A few days ago, Nigeria marked 20 years of unbroken democracy with President Muhammadu Buhari, the fifth leader since 1999, took the oath of office for a second term. However, radical human rights activist and lawyer, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu reviews Nigeria’s journey through the last two decades and warns that the nation may not survive another 20 years. He spoke with ONWUKA NZESHI
Twenty years ago, Nigerians celebrated the exit of the military and the rebirth of democracy with high hopes for socio-economic developments. Do you think the hopes have been realised?
It’s a bit of a difficult one. I don’t think there is any straightforward answer to it. The military as a uniformed service has stayed out of direct power in Nigeria for the past 20 years, which is the longest stretch that they’ve kept to themselves in the barracks.
But there is also the fact that of the four Presidents that we’ve had since 1999, two have been retired generals, the third was the inheritor of a retired general and the other one accidentally got into power when the inheritor of the retired general passed on.
So while the uniformed military service has stayed out of power, it is also possible to argue that what they did was actually change uniforms from the starched Khaki or fatigues of the Army to the starched babanriga of the civilian. As a matter of fact, not much has changed.
In many ways the military remains the most organised political, economic and cultural force in Nigeria. By the way, it is not just the regimental culture that I am talking about here because increasingly, the military has taken over the traditional institutions across the country.
In Northern Nigeria, for instance, the Sultan of Sokoto is a retired military officer; the Sarkin Gwandu is a retired general; the Etsu Nupe is a retired general and these are some of the biggest traditional stools in the country.
If you move down to Southern Nigeria, the Amanyanabo of Twon Brass, King Alfred Diette Spiff is a retired general; the Orodje of Okpe, Felix Mujakpero is a retired general and Oba Gbadebo in Egbaland is a retired colonel. So that’s what I mean by a cultural force. Their influence is no longer limited to just politics and economy; it’s gone further than that and if you extend it to other uniformed services, somebody like the Gbom Gwom Jos is a retired Customs Officer and even the Oba of Lagos is a retired police officer.
So there is a later where which we must take notice of. The people from the regimented culture are increasingly taken over the country through political legitimacy.
How has this affected our politics and democracy?
Our politics is regimented. It is bandit politics. It’s bandit elections. In my view, there is nothing that PDP did in its 16 years that APC has not accomplished in four years in terms of electoral banditry. This is why for a lot of Nigerians, the parties don’t seem different from one another because the values that underpin their conduct are virtually the same.
Remember that after the Osun Elections, the National Chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole had a Freudan moment during which he said that only people who could endure the pain of rigging were fit enough to run for political office in Nigeria. Really, that tells you exactly what has been happening. The 2003 and 2007 Elections can count as some of the worst elections in the history of Nigeria but the 2019 elections does not come too far behind in terms of how terribly they were conducted. No Chairman of INEC can escape personal condemnation for the failure of the elections in 2015.
Why do we have what you called banditry elections?
I think we should blame the politicians. I think that it is important for the institutions to take part of the responsibilities. By institutions, I mean the political parties, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the security services – Army, Air Force, Navy and the Police.
When you think that the acting Inspector General of Police was new at the time the Police organised the 2015 Elections and that he actually tried to keep the Police neutral, you will see how bad it could have been if we had his predecessor in office for this. But that is just the way it is.
Are you saying that in 20 years, Nigerians do not have anything to cheer about their democracy?
No, that’s not what I am saying. The country is still on existence; that’s something to cheer about as a plus. People in civilian clothes are running the country; that’s also something to cheer about. But I’m not desperate to find news to cheer if there is none and particularly on this day which we call the National Day of Mourning. My sense is that if I look at the balance sheet, by and large, the negatives have been more than the positives which is that we’ve had too many stolen elections; we’ve had too many violent elections and we have governments that have failed to take their mandates seriously.
We’ve had state government’s where most leaders have failed with only a few exceptions, particularly Lagos and Anambra. When you discount those ones, you will discover that most of the state government’s have failed to take their mandates seriously. This is why you’ve got this mass failure of government’s, resulting in mass insecurity across the country, particularly in the three geo-political zones in the North. This is due to a failure of governance.
As I said earlier, I am not desperate to cheer, because there is very little to cheer when you look at the balance sheet realistically.
What is this National Day of Mourning on the eve of the presidential inauguration and anniversary of our democracy?
I am one of the conveners of the National Day of Mourning and part of the reason is that we have so many Nigerians being killed and not acknowledged by the political leaders of the country. Our politicians have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) on all of us. They are behaving as if our lives don’t matter and the safety of our neighborhoods don’t matter. Our coexistence don’t matter to them. There is no evidence that they take the death or killing of any Nigerian seriously and because of that foreigners are also killing us when we visit their country. They don’t treat us with respect and we cannot be talking of the celebration of our existence as a country and of our institutions and form of government and forget that tens of thousands of Nigerians are unable to do that because they were killed in circumstances in which they did not have to die. Thousands of people have been killed because of the insecurity which afflicts most of the country.
