The governorship candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2015 and 2019 elections in Lagos State, Jimi Agbaje, in this interview monitored on Arise Television, speaks on the COVID-19 pandemic, his 2023 ambition and crisis in PDP. ANAYO EZUGWU reports
What is your assessment of what the Nigerian government has done so far in the face of the second wave of COVID- 19 in the country, and what steps do you think government needs to take now that we have the vaccines?
I believe that the problem of COVID- 19 in terms of the people and the challenges are the same everywhere. Not everybody believes in the seriousness of the pandemic that we are in. Just as we have abroad in the western countries, so we have here. I think the first thing for the government is advocacy; to make people realize the seriousness of COVID-19. In terms of how they have managed it, they have managed it as best as they can because as I said, it is more about advocacy, it is more about the non-pharmaceutical interventions that will help us, especially with our weak health system. With regards to vaccines, unfortunately I can’t say that we are in charge or we are on the driving seat in the sense that we belong to what we call the category of poor countries or low income countries, where some people are taking care of us; where people are negotiating on our behalf as to how much we can get free and how much we can pay at reduced prices. That is the category we are in. Unfortunately, there is also a reality and that reality is that even with that arrangement, it is estimated that just about 20 per cent of our population will have vaccination in the year 2021. So, if we take that average, we are looking at a situation where we have 200 million and we are not going to get more than 30 to 40 million people who would be vaccinated in the year 2021. That means we have to go back to the non-pharmaceutical interventions, the social distancing, hygiene and all. That is going to be what we have as straight and that is the reality we are in at the moment.
Why is it difficult for us to produce our own vaccine?
You have to appreciate that in our own part of the world, vaccines are normally managed by government, and therefore, whoever that wants to go into manufacturing of vaccines must have a measure of understanding and working relationship with the government. If we go back, you will realize why you have to give credit to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In the developed countries, vaccine production has gone down very low because they do not really need it. Even where they needed it, many people do not believe in it because they have relatively good hygiene and environment. So, the developing countries need it more and our people are dying from preventable diseases and that is why the likes of Bill Gate and his wife are working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) by putting in a lot of money in bringing about a resurgence of vaccines production. And that is why you have polio and all the other vaccines. Of course, a lot of these vaccines are being produced in India and some other Asian countries. Now, we stopped producing vaccines in Nigeria for the same usual reasons that everybody knows. What we now have is a situation where government has been trying to work with one of the big pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria to produce vaccines. I’m not sure that is yet on broad. But having said that; what we have is that there is a new task force on this COVID-19 in terms of vaccines and vaccines production, where one of the terms of reference is the possibility of producing some of these COVID-19 vaccines. How far that will work, only time will tell! So, it is not something you easily go into without the cooperation of the government, especially, in this part of the world.
The Nigerian government has setup what it called a Technical Working Group on COVID-19 vaccines, with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and minister of Health doing a lot. What other things do you think government needs to do in terms of putting in place a distribution network, a co-storage chain and other things that maybe required to ensure that more than 20 per cent of the Nigerian population gains access to the vaccine?
I think we have an advantage in the sense that Nigeria has done a lot of immunization exercises. So, we still have what is left of that structure that we can use to move into action, which is different from the developed countries. If you look at America today, they have distributed about 11 million vaccines but they have only been able to vaccinate only about two million people because they don’t have that experience that we have. I’m sure that if we get the vaccines, we should be able to use the framework that we have built over the years in terms of doing immunization to do that. For me, it is to put that back in shape, what we already have and be able to build on it because that time all hands were on deck, pharmacists were put on the field to immunize the people just as we have other health workers. We had a co-chain which we are going to need for COVID- 19, so it is to put all that in place and that is very important. I think there is also something else that we need to be strict with; those that are breaking the rules have to be sanctions because it is protecting them and also protecting others. I think that is very important.
When you look at the outcome of the recent Lagos-East Senatorial District by-election, why is it so difficult for PDP to make any inroad in Lagos?
And I think the question on the mind of a lot of people is, should PDP still be taken seriously as an opposition party in Lagos? If you talk about the Lagos-East Senatorial election, I am not sure that it was a referendum on the All Progressives Congress (APC) or PDP.
If you use it as a referendum, I think we had a turnout of about nine per cent. It is a referendum on whether our democracy is working. It is a referendum on whether people in Lagos believe that their votes count. If you have a low turnout as low as nine per cent, then there is a problem somewhere. If you look at the last governorship election in Lagos, for example, the turnout was 18 per cent that was the worst in all the states of the country.
