• Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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What Nigeria must do to make meaningful progress- Agbakoba

Olisa Agbakoba

Olisa Agbakoba, senior advocate of Nigeria (SAN), and human rights activist, spoke with some journalists in Lagos recently, calling for a halt in agitation for political restructuring, suggesting that the country should rather carry out economic restructuring as a solution to the nation’s woes. He also spoke on other issues bordering on state of the nation. INIOBONG IWO was there. Excerpts:

What is your new book’s position on the state of the country and reforms that need to be made?

Nigerians should have interest in the country beyond politics. The calls for restructuring should be suspended, not because it is bad; but because it is a divisive issue.  I urge all political parties and ethnic nationalities such as the Afenifere, Ijaw nationalities among others to suspend it because it is tearing us apart. The president does not believe in it, the president has executives power under Section 5 of the constitution; if the president does not believe in it, it would clash with the head of all the political actors and we are the ones who would suffer. So, rather let us get a new philosophy that can make Nigerians happy. We are the world poorest country in term of infrastructure, how can we change this?

The president recently inaugurated the economy advisory panel; we hoped that the panel would put smiles on the faces of Nigerians. I thought is important to provide information that if we all agreed to remain one country and contribute what we can.

As a lawyer whose specialty is development interface with economy issues, if you look at the book I just launched, if it is implemented we would create 10 million jobs in the next two years.

Different sectors of the economy were focused on, but let me take housing policy in Nigeria for example. It is not a clear policy.

Nigerian housing policy should be driven by social housing; building housing that people can afford.

On Bourdillon Road in Ikoyi, there are 15 houses, which are about 20 stories high, but are empty. Each of them is about N1trillion. That is equal to the Nigerian budget, but they are empty, nobody rents them, and something is wrong. But if the Federal Government declares social housing policy and they allow each state according to their size and allocated numbers to build, the people would see the impact.

The other issue in affordable housing is credit. Personally, in my years of practice, nobody has given me loan to buy house, but in the UK, I have received money to buy house. This kind of money can be used to build houses for the masses. We need to invest more in affordable social housing that people can afford.

The legal structures exist. It is a shame that the signature that a governor signs to authenticate a house is not honoured in the bank because the key thing in credit is collateral. But no bank in Lagos respect the signature of the governor and it is frightening for economic development.

What legal framework do you need to release money that is tied down in the bank?

It is simple.  We need to have a system that trust the banks and enable the government to issue Certificate of Occupancy.

Right now, that does not exist and if it exists, it would create an instance credit market. When you see that, it creates market for lawyers, artisan, painters, carpenters, among others. When we talk about jobs, it is not about being a lawyer; job is about being a painter, driver, carpenter, among others. You can see how Opay is creating jobs, the way it is going, it would push out ordinary Okada riders and that is how you create jobs.

 

What is your view on the border closure?

I am in support of the border closure because the country has become a dumping ground for various goods. Look at Apapa producing billions daily for the federal government, one would have taught that the government would have spent a chunk of the money to fix infrastructure in Apapa.

Apapa is collapsing, yet it is the cash cow. There is no legal rule to make it attractive, yet we are in a so-called Central West Africa Economy Region. Eight out of 10 containers coming to this region come to Lagos, but they do not want to come here because it is so unfriendly.  We have so many gate keepers; it is not the situation elsewhere.

The only mistake with the border closure is that it should have been called border enforcement, because we are member of ECOWAS and there is free movement of people and goods within the region in the treaty.

The Federal Government should have emphasised more that member of ECOWAS bring their goods here contrary to free trade.

So, we can enforce those rules and nobody would say we cannot. But are we not ashamed that as a result of the border closure chicken, pineapple and other items became scarce? About 200 million people depending on 20 million people to feed them, they are laughing at us. We need to have very strong trade policy that is favourable to Nigeria and generate internal trade. Without that you cannot employ anybody and develop the country. Small and middle enterprises are vital in any economy.