Just before coming into this meeting, I met with a young woman who is barely 25. She casually told me how she had been abducted in one of the states in the North West. She was abducted alongside her mother and brother and held by their abductors for ten days. Her father was required to pay a ransom of N5,000,000 but upon his arrival with the money, he was abducted too. Eventually all of them were released but their relatives had to raise an extra N5, 000,000 and pay in order for them to be released. But she told the story very casually that it appears we now take it as normal that you could just be kidnaped any moment anywhere in our country.
It is said that the primary purpose of government is the security of lives and property. Why do you think our government is unable to meet this critical obligation?
They don’t care. During the National Day of Mourning, we marched to the Federal Ministry of Justice and we went along with a list of just the people who have been killed since the beginning of this year. We wanted to read out their names to the minister and ask him for justice on their behalf symbolically. Of course when we got there, the Minister, Abubakar Malami vanished, his Permanent Secretary vanished and all the Directors vanished. They locked the gate on us. Nobody would listen to us.
In the end, they sent a security guard to tell us that we could bring in whatever we had in form of letters or documents through the side gate and they would register it and stamp it so that we know that it’s receipt has been acknowledged. I told them we can’t do that because they were disrespecting is as citizens and owners of this country. I told them you can’t send to us a security guard on this matter. Where is the Permanent Secretary and Directors of the Ministry of Justice? Why are they not here? All the Directors can’t be out of the Ministry at the same time so send one of them to listen to us.
They started shouting at us. They told us we should get out of their gate because they were expecting some VIPs. So I decided to block the gate with my body and told them to tell the VIPs to climb my body and get inside since they don’t think dead Nigerians matter. They should kill another one to raise the casualty figures. You can see the attitude. They don’t care.
The truth is that people who run our public offices at the low or high levels, don’t have any regard for the sanctity of Nigerian lives or indeed the value of the Nigerian citizenship.
If they cared and if we as citizens cared to exert a cost for their uncaring attitude, I don’t think things will be this way.
Beyond observing this National Day of Mourning, what should citizens do to make their lives matter to the government of Nigeria?
We’re going to escalate our protest. Apart from just asking for the firing of the service chiefs, we would go to the National Assembly to seek a legislative backing to the National Day of Mourning and Remembrance. We would get a particular movement that would escalate this cause against politicians who continue to behave this way.
How would you rate the performance of our successive governments on the economy in the last twenty years?
The economy has been up and down. When President Olusegun Obasanjo came into power, the price of crude oil was a little above $30 per barrel. The economy picked up at some point and we went through a period of boom.
Under President Yar’Adua and President Jonathan, oil sold for well over a $100 per barrel and then we got back into the zone of $30 or $40 or $60 per barrel. We’ve also had the naira devalued substantially over that period. So in terms of economic growth, the graph is not straight forward. We’ve really not had it rosy in recent years.
The Minister of Budget and National Planning recently reported that this last quarter was the period with the greatest economic growth since this government came to power. Mind you the growth he was referring to us about 2.1 per cent of the GDP. If you compounded economic growth numbers since 2014 and take the average, we are still in negative growth territory over the past five years.
But over that same period, our population has grown exponentially. If you look at INEC’s Voter Registration numbers, between 2015 and 2019, there was a growth of about 20 million. Now, that tells you something. Whatever technical explanation INEC gives you, you can see that we are growing exponentially. Basically, with flat line economic growth on one hand and exponential demographic growth on the other hand, we have a crisis of demand and supply.
This is part of the reason for the violence and widespread insecurity across the land. Basically, the number of mouths families have to feed cannot be sustained by what we’ve got to feed them.
Do you think that our government understand these statistics and what they portend for Nigeria?
If they do, they are not showing it yet.
We have just concluded a general election and the incumbent has gotten a renewed mandate. Do you think the electorate understand the powers they have over those who govern them?
I don’t think so. Our citizens are also up against tremendous forces. You saw all the resources deployed towards voters suppression during ‘ the elections. It was immense and in many places people were beaten up; thugs were deployed; soldiers and other uniformed personnel went for a showdown to destroy votes and injure people who were trying to vote. They attacked voters, dispersed them, engage in mass thumb printing and all of that none sense.
So, citizens are up against lot of obstacles and when citizens are impoverished at the scale we have it here in Nigeria, it takes a lot from them.
I don’t blame Nigerian citizens because when you are up against the kind of arsenal of cynicism and political nihilism they face, there isn’t so much you can do.
How far do you think we have fared in to key sectors like education and health during this period?
