How Nigeria can end agitations, threat of war —Kalu Idika Kalu

Renowned economist and former Minister of Finance, Dr Kalu Idika Kalu, believes the country is almost on a cliffhanger, given the diatribes from different nationalities making up Nigeria. But in this interview, he warns against glossing over the major issues threatening its corporate existence. Excerpts:

THE country is enmeshed in crisis over the quit notice from Arewa youths to people of Igbo extraction resident in the North and the counter-threats from the South-East. What can you make of the current confusion, especially in the light of the October 1 deadline given by the Arewa youths?

You use the world confusion and there must be something more complex in the English language to really describe what we have now. I think there is so much confusion really. For me, it is very simple. Of course, when someone says something is simple, you can always assume that it is very complex; it is just a matter of speaking.  The current situation is simple if we are honest to ourselves. But if we are not honest with ourselves, we create all the complexities. What do I mean? It is either we want to move forward as a modern nation, or we want to break up. Simple! It is either we want to move to a modern nation in which our children and certainly, grandchildren will have overcome all these things that tie us down: religion, ethnicity, areas of origin, whatever and concentrate, like a modern nation, on who you are, work in concert with your neighbours, and those not so neighbourly but who are your fellow citizens to create a livelihood that is self-sustaining. If that is what we want, my honest view is that, no matter, whether it is Lord Lugard, who created Nigeria so many years ago, we should just sit down and ask are we better off? Forget about who created us, as if others were not also created. Are we better off, or are we worse off? Do we want to move forward as a modern nation or break down into bits?

Many have keyed into the call to restructure the country, such that what the whole idea actually entails is being defined in different terms to suit narrow interests…

First of all, what we have now has progressively failed to perform at the optimum, speaking like an economist. We had an optimum path we could have followed, but we have consistently diverted from that path. Even during our best years of growth, we could have grown even faster.   We are where we are because we did not break up earlier. Perhaps, that is conjectural; there is really no verifiable evidence. Yes, the West, the East, the components seem to have been doing better in the 1960s, and so on, But if they were really doing better, how come we sow the seed we are now reaping? So, we can’t even be unequivocal in praising ourselves now in the way we did in the early years when we would say, ‘oh, let’s just go back to a regional arrangement.’ We need to decide on if what we want is to build a modern nation, where people, who live in a community as they do in other modern nations today, irrespective of who they are, can identify, can be full citizens, carry on their jobs irrespective of their gender, their religion, and so on. Some of my friends from the South-West and the South-East, we can’t condemn the fact that we need to now decide that if we are moving forward as a modern nation, then we should restructure and go back to the basic condition in which that locality that is closest to the people, is the thing we should pay attention to. The rest of it is just a theoretical explanation. But some people said, ‘no, we go back to the regions.’  I think we should have a clean slate; we should restructure to have a viable community, reduce our totality of local government from the crazy 774 local government areas to about half of that number by creating a slightly larger population units, that is, 650,000 to 750,000 people per unit and, of course, you can round it up. They don’t have to be equal, but certainly about the same and then, because we are restructuring on a clean slate, we design whatever we want that will go into the Constitution. Thereafter, any marginal adjustment would be permitted within the Constitution through legal processes, and so on. But that local government would be viable in a way to provide the basic needs of those who live there. Everybody there would be guaranteed their citizenship constitutional rights, and then people who man it would not be the ones who, as they say in the East, just get together and share the money that comes in.

Of course, there would be strict fiscal federalism in the sense that, that larger community should be about 650 units, instead of 774.  I believe that all over the country, there are resources in such communities that would enable them to fund water, roads, primary and secondary education, university maybe not wholly, the latter, which they can share with the states and other areas. They will be able to provide basic amenities for the people. The officials would be people who are professionally qualified to administer the councils. They would be chairmen and councilors, who are professionally qualified, who may be retired or serving, who may be at home or abroad, who are eligible to provide good governance, verifiable legal structures that have checks and balances, because people will be there to ask questions when necessary.  Thereafter, we can now decide on how many states we would draw around them. They could well approximate what we already have. From there, we can end up with 25 or 26, hopefully less than 30 something states.  But as I said, this is a starting point from where changes can then be made over time. Every three or five years, we can deliberately look back and quietly and peacefully make whatever adjustment that needs to be made. So, there will be nothing certified or stonewalled for all times.

