Without restructuring, Nigeria is doomed – Gbenga Daniel
In this interview with the former governor of Ogun State, Otunba Justus Gbenga Daniel, he explains why those opposed to the restructuring of Nigeria appear to be living in denial. Using the Yoruba sage, Papa Obafemi Awolowo’s understanding of what a federally structured Nigeria should be, with strong component parts, as against former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s centrist version, OGD, as the former governor is referred to, makes it clear that the present arrangement in Nigeria is not sustainable.
According to him, a stronger, united and progressive Nigeria, with strong component parts, where equity, peace and justice are the order of the day, is far better than bantustan entities, which some separatists are clamouring for. He turns to the examples of the divided Czechoslovakia (broken into the Czech and Slovakia republics), and the progressive unification of East and West Germany. Interestingly, he charges that Nigeria is not in recession; and he explains why.
People say your political activism started quite early?
A few of us got excited when Chief Obafemi Awolowo exited the government of General Yakubu Gowon. We were young then but Tunde Bakare (Pastor, Latter Rain), Engr Ife Oyedele, myself and a few others came together and decided that Awolowo was the person to follow.
Back then at the University of Lagos, there were more radical personalities, most of them belonged to the Leftist Speakers Society, and all the academics who were radicals belonged to that group. Chief Ebenezer Babatope belonged to that society – he was then our Students Affairs Officer at the University of Lagos.
We had radical academicians from different locations as well: Eddy Madunagu, Air Iyare, Prof Olamide Abbas and, of course, Professor Ayodele Awojobi, who was my lecturer and was an enigma in his own way and in his own right.
Many of those radicals believed that Awolowo had no right or credentials to be describing himself as a socialist. Their own understanding of socialism was a bit more radical – they were always talking about the Russian revolution of 1917, the Chinese cultural revolution of 1949 and so on and, of course, it was common for young people of that time to be talking about Marxist/Leninisn. So, to them, for Chief Awolowo to be parading himself as a socialist was not acceptable.
What was their reason?
They felt he was a property class member, a member of the bourguosis class and, therefore, a bourgeoisie cannot claim to be a socialist. That was where they were coming from. But after some of us read the autobiographies of most of our leaders, we came to the conclusion that, of all the emerging Nigerian leaders, Awo had the best credentials. We didn’t see him as a perfect person but it was clear that he was well organised, clear and concise, focused on what he wanted and what he didn’t want. But, more than anything else, he had a clear view of Nigeria becoming a great country. Also, he felt that he needed to liberate his people, the people of the South-West region and his own way of liberation was not by armed struggle but through education. So, we saw a lot of this in Papa Awolowo’s disposition and we decided that we were going to get involved in the Awolowo agenda, even as very young people.
This we, who are you referring to? Was there a formal group?
Yes. We formed what we called the Dynamic Club, which we shortened to Dyna Club – I was the President. We decided to look at a number of personalities we felt we could relate with. The late Professor Awojobi was a radical who had his own ways, his own views. He was my lecturer and I was the boy that carried his lecture notes as he moved from campus to campus and prepared his theses. I was more like his assistant even though I was still a student. We identified somebody like Chief Gani Fawehinmi and a few others like that. We chose to bridge what we saw as a gap between those radicals and Awolowo. I would go to Dr. Femi Okurounmu, who was my lecturer in Engineering Thermo-dynamics, and we would say ‘why don’t you try to talk to Chief Awolowo? We also went to Dr. Abbas and Chief Ebenezer Babatope who later emerged as the Director of Organization of the Unity Party of Nigeria. We remained very proud of him (Babatope). Some of these people are still alive. That was how quite a number of people then migrated towards Awolowo. Those were the things that we did early. I was also the President of the University of Lagos Engineering Society. ULES. My friend and brother, the late Chief Segun Okeowo, was then NUNS President and a few of us did what we had to do as students – the intervention, for instance, when Gowon said 1975 was no longer feasible for relinquishing power, we were among those who agitated against that…
Sorry, what age are we talking about here because, today, I cannot imagine students of 21/22/23 getting involved in this type of engagement?