My point here is that; let us leave political restructuring for now and focus on developing the economy. Is china not a democracy? But they are striving to be the biggest economy in the world. Politics cannot help Nigeria; it is just that I do not want to suggest another model rather than democracy, but certainly politics cannot help Nigeria.

We know that the centre is too strong but the president does not believe in it, but believes in economy restructuring, so let us hold him to that.

We cannot continue sitting on a time bomb. Nigeria is technically insolvent; we cannot continue this process that every month the governors go to Abuja and take money and share it.

My point is; let have cooperative restructuring combined with economy restructuring since that is where we seem to agree. Most of the states are endowed with several mineral deposits, but they are not tapping them because they go to Abuja and collect allocation. Yet, we are importing food. Let us get our parties to focus on that problem.

I am tired of political restructuring for now, what I am saying is that let us tell them to shift the agenda to economy restructuring.

Only one man seems to understand the situation; he is a micro economy specialist who had completely deviated from his job. That man is the Central Bank governor. You see him in the bush, he said that the biggest problem we have in Nigeria is the smugglers.

It is just like when I have a house and I paid water tanker to bring water to my house, yet I have water in that house that is what is happening. We have to put in place legal and institutional framework to make things work. We have to abolish the immigration and put in place armed border force to protect the borders, and police our waters.

What is your take on the new tax policy?

When America was in serious trouble and they had depression they had a very innovative president in Roosevelt whose policy was called the new deal. I was surprised Abba Kyari wrote an interesting article recently in which he tilted; ‘The new deal’.

What Roosevelt did that changed America was to focus on the banks. I am not sure anybody can get loans from banks in Nigeria today.  I have never gotten. The bank needs to do their work.

We need to review our banking laws to get banks to lend, so the economy without blood cannot grow. Every government in the word depends on tax.

The 7.5 percent is even way behind the world standard of 15 percent, but the problem is the government; what would they do with the money? People do not want to pay because of the way things are done. I provide my security, water and electricity. I have generators in 11 of my offices across Nigeria. Sometimes, I fix my road back home. Tax is not a bad idea; the real problem is the trust that it would not get into government officials pockets.

 

But Nigerians are complaining about the excessive charges by banks?

Banks are in business to lend and not to take. If they are doing that, they are not practising banking. I expect the Central Bank governor to stop them. Banking is about lending. So, when banks lend it enables us to do what we can do. I support that all these illegal levies should go and they should focus on their primary roles.

 

What is your take on the agitation for the North East Development Commission?

They are strong on it because the Niger-Delta has a development commission. It does not solve any problem, it is a political tool. Government should create enabling environment for small business to thrive not building institutions.

 

What about the increasing disobedience to court orders by this administration?

The president came to the annual meeting of the Nigerian Bar Association and said that national security supersedes rule of law; that was an unfortunate statement. It should be that rule of law is the bastion around which everything operates. The constitution made no provisions on how you can deny people their liberty, anything above what the constitution says is illegal. That is entirely different thing. Durkheim is the father of Sociology; sociology preaches social reorganisation. When we did 50 million-man match, only few people came out. Some people saw me in church and were asking what are you doing? Look at what is happening in Hong Kong, we are just sitting watching here, and part of the problem is that the key actors that supposed to speak have been compromised. I mean the religious leaders, civil societies, the unions, MBA, and student union movements. So, who is going to talk? When I talked about the sack of the former CJN nothing happened. But when we have all these groups talk, it would have effect. We do not have strong traditional rulers, but there is nobody to talk. I started activism at 28; we fought the military. When I was still younger there was a time I travelled in a dilapidated bus to the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. We have played our part. At 66 years with nine grandchildren I have done my part, it is time for the youth. We are not ready to fight, that is why I have said let us find a common ground. We need to negotiate with government; let us tell President Buhari; I do not think you are against development, what is your way; let us sit down and discuss.