‘It will be difficult to conduct responsible census in Nigeria’
• Southeast presidency is wishful thinking
• Crippling ports in the south are deliberate, wicked policy of FG, says Obidigbo
Dr. Chike Obidigbo is a politician and frontline industrialist. He contested Anambra State governorship election in 2013 on the Platform of All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). In this interview with Assistant Politics Editor, LEO SOBECHI, he talks about 2023 politics and economic marginalisation of Nd’Igbo in Nigeria
Going by the next level cabinet recently inaugurated by President Muhammadu Buhari, do you think a template is in place to help the ministers make a difference?
I do not believe and trust their selection at all. Firstly, it is because some of them are people who were accused of corruption. It is only in Nigeria when one becomes governor he steals the whole money and buys his way to the senate and then becomes minister. In this Buhari’s government, both in the first tenure and now, nothing will change, because it is the same persons and he has never created any clear cut economic plan. The policies are different from the agenda of Nigeria. Those people are interested in conquering you. How do we develop the economy of the country? The same way I do not like how so many people force their way into public office.
The president recently directed the Central Bank against giving forex to those importing food items, saying Nigeria has attained food sufficiency. As a prominent industrialist, do you support the president’s observation?
Number one, the president would not know whether we have attained food sufficiency or not. Whatever he said was based on what he was told. I would have been happier if he said Nigeria would stop importation of food and then encourage local producers to grow more and make profit.
If he said that, it would have made more sense, because our agricultural industry needs some form of protection. If we do not protect it, then we can never grow more food despite the fact that we have all it takes to grow enough. And saying that we have attained that height now is not true, but we can aim at that by curtailing food imports.
As a former chairman of Manufacturers’ Association of Nigeria (MAN) for Enugu, Ebonyi and Anambra States, what is your estimation of attitude of Southeast governors to the development of the zone?
One of the things that really burn me out is the indifference of the leaders, in particular the governors of the Southeastern states. None of them seems to be thinking about wealth creation; none of them seems to be thinking about job creation, how we can improve on the economy of the separate states of the Southeast. Every one of them seems complacent, so relaxed. They collect revenue from the Federal Government on a monthly basis, they collect local internally generated revenue (IGR), it does not matter how they manage to get it, even if it means flogging people in the public. Some of them collect these international donors’ agency funds and when they collect all these, apart from the one that would be stolen, the next thing they do is to pay salaries and after paying salaries, they do not have enough money to go into capital projects that would create new wealth and jobs for our people. I believe that they have not done well and with the way they are going, they will never do well.
The tendency has been to focus on the Federal Government, but is there a system or institutional framework to really monitor the governors and governance at the state level?
It is very difficult, because like you rightly said, everybody is looking up to the Federal Government and because people at the centre always want to have a say in what happens in the component states, they always have a hand in what is happening there. It becomes difficult for the people, the masses of a particular state, to monitor what their leaders are doing.
This is so because the leadership is not responsible to the people. More or less, it is responsible to the people at the centre. That makes a world of difference because you cannot tackle the governor, because in the first instance, you did not put him there. There are certain powers over our heads that put them there to which they are responsible. So long as this remains the case, it would be difficult to monitor, control and at least speak against what these people are not doing right. They are not interested in what you are doing, but interested in settling whatever obligations they have at the centre and then pay the salaries.But when it comes to real practical investment in capital development, they lag behind a lot, particularly the governors of the Southeast.
Insecurity has played a major role to downplay development in the states and it is an aspect, which the president’s speech did not address. How has insecurity affected the country’s socio-economic growth?
It has done a lot to retard our economic growth. There is something that people have not understood clearly, especially in the Southeast, which went through a war and since they lost that war, they have been treated as second-class citizens in Nigeria. For any Southeasterner to aspire to become the president of this country is wishful thinking. The people that defeated us are the rest of Nigeria for which the Fulani in particular have claimed the victory for themselves alone. And by claiming the victory for themselves alone, they believe that they reserve the right to produce the country’s leadership. What the Southeast has not factored in is that we have lost the opportunity to lead this country politically.
There are so many areas one can acclaim success. God has given us something that is very peculiar. God has given us creativity; it is creativity that will help you develop a sustainable economy. If we look in that direction, we can easily achieve economic power. When you achieve economic power, you are at par with whoever is holding the political power. So instead of looking for one thing, like always wanting to be the president, it should be known that we do not need it.
