‘Rivalry of the elite is root cause of Nigeria’s socio-political problems’
Veteran journalist, Chief Duro Onabule, turned 80 yesterday. In this interview with KABIR ALABI GARBA and ONYEDIKA AGBEDO, the Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State indigene seized the opportunity to reflect on his life, his stewardship as Chief Press Secretary (CPS) to former president Ibrahim Babangida and the state of the nation. He blames the elite for Nigeria’s nagging socio-political problems, saying they are always the ones inflaming passion in their quest to manipulate the system to their advantage. He also speaks on President Muhammadu Buhari’s approach to governance and his performance in office, among other issues. Excerpts:
Congratulations on your 80th birthday. How do you feel joining the club of octogenarians?
It is said that you are as old as you feel. I’m okay given the circumstances. Naturally, I am not the aggressive type. When you read me (his column) you will say this man is controversial, nothing more than that; otherwise I’m a very shy person. I am not a boy about town. I am contented. I have good health and all these are blessings from God. It is not easy to be contented in life and it is not even easy to be healthy in life. So, when you have these qualities from God, you should be grateful to Him; more so when you reflect on the youthful age and recall some classmates and friends who have passed on. They were not in any way more sinful than you. So, you have to be grateful to God.
What does your typical day look like now?
I don’t get up early because I don’t sleep early. I watch television up to 4.00a.m and listening to radio – BBC World Service. By 5.00a.m or 6.00a.m, I am listening to newspaper reviews all over, from Lagos to Ibadan. Through android phones, you get these stations. So, by 7.00a.m or 8.00a.m, I dose off. Even if I don’t dose off, I will go on bed rest; I will just be there. By 11.00a.m, I get up. As early as 12noon after my bath, I am back to watching television again – Sky wave, CNN, BBC and of course our own NTA. By 2.00p.m, I have my only food for the day. After that I continue watching television. I love games and news so much. In fact, news is my daily diet. Without news I think I should be dead. And I like it hottest, newsbreak. As a journalist that is what I like not stale news.
What does it take to succeed as the Chief Press Secretary (CPS) judging from your experience under the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida for eight years?
First of all you have to know what it means to be a CPS. I have always said it that in governance, proximity is power. When you are a CPS, you are a power yourself. The power you exercise, you don’t even realise it. Therefore, the man who invited you for that post must have had in his mind that this man has something to contribute to governance. You can therefore check government policies and government decisions and not just be there as CPS to the governor. No! You have to be alert, you have to be stubborn. Yes, you don’t have to be confrontational, but you have to be stubborn. When it is wrong, you let your boss – whether the president or governor – know it is wrong. Tell him the possible public reaction to certain policy or decision you consider not to be in the best interest of the people.
Was there any time you did that when you were serving in Babangida’s regime?
(Laughs) I will send you to IBB; go and ask him. The day you interview him, ask him the type of person Duro Onabule is. We had encounters; o yes! Showdowns! At the end of the day, he would say, ‘okay Duro, I have listened to you; I am the president.’ I would then say, ‘okay sir, so that when the public react, I would feel vindicated.’ So, you have to be stubborn, you have to be knowledgeable and you have to be prepared. You have to prepare for eventuality because at times you may lose the job based on principle, if you feel strong about something. Well, it also depends on how you present it or how it is accepted. I hope you understand. Otherwise you are just there as a conduit pipe or a cold chamber. No, no, no! You can initiate policy; you can halt policy once you are near power. Oh yes, it’s a rare opportunity in life.
As I said, you have to be prepared for the worst. Look at the United States. Donald Trump now has the third press secretary within three years. So, it depends on who you are working for. Some can be stubborn; some can be autocratic. Also, as in the case of Trump, you may be going this way and he may be going that way. When the cup is full, somebody has to give room because you don’t accept a situation where you run down our colleagues. No! Nobody goes there to be a yes person. There are limitations. I don’t expect somebody who is part of the government to come and tell me ‘oh yes, government is wrong’. Nowhere in the world is it done. You have to defend. I’m not saying that black should be portrayed as white, but at the same time you have a job to do.
Was there a time you stood your ground on a policy and IBB rejected it and there was a backlash?
There were occasions like during the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) crisis. I put across certain ideas to relieve the tension in the country. My colleagues didn’t agree with me. When I say my colleagues, I don’t mean IBB. By the time the riots broke out, which I could foresee, and they were all talking… ‘but I said it here that this would happen’. The fact that you are in government does not mean that you are no longer part of society because your wife goes to the market, you children go to school and you still have the feedback.
