president needs to proceed from there to end the entitlement mentality among the elite. Partisan democracy may be good for the polity but politicians are never the best people to run a productive administration. The new president has to find a way to navigate that treacherous bend.

Abia your home state has been a big concern to you. You have written a lot on the wasteland successive administrations reduced it. A new sheriff is in town. What are your expectations from the new government?

The Abia situation is a long-standing tragedy. It has taken over 24 years to completely strip, sack and shamelessly privatize and pocket an entire state. The quantum of wealth in the pockets of the three last governors and their cohorts is estimated to be more than the aggregate net worth of the entire state both in terms of cash and fixed assets! I am not sure who between the state and its past rulers is richer. But the resultant consequence of this recklessness is there on the faces of millions of poor Abia people, the huge unpaid salary bills, the monumental debt portfolio of the state, the sorry state of the infrastructure and institutions-hospitals, health centres, schools and even the state university where staff are owed several months of salaries and benefits.

I am optimistic about the new administration in the state. I know Governor Otti’s pedigree and background. He has the commitment, honesty of purpose and managerial expertise to turn things around. I think he will be able to salvage the state if he is not unduly distracted by the Abia locust elite. But he needs time to undo the damage of 24 years. The resource challenge is immense. He needs to find the money to reduce the debt burden and the will to reduce the waste.

I believe he will run a responsible administration and a new Abia is in the making.

How does it feel to be 70 years in a country the life expectancy of which falls below 50 years?

Age 70 is a blessing. I can only thank God for the Grace of these years. The pressures and challenges of life in our environment are immense. I guess one has been lucky to survive the challenges in this environment. Beyond luck and the Grace of God, the rest is a combination of survivalist strategies and risk management.

Insecurity is still a serious problem across the country; from what you see and hear, does it seem to you that the government is truly committed to giving it the fight it deserves?

Our insecurity can be resolved because it is manmade. First, the national security apparatus needs to disentangle itself from criminal complicity with the agents of criminality and violence. Violent criminality has become a profitable industry in which even those sent out to curb insecurity have become active participants and beneficiaries. We need to make the business of insecurity unattractive to security personnel and their collaborators. Secondly, our security strategy must relocate the security forces to our ungoverned spaces- forests, savannahs and vast farmlands. So far, our policemen and soldiers have been content with sitting in the comfort of barracks in cities and only showing up when and where kidnappers, bandits and terrorists strike, usually from the ungoverned spaces. We cannot abandon our ungoverned spaces to non-state actors and expect insecurity to end just like that. Let us comb out these violent actors from those spaces and reassert our sovereign control over every inch of Nigerian territory. Once we do, there will be no operational base for non-state actors.

To the new service chiefs, you cannot sit in fancy offices in Abuja caressing your shiny medals in comfort and expect criminals and terrorists to obey you. We need a comprehensive arms control programme. A proactive gun legislation that truly enforces and penalises illegal possession of firearms is urgently needed. Persons with illegal arms who willingly surrender them can be paid cash. Otherwise, illegal possession of firearms should attract the highest penalty- something like 15 -20 years in jail. Military-grade weapons should attract even stiffer penalties. Those who commit acts of crime and violence with these weapons should go in for life or the death sentence if the crime costs lives. Politicians who equip private armies for political purposes should earn a lifetime ban from participation in politics. You cannot contest elections to take command and control of the national army when you have your own private armies. Those who sponsor the use of guns and gunmen to disrupt the electoral process should suffer similar penalties as their foot soldiers.

Banks and financial institutions that receive and process proceeds of crimes of insecurity like kidnapping ransom payments should risk the withdrawal of their licences and other stiff penalties. In general, the government must demonstrate the will to end insecurity through a combination of legislation, law enforcement and intelligence-driven crime control. These suggestions assume that the battle against poverty, unemployment and greater security efficiency proceed in tandem with these measures.