By Ikenna Asomba
Ahead of the inauguration of the president-elect, Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and human rights activist, Dr. Olisa Agbakoba, looks at issues in the polity which, according to him, border on national order, constitutional reform, devolution of powers, anti-corruption, diversification of the economy, driving new public revenue, maritime, space and aviation. Agbakoba, however, says the litmus test for the president-elect concerns the political will to deal with salaries paid to federal lawmakers as well as the huge budgetary allocation to the Presidential Villa. Excerpts: The elections have been lost and won, and the transition into a new government is only weeks ahead. What’s your critical assessment of the Nigerian state towards a New Deal which you spoke about in your recent letter to the president-elect, Maj-Gen. Muhammadu Buhari?
One thing we must understand is that Nigeria’s problem is not its economic resources or its finances, but its lack of peace.
This lack of peace has a history in the shape of three political constitutions we have operated. The colonial constitution, which was not in the interest of Nigeria; the civil constitution, which lasted between 1960 and 1966 and didn’t serve the interest of Nigerians; and the military constitutions designed to empower the various heads of state but didn’t have the interest of Nigerians at heart. The makers of the constitutions were ruling for the sake of themselves and their constituencies. Therefore, there wasn’t any peace and that was why the pro-democracy movement rose to challenge and confronted them.
Then, we had the Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan’s attempts to find peace in Nigeria. The National Conferences we have had were about peace and stability in Nigeria. That is why the biggest power the President enjoys is the power given by Section 5 to order the state of things in Nigeria, for the peace, order and good governance of the country. But, unfortunately, the National Conference process starting from Obasanjo, who had a third term agenda, was not genuine and the Jonathan process, which I was a party to, is incomplete. As I speak, we don’t have political compass for Nigeria. So, we are a mass of people with various cleavages and fault lines – religious, ethnic, linguistic – roaming in the vast territorial space called Nigeria, which Chief Obafemi Awolowo referred to as a geographical expression.
We have not condescended Nigeria into a national spirit which we can say for the love of country. Unless, this is tackled, we are heading nowhere yet. This is why I have written the president-elect to be aware of the booby-traps. He has a historic moment to deal with lack of constitutional order. This is the major issue that Buhari must resolve. Once you are building a house and your architect gives you a design, building becomes easier. At the moment, Nigeria lacks the constitutional architecture that can drive the release of economic energy. If we don’t do this, we can’t go anywhere.
Corruption, second most important issue
The second most important issue Buhari must pay attention to is corruption. All governments of Nigeria have paid lip-service to the issue of corruption. Buhari has now presented himself as a person and he has gotten a groundswell of support from Nigerians across the divides to tackle corruption. So, he has to be held to account for all the political promises he made. He should deal with the unconstitutional salaries of the National Assembly members. The Revenue Fiscal Mobilization and Allocation Commission (RFMAC) sets salaries, but the National Assembly refused to follow it. The money Nigerian lawmakers get constitutes about 25 percent of our national budget. Why won’t Nigerians want to go to the National Assembly if, as a member of the House of Representatives, I can get about N600 million, on the average, in a year? The lawmakers in the Senate get as much as N1 billion per annum; that’s why they kill themselves to go there. So, the lawmaker’s interest is not to go and make or pass laws, but because of the money that is there. That is also why they perform below average.
I see this development as a corrupt practice and that is another most important thing Buhari must confront. The National Assembly must be brought to book. They must be made to conform with the constitution.
It’s a big shame that the lawmakers are the ones that break the constitution and pay themselves the stupendous salaries they take home. I put this as a litmus test to Buhari. If he is able to tackle this issue of bringing the National Assembly within the lawful pay structure of Nigeria, I will clap for him. Then, of course, the profligate lifestyle of the average Nigerian politician has to go. Ten aircraft in the presidential fleet, when we have no national carrier? The government has a security vote as high as N2 trillion, which is almost half of our entire national budget. So, we see that this situation has contributed to the need for politicians to fight-to-the-finish for political powers. If as a governor I have N2 billion every month and don’t account to anybody, you can imagine how people will line up to die for that job, not for the love of the country, but for the love of the pocket. So, this is the task for the president-elect. It’s not rocket science. It’s is very easy to achieve this in this country.