By the way, up till today, some ignorant ones still continue to say that IBB destroyed the country with SAP. SAP was the greatest economic reform in this country till today. What does it mean? SAP means deregulation of the economy. Simple! And even you journalists benefitted from it. He deregulated the broadcast industry. Before then, there were only three NTAs — NTA Lagos, Kaduna and Ibadan. How many stations do we have in the country today? About 700? How many journalists are employed in those places? Could those journalists have been employed without deregulation of the broadcast industry? It’s not possible!
Today, all of you travel from Lagos to Kano, to Maiduguri, to Damaturu, because he deregulated the aviation industry. Without that deregulation, there was only one Nigeria Airways with two or three aircrafts. How many airlines are in the country today? How many people are employed?
Today, the best banks in the country are products of SAP. And today, because he deregulated the financial sector, you can easily go to a bank and come out after five to 10 minutes. In those days, if you went into a bank to withdraw your money, you could be there for three to four hours. Even the legal profession IBB deregulated it. What he inherited was that once you pass out from the Law School, you must serve apprenticeship from a law firm. But he deregulated it such that once you graduate from the Law School, you can set up your practice. If you are good, clients will patronise you. Many of the beneficiaries are Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) today.
He also deregulated the medical profession. At that time, you couldn’t set up your clinic or hospital once you pass out from the university. He said no and deregulated it, so, qualified doctors can set up their own hospitals or clinics.Many Nigerians agree that IBB embarked on very audacious economic and infrastructure reforms but strongly hold the annulment of June 12, 1993, presidential election against him…
(Cuts in) I agree! That one makes me bleed. I bleed inside me; I bleed for MKO; I bleed for IBB himself and I bleed for Nigeria. People were thinking that he annulled it for his own personal sake. No, no, no! It was not for himself. I concede one point. He did it for some various interests not his own personal interest. But for SAP, I can repeat myself. Before IBB, we had a state controlled economy that was neither here nor there. He came in and it required courage to deregulate the economy and he did it. And he had outstanding ministers and advisers; the best economic team.
Given your personal experiences and knowledge in the affairs of the country, would you say the country has achieved her aspirations as a nation, even as it prepares to mark the 59th independence anniversary?
One major weakness in me is that I am very blunt and people know that I am very blunt. When I say it’s a weakness, I mean it; because people mostly are hypocrites and they are not realistic. I saw Nigeria from the beginning, from the colonial era up till now. I know the situation at that time compared to now. We have regressed and the hope of having a nation at that time has not been materialised and we are far, far behind now than where we were in 1960. This is very sad.
Way back up to 1960, we had inter-ethnic marriage all over the place. Right now, we just have it at a very low level among the graduates performing the NYSC programme. Unlike in the past when people would go out deliberately for inter-ethnic marriage, it is more or less accidental now. That is one.
Secondly, among politicians, it is even worse. They are more of buccaneers right now, whereas at that time, we had nationalists; people who would fight for what they believe in. But these days, if they belong to party ‘A’ in government today, if there is a change of government, before you know it people will just cross over. What they defended yesterday, they will disown today; and what they disowned yesterday, they will defend today. It is fraudulent and the system appears to be encouraging it. A situation where national responsibility is being assigned to questionable characters and people without integrity is deplorable. I feel sad; I’m not happy about it.
Somehow again, because of my privileged position, I will say it’s not entirely new because I remember what happened in 1962 on the floor of the Western House of Assembly when people just crossed from party ‘A’ to party ‘B’ and this involved virtually all members of the opposition except one member – Richard Akinyemi. He alone was the man who did not cross to Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP) from NCNC. All the others went and under the constitution, it was possible.
It is not as if carpet crossing anywhere in the world is strange and so on, but it is always based on principle, which is not the case in Nigeria. It is even worse these days. When you look at it, what they do and their acquisitive tendencies, which we did not have in the First Republic, it is threatening. Let me put it mildly. People always refer to the unjustifiable situation in which members of the National Assembly earn how much, we don’t even know. Whether it is N13 million per month or N200 million per year we don’t know, yet some Nigerians earn less than N10,000 a month. Some teachers in some of the so-called private schools don’t even earn up to N15, 000, yet members of the NASS are earning God knows what. Even the government is afraid to tell us. They have the right not to tell us how much they are earning, but the government owes it a duty to let us know how much they are earning. These are things we didn’t have in the First Republic. Then, members of the House of Representatives were on part-time basis; they were paid allowances for only the period they met, but it’s not the situation now.