I was about 21, in 1975, and, of course, 1978, when they tried to increase the meal ticket prices, we were part of the Ali-Must-Go protest. We were quite active in those days and we strongly believed in Chief Awolowo’s leadership and a recurring decimal in what he said was that he believed in Nigeria. He felt persuaded that Nigeria is such a big country which component parts can actually survive on their own and that none should be held back. He had a dream of a Nigeria that would be so big and with very strong component parts. Between you and I, all the talk about restructuring, that is out there today, is about having a united country that would have component parts that are strong enough to contribute to the growth of that center and not the other way round. The former is more desirable for Nigeria. Awolowo wanted a united Nigeria but he believed that you cannot be a good Nigerian if you’re not first a good westerner, albeit a good Ikenne man. His belief was that our brand of federalism seems to slow down others. Look at the education system we operate, which discriminates on the basis of results and admission policy. If some people are not interested in western education, let others have it if they have their autonomy within the framework of a united Nigeria. You cannot say because some people do not want what others want, then you slow others down. Crisis begins when a child with better grades are not given admission, and another gets it with an even lower point; that begins to sow the seeds of disunity. Some issues are better domiciled in the federating units. Natural resources can be given to the federating units and let people contribute to the centre. Every part of this country has something to offer at the end of the day. There is no place in this country that is poor, we have just not allowed people to go and explore. This country is truly blessed.
That’s a sensible position but you would still need to convince some people why that is the real deal?
Look, in taking this position, I’m not oblivious of the countries that have separated and the countries that have come together. You can contrast what happened to Czechoslovakia which separated and became Czech Republic and Slovakia on the one hand, and West Germany and East Germany that chose to merge. Look at what has become of Germany which is probably the strongest country in Europe today – its economy and its stability, so we have to be really careful. The separatists keep forgetting that the reason for the agitation for additional states and local government areas is still the same reason that continues to fuel the same agitation that continues to rule the land today. If we are not careful, some of the things that we think have divided us as a country will give rise to other things that will again rear their ugly heads once separation is achieved. I read a satire yesterday that Anambra State was seceding from Biafra (laughs). The fact of the case is that Anambra is key to Biafra but you see dissent in that form. And that is how you have the different interests in different parts of the country.
Let’s take Ogun State, for instance, where we have many ethnic interests that you cannot just wish away. Some people say they want Ijebu State – that is fair. Now, if you have Ijebu State, don’t be surprised when within that Ijebu you now have issues like Remos saying they are different; and when you get to that same Remo land, some would now say ‘no’, we are Ofin, not Makun – that’s there is Sagamu. Now if you go to Ijebu, some would say, ‘okay, we are the Ijebu Ode people, some are the Egures’ – the ones from the innermost of the hinterland – they are the ones people refer to derisively as ‘THIS WAY TO’.
So, we really have to be very careful because of the bigger, more complex issues because, when the separatists have their way, those things which we never considered as capable of causing more problems would begin to rear their heads; and those other smaller ones now become accentuated and aggravated. My own thesis is that we could have a great country called Nigeria, but it has to be a restructured Nigeria, such that the component parts would have a degree of autonomy. For instance, most of the things kept on the Exclusive List in the Constitution are not supposed to be there. People have been asking questions like, what is the Federal Government doing with education, agriculture, healthcare, roads to a large extent?
So all these things should be taken out of the Federal Government. Let resources of the state be managed by the state. Over the years, we have tried to manage this conglomerate called Nigeria and those who benefit from the way it is now must be told in clear terms that, there is no alternative because people have become enlightened and, don’t forget this saying that people who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable. Let me put you on the spot. You were governor of Ogun State. Your first term was under Obasanjo and your second term was under the leadership of Yar’Adua and Jonathan, while the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, was the party at the centre.
Now, these issues you’ve highlighted, were they not there when you were in power? Because the way the whole thing is now, it is as if Nigerians have just woken up to discover that, because Muhammadu Buhari is President, from the North, then Nigeria must be restructured? So why now? Loaded issues. Let’s start with Obasanjo’s presidency: If there’s one person that Nigerians still see as strongly believing in one Nigeria the way it is, it is former President Olusegun Obasanjo. He has remained one with that view.
One Nigeria, the way it is?
Yes, with a strong central government. And he is unrepentant about that. But there was never a time that we didn’t speak about it, explaining that whereas he was president, if his intentions are good, yes, because a strong presidency in the hands of a patriotic Nigerian leader can work in a way. But we reminded him that we cannot lose sight of the fact that he cannot be there forever. Now, he tried his utmost best to do good for Nigeria, as far as using the federal might to progress his own perception of what Nigeria should be – he was not tribalistic, his appointments even favoured other people more and that was the model he ran. Therefore, people asked a question that, because he knows what to do with power for Nigeria’s good, we should leave it the way it is? No. We argued that institution-building was better and, despite all that, we were able to persuade him to call a National Conference which he started…
But that conference was not the one Nigerians wanted because the agenda changed at some point?
Well, something happened along the line (laughs).
