As Nigeria marks the 60th anniversary of its independence, many prominent citizens have been reviewing the journey to nationhood and offering advice on how to make the years ahead better. In this interview, a former Governor of Edo State, Prof Oserheimen Osunbor tells ONWUKA NZESHI that there is a need to restructure Nigeria in order to devolve powers to the federating units and make governance more efficient and cost effective
Nigeria is marking its 60th independence anniversary, but do you think we really have something to celebrate?
Yes, I think we have every reason to celebrate. It is just like somebody attaining the age of 60 and you are asking the person whether he has anything to celebrate. For the fact that you are alive at all, is of course something to thank God for, it is a good reason to be thankful to God because many who were born the same time you were born 60 years ago have gone; they are not alive anymore.
So for God Almighty to spare your life as a human being to attain 60 gives cause for celebration. By celebration I don’t mean rolling out the drums, bringing bottles of Champagne and drinking but a moment of reflection. They said if you cast your mind back and see what God had done for you, you would have every reason to be thankful. Nigeria went through a difficult, bitter 30 months civil war and came out of it. How many countries have been able to survive that?
In 1960, I think Nigeria had only one university, the University of Ibadan. Maybe, the University of Nigeria was being conceived at that time and later we had one or two other universities. Now we have over 150 universities in Nigeria.
Doesn’t that call for celebration? The level of literacy in 1960 was very low compared to what it is now, that in my view calls for celebration. In 1960 guinea worm was very endemic in Nigeria. In fact, I recall as a child going to hospital, I saw guinea worm coming out of somebody’s body, very unsightly thing at that time. But thankfully, Nigeria has been rid of guinea worm.
There are some children today that have never seen a guinea worm. If you also talk of polio, this has also been eradicated from Nigeria. This calls for celebration. If you look at the infrastructure in Nigeria, the number of airports, roads and of recent railways has been extended beyond the point at which the British left it at independence.
All these years, not one kilometre was added to the rail tracks that the British left but now railways are been extended across the length and breadth of Nigeria. Again, that in my view, calls for celebration. In 1960 people in the Niger Delta area raised fears of minority rights. At that time, Isaac Adaka Boro was spearheading the struggle, they were struggling for freedom amongst others. Even my people in the Midwest were clamouring for freedom. Joseph Takar in Tiv land was clamouring for freedom, but all those struggles have, to a large extent, ended.
All these and many more in my view are reasons why Nigeria should be thankful to God. We have made progress, but as people would say, not to the extent one expected, when you compare the progress we have made and the resources that have accrued to Nigeria over these years.
You will be pained to realise that a lot of our resources was frittered away. So, how we wish we were able to make more judicious use of the resources that have come our way since 1960. But it is not a reason to despair.
As I said we are learning from the bitter lessons of the past. More and more crop of younger Nigerians with a passion for development are showing interest in politics and participating in the process and I believe that God willing they will be able to avoid the mistakes which the older generation of politicians made.
Mind you, some of these politicians were on their 20’s and 30’s when all of a sudden the nation was thrust on them. They were young men and young women so they were bound to make mistakes but now we have older people with more experience, more education, more broad minded, better travelled and with the age of internet we have a lot more access to information about good governance. I believe that with a combination of all these, the years ahead would be better than the years before.
How would you assess the political landscape in Nigeria today?
It has long been considered that the leadership recruitment process has not favoured the younger politicians, but that has also begun to change with Mr. President assenting to the Not Too Young to Run Bill which is now an act of the National Assembly.
We have not seen much impact of that bill but as time goes on, I believe that we will begin to see more and more young politicians ascending to positions of political leadership in Nigeria. Another notable feature of the political landscape is the participation of women.
We are seeing more and more women becoming very active in politics even though the numbers that have won elections to the national assembly still falls below the so called Beijing Conference benchmark of 35 per cent representation. We are improving and we are making progress. We have had female politicians being elected as deputy governors of states and we have even had females participating in governorship elections. It is only a matter of time, the political space will admit more and more of this new type of politicians – one, younger crop of political leadership and secondly more and more female participation in the politics of Nigeria. For the next 20 years I hope that we are going to witness a lot more progress than we’ve recorded in the last 20 years. What is your view of the clamour for the restructuring of the Nigeria?
Well, my views are largely informed by my participation in the All Progressives Congress (APC) Committee on True Federalism. You would recall that in the year 2017, the national leadership of the party put in place the Governor El-Rufai -led Committee on True Federalism.
We made far reaching recommendations in the course of that exercise which was really informed by the clamour for true federalism or what some people would call restructuring. So we addressed a number of issues that we gathered from memoranda, representations which were made to the committee in the six geopolitical zones of the country and we aggregated together these suggestions and proposals, and made our recommendations to the party.