Also then, we were free to elect our leaders. But these days, they call some people godfathers and they just impose candidates on us; and we are so powerless. And when they themselves are leaving office, they also ensure that they pick their successors. That situation started in 2007 when there was controversy on who would succeed Obasanjo. Since that time, state governors started doing the same thing; they won’t allow anybody to freely succeed them. They will pick their own choice to succeed them. That is not a comfortable political system.
When did these derailments you have highlighted creep into our political system?
It all started in 1979. The type of constitution the military prepared for us when they were handing over virtually transformed Nigeria into a dictatorial state. Before 1979, that’s the First Republic, each region had its own residual powers. The Federal Government could not dictate to the West, East or the North. Each region was on its own and of course at the federal level, nobody also interfered with Balewa. The 1979 Constitution abolished all such residual powers. That is why we are having this problem. Again, who drafted the 1979 Constitution? The elite! They were the ones calling for the presidential system, American system and then they gave it to us. We have seen the difference now.
But some people would say that the incursion of the military in 1966 created these problems for the country?
I pity you the young ones because you don’t know what happened. Again, you must have been experiencing some of it. What happened was that the elite in particular created the atmosphere for military incursion. They were the people inflaming the situation. And by the time the military moved in, they also polluted the atmosphere. In fact, when you talk of the elite, it depends on what part of the country. The elite always have their best territory – the elite in the East, the elite in the West and the elite in the North. It’s usually the rivalry of the elite that causes problem in the country. Left for ordinary poor Nigerians, they will get on with their daily lives.
After the January and July 1966 coup, there was a meeting at Aburi, Ghana. At the meeting, they agreed on the new political arrangement. I’m so happy that the former Permanent Secretary, Philip Asiodu, even a few years ago confirmed it. He said that Gowon went to Aburi and did not take anybody with him. Innocently, he agreed with Ojukwu on the new political arrangement. Of course, as soon as he came, the permanent secretaries said no, the arrangement could not work. They were more concerned about their own interest, what they would lose if the new arrangement came in. That is why nobody today is sincere enough to publish Aburi report.
When I look at the South today and what they call restructuring, let them define restructuring for us and what was Aburi. Aburi agreement restructured the whole country. Up till now, nobody has been able to tell us that this is what we mean by restructuring. Restructuring goes beyond having five more states in the West to balance that of the North. There must be that element of willingness to be nationalistic. Without it, we may not move.
Who is a nationalist in the country today? We had them in the First Republic. They were not perfect but people go into government today and they are just concerned about themselves. I will mention former president Goodluck Jonathan. He was there; he is a southern minority. He had the constitutional conference report to implement; he had the power to implement the report. Why did he not implement it? He was more concerned about losing power. It is good to accuse Buhari today that he has not implemented the report. But his predecessor who set up the constitutional conference and collected the report of the conference, why did he not implement it?
Some people believe that the problem of the country is rooted in the 1914 amalgamation of the North and South while others think it is with the political leadership. Some even say military rule could be better for the country citing the example of Ghana and the stability they are enjoying today. What is your view?
Series of problems accounted for all these things. Nigeria is not like Ghana. Ghana is suitable for unitary system of government, because their own ethnic diversity is more subdued than what we have here. Here, the ethnic affinity determines everything — economic power, political power, civil service posts and even appointments in the Army —unlike in Ghana where anybody can just get up in Accra and do this. You can’t do that here; the moment you do it, the different ethnic inclinations would erupt and there will be complaints like ‘oh only northerners are there’, ‘oh only Christians are there’, ‘oh only Muslims were appointed the last time, why not Christians this time’. You don’t have that in Ghana. In fact, up to the First Republic here, it was not as pronounced as this.
I will go back to what you said about the military causing this. You can’t entirely say so because if you look at it at the end of the day, the military is about the only institution in the country today where you have what I will call oneness. In the military, they don’t see themselves as Igbos or Yorubas or Hausa/Fulani. No! I worked with them. That is why you will always have them supporting somebody like Obasanjo for example because he was their Commander-in-Chief. It is very sad, but that is our situation today.
Is it the question of political leadership then?
