Chief Akin Osuntokun, erudite public affairs commentator was a senior aide in the Olusegun Obasanjo administration serving variously as a campaign adviser, presidential adviser and as Managing Director of the News Agency of Nigeria, NAN.
Osuntokun, who is worried by the state of affairs in the country in this interview makes profound comments and suggestions not only in solving the present drift, but also gives insights on how the component units of Nigeria can be joggled into a more productive entity to the benefit of all.
He also spoke on Chief Obasanjo’s contributions to national unity saying that Nigeria could have been on a better platform if the Third Term agenda had succeeded. Excerpts from the interview by Clifford Ndujihe & Gbenga Oke
What is your take on the state of affairs in the country?
We are in a situation called ‘flux’ and it is very difficult to make any sense of what is going on in Nigeria presently. Also, we are just coming out of a mini-political crisis and that is the crisis of the president’s health.
That the President, a 74- year old man, who has led a very productive and busy life, gets sick is no news. It is just a fact of life but what makes it problematic is that the position he occupies requires the full attention and ministration of body, soul and spirit, and if ill-health will deprive him of doing that, then governance will suffer. He told us he is scheduled to return to his doctors in London repeatedly. He came back about three weeks ago and confessed that he had never been this sick all his life.
The management of the report of his absence was shoddy and a little bit of a disservice to Nigerians. They told us he was hale and hearty, only for the President to say he has never been this sick in his life.
This is part of the problems the managers of public communication in Nigeria have. The media management was not done in a way one would have expected and it affected the credibility of the President. At any rate, we are in a country guided by law, the constitution anticipated that a president might fall sick and there are specified steps to contain any gap that may result.
Another persistent contemporary malaise is the economic recession. Though Nigeria has been in that recession for quite a while, how has the government grappled with the challenge? Integral to the recovery of the Nigerian economy is the management of the Niger-Delta economic crisis. Hitherto, it had been mismanaged with the ill-advised threat of militarisation. Even if you are able to militarily overcome the militants in the Niger-Delta, you cannot prospect or exploit oil in an active military zone. So, it is not a question of threatening any war, you will just be shooting yourself in the foot. It is provocative and it has not helped the situation at all in terms of crisis management.
I do not know the quality of the advice President Buhari gets, but I think he should have prioritised a visit to the South-East and South-South regions upon becoming President. These are the indices that will tell he is a Nigerian president. That a certain part of the country did not vote for you should not be an issue, those are the people you should even go and address first. You have to realise that you are the President of Nigeria and you have to reach out to everyone. People are entitled to vote for whoever they want, after all, Buhari’s supporters were not neglected all the time he lost elections, and nobody neglected them. The past presidents did not because of that alienate them. So that is one aspect of his governance that is worrisome. You need the goodwill of people to succeed.
Need for restructuring
There isn’t much about Nigeria to be happy and proud of, and our problems were compounded by the civil war and its aftermath. When we talk of restructuring today, people do not grapple the fulsomeness of its meaning. The military overlords have been doing their own restructuring since the military took over in 1966. Creation of more states and sub-division was restructuring. Nobody has done any critical audit on the functionality of those states created to see if they deserve a pass mark.
So, the country is now plagued with 36 states. Many of those states were created on the basis of who knows who, of being cosy with the consort of the military leader.
When people now say let us solve these problems; they are called names. We restructured this country up to where it is right now and those who did it, as the case is with military dictatorship, did not predicate their decision on constitutional and sustainable logic.
The Nigeria Independence Constitution (that was thrashed by the military) was the most objective, most voluntary, most comprehensive, most logical constitutional instrument that Nigeria ever had. If you talk of restructuring today people from the ‘North’ feel it is directed against them. That the proponents are being spiteful or malicious.
