We want to hear the presidential aspirants on insecurity, economy, others – Agbakoba

In this interview, Olisa Agbakoba, a senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), spoke to ZEBULON AGOMUO on his expectations from whosoever would emerge as the presidential candidates of the major political parties; the questions Nigerians should be asking this time around, among other issues of national importance. Excerpts:

What is your assessment of the present government and the legacies the President would be leaving behind in 2023?

I think the present administration has faced considerable challenges. One of the challenges of course, is this pandemic (Covid-19) and a lot of opportunities have also been missed; a lot of opportunities that should have been available in the context of resources. So, it is a big shame; and it boils down to what we have been saying that the situation is dire, because of loss of oil revenue that is no longer what it used to be; yes, one can understand that the government of Nigeria has been challenged for resources to a point where you might say, that government is technically insolvent. But I think the opportunity that the government had and still has to raise its revenue is enormous. So, if I assess the government in the context of applying its energies to generating resources – because everything is about resource and development – the demands might not be terribly high; that’s the way I will put it.

On the legacies; well legacy of the government in the context of critical goals that they set – one was fighting insecurity; that legacy is probably about average. I felt that the government could have done a lot more in dealing with insurgency across the country. Insurgency everywhere – bandits, IPOB, kidnappers – to the point where Nigeria is rated as a country in low-grade civil war. That is not good. When there is insecurity, you just cannot do business. That legacy is something that I would have wished to be a lot higher. Then in the area of fight against corruption which is also a big issue. I think the institution that fights corruption in particular, the EFCC (Economic and Financial Crimes Commission), and I have said this before, not just about this government; all the governments; if the anti-corruption strategy is faulty, the results are likely to be weak. The EFCC is doing far more than it ought to do. If I were the Attorney-General or whatever, I would have unbundled the EFCC into at least three separate agencies. Investigation – that’s what EFCC should be doing. Similar agencies in the Uk focus on investigation. So, for EFCC to do three things – investigate, prosecute, and keep the assets is too big. In England, there’s an agency that deals with stolen asset and how it is deployed when recovered. But here, the EFCC is doing all three and so, the result has not been very high. So, what one wants to see now that the present government is in its closing moments, is the presidential candidate that will emerge from whatever party; I would like to hear what they would say about insecurity; I would like to hear what they would say about fighting corruption and what tools that they would recommend; because it is from the programme of the political presidential candidate that you have expectation. So, the expectations that I had in the context of this administration could have been better, but borrowing to develop isn’t a strategy. The strategy should have been developing local productive capacity to generate income.

Read also: Wrong alarms about Nigeria’s food insecurity

What is your reading of the political turf in relation to those who have declared for the presidency in 2023?

If you are to ask any common Nigerian what his expectations are now and where the next president should come from, he couldn’t care less. I am tired of this much talk about whatever they call it, zoning or something like that. It is rubbish. I understand zoning, yes, because of the sensitivities, but zoning has also produced problems. I do not care anywhere a president comes from. The question should not be about zoning; it should be about who can take us out of this morass? Who can turn around Nigeria? Who can make the judicial process work? Who can ensure that all our revenue is coming? Look at all our statistics. Our debt to GDP or debt to revenue is about 90 percent; it means that if you have N100 (one hundred naira) you are owing N90 (ninety naira); you are dead; you can’t do anything. So, that’s the type of conversation that I want to hear from anybody who says he is coming to contest; not about where he comes from. You’ve got to understand the fundamentals; but this thing about the president must come from here or there; does he understand the fundamentals? I will not support an Igbo man who does not understand the fundamentals even though I understand the sensitivity of an Igbo presidency this time around. But I will support any candidate no matter where he comes from, who I know if he gets there in four years he will take Nigeria from number this to this. So, why would I care where he comes from?

Would you rather vote for anybody just on the basis of the sentiment that he is from your side of the country who you know when he get there hunger will worsen; unemployment will worsen and poverty will worsen? Would you not rather be happy that though this man is not from my side of the country, when he get there, he wipes off the unemployment figure; wipes off poverty and restores quality of life in Nigeria? That is what I am saying. I am not in any way against zoning if there is a capable hand, but I will go for merit not to vote for my kinsman to assuage the sensitivities and we will still be hungry but I know the other person will go in and wipe out the 33% unemployment rate in the country. I understand the issue of inclusion, but efficiency and merit must not be basis for choosing the next president..

Some people have declared their interest from South East. Who do you think could fit the bill from South East?

There’s Peter Obi, Kingsley Moghalu; and Anyim Pius Anyim. Anyim surprised me the other day; I listened to him. I was quite impressed. He was on Arise TV for one hour. I am ready to give him a chance. He spoke intelligently.

What do you think about the next election in relation to the credibility of the ballot box?

The political elite in the country control the way the votes are apportioned; they do not care about you. The lack of transparency in our electoral history is the key challenge. That was the essence of the letter I wrote to the INEC chairman. I pointed out to him that he can resolve the quagmire because the constitution confers on him virtually all the powers that the National Assembly wishes to usurp – date, time of election. This question of electronic voting is not for Electoral Act, it is for INEC to decide in line with the Constitution to say we shall use electronic voting; but they have been cowed and they keep quiet for reasons that are unclear. So, rather than the INEC controlling the process and be the umpire; the National Assembly has become the umpire. So, voting doesn’t take into account our voices. Once you cross the primaries of APC and PDP, you are seen as a serious candidate; it doesn’t matter whether the people like you or not. So, they go in there not to carry out a programme.

How then do we avoid returning to a sorry situation in 2023? Does it mean there’s no hope?

We are supposed to be in a democracy right? Democracy scholars tell you that there are four big circles around which the process oscillates. We have come from the authoritarian rule which ended in 1998; we moved to what was supposedly to be a democratic civilian government; as we all know it’s not true. That period of OBJ (Olusegun Obasanjo) was what we call a semi-authoritarian state. That’s number two. So, we have been trying to move. The third state is called illiberal state, meaning that the rules are not clear; there are restriction of thoughts, freedom and all that. The final one is the liberal democracy like in America; where the former President tried to introduce illiberal situation that we are used to here; but the liberal institutions – media, advocacy groups and the courts – knocked him down. So, Nigeria is unfortunately oscillating between two and three – semi-authoritarian and illiberal. So, you can’t have liberal democrats. So, the outcomes are not determined by your votes, but by political horse-trading. So, what the prognosis shows for Nigeria is a long distance situation of contagion or chaos. We are going to be in it for a long time? You think that 2023 will clear things? It is a long distance race. Voices will start to count, may be, 2049; unless we are able to get a good president.

As an informed analyst, what would be your choice assuming the race is narrowed down to Bola Ahmed Tinubu and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo?

First of all, we are talking about those who have already declared their interest to run not those who have not. The Vice President has not. So, I would not dwell on that. If you ask me is Asiwaju a capable candidate? The answer is yes. Is he going to win? I do not know; just like I talked about viable candidates – Anyim, Peter Obi and Moghalu. So, I would count Asiwaju as a viable candidate because he has all the attributes of the Nigerian political process. He’s got money; he’s got structures; among others. So, anyone who underrates him does so at his own peril.

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