It is the elite. It is the elite who always determine how much we have lost and how much we may lose. The ordinary man on the street does not care. He goes about his business. He is not aware whether he is a Christian or a Muslim or Yoruba or Jukun. No, no, no. The ordinary man just cares about his daily business. Let me also say that the less educated those Nigerians are (I’m not saying they shouldn’t be educated), the more they go about their businesses. But the more educated they are, the more interested they become in terms of what we are discussing now, that is the political leadership. It’s always the elite that cause it. They cause it!
You singled out the military as the only institution in the country where there is still oneness. But former Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Theophilus Danjuma (retd) cried out sometime last year that soldiers were being used to advance an ethnic agenda. Coming from a retired General, don’t you think your assertion is not entirely right?
Again you people are young. I belong to Danjuma’s generation so we have to start from the beginning. Let’s even forget about the beginning; even a few years ago, what happened at Odi? After that, what happened at Zaki Ibiam? Go and find out what happened at Zaki Ibiam. The military was used to suppress one side for whatever reason. That is why up till today we have that problem between the Tivs and the Jukuns. It didn’t start yesterday. So, if the army is being used now, army has been used all along. It depends on the vested interest of those complaining now.
There is this perception that there is no connection between President Buhari and his media team in terms of effectively communicating the government’s policies and programmes to the public. As a former spokesperson of a military president, what is your thought on this?
You may not limit yourself to Nigeria alone. Look at what is going on in the United States. The president there takes a stand and announces to the public while his media aides have a different thing. So, it is not peculiar to Nigeria. I won’t sit down here to be criticising my colleagues. No!
Also, this thing is personal. As a leader you don’t have to be a total recluse but at the same time you have to be wary of too much publicity. Let your actions speak for you. If you look at Donald Trump, he enjoys the media. He mixes with them. Recently, I learnt that the man has told more than 12,000 lies. I don’t know whether that is true or not but I believe they won’t tell lies against him. If he talked less, may be the number would have been lower. But because he talks every time, he has to be contradicting himself.
Are you suggesting that Buhari might have adopted the strategy of talking less in order not to goof up?
I am saying that it depends on individuals. Some people like being in limelight while others will allow their actions to speak for them. I hope you understand. Look at late Gen. Abacha. He wasn’t talking to the press as head of state. He was just taking actions and dealing with those who engaged in financial crimes. He was not talking to anybody but he was doing his job.
Excess publicity can also be uncomfortable. We are media men. Excess publicity may be uncomfortable; you may run into problems. You may be misinterpreted; you may be deliberately underreported. Some who cannot cope with that may not necessarily be involved in excess publicity. Look at me; I’m a journalist but I’m so publicity shy. I don’t go all over the place talking. So, may be if I were a governor I may not even talk as much to the press. So, I can’t really blame anybody.
A good percentage of Nigerians believe the President has not done anything probably because he does not publicise his achievements. Don’t you think he ought to turn a new leaf in this respect?
I am not opposed to his achievements being publicised. His achievements can be publicised. But having said that, I’m a realistic person. I can’t sit down here and join people to say that Buhari has not achieved anything. I ply Lagos-Ibadan road virtually every week and I know work is going on there. Such has never happened since that road was opened in 1981 or thereabout. Since then, there had been no repairs and I know something is going on there now. The second Niger Bridge is also being constructed; Onitsha-Enugu road and Enugu-Port Harcourt road, among many others, are also being reconstructed. There are some who have fixed positions. To such people, whether he has done anything or not, he hasn’t done anything. There is nothing he can do about that. That what I meant by saying the man can allow his achievements to be speaking for him. As I said, it depends on style. He was a quiet man; he was not even talking to anybody. He is coming out occasionally now. Although I agree he can do more by talking to the media. May be I’m able to know much of his achievements because I’m a journalist. The ordinary man on the street may not know. But there are some of our colleagues in the press who know but they don’t want to say that they know.
Do you think this government is on track especially in tackling the insecurity ravaging virtually every section of the country?
If you talk of insecurity, let me say this first. Insecurity today is a worldwide problem not just Nigeria, not just Africa. If you watch international television, you will see what is going on. What we know here about insecurity is Boko Haram and kidnapping. How many people are shot everyday in the United States? Britain is coming not entirely to that level but almost everyday you see murders being committed left, right and centre, particularly in London. I am not saying we are not worried in Nigeria. We are worried! But I’m saying that insecurity is a worldwide problem. It is not peculiar to Nigeria.