Who was more Northern than Ahmadu Bello? Ahmadu Bello fully subscribed to regionalism and federalism in Nigeria because it was the right thing to do. So any diversion or digression from that is out of sync. And that is why we are having issues right now. Our units of development, be it economy, social or political developments then were far more superior to what we have now. What we have now is what we call dysfunction. States, rather than being pillars to grow Nigeria, have become liabilities that are under-developing Nigeria. You have states that are not paying salaries talk less of attending to other factors of development and you think that is viable? You say you are bailing them out today, what about tomorrow? Are you going to keep bailing states out? This situation has brought to the forefront the ridiculous situation we are in.
So what do you think is the way out?
You can talk all you want, the only viable option open to Nigeria is to restructure. With restructuring, I believe Nigeria has a chance of making it, it may not solve all problems but without it, Nigeria cannot make it.
Some people like Junaid Mohammed said people mouthing restructuring should not blackmail Nigerians and that those calling for it are yet to explain to Nigerians what they want?
Look, this is disagreeable posturing and I don’t know whether another characterisation will help matters. Restructuring is to deconstruct (dismantle and reassemble) the liability of the subsisting 36 states structure into larger constitutional units-comparable to what we had when Nigeria was working in the First Republic. Having said that, the first thing that we need to realise is goodwill. We have to make people realise we are not doing this out of spite; it is not at your own expense. Given the constitutional structure of the First Republic there is no part of Nigeria-the North, the East, the West and the Mid-West that would not have fared better than what we have done in Nigeria today.
Of course the indices were there. Whichever way you want to look at it, basically we saw the quality of governance and citizenship between 1960 and 1966.
Akwa Ibom people will not agree to this posturing of regionalism….
Well, those are the complications that have arisen. That is what I am saying now, that what we need is goodwill and to be considerate. What Mohammed said is a prevalent opinion among the Northern elites, which makes them feel that restructuring is targeted against them or it will somehow be to their loss. Realistically, there is an element of self-enlightened logic in that perspective-that it will reduce the income for certain parts of the country, so we will need to address that fear. That is why I said we need goodwill and we need to sacrifice for one andrastically the waste of government resources. Second is that all these State Universities, which are nothing but glorified secondary schools, you can consolidate them into one university with satellite campuses. It will even help in bringing new and improved set of political leaders because leadership will be far more competitive.
What we have right are governors who practically do what they want, suffocate the State Houses of Assembly. All these whimsical behaviour will be a more difficult thing to do at the regional level. Accountability will be far greater than what we have now. So what I am saying is that you are going to transform from dysfunction to functionality. Enriching governors and their cronies seems to be the purpose those states are serving today and to call them to account is so difficult, that is what you call dysfunction. When you have to duplicate and replicate recurrent expenditure, that is dysfunction. Theoretically and frankly speaking, restructuring is explainable. Mohammed has done a commendable role in putting government on its feet but what is his solution to the problems we have today?
In political science, you assume the worst-case scenario and not the best-case scenario-that good people will be in government. When we are devising the infrastructure of governance, you don’t assume the best-case scenario. You assume the worst-case scenario so that if the worst comes into power, the capacity to damage will be limited. The most dynamic example of that is the United States, there are checks and balances and it is predicated on the notion that good and bad people will be in governance. That is how they are able to control somebody like Donald Trump. Imagine a situation whereby you do not have strong institutions and somebody like Trump emerges President, you can be rest assured that he will turn that society into another Russia.
Buhari came to power promising to fight corruption, insecurity and provide infrastructure. Can you assess him on those almost two years into his tenure?
On account of the successful demonization of the previous government, Buhari may benefit from any comparison. At the time Jonathan was leaving, he himself was improving on the security situation, in fairness to him. I am saying this because fighting Boko Haram is being touted as one of the major achievements of Buhari. The things they are using including the ammunition, were all things Jonathan procured before leaving office. But let us face the reality, let us assume you are fighting Boko Haram, what about the menace of Fulani herdsmen? What about Southern Kaduna? What about the Shiites? The achievement is a mixed-bag.
