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Nigeria’s structure has turned govs to beggars – Fagbenro-Byron

In this interview with ENIOLA AKINKUOTU, a development expert and former regional coordinator of the Department for International Development (a United Kingdom agency) in Nigeria, speaks about his presidential ambition and other topical issues

Why are you running for President of Nigeria?

I think the question should be why not? I believe I have the experience in terms of governance, I have sufficient experience in terms of administration and I think I have the ideas, the creativity and I think I know this country as much as anyone else. I am of the right age and I believe it is the will of God. I think Nigeria needs attention and intervention. I am not saying that I have all the answers to the problems of this country, definitely not. But I know people who do and they are within this country and I can reach them. It is only a question of putting together the kind of resources in terms of human beings that can address the issues of this country.

Having never held an elective office before, why not contest governorship or senatorial elections first?

Because I am not interested in those positions but in the presidency and I am qualified. What could I have learnt from holding a public office before? How have public offices been managed before? What I have done over the years is to teach people who have been in public positions to conduct things in the right manner and I have worked in a government that you and I will regard as having some level of efficiency. I worked under the British Government for over 10 years. So, I have been in government before but not necessarily holding a political position.

You were in the development sector for many years where you headed the DFID, southern operations. So, why not continue on that trajectory? Don’t you think you will be able to make more changes from the development sector than politics?

No, because the house of Potiphar is different from the palace. By working for the British, I am not working for my own government but as a servant of another country’s government. I was working as her majesty’s servant. I was working for the British people although the benefit of my work was being felt by Nigerians; so it was a pleasure. DFID does important work globally and in Nigeria. Having said that, it is a question of how effective and how impactful can you be in holding such a position? Can you be as effective as having your hands on the steering wheel? So, for me, I will say working for the British Government and the development sector has thoroughly prepared me to be able to handle that position of the Presidency.

Do you think this government hasn’t done well?

The statistics don’t help them and they don’t seem to have a handle on things. This government lacks many things. Firstly, this government doesn’t have any sense of urgency. Secondly, they are not coordinated in any shape or form. If you look at each of their sectors, there is none that has not had some form of internal conflict within it. Thirdly, they are not drawing on the right capacities. For example, there are talents in this country who can provide half the technical assistance for the Nigerian government. So, a large portion of the technical assistance needs not come from abroad.

You have a lot of skilled people here. Nobody expects President Buhari to know everything but he should be able to appoint those who know and this brings me to another weakness of his. I think his scope and his search for solutions is rather narrow. He doesn’t search for solutions wisely and it looks like his advisory capacity is also within the space of a narrow culture, of a single culture in a multi-cultural environment. The two major problems of Nigeria is the inability to manage diversity and the inability to manage the masses. It is because you cannot manage diversity that you try to unify everything and simplify it and create a one-size-fits-all for everyone but that can never work and that is why we are mismanaging our differences.

Are you saying restructuring is the answer to Nigeria’s problems?

It is obvious but I will not say restructuring is the silver bullet because it cannot solve all things but restructuring is a means to an end. What we are saying regarding restructuring is that the Nigerian structure right now is over-centralised; it makes beggars of governors and once you make beggars of governors, you make paupers of citizens. This particular structure encourages impunity because things are over-centralised. So, it gives one office too many powers, particularly in the area of regulation. It gives one office too many powers and absolutely power corrupts absolutely. So, the more you centralise, the more you breed corruption.

If you over-regulate, you give regulating authorities powers that they don’t necessarily need and can be inimical to growth. So, when someone has so much discretion, what do you think he will do? So, that is the kind of thing this structure permits. I mentioned earlier also that governors were beggars and this is because majority of the resources are not owned by the places where they are found. So, there has to be an element of resource control. There has to be an element of devolution of powers. There must be re-balancing between the exclusive and concurrent lists.

How can we boost agriculture, curb poverty and ultimately diversify the economy?

