• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
businessday logo


Nigeria being in low-grade civil war will not attract heavy investment – Agbakoba

Olisa Agbakoba

Olisa Agbakoba, a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and human rights activist, in this interview with ZEBULON AGOMUO, Editor, insists that he remains an advocate of political and economic restructuring of Nigeria. He however, says that his belief in restructuring will not prevent him from suggesting low-hanging fruits for the country while waiting for the realisation of an aspiration that may take long in coming. He also speaks on state of the nation. Excerpts:

Recently, you spoke with journalists, urging those calling for restructuring to look at other things that could be done in the interim to help the masses of this country as restructuring may take long in coming. You went ahead to propose what you called cooperative federalism. Your position on restructuring attracted criticisms, as people said you may have been compromised or you have sold out. Do you have any regret for taking a position?

Most of the sub-nationalities kicked against it and called me a turncoat, but I am saying that I am not; I am a realistic, flexible activist. I have made a choice based on a lot of factors. The most important factor is the decline I have seen in the standard of living in Nigeria, it is going down. I have made a choice because I have seen government response, extremely poor; and I have made a choice that in as much as I believe in the ultimate goal of restructuring, there are other steps that can lead to it. I have made a choice going back to Thabo Mbeki’s advice to me in Lagos in 1989. I have made a choice because the demand placed on the Federal Government by civil society is completely a dysfunction of state governments and it is not understandable. I made a choice because the state governors are not as helpless as we think. Governors can build roads, hospitals, power stations, virtually everything. There are things, of course, that governors cannot do like federal roads, solid minerals and this is where the principle of cooperative federalism comes in. If there is this East-West road that covers three or four states, why can’t the Federal Government in cooperation with those states get the programme done? Because if the idea of cooperative federalism or restructuring is about people, I don’t see any reason anyone should say it is either this or nothing, which is what the argument sounds like; which I don’t accept at all. It cannot be either restructuring or nothing. So, my short clarification is this, I hope that the time will come when we will reach to the stage of political and economic restructuring. But to the extent that we don’t have it, the limited space that, for instance, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu has to have cooperative federalism with the Federal Government to explore his bitumen is there, but his people are not making demands. Ondo is a poor state, but they have one of the world’s richest bitumen. Enugu is a poor state, but they have one of the world’s reserves for coal. Ebonyi is a poor state but has one of the world’s salt mines valued at N14billion. So, is it not possible that we, the people should also make demands, not only on the Federal Government, but on the states? So, what stops these states from cooperating with the Federal Government to harness these natural endowments? Look at the police, every time governors are complaining; but under the National Police Council all the 36 state governors play a role in picking the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), but they have never summoned a meeting since 1998, yet they complain; who do we blame? So, this is cooperative federalism that the state and presidency come together to provide institutions for Nigerians; but the states are not playing that role. So, I am entitled to say, why do we not also, as we head to the pinnacle of political arrangement called restructuring, why don’t we do many other things. Restructuring is not necessarily the answer to all our problems. What if we get there and all we do is transfer power from one strong centre to another strong centre? So, that was what I meant when I said let’s first achieve cooperative federalism, then we can talk about political and economic restructuring. Like my critics, I also stand on restructuring but I believe there are certain things that could precede it. The call for restructuring has been there for years; so what I am saying is that we can’t stand still waiting for it to happen; let’s do other things that will help the country; while waiting for its realisation.

You said recently that having fought the battle for Nigeria’s democracy under the umbrella of civil society and now you are getting older, the youth should take up that fight. Critics said such statement suggested you were chickening out. Did they misunderstand you or what?

I am getting older as you pointed out. I am not as young as I was when we did what we did in those days. So, there is no question that the civil society movement will have to evolve for it to be continuous because after a while Herbert Macaulay died; Zik died and if they didn’t understand how to create people who would succeed them then, there would be a problem. So, I am saying that I can’t be what I was in 1989; that doesn’t say that I don’t have a role; but I certainly cannot be what I was. In my view, if that suggests chickening out, that is not correct; just that I don’t have the energy as in those days.

What was your impression about the Punch editorial of last Wednesday on the state of affairs in the country?

It was absolutely correct. We are unfortunately not going in the direction I thought we should be going, given where we came from and the expectation everybody had. Most Nigerians had lots of expectations and they are not being fulfilled. And I am sure that is fueling the struggle for restructuring and I understand it. But as I said, every good General has a strategy; every good General who wants to achieve an objective, must look to diverse tools to achieve the objective. So, Punch’s point about the fact that Nigeria is declining is very clear and what they said about the nature of the regime. For me, 1998 did not usher democracy, it simply brought in civil rule. Civil rule is not democratic rule because the institutions of democracy – free press; strong civil society and strong intelligential were not there. They were absent. It was just that the international order have made coup d’état and soldiers unpopular; and Abacha understood it, which was why he wanted to transmute into civilian president. We didn’t have enough time to build power structures and unfortunately, it affected civil society. Civil society today is not the same civil society that I ran. It is not. The guys that were with me were absolutely selfless; they were ready to take bullets. Not today. When I said that the youth of today are not rising to the challenge, There‘s a point I need to make. The sacrifice we made is not being made by the youth of today. At the end of the day, they are the ones that go on the social media insulting themselves.

Every now and then the President and other political actors attend international summits and conferences; they claim they do so to attract investors and investments. How do you see this claim vis-à-vis the disregard for the rule of law and hostility in the country?

Nobody will invest in a disorderly environment; not even local investors. They cannot invest in a volatile area because a businessman calculates risk. Risk is the most important thing in an investment decision, so the risk of doing business in Nigeria is extremely high. If Nigeria is rated as being a country in low-grade civil war, then it is not likely that heavy investment would want to come here; and if heavy investment does not come and it is likely that the poverty index will continue to grow. So, that also again brings us back to the issue of cooperative federalism. What I have now discovered is the dissatisfaction; who speaks for the people? Do we as human rights activists really speak for them or we speak what is fashionable because in the human rights community we are split into two: the liberals, and the radicals (those who believe in socialism; those who believe that the commanding height of the state must be owned by the government). Why can’t we simply say; let us demand that every state government should put one hospital in every local government? As civil society, we have been unable to articulate a developmental position devoid of the ‘isms’ that can move Nigeria forward. Once you pick a word, it becomes a cliché. Sovereign National Conference (a cliché); Government of National Unity (a cliché); it didn’t work. Now you have restructuring. I hope it works; but can’t we get up with thinking about the people? Can’t we make a demand, we in the civil society, on the governors of Nigeria to do something for their people? Who is talking about the development indices? That is where the gap is. It is a huge gap. We need the civil society to reassess its relevance to Nigeria and to the people. The whole essence of restructuring is the helplessness of states. But that is not true; they are not so helpless that they can’t do anything. That is not true.