The crucial thing about security is giving people a sense of belonging. In a situation where you have all the security apparatus being controlled by one section of the country; it is against equity and to be Nigeria specific-against the principle of federal character, you have also laid the basis for what we have seen so far especially in Ife crisis, that has opened our eyes to the kind of politicization going on. It is working to the answer. You can see the Inspector General of Police and all other security agencies coming to Ife, to me it looks stupid saying that it is one group that should be penalized for what happened in the Ife crisis. There has to be a presumption of madness to believe Ife people woke up on that fateful day and resolved on the extermination of a community with which they have lived in amity from time immemorial.
The fight against corruption is also contentious. One of the perplexing characteristics of this government is the propensity for self-inflicted crisis. The government is undermining itself. Look at the EFCC, for instance. This is a crisis that is truly baffling and it is a reflection of chaos and what you will expect from any incoherent government. If the President made someone an acting chairman of an agency and it requires another of his subordinates to provide a report, and the person provided a report undermining your own nominee, is the President not supposed to have seen the security clearance on Magu before he was even appointed in acting capacity?
So now you found yourself in a situation whereby the DSS, which is part of the Presidency, gave a report not just once but twice giving reasons their own boss should not nominate Magu. It’s a reflection of something going wrong in the Buhari presidency. Of course there is the appearance of bias in the targets of the anti-corruption fight, the selectivity is really there and even in the judges cases, you can read some element of politics in it.
On infrastructure, I will say I have not seen anything, it is abysmal but of course the economic recession is not helping matters. I do not see how one Minister should be saddled with two ministries that are in a critical emergency situation. If you saddle one Minister with power, he will need at least 26 hours a day to begin to grapple with the problems not to talk of adding works and housing. May be there is a strategy to this that is yet to yield fruits.
Prior to the election, Buhari was saying in spite of the money spent on power during the 16 years of PDP rule, he did not see any impact. Now it is going on two years, how much has he spent on power and have you seen any difference? One of the problems this administration has is its own propaganda running far ahead of reality.
Mr Femi Adesina stated that if Buhari runs for another term he would win. How do you see that statement?
I know Femi to be a serious person but that is a statement that conforms with the airy propaganda heavy tradition of the Buhari presidency. Certainly, if Buhari runs today as we speak, he will fail at the polls abysmally. Maybe there will be magic that will be performed between now and 2019 and that is why Adesina is being prospective, maybe he is projecting into the future. Femi Adesina is a good friend, decent and God fearing person. He was just making a political statement, he is just being prospective.
You worked closely with Obasanjo and some people do blame him for bringing Yar’Adua, Jonathan and even Buhari into power. What can you say to that?
Of course Obasanjo shares the blame in their failures and successes. There is a saying that success has so many fathers but failure is an orphan. How would he have known that they will not govern well?
He was being accused of knowing that Yar’Adua and Buhari had health challenges yet he supported them to power.
It is true he was aware Yar’Adua was sick and had medical challenges but not that they were life threatening. He sought opinion of medical experts and he asked whether the sickness was such that he won’t be able to govern. Not that Obasanjo deliberately knew Yar’Adua will die in office and forced him on Nigerians. Let us be objective, as at then, there weren’t many Governors from the North who measured to Yar’Adua in terms of credibility. I think Yar’Adua ranked very high if not the highest of them and he was a very intelligent person. It was not as if there is nothing to be said for the choice of Yar’Adua, his integrity was something to be commended. He knew Yar’Adua had medical challenges but not to the extent it will constitute a governance crisis.
With regards to Jonathan, it was not really his will as such. And regarding Odili, Obasanjo said it was the governors who said they did not want him aside the EFCC cases he had then. Jonathan was chosen at the last minute as a compromise and he himself was not aware until the day he was nominated and he addressed a press conference. What worked for Jonathan is the fact that he came from the South-South and that his colleagues had nothing bad to say about him, nobody felt threatened by him. It was not as if Obasanjo had paired Yar’Adua and Jonathan from the go. And eventually when Jonathan became President, it was not his making as such, it was an accident and stipulation of the constitution and then it acquired a momentum on its own.