I remember that just before the conference started, I told him that he needed to look for people in whom Nigerians would have confidence in as this was not just another jamboree. As a matter of fact, I went to him and suggested Professor Wole Soyinka and President Obasanjo agreed.
I contacted Prof. and he agreed that if we were genuine, he was ready to be involved. So, that was the Obasanjo regime.
One cannot say much about Yar’Adua because the time was quite short but there is no doubt in my mind that Yar’Adua was a detribalised Nigerian. He knew what he was doing and he was quite effective while he was there but for the health challenges he had. We cannot judge him. Yes, he was detribalised, but you also had some people playing pranks around him even before his health took a turn for the worse – that predated the so-called cabal. For all administration, there was always a cabal; so, it is for you to ensure that the cabal does not control you but you control the cabal.
Coming to Jonathan…
Yes, Jonathan, your friend.
Here was a man people believed was my friend because I worked hard for him only to receive the short end of the stick via EFCC et al, but let’s not judge him with personal issues, as we all knew he was under tremendous pressure to punish Daniel for his stubbornness from high quarters.
It’s common knowledge that this was what the EFCC ‘prosecution’ was all about. The fact of the case is that it does appear that one of the accusations against him was the fact that he was narrow-minded in the way he put his government together. No! That is not an accusation. That is a perception that is as good as reality because the records are there? Okay, let us call it perception and people came out with statistics of how he has populated the government with people from a particular ethnic group and he was seen as being unfair to the people of the South West.
In addition, people also perceived that for Jonathan, in trying to be nice, he failed to use power when he could use it to move the country forward. A lot of lapses became noticeable – yes, there may have been challenges. Nigerians are not interested in challenges because once they’ve elected you to do a job, they expect to see the results. The reality, again, is that things didn’t happen the way they were supposed to happen and that is just it. The lopsided nature of his appointments too, none of them could beat Obasanjo; so, that then leads us to this issue of restructuring and this is where Baba Obasanjo may have been proved wrong.
Yes, that power in the hands of a good person who means well and goes ahead to do well can bring a lot of good for the people, but then we have not been so lucky to have these good people to run the show and, therefore, to that extent, we need to build the institutions and that is what, to me, is the real restructuring.
But Buhari came with so much goodwill or, what I can describe as mobilised support and Nigerians expected so much. Unfortunately, what people now say we have on our hands, to be modest, is a mess?
Let’s be fair to President Buhari because I remember that, at some point in time, he confessed that the Buhari of 1984 was young and agile and he ruled with decrees and now that he’s older, he’s not as fast and agile as he was and, to that extent, we must commend that open confession coming from the President. Because of that, particularly when you look at his health challenges, people have just simply concluded that this administration has again fallen into the hands of a cabal.
You now have to begin to judge the presidency from the actions of the so-called cabal. If Buhari were able, and agile, we may have had a better governance.
Don’t forget, medical challenges don’t come in a day. My belief is that he had become relatively unwell for a while because, for instance, not constituting the cabinet for about six months speaks volumes. That had nothing to do with his health.
He claimed to be looking for the right people but ended up with most people we already knew would be appointed?
Well, that’s unfortunate. But in all seriousness, Buhari cannot be said to be in charge today.
Let’s leave his health and look at even his early appointments…
Well, I carefully listened to the defence of his aides and people around him, but what they appeared to be saying was that those appointments were personal to him and for somebody who had been a military leader, personal and close staff are usually well trusted people, and that should be expected, but most Presidents have been guilty of that with a little difference in the case of Obasanjo.
TRUST becomes the single most important factor in those appointments. But the disappointment came when appointments like those of ministers or ambassadors came and it almost followed that same pattern; that was when people really began to feel uncomfortable with what they now termed nepotism or the sort of thing we seemed to have accused others of. The conclusion could then be that, perhaps, this is a Nigerian thing or just a feeling of insecurity. Don’t let us forget about the angle of exposure of those who had ruled.
Obasanjo was the most exposed in terms of traveling and meeting people all over the world; he’s of the Yoruba stock, fought the war, went everywhere and, for him, everywhere was like home. Probably to that extent, it’s a lot easier for him, he knows most Nigerians and their antecedents.
Now contrast that with former President Jonathan who is said never to have traveled out of Bayelsa and Port Harcourt until when he became deputy governor!
When you also look at the incumbent, apart from the war, he has been a Kaduna/Katsina person and he has even confessed he doesn’t even now the people; so, at his age, he would be looking at the people he knows – though that is not an excuse but I believe that was what happened.