Let me talk about the issue of devolution. When people talk about restructuring, they are in fact saying that the states have to be stronger in order that they can play the role that is expected of them as federating units in Nigeria. As of now, they are very weak and many of them, virtually all of them cannot really stand firmly on their own as federating units.
So we recommended devolution of certain functions from the federal to the state government and concomitantly as you are devolving functions of powers, you also devolve the financial resource so that the states will be more financially empowered to be able to perform those functions.
We looked at the issue of state police and for me the logic is very simple. Most of our laws particularly criminal laws are directed at state offences whether it is stealing, kidnapping, forgery, you name it; these are all state offences, only a few are federal offences. For instance the ones created under the EFCC Act are offences against the currency and so on. Immigration offences, banking offences, those are federal offences but other general offences are state offences.
But it is an anomaly that the states that create these offences are unable to enforce those laws through their police because the states don’t control the police. So you have an anomaly where a state house of assembly creates an offence but has no police to enforce that offence, it will have to rely on the federal police and if the federal police is not so disposed they cannot assist the states to enforce its own laws. That is a serious anomaly and an aberration in a federation. So that was the logic and other reasons that made us to recommend state police which is different from community policing. Another recommendation that I can talk about is the provision for the merger of states.
There is a lot of clamour that as states, we want to be able to organise ourselves; we have heard that clamour among states. For instance we have the Amotekun among states of the South-West region, you have the BRACED among states of the South-South region. Of course, you have the Northern Governors Forum and even the Ohaneze Ndigbo in the South East region. The governors of these zones meet from time to time to identify commonalities amongst the states. So we felt that if a group of states feels strongly that they need to merge, why can’t they merge because they are already doing so through this other arrangement that I talked about. So if they want to take it further, let them take it further, harness their resources together and be able to build for instance railways.
As it is now, apart from one or two states, states cannot embark on the construction of railways which by the way we also feel should be devolved from the federal to the states.
But if there is a merger among states or pooling of resource among states, it is doable. So we feel there is a merit in allowing some kinds of merger amongst those who are willingly. This has to be done through a referendum where they agree that this is what they want to do because it is not just a few vocal politicians dictating this for the people.
The people can, through a referendum decide whether or not they want to go back to a merger. I say this because I am mindful of the fact that even amongst these geopolitical zones, there are states who don’t want to go back to the old regional system because they suffered a lot or marginalisation under the old regional system. So don’t compel them to go back to that regional system.
But the people are free to decide through a referendum that for these purposes we want to pull our resources together and forge ahead as one provided that this does not constitute a threat to national stability or infringe on the territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. So long as those threats are not there, states should be free to enter into mergers.
Also, with another provisory that if you as a state, decide to merge you cannot unmerge easily. It will take at least another 20years or 25years before you can exit what with your eyes wide open you decided to go into. This is to ensure that people will consider it very seriously before taking the decision.
Do we as a state want to merge with this other state? If the people so wish, they can go ahead but once you are in it, you cannot get out until maybe another future crop of politicians would have emerged by which time those who pushed the process would have retired from the scene.
These are my views and I believe that sooner or later Nigeria will see the merits in the recommendations that we made and implement at least some of them if not all of them.
Do you see your party the APC implementing this report because it does seems that the man at the helm of affairs is not favourably disposed towards restructuring or power devolution?
Well, you said it may seem but he has not said so. He gave his support to the exercise when we did it and in fact our Chairman Governor El-Rufai had series of meetings with Mr. President while this exercise was ongoing and the National Chairman at the time, Chief John Odigie Oyegun also briefed the President from time to time.
So I wouldn’t jump into the conclusion that he doesn’t want to implement it. I believe that at the appropriate time those recommendations will be looked at and the needful would be done.
Nigeria seems to be nose diving into economic stress. What is your take on this?
Well, you said the state of the economy is in distress and every enlightened Nigeria knows the reason for this. The reason is our over dependence on crude oil as our source of foreign exchange earnings because Nigeria is an import dependent country.
A lot of the things we need including the camera you are using are all imported and we buy these things with foreign exchange and the main source of our foreign earnings is crude oil and whenever there has been a dislocation in the international market for crude oil Nigeria’s economy suffers greatly
Of recent there have been a number of negative developments internationally; the glut in the international oil market with Saudi Arabia, Russia, threatening to flood the market with excess crude oil supply which will mean that the price of crude will fall. But over and above all those factors is COVID-19 pandemic for which reason most of the world economy shut down for several months.
This means that the buyers of our crude oil were not able to buy oil.
In fact at a time the price of crude oil was minus two dollars. You may recall that at a time, crude oil was selling for about 28dollars a barrel, but at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, crude oil was now minus two. I was imagining how do you get to minus two.
The reason for this is that international oil brokers that really buy this crude and the charter ocean going tankers to convey them charge some money. For every day that your crude is on the tanker, they pay a lot of money for hiring those tankers.