Again. the Presidential Villa alone spends about N50 billion. Why must everybody who go there be entitled to a meal? All these have to stop. It’s unfortunate that we are practising a culture that doesn’t promote accountability. These are the important things Buhari must do differently, otherwise, it will be the same old story. I think we are tired of election promises, because this time, we have a new President who has come to office on the major campaign slogan of incorruptibility and public accountability. So, it’s our duty as citizens to speak out and for the media to hold him to account. In the first 30 days, we want to see results.
Toeing Roosevelt’s line
Nigeria reminds me of the great depression in the US, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the President. The country had collapsed and people were despondent. Nigeria has that same parallel. So, what Roosevelt did is what I hope Buhari will do. He should have a massive plan of action which he executes. Having being elected President, he must have come with a clear idea of who and who will assist him develop the plan. I have raised some issues which I feel are relevant for Buhari to address in the letter I wrote him. But if he doesn’t tackle the issue of national order and anti-corruption framework, the other issues such as the economic matters, financial services sector, aviation/space, legal/justice sector and housing/mortgage will fail.
Why Nigeria is bleeding
For instance, in the financial services sector, it is inconceivable that a person in the UK will not be entitled to a mortgage after employment. Most employees in Nigeria don’t have houses they own. They are tenants, but they have jobs. In the UK, you will be owners of the houses, because the same ability to pay rent applies to the mortgage.
So, they leave out the rent and use the mortgage. A lot of what they do abroad is not rocket science, but because they have the legal framework and they have policies that promote the public good, that’s why things are working for them.
Now, a bank in Nigeria is not going to give any loan, but they will give the loan to about three to five big men who will trade and give them returns. I challenge a single Nigerian bank to say they are banks in the right sense of the word. They are all money lenders. The duty of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) as the financial regulatory authority is to prevent banks from exploiting the system to their own advantage. It has happened in the UK. Their own CBN even punished the Barclays Bank when they cooked their books. Over there, you find out that the regulators are always pushing the banks to the direction of public interest. So, I think Buhari should strongly work on the financial services sector because it’s the oxygen, real blood of the nation’s economy. So, the banking system supplies oxygen to the economy. Anybody who is not concerned about whether the citizens are getting oxygen is not fit to be President. You must be alert to what the banks are doing. The banks are supposed to lend to consumers. If the money is readily available, the people can borrow to meet their needs. This is called consumers banking. But in Nigeria we are operating traders banking, that’s why Nigeria is bleeding.
No national carrier, but countless foreign airlines On aviation, I don’t understand why we shouldn’t have a national carrier, but we have foreign airlines dominating our airspace. If you are a true business man, money comes when you have several sources of generating it. I don’t know whether the Nigerian policies makers understand that money can’t only come from oil. Money will come from oil, agriculture, commodities and aviation put together. Nigeria’s entire cash package is too small. It’s only N4 trillion. But in just one sector, the aviation sector, foreign airlines take away a quarter of our budgets. So, you can see how we are suffering.
Look at South Africa that is giving us problems today owns MTN. But MTN makes much money in Nigeria than Dangote Group of Companies and all the banks put together. Yet, they have nothing here. How can any serious policy planner allow such a leak, where people are allowed to come into the country, make money and take it away. With this, Nigeria will continue to bleed. So, financial planning requires Gen. Buhari to shed the roots and trees. He has to put Nigeria first. I had expected the Nigerian government to summon the South African ambassador and warn him that their businesses here will suffer if they continue to kill Nigerians in their country. Nigeria is a great country and I had only wished that the incoming President will fulfil his campaign promises.
There is no doubt that Nigeria is already witnessing cash-crunch, thus a major challenge for the incoming government. In the light of this enormous challenge, don’t you think the new administration should go after past leaders who have allegedly stolen from the country to recover money that will be used to run the country?
It’s going to be a difficult and a complex issue. One, you don’t want to give the impression of a witch-hunt, but at the same time you don’t want to let go of stolen monies. If I were President Buhari, I will adopt the blind-fold of the Justice. If you erect the right institutional framework to fight corruption, it will catch the mice.
It will be absolutely credible. But when you make it subjective, saying the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is a catch-cow, let’s go there, it won’t work. Create the structure and let it do its work. Whatever the structure turns-up, don’t interfere.
Your job is to create strong police force. Unless Buhari promulgates a process to put in place a new constitution, it will be the same old story. I am looking forward to a situation where if the President errs, he gets a letter from the Attorney-General, who writes him to say Mr. President you have erred. That’s the kind of anti-corruption process I want to see Buhari unfolds. Once you have done that the job is done. So, nobody will accuse him of any personal agenda or witch-hunting.
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