You listened to the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu apologising the other day for not being able to address the issue of out of school children. When he came on board and launched his Education Strategy, he promised to cut down on the number of out of school children. When President Muhammadu Buhari hosted the Education Summit in 2017, he gave the number of out of school children as 13.5million. In 2010, the figure was about 10 million and as we speak the number is said to have risen to about 15million.
Now that is the number of children who will be recruited into all manner of social vices. Out of that number, most of them are actually from northern Nigeria. So we’ve got an hemispheric education crisis. But it’s actually a crisis across the board of skills in the country.
Is there any hope in the horizon?
The picture is not looking bright. I think we need to admit that Nigeria’s immediate prospects are tough. The structural fundamentals are difficult, the demographics and economic fundamentals are difficult and leadership prospects don’t offer any realistic choices in terms of being able to see leaders who will make the kinds of difficult decisions needed to take us out of this situation.
There is only so much you can borrow your way out of this mess. We are growing debts at such a page that in the short term, we are not going to have the resources to be able to do any other thing beyond repaying debts and servicing government’s overheads.
After that nothing else can work. According to available statistics, we are now a nation of 201 million people and we are going to be about 350 million people in the next 20 years.
At that time, where are we going to get the money enough to feed, clothe and educate and provide healthcare for all our population? By the way, at that point, oil is not going to be a major financier of our economy because the Europeans and North Americans are downgrading fossil fuel.
Hydrocarbons are beginning to look like they are going to be the major feature of the rest of the world. Therefore, our earnings from oil are going to come down and we are not growing our gas resources to the extent that it can replace crude oil or create some transition from condensate to gas. That is going to be a crisis for us. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be engaging the attention of our leaders.
You’ve analysed our situation and concluded that there is a crisis in the horizon. What do you advise Nigerians to do to avert the looming danger?
If we all think that our country is great the way it is, we should continue being docile. If we don’t think it is, then we should do something. When President Buhari came to power in 2015, the common belief was that: Oh, his body language is fantastic. You know, if you want to boil tea and you look at his body language, it will boil the tea for you. If you have fertility problems in your household, just look at his body language and there will be pregnancies everywhere in your compound. Quite clearly, that body language has not been able to get us out of our insecurity, our economic problems or any of our challenges. It has not been able to get budgets passed at the right time. We are signing the budget for this year on the 28th of May; that’s nearly half of the year gone. The body language of the President has not been able to get us anywhere.
On my view, that is because the President has not shown that he cares about anything.
Nigerians have had to scream, drag and fight for everything. Why do we have to do that?
Imagine a whole four years, there was not one cabinet reshuffle. No minister was moved from anything to anywhere except where somebody died and you just tell another person to just look after that place.
Things are so bad that the President doesn’t even care to replace ministers who have left the government.
So why am I going to tell him anything. There is nothing I tell him that will make any meaning. It’s a waste of saliva.
What do you think is the solution to these challenges bedevilling Nigeria?
Leadership needs to change. You can’t do much in an atmosphere like this one. In my language, the word for leadership is ochichi while the word for darkness is ochichiri. It therefore means that it is not a long distance to travel from the failure of leadership to darkness. The worst thing that can happen to any people is to have bad leadership, terrible leadership and incapable leadership. When leadership is as incapable as it is on a vast scale in Nigeria, you’re on your way to darkness. It is not an accident that NEPA is also NEPA and associated not with light but darkness. It is all because leadership is not working in Nigeria. Leadership is the first thing we got to fix. If we fix it and fix our institutions, we stand a chance but if we don’t, we don’t stand a chance. It us as simple and as practical as that. Nothing is going to save us if we fail to do the right things. All these business of agitation that once the President comes from my part of the country, everything will be fine is a lie. Look at northern Nigeria, nearly every security chief today is from northern Nigeria. Has that made northern Nigeria any safer? No. So this is not a matter about where leadership comes from, it is about the quality of the leadership and what they choose to do with the power in their hands. As for the next cabinet, if he likes let h appoint everybody from his village to every position in Nigeria, if he does not change the fundamentals, nothing will change.
He’s got to find good people from everywhere because they are indeed everywhere across Nigeria. It is those good people that can help you but if you continue all of these things we are doing now, this country is going to go down. I mean this version of Nigeria will not survive. I want to make it clear.
Nigeria can work but the version that we have now cannot work unless we do something. Is it possible for Nigeria to work as a nation? Yes. Is this version of Nigeria. That we are practicing likely to work? No.
Where do you see Nigeria in the next 20 years?
I don’t even know whether I would be alive in the next twenty years. So I don’t know where this country will be. Frankly, I don’t know. If we continue on the current trajectory, we may not have a Nigeria in the next 20 years. That’s my fear. So we need to change the trajectory in order to sustain this project because these young people of these days are not going to have the patience that the present generation has to save the country.
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