The one I am particularly worried about is kidnapping. It seems we have accepted it. And I’m angry with government about that; that we have accepted a situation where people are kidnapped and they are released so to speak. Nowadays, ransom is paid. It now seems to have become accepted that whoever is kidnapped will just pay ransom and police will tell us they have rescued him/her. Rescued who? How did you rescue them? Ransom is paid. In fact, there have been reports that the police serve as conduit for paying the ransom. Is that true or not? Every week in every part of the country, people are kidnapped and we are not doing anything about it. We are in trouble because on such matters, governors are responsible for security in their areas. Buhari won’t secure Ijebu Ode for instance but then how does the governor secure it. He has no control over the police. That is why I said we are in trouble.
That is part of the arguments of advocates of restructuring and state police. How do you weigh in on that?
Again, I repeat that we are in trouble. You want to create police for them? If you know how autocratic governors are, you will be shocked. Here in Ogun, just shortly after Obasanjo’s second term, a candidate was challenging the governor, which is his legitimate right; that candidate spent the Christmas in prison on the orders of a governor. He was not charged to court; he was not tried. So, if we empower the governors, we will be in trouble.
So, how do we get we get out all the challenges — the elite, insecurity and so on?
In the case of the elite, I’m not sure how we can escape them. They are there and there is nothing you can do. If you look at what they are saying today, when a new government comes in, give them a year or two. Once they don’t have any inroad, they become embittered. I don’t know how long we will go with that one.
And largely they are offering us textbook theories. The reality of governance is different. Until you see governance in action, you won’t know that governance is a different thing entirely. It is different from what the elite dream about.
Are you saying in effect that appointing technocrats in government will not be beneficial to the system?
Look at Britain. Who are the technocrats? You must be in the parliament before you are appointed minister. Are they technocrats? Someone will just be somewhere, he is not committed to the party, he is not involved in the party’s ideas but because he is an economist, you want him to implement what he was not associated with. No! If he is interested in helping his country, let him join that party. He may not contest elections but he would help in putting across the programmes of the party. There are people who, in rain and sunshine, will be in the field campaigning. Who are more suited to implement the party’s programmes, such people or the so-called technocrats?
Therefore, what is your view on government of national unity where the winner does not take all?
How can you combine incompatibles? It is those who are frustrated that are demanding for government of national unity. If you win your elections, go and rule, after four years, if you don’t perform you will be voted out. Ghana has done it; Sierra Leone, Gambia and Ivory Coast have also done it. So, why can’t we do it here? We started it in 2015. In 2023, Nigerians can vote.
Countries like Singapore, Malaysia and even Rwanda witnessed a huge turnaround in a matter of decades. Why has it been difficult for Nigeria to break into the league of developing countries of the world?
The type of system we have and operate now may disappoint us on that level in the sense that more emphasis is being paid on how those in government can be made more comfortable. I had talked about the outrageous salaries of the National Assembly members. They even earn more than the executive and the executive is so afraid, if not timid, to touch their salary. They are paid newspaper allowance. How many of them read newspapers? They are paid clothing allowance. Let them go the National Assembly naked if they can’t afford their own clothes. Why must Nigerian taxpayers pay for their clothes? It’s outrageous.
Governors hire private planes to attend meetings in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and other parts of the country. But to pay N30,000 minimum wage to workers they will say the money is not there. So, the emphasis is more on making life comfortable for those in government than the ordinary man on the street.
The FIRS is telling us that they are not exposing tax defaulters. There are many ways the FIRS can even help in changing the situation. There are laws in the country but they are not being implemented. Look at the EFCC Act for example. These days, the EFCC is trying to be effective. But if they charge them for looting, how did the money move round. The banks are involved. But did the banks alert the EFCC when the money was being withdrawn because under the law, if a certain amount of money is paid into your account today, the EFCC will be alerted. But because they are governors and ministers, billions are transferred but the banks won’t bother to alert the EFCC. Such managers should be in jail because they have turned out to be accomplices.
Documentation of experience is one of the ways the younger generation learns. Are you working on your Memoir?
Unfortunately, even after leaving office with IBB, I have been writing column for The Sun on a weekly basis, almost since the inception of that paper; let me say six months after the inception of the paper. It is not an easy task. I do ask myself, if you can maintain such a column, why not sit down and write. But on that one I am so lazy; I don’t know why. But if I decide to write a column now, I just write. And when I write, I recall events of the last 30 to 40 years off head. But for me to sit down and write my memoir, I’m just so lazy. I really don’t know why.