I think each successive government has tried in its own way. First of all, I think an economy cannot be robust if you have too many leakages there. So, even if we get the economy right, we must be able to fight corruption including impunity of authorities and over-regulation. Without having a 24-hour economy, you cannot maximise Nigeria’s potential.

To get a 24-hour economy, you need power and to get power, you need not just better distribution or transmission but better generation and for me, I believe if you devolve powers to the states to be able to generate, then we will have increases in the power we generate. We need to create jobs because you need to put money in the hands of citizens and let that money start circulating in the country. To get the economy right, you need to spend less time looking for Foreign Direct Investment and concentrate more on local investment because what makes an economy to succeed is the number of times money circulates within a particular community. The more you look for FDI and the President and governors travel outside of the country, the more you inadvertently take money out and not bringing money and that is where the bleeding comes. So, if I were President, I wouldn’t leave West Africa for the first four years and for the first two years, I wouldn’t leave the country to make sure that money is circulating. Job creation is very important. If you look at the history of the United States, after the great depression, they initiated a huge electric project called the Tennessee Valley Authority which was under President Franklin Roosevelt. It was a huge infrastructural project which required electrifying half the Mid-West of the US and I think Nigeria must initiate such a project that would put millions of people to work.

One of the things I am planning is to build a pipeline from the coast of Calabar which will convey water down to Lake Chad and the whole idea is that it will be a massive infrastructure programme which will employ people across several states.

Secondly, it will reclaim Lake Chad which is the primary reason for conflicts, desertification and agrarian depletion. Also, along those pipelines, we will have desalination plants because it is salt water that will come from the sea. So, you will have a couple of desalination plants which will produce salt which will be another industry. We will connect it to massive irrigations across the borders of the North to do what past governments had been boasting of. The North is supposed to have a green belt which is a green wall planted deliberately to forestall or reduce the impact of desertification and the whole idea is that you cannot achieve this without some massive irrigation and all these projects will be massive and will cost quite a lot but they will be labour intensive and will create jobs.

The technical assistance will be sought from universities in Nigeria. It will be a local content matter and it will be a major driver programme. You need these programmes to kick-start the economy. We will also do something to tackle the erosion in the South-East. I headed the DFID in the South-East and I know that area. I think this government appears to be giving mineral resources some right of place but that is where our diversification should start and that is why devolution of powers is important.

There is no reason why gold which is found in Zamfara and Sokoto states cannot be primarily owned by the people of these states and then they pay taxes to the Federal Government. Right now gold is being mined in these states but it is not exported through Lagos ports. It is being taken across the border directly. Why do we have so many artisanal miners? It is because the practice is regulated from a distance, from Abuja instead of the state level. It is because the minerals are not in the hands of the people who own the state and who can determine both the sustainable development of the state and the sustainable development of mining in that state. So, these are the bold steps we need to take that will diversify the economy and that will make sure that we have funds flowing.  We will adhere to the Sustainable Development Goals and we will annually track the attainment of SDGs on a state by state basis. We will do it such that whoever comes in after us will be able to track the SDGs because that is a way we can monitor progress and it covers all sectors. So, all we have to do is to align our work with how it fits with the SDGs

Nigeria is currently facing a crisis between herdsmen and farmers. What do you think could be the solution to this problem?

My own understanding of the situation is that there are several interests. You have the traditional herders that are Nigerians, you have herders that are not Nigerian citizens and then you have the owners of the cattle that are influential citizens in high places. Then you have those who are cattle security turned killers. And then you have the land owners. And in all these, there is a controversy because a certain group believes it is their culture to move about openly and graze freely but the truth is that one man’s right stops in front of another man’s nose. The second thing is that the Nigerian Constitution and land law recognise the fact that indigenous people own the land. First of all, let us establish that people own the land already in existence. So, even if you want to graze freely, you will do so on another man’s land.

There is also the law of trespass in Nigeria. There is also the right to ownership of property including immovable. And so, if there is a conflict of cultures, which one must prevail? It has to be the culture of the land in which you are residing provided that culture is not at variance with natural law, equity and good conscience.

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