So the longer those tankers were on the ocean with your crude oil, the more you will be paying to the owner of the tanker. So people were now begging for buyers to take the oil off them. I pay you two dollars to please empty the oil from the tanker in order to minimise my loss of 20,000 dollars a day for chartering the tanker.
So these are some of the things that have affected Nigeria’s economy and it re-enforces the need for us to diversify the economy and go into other solid minerals that abound in this country.
We can also develop our agriculture and it is a good thing that this government is emphasising agriculture and they are giving all kinds of incentives for the farmers to be able to grow the foods that we consume in this country and even export to other countries.
Why are we so endowed with natural resources and yet we still have a poor economy?
I want to speak on an issue which not many people are conscious about or are willing to speak publicly about and that is our population. People are saying that by 2050 Nigeria will be the most populous country in the world and we are a predominantly poor country.
As of now Nigeria is said to be the poverty capital of the world as they so described. While government is doing its best to lift people out of poverty, the sad situation is that while one million people are being lifted out of poverty, about three million new babies are being born into poverty.
The mystery of nature is that it is the poorest people that have the largest number of children. Maybe, it is the way God used to balance it or maybe the poor don’t have too much to bother themselves about and they have only one source of pleasure.
But the result of that is that you have poverty being multiplied in Nigeria at a faster rate than economic recovery. I am sure that the government is aware of this problem, it is an existential problem for Nigeria, the issue of over population. You know that the economy is growing at less than two per cent per annum but the population is growing at least at three per cent per annum.
So at any point in time the economy is under stress not because government is not doing anything, but because the number of mouths that government has to cater for, the number of people that government needs to build houses for, build schools for, is outstripping the resources available to government.
As the population is increasing, it is increasing the pool of criminals because some of these people who grew up without the love of their parents, without compassion, cannot have compassion on anybody because they feel the society has been unfair to them, so they have no mercy standing on the highway and opening fire on any vehicle that is passing because they feel that society has been unfair to them.
So no matter how much the government is doing in order to ameliorate the economic situations of those people, unless we tackle the problem from the foundation, from its roots, we are not going to get it right.
So we like to hope that government will intensify its efforts at economic diversification, economic recovery but the time has come to face squarely the looming danger of population explosion in Nigeria. I am not prepared at this stage to use the expression population control because people can read so many things into that including the method which was adopted by China and that method served the Chinese people very well.
Now China is a model because they had the discipline to plan for the future of their country and part of that plan was planning about their population.
They are even planning now to export some of the excess population to developing countries including African countries. It means they have a policy. What is the population policy of Nigeria? I think the time has come for us to sit down and begin to fashion out a population policy for Nigeria.
What is your impression of the performance of your party, the APC in the last governorship election in Edo State?
Well the election has come and gone but for me the most important thing is that our worst fears did not materialise. There was fear in the minds of many people that the election would be bloody, there would be massive violence, but that didn’t happen, thanks be to God.
Instead the election has been adjudged to be free, fair and credible and has been so adjudged by no less a person than Mr President himself, Muhammadu Buhari.
Observers, both local and international have also unanimously affirmed that the election was peaceful, free, fair and credible and that makes me proud as a person. I have had occasions not less than two or three times to admonish everybody concerned to go about the business of Edo election in a very cautious manner in order that we have a happy outcome both for my party the APC and for the people of Edo state.
While I cannot say that it was a very happy outcome for APC, I can comfort myself that it was a happy outcome for the people of Edo state and it is going to be a model which other states of the federation would emulate in years to come. In one of my press interviews before the election, I appealed to INEC to ensure that the Edo State governorship election does not count as one of the inconclusive elections that we witnessed in some parts of the country.
Thankfully, the elections were so smooth that INEC didn’t have to contend with the embarrassment of inconclusive elections. As for the future of the APC I think this is the time to get back to the drawing board to remodel and redesign the way forward for APC.
Society is getting increasingly modernised, the youths are getting more and more sophisticated thanks again to the power of the social media and modern ICT. This means therefore that the political party administration in Nigeria has to rise above its present level.
People are conscious of due process now, people are very conscious of the rule of law, people are very mindful of the constitutional roles of the leadership of the party and even the membership of the party, from top to bottom or should I say from the ward level to the national level.
Political parties in Nigeria have to be organised now taking into cognisance the constitutional roles of the various organs of the party and the need to respect those various organs of the party. So we need sound political party administration because a government is a product of a political party.
If a political party is weak, the government that it produces cannot be stronger, cannot be better, it will inherently suffer some of the shortcomings of the political party. So going forward, the political parties should aim to put their best foot forward, to put their best people forward not just in the party but once they do it in the party it will also ensure that in governance they put their best people forward. The future of democracy in Nigeria deserves nothing less than that.