On Buhari, I don’t think Obasanjo played much role. He was not too involved. I would say he just weighed in on the side of Buhari in the public argument, it was not like he was going around to meet with people to support Buhari, he was not a member of APC. How Buhari became President was between the dominant Muslim North and the decision of the Asiwaju Bola Tinubu South-West political caucus. Obasanjo is not in that caucus. For him at that time, Jonathan had become a personae non-grata, so it wasn’t as if he thought Buhari was such a fantastic candidate.
Some have said that Obasanjo inflicted Nigeria with bad leaders because he was denied a third term?
I have heard it several times, people wondering out loud that would it not have been better if Obasanjo had remained or if third term had succeeded. Now, the status quo for me is a non-starter but if we are going to speculate on the prospects of that status quo, there aren’t many who would fit the role of leadership more than Obasanjo. I don’t know any other Nigerian leader who is as ideologically persuaded of Nigeria’s unity as Obasanjo. Some people want Nigeria’s unity in order to lord it over others other but in terms of basic loyalty and allegiance, I don’t know of any Nigerian leader that has the kind of passion Obasanjo has.
From 2007, look at the inadequacies of those who succeeded him. I don’t know of any Nigerian leader who is as energetic as Obasanjo. He has capacity. He is a very productive person, he is highly intelligent and he is an egoistic person who wants to be seen as the best President. He wants to be ranked the best. He has the experience, the pedigree and exposure. Obasanjo started seeing, behaving objectively as an ideologue of Nigeria unity since his days in the military.
In 1966, he was a rear commander in Ibadan when the civil war broke out. Professor Wole Soyinka, Victor Banjo and some other people; they had a group called the Third Force. They were opposed to the civil war; they wanted a progressive resolution of the crisis. They were not in support of Ojukwu or Gowon, so Banjo was commander of the Biafran Armed Forces and he was charged by Ojukwu to lead the Biafran liberation forces from Enugu through the Mid-West and South-West to Lagos to capture Gowon and Lagos. Now Banjo working with Soyinka, said ‘let us not fight through the West, let us talk to the rear commander of the Nigerian army in Ibadan (Obasanjo) and persuade him to look the other way while they march on Lagos. So they approached Obasanjo and he turned them-swearing his allegiance to the Nigerian army-So that is a practical demonstration of a person who is innately committed to Nigeria; whether Nigeria was good or bad, he defended the unity.
During his tenure as civilian President, he got Nigeria going and he has a grand vision of the country. If you want to have a bit of objectivity about Obasanjo, talk to foreigners. Why will intelligent foreigners think so highly of him contrary to the perception a lot of Nigerians have about him? These people are not dunces and they know what is going on in Nigeria.
What is your reaction to Bamaiyi’s claim in his book that Obasanjo took part in the military coup against Abacha detained him (Bamaiyi) unjustly because he was afraid he will topple his government?
When people talk sometimes, you will marvel at the illogicality. How will Bamaiyi be in a position to overthrow Obasanjo’s government? These are the kind of things people say that do not make any sense. So, as President, Obasanjo will leave Bamaiyi, as Chief of Army Staff? So from the word go, there is an element of daftness in the whole thing. Secondly, I am not being immodest about his capacity, if Obasanjo were to be involved in a coup, there is no way that coup would not have been successful. The reality is that the man who implicated him, Bello Fadile, when he was released after Abacha died recounted how he was tortured to implicate him. So people like Bamaiyi are none issues but more importantly, he will be remembered as a villain in Nigeria’s history.
Look at what he did to Diya and all of them. At the Military trial, the first thing that Diya said was, where is Bamaiyi who was the mastermind of the coup? I don’t know the story Bamaiyi wants to tell us now. He had better learn to live the tragedy of the rest of his sunset in peace.