From those states, provinces, zones, regions, whatever we want to design a central authority with obviously very limited powers, limited powers that most of which would be shared with the states and even those that are now Exclusive would be obviously put in a position, where there is absolute representation at that centre from the states that are now the federating units. But, there would be structures that would prevent states from being overlords to the local governments. Of course, once you already have true federalism, the fiscal structures you set in place on the flow of funds between those spheres, the issue of states taking the money and giving ‘change’ to the local government would disappear. The issue of indigenisation would disappear. People can get together and propel our rich culture, that, of course, can cut across. Then we would have embraced ‘the culture of nationality. That is my own vision of restructuring. We should get away with all these primordial things that are forcing us to say [things] with a fling of the hands that encourages people to say certain untoward things. As far as I am concerned, we would just be postponing the evil day when we keep pushing that which is what we hear, mostly in the South, ‘oh let’s restructure’ as if it is all about ‘give us all our oil and gas fields’ or whatever. As I said, everyone single area of the country has something to offer. Even where the resources are not as ample in any local area, a quality of leadership can use the financial muscle of the entire nation to leverage with resources, domestically and externally to ease out whatever will be perceived as an uneven structure. That is what happens in modern states; a modern dam would be built in an area, even if that area cannot afford it, but because it has a contiguous use by a group of local governments or neigbouring states, or even neighbouring zones or regions. So, there would be no need to be looking at your original endowment or whatsoever as the limiting factor for development, which is why we are talking about resource control, and all what’s not. It is all a symptom of what you have as a result of very poor governance.

Despite the avalanche of criticisms trailing the October deadline issued by a coalition of Arewa Youths to Igbo residents in the North to relocate, the coalition has stuck to its gun, just as there are counter-threats from some groups in the South-East…

Talking about the ultimatum, my honest view is that it is either we want to live together or we don’t. We have enough evidence around us of what has happened to all this issue of dismemberment. When there was dismemberment in 1966/67, everybody agreed that it was forced by so many circumstances. One of the major circumstances was the breakdown of political brinkmanship; the breakdown of political alliances; killings by some elements have always happened. I think it is very important that we get away from this labelling of an Igbo coup; it was totally a Nigerian coup. I was abroad when Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief that there was a halt to the degradation and chaos in the Western Region. Now, this is not to excuse that that was the only option. Of course, in retrospect, it was a very bad mistake and in the course of trying to correct the mistake, worse things now happened. It was the fact that we could not restrain ourselves; the combatants could not restrain themselves. That’s why there was a need to even go into the declaration of a state of Independent Biafra, because at the Aburi Accord, there could have been a confederation at that time. We could have allowed temper to cool and that would have allowed us to come to our senses and say ‘ok, you are wrong or right,’ or even criminalised some of those mistakes that were made, but within the confines of known law. But, we went beyond that and there was carnage that led to the systematic elimination of innocent people from all over the country. Remember that not everybody had marks that would tell you who is Ijaw, Efik, Urhobo, even foreigners. Therefore, we cannot, by any stretch of imagination, compare the chaos of 1965 and 66 to what we have now. So, I cannot in any way rationalise situations that are ongoing, that people who were not even born, people whose parents, maybe, were not even adults at that time are creating the current confusion.

So, coming to the ultimatum you talked about, I think that where we are presently, if I may say so, honestly, we have a great chance to reverse ourselves.  The Arewa elders and the Arewa youths should be spurred on by the action being taken by acting President, Professor yemi Osinbajo, by saying ‘we are sorry; we withdraw the ultimatum that we imposed.’ The counter to that would have been a symbolic reciprocity from the South: ok, we also will undertake to rescind our youths’ stance; reduce the temperance in the language; reduce the totally unrealistic demands, which may honestly be in the interest of those who are making those demands or the others who the demands are being made. We had that grace and I see that great opportunity.

On the one hand, you said you are upset that people say they want to go and they were noisily insisting they want to go. Now, let me tell you. I happened to have been present when the acting president addressed some of these issues. He said that the issue of incessant killings actually denotes a state that is not in control. But what we must believe in is that we must sincerely grant a benefit of doubt. A state that is not able to apply the law, a state that is not able to use its powers of cohesion, a state that is not able to control the breakdown of law and order, you may be overriding this to one ethnic group. That’s really what he observed. But if you really do an empirical study, you may find out that the question of killings, the question of appointments; the question of marginalisation will be more apparent than what is a reality. Appearance may not necessarily be the reality. I think any citizen that has the interest of the nation should take that very seriously.   But some elements, because they have other ulterior motives, don’t quite think deeply enough about this. So, we are all responsible for a weak state that can make sure that things are justly done. But we must be very careful to paint a picture where we just feel that the only motive for those things is a resumption of killings and marginalisation, or of dipping the Quran in the sea and so on and so forth.

Part of the reasons the northern leaders have advanced for their anger in the wake of the ultimatum is that Igbo leaders are backing separatist groups like MASSOB and IPOB in their agenda to dismember the country…