But I think the larger issue, even if Nigerians are willing to excuse all that, is the performance. The issues in Nigeria are very very clear, we have seen that Nigerians may not even bother about where you come from once you begin to perform. The disappointment is that Nigerians cannot see delivery of the promises made.
Okay, Boko Haram is being contained, but then herdsmen are on the rampage, inflation is spiraling, power remains a bad case and there are things that have not happened and I think the big challenge for this administration, therefore, is to face the issues and deliver, particularly on the promises made. Nigerians are not interested in what your predecessor did; in fact, it is because they no longer wanted your predecessor that they brought you in, and because we believed you had the capacity to deliver and, two years after, we can no longer accept excuses. What this administration should do now is to tackle its challenges and give results. That is the only way to go and time is not on its side.
But the situation we have now is made worse by the acting presidency which, in my view – and I may be wrong – appears to be incapacitated such that he cannot do what a President and Commander-in-Chief would have done. So, how do you expect this administration to make good progress?
It is usually the problem of people from our region, the people of the South-West, that, sometimes, we get over-cautious and, sometimes, we have opportunities and we fail to aggressively pursue those opportunities.
The Acting President is a personal friend of several decades and, if I will advise him, I will not be doing that publicly.
The much I can say, however, is that history will be kind to him if he appreciates that, constitutionally, the Acting President is the President and, to that extent, what he does, or fails to do, will not be excused because he’s Acting President because, constitutionally, the Acting President is the President at that point when he is acting.
So, my open advice, therefore, based on the concept in some quarters that government is like a cage and that if you’re not careful you can be caged, my advice is that he should break loose, act his conscience and, for whatever time he’s there, he would be able to say to himself that, ‘within limits, I was able to do the best for the country and I’m very proud of it, no matter whose ox is gored’. I think he’s a man of conscience and he’s a man of history. I think he’s highly intelligent and he has experience. He has also seen it all.
When you say break loose, this man doesn’t appear to be ready to break loose and I’ll give an instance. Look at the hate speech from the North and the IGP was told to arrest those who made it but till today nothing has happened. The boys have even dared the Police to arrest them? In this instance, my sympathy is with the Acting President. Make no mistake, Nigeria is not a particularly easy country to handle and when it happens to be issues that are ethnic and religious, there is no straight forward answer or route to solving the problem.
Yes, the people can threaten to arrest but Nnamdi Kanu that was arrested, what did it achieve? We turned Kanu into a hero. It’s not as if they cannot arrest but, sometimes, there are problems you just pray should go away because what you think is right may be counter-productive and yield the opposite effect. Sometimes, there are no straight answers to these issues.
Okay, this one must have a straight answer: President Buhari was presented as speaking to Nigerians in Hausa – though some have now said that was an interview on BBC Hausa Service – but under any guise, should that have happened, greeting Muslim faithful in that manner when there are Muslims in the other geo-political zones of the country?
That’s unfortunate and I think we must quickly hold the people handling the President responsible for their carelessness. Yes, this is a secular state; yes, the President is from the North.
In the South-West where I hail from, we are mixed – Muslims and Christians – and when a national leader wants to be presented as talking to Nigerians nationally, he should be presented as doing so using our lingua franca which is English Language. That was not a particularly smart move.
I can excuse them if they were in a hurry to let Nigerians hear him speak, but it would have been better to just issue a statement, otherwise they should have allowed him to speak in English. It is something that should be discouraged.
Let’s look at the cost of governance, vis-a-vis this issue of economic downturn?
Look, I’ve come up with a theory in recent times that there is no recession in Nigeria.
Yes! There is no recession in Nigeria. It’s now coming back to the question of the cost of governance, cost of projects. I think I’m not wrong if I declare that project cost in Nigeria is the most expensive in the world and, until we begin to be realistic on the cost of what we do – projects and how they are done – we are not going to go far.
From my perspective as an engineer, I can cost materials and I can cost labour, and I do not think we should be paying what we are paying for those projects. Look at the billions allocated to roads and bridges but, as a governor, I’ve done roads and I’ve done bridges and the current costs I’m hearing are probably seven to eight times of what I’ll approve.
Now or then?
Now and then. Then, of course, I didn’t award bogus contracts because we did what we had to do and, when I hear the figures being thrown around, for the next 1,000 years, we would not be able to tar all the roads in this country because of the costs attached. The second thing is that not until we believe in ourselves, we have not started yet. What is happening is unreasonable. We go and borrow money from countries and bring the same people to come and build roads and bridges that are not desirable and may not be desirable for the next 30 years.