In a state, where we have the highest number of registered voters, you had only 18 per cent of the people that came out to vote. So, you can argue that people didn’t come out to vote for different reasons. Don’t forget we had violence and intimidation but more importantly, many felt that their votes wouldn’t count. Or maybe, they are not totally happy with what is going on in the state and we can go on and on. So, it is not so much about the PDP or the ruling party.
The fact is that the political class is living in its own world at this point in time in our country. And it is time for us to step back and take a cue from countries that have gone through this process and at one point in time told themselves that they can’t sustain this.
Those who put up the constitution of the United States of America; it is the same problems we are having that they had. But, at some point, they sat down and said ‘our country can no longer go on like this.’ And I think it is high time the political class in our country should sit down and say ‘you know what; we are not helping our people and sometime is going to consume all of us.’ I think that is really the challenge before the country.
For Lagos like I said, the voters’ turnout speaks volume. Nine per cent, that is not democracy; we are talking about majority of the people coming out to vote. If nine per cent vote for you, you can’t say that you are really running a democracy in the right sense.
Ghana just did their elections, they had 70 per cent turnout. We had 18 per cent like I said in the 2019 general election and the last one was nine per cent. Again, if you look at it, the percentage has fallen at each general election and that is why I said it is time for the political class to sit down and say we have to do something right for a change.
What is your opinion on restructuring, and secondly, what is going on in your party?
Mr. Deji Doherty has been suspended, Governor Dave Umahi left the party, ex-Governor Ayodele Fayose and Governor Seyi Makinde are fighting over who controls the party in South-West. A lot of people will look inward and say you are supposed to be the opposition, holding the balance but you are fighting yourselves? I run away from the word, restructuring, because people take it differently and I believe that if we want to sell a product, you have to sell it in a way that people will accept it.
Those who do not like the word, restructuring, have made it look as a slogan but I think what we are saying is: Is Nigeria working the way it is? We have been talking about the Apapa gridlock for example and in the last 10 years, we have been having one taskforce or the other that is because Abuja is trying to resolve traffic problems in Lagos.
Is that how we are going to run a country? No! Now, the state government wants to takeover because it is the one that feels the problem. We have a situation where the Federal Government is building health centres in the 774 local governments and I ask myself: What are we going to do with those local governments.
Basically, what we are saying is that Nigeria is not working and we all agree that it is not working. We agree that the centre is too strong and that is what the argument about restructuring is all about. We are looking at the police and we are saying that we cannot have a central police force.
We are saying that you want to have a rail system; you have to get the Federal Government to do the rail in the whole country. We are talking about roads, and so, basically for me, we have to go back and devolve power from the centre to the federating units, which are the states.
The local governments are earning the same kind of income, so that shouldn’t be the business of the Federal Government. So, on record Nigeria is not working because of the way it is presently structured and we need to sit down and do something about it. With regard to party politics, you know politicians and what they do best is fight for power and position. That is what politics is all about. It is not only in the PDP but even in APC.
Now, everybody is talking about 2023 and what you see playing out is basically repositioning for 2023. My take is that the citizens should allow politicians to play their games but at the end of the day, tell them that when you finish this your games what is in it for us. Most importantly, the citizenry needs to be more assertive in what they expect from the political class because if the citizenry is more demanding, then those fighting for positions will be different kind of people because at the end of the day they know that the game must change.
But you can’t stop people from fighting for positions. What you have playing out in both parties is a game of repositioning, which is what politicians play. We should allow them play it once is going to make the government better.
I think that is where citizens are failing, they seem to enjoy it as an entertainment show but they are not telling the politicians that all these things you are doing is not our business. What we are concerned about are: How are you going to clear Apapa traffic? How are you going to clear Lagos traffic? What are you going to do about the local government elections? Are the people going to come out to vote and insist that their votes count? However, you must give credit to the young ones that did the #EndSARS protest. They said something and they did something. So, those are the kind of things we need to do, while allowing the politicians to play their game.
Talking about politicians playing their games, many will like to know if you will run again for the governorship of Lagos State in 2023 and what are you going to do differently this time around? Again, like I said, you should allow politicians to play their game. Let me put it like this and the way I would like to answer it is this:
Am I still in politics? Yes I remain in politics. My running for office has nothing to do with running at all cost. So, what role I will play is still very unclear but definitely I believe that I have a role to play in politics of our country and I believe I have a role to play in the politics of Lagos State. In what capacity; I believe time and event will tell. But I’m not going to stand here and tell you that Jimi Agbaje is running for governor.
No, I’m not going to say that because it is not even on the table. And in any case, you have to get the party in proper shape to be able to run any election. I’m not sure the party is in right shape now.