I think that is quite unfortunate. Most of the people I know, who I can discuss with, I have never heard any of them even suggesting who they are backing. I am being wholeheartedly honest with you and I know that a lot of people are going to lampoon me for what I am about to say. But you know how much I care for such a thing I believe in discussing facts. If the constituted authority feels what these youths are saying is correct, it is the responsibility of the elders to give them in and present a demand on behalf of everybody. The youths, on their own, are jostling perhaps, feeling that these elders have failed because they could not stand up. I think it is very important that the youths make sure that they find out from the elders whether their own deductions from their sense of history is anywhere close to the reality of what happened in the past they are now talking about. But you just jump up the pavements and start abusing, shouting and making demands by being decisively offensive to everybody! When I got to listen to the first video (pro-Biafra), which is just recently, on the surface, I could see that the procedure is all wrong. The youths should listen to the elders. Even if they don’t agree with them, they should say so. They cannot go off the handle and think they have all the solutions, when, in fact, there are times they exhume images that they have no conception about, because of the accident of birth or history or marriages they have got. I think by creating the current the tension; by creating the possibility of violence, which is what was created, the empty streets in Owerri, Onitsha, Enugu and Awka, and so on, cannot be interpreted as acquiescence with people of questionable leadership quality wielding so much power and therefore all supported them. I have heard of a few who actually said things that sounded in support. I was really heavily and remain heavily disappointed with people who I thought would have said, ‘eh, look here, we have heard you, but this is the real picture.’ I have been in a meeting where somebody presented such a view and we waited for him to finish, I am talking of a meeting that involved South-West, South-East and South-South people, and we said this guy needs information. We need to guide them, to tell them that it is not so, that this is the true situation. It is not for somebody to say we have forgotten about Nigeria. Who are you? What is your strength? What is your bargaining chip? What is the future you present to your followers? So, I think we should disabuse our minds from this sense that, ‘oh, because they called on people to stay at home, they stayed at home.’ A mother will not send a child into the street. There is a lot of suffering, and people would say let’s just stay out of it!  Yes, they have followers. Yes, there could be a sense of ‘injustice,’ but that cannot be equated to the tacit support of the South-East.

The preponderance of opinions in certain circles is that the current national crisis was as a result of perceived skewed key appointments at the federal level?       

I agree with Acting President Osinbajo when he said some of these appearances may not be exactly be equated to reality. Obviously, we know that a lot of it is real, but recognising how much of this is real, the remedy is not a whole Igbo nation with all the talents and everything we have. Some of us have spent more of our time reorganising ourselves, reorganising our state, and reorganising our regions. Yes, there are processes for seeking redress for this misalignment. The misalignment started back from the early days of the independence of the country and, of course, got worsened with the Civil War and the post-war. For a nation, there is a process by which you restore that balance. A Chief of Army Staff (of the South-East extrcation) has just concluded his own tenure. Even as much as you know, this thing requires training gestation, timely positioning. Of course, I am just describing a particular example; there are other examples, where you can obviously see that.

When you listen to people like Dr Junaid Mohammed and others, they are reeling at the inequities, because they say, ‘eh, don’t think that this is a Kaduna Mafia; or don’t think that this is the North. This is Daura and the close communities around Mr President.’ So, when you want to criticise, you want to do your own homework very well, also. Therefore, there is no denying that there are disparities, but by the time you dissect and remove those that have been pushed, because people have been pushed because of the crisis, the war and everything, you appreciate the reality. For instance, there is no earthly reason why there should be different percentages of scores for different areas. It is not doing anybody any good. There is no reason why we should not adhere to the Federal Character principle explicitly, where it is possible in all federal appointments. Then, there are others, and as an Igbo person, I am linked to every part of the nation. I have a kid in the North. I am from the East and I grew up in the West, essentially. So as far as I am concerned, you have to be honest with yourself in assessing your relative position. There are so many other people outside this so-called tripod ethnic groups: Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo. We should also be mindful of their own relative positions. You must be mindful of their relative positions before you shout, fume and stamp your feet. You must wonder how they would feel, seeing that what you have may have put you much more in a more proportionate advantageous position than them. So, we have the responsibility to keep the peace by not making so much out of these discrepancies in non-professional appointments. Political things and the Nigerian thing, which is whether you are Igbo, Yoruba, or that have pervaded us throughout the life of this country, which have led us to bastardise a very critical thing like privatisation. It was meant to build efficient institutions, whether it is on power or refinery, communications, and so on, whatever we needed from the public to the private sector. Instead of focusing on those institutions so that they would be benefiting us more, produce more goods, create more employment, bring about cheaper prices, as well as achieve an overall better standard of living, we decided to push it through ethnic and party cleavages, as well as nepotic relationships and tendencies unnecessarily. These are not the elements that build a modern nation. Therefore, if we apply those elements that build a modern nation, we can resolve all these issues. So, it is improper to say it is disparities in appointments that’s created the current tension. That itself is not enough to have created this, because there would be ways to handle it, and those who are pushing the most for it are only strongly represented in major cities: Lagos, Kano, Maiduguri, Abuja.

In what ways do you think the 2014 National Conference report can assist in assuaging people over the current state of the nation?

I have think the government should have brought the Confab report on board when the present administration came to power. They could have sponsored a bill to the National Assembly on the report; they should have allowed the National Assembly to debate the report and once the lawmakers agree, then the government can set up a system to continue reviewing the major findings, modifying them where necessary, while the government carries on with its mandate. But to be holier than thou and say,’ oh, we don’t need it’ is not proper. One cardinal element of democracy is what the people believe should be. For Christ sake, it is their right, no matter how much you feel it. Nigerian Tribune

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