They will simply repatriate their money back home and what I’m saying is what happens in all departments and agencies of government, and until we come to a situation where, if I cannot make my suit by myself, then I have no right to wear it. We have no right as a people to live above our means. We should not live in houses we cannot build or roads on which we cannot construct by ourselves. If we are able to achieve that, we would keep our resources here and save tremendously. There is no recession here. There is unprecedented mismanagement only.
But we have changed now
Change. One had thought that part of the change that will come is that one of those things that were being done would have been changed fundamentally.
Okay, where do we start restructuring from, for instance?
Cleavages are emerging with northern governors, South-West governors and governors in the East are engaging in integration. States already exist, so you cannot wish them away. What we can do is to amend the Constitution and allow the states to have access to resources and then states can begin to forge cooperation. The Constitution is too cumbersome, it should be freed. It is becoming clearer that what we have has not worked and is not working. Let’s have strong federating units that can contribute to the Federal Government.
You party, PDP seems to be in crisis and the role of the opposition is no longer there…
You are right to say that the PDP is in crisis, but I will quickly add that the APC also has its own issues. But i must concede that what is binding APC together is economic and political power, without which the party would have totally collapsed like a pack of cards.
Which the PDP once had.
Yes, but which the PDP didn’t know how to use and which caused its loss. But the crisis was also because PDP took a lot of things for granted. Regrettably, the APC that took over didn’t take it for altruistic reasons. To them, it was more like grabbing power and then think of what to do because, in the beginning of their administration, it took a while for them to understand that they were already in power and Nigerians had to remind them, because they were still behaving like the opposition.
The problem in the polity is that because we do not have patriotic people in the saddle who are ready to do what needs to be done. It is unfortunate. I have not seen any fundamental thing to suggest change. Increasingly, the issue of stomach infrastructure appears to be the new ideology and, with that, we won’t get far. Yes, we can help the needy and empower people but that is not sustainable. There are more fundamental things expected from government to shape the future and excite people. The crisis you see will not abate because what is going on is about individual interests.
Generally, what were those mis-steps by the former President that may have redeemed PDP or saved Nigeria?
In my opinion, the former President meant well but probably became overwhelmed largely because of his limited exposure to the country called Nigeria and what needed to be done. Therefore, he could only depend on people that he believed could tell him what to do…
Who appeared to have had narrow interests…?
Exactly, so, in such a situation, you must know what to do. Yes, Nigeria is complex but we need people who are exposed and that was what helped Obasanjo than many others and lack of it did not help Yar’Adua, Jonathan and even Buhari; so, exposure and experience are very necessary – people who understand the story and history of Nigeria and I’ve seen National Assembly members who do not even know how Nigeria came about. So, what we now have is a situation where people just think it is about taking money to the village and buying the votes. And for as long as that is what is happening, we are in trouble. And this happened largely under the last presidency and, again, for instance, there wasn’t enough exposure about the virtues and values of we the Yoruba people regarding what is acceptable and what is not. We may like a government but certain things are not just acceptable. Understanding that exposure is important.
Papa Awolowo was wary about the shift meant to create a South-West/North-West alliance. Some have tried to be self-righteous after the fact, that they were not supporting Jonathan but that they were merely wary of the emerging alliance in 2015, the consequence of which is what we now have on our hands. And don’t forget that some protagonists are now having to live with what we now have.
Let’s look at what I believe happened.
Increasingly, we have started witnessing the advent of never-do-wells in politics or people whose last option is politics, having failed in many other endeavours of life. We even have instances of people who have done so many things to make money and who now feel they can jump into politics and make more money. That type of thing should not have been allowed to evolve in Yoruba land. But such happened under Jonathan presidency. And that was because he probably did not have enough exposure or knowledge or both and probably did not have people who could tell him this is the way to go and that is not the way. That is the sort of thing I’m referring to.
As for Papa Awolowo, he was very clear on what he believed in and who he believed things can work and that still brings us back to restructuring. Look at what Obasanjo tried to do: Let power go round – Shagari, then himself as a Yoruba man, now the South- South has had it while the South-East is now agitating, but it is clear that rotating power has not solved and will not solve the problem of Nigeria.
And that is why Awolowo’s creed was not so much about the individuals but about a strong system in place that can then produce good individuals such that anyone who gets there, the system will always take care of it. Just look at what Trump has been doing to America but the system is strong enough to self-correct.
That is why this restructuring is the way to go. It is not about secession. The country must be a pyramid with a very strong base, within those federating units, such that even if there is a storm, the base will provide the stability no matter what happens to the top. What we have in the country today is an inverted pyramid which cannot stand the storms. I rest my case.