The people you are dealing with are not relinquishing it. When they relinquish it, what else will they do? There is no economy at all and there are no sources of income except that they are ready and willing to die in order to remain politically relevant.
We do not have to pressure them because they will hurt you. So, what we should be looking at now is how do we grow our economy to achieve a better level of economic power? Because like I said earlier, economic and political power are at par. So once you achieve that parity, you can also dictate certain policies in this country.
Some time ago, the President Buhari said so-called herdsmen are from neighbouring countries. Following the RUGA palaver, has the country determined the specific origin of the herders moving down South? Secondly, do you think it is time for Nigeria to have a population census?
A lot of statistics in this country are not real but manipulated and fixed. Truthfully speaking, it will be very difficult to conduct a responsible census in this country, because there is so much fallacy about these things.
First of all, we do not know how many people are Nigerians and how many are foreigners. Even those without visa are here doing one business or the other. So when the president says they are looking for something, which we are not ready to give and cannot give, because it is in their best interest and not in our best interest. Even the roaming of cows on our streets is not in our best interest; we do not want it. We eat cow meat quite alright, but that does not mean that cows will destroy our farms and that does not mean that the people taking care of the cows should continue to rape our women and injure people in their farms.
These are areas that I want the Southeastern governors to be very active in condemning, but at the same time find a solution to these things. Part of the solution is that they must come out categorically clear that we do not want RUGA. If you want to continue with your cow business, do it in a civilized manner and do it in a way that it does not hurt anyone else. This is democracy and this being democracy, they should do it in the same way others are carrying out their legitimate businesses. Cow business is not national business. Therefore, there is no way they can do RUGA in all the states of the federation. It is unheard of.
I think that why we have a major problem is that our own leaders are not focusing right because if they are focusing right, all these problems will not come up. Nobody can come to me and ask for a local government, for what. No problem, I will also tell you a state where you can give me a local government, so that I can create whatever I want to create there. Like I said, cow business is private business. It is very painful and shameful that since the second tenure of the present administration, the only news we hear is about cows, about herdsmen, about their killings and about anything that has to do with cow. We are not talking about the economy; we are not talking about the people and we are not talking about unemployment, which is creating a lot of havoc in so many states in the country today.We have not heard about the economy and the people. So the government is focused on cow instead of focusing on human beings. It is very painful and shameful.
Why is it that none of the Southeast governors has tried to emulate Benue State governor by outlawing open grazing of cow?
The Benue State governor did the open grazing thing and they are still under a lot of threat. The Southeast governors, if they do it, say they ban it, are they ready to back it up? It is not just a matter of talking about it. They say they ban it but right in front of my gate you still see cows.
It is a question of banning it and sustaining it to make sure it does not happen. It is a law. When a governor of the state through the state House of Assembly makes a law, it is becomes a law and that law must be obeyed by everyone to ensure it is enforced. We are not against the Fulani rearing their cows but they should not do it at our own expense.
They should not use their cows to destroy our farms because that is their own business and farming is our own business. So many of such issues have erupted in my area where people were shouting that the Fulani destroyed their farms and the government does not seem to care. So, when the Federal Government is saying that they have taken care of the situation, I have not seen it because the problem is here with us.
How would you say the Southeast has fared in the last 20 years of democracy in the area of manufacturing and value-addition to agro-allied products?
I have been in manufacturing for more than 20 years, especially in the Southeast. I think this is the worst period, especially for manufacturers. Number one, I think there is a deliberate attempt by the government at the centre to slow down the process of economic growth within this zone. I think it is deliberate.
Any good manufacturing environment requires first and foremost, security of lives and property within and without; it is not so here. If you are moving your products from here to Aba, for example, you meet not less than 20 to 25 checkpoints and at every checkpoint, they extort money from you. If you do not give them that money, they delay you. That does not help our economy.
Secondly, the roads are not fantastic. It takes you a whole lot of time to move your products. Thirdly, there are too many obstacles on the road; there are official arms of the government… And finally there is no energy to run industries. You cannot run industries by using your hands to turn the machine. It is the machine that will turn them. These are the major problems confronting industrialists in the Southeast. The last one is funding. The banks are there to milk you not to support you. They are not growth-oriented. All they are interested is to get the best out of you. Even if that means that you are collapsing, they do not care. Out of these five, I think the Southeast is the worst hit of them all. Somebody once said that there is a glass ceiling on the Southeast whereby our development cannot exceed that ceiling.
It is a deliberate act. If the economy is not growing then the young ones will not have anywhere to work; they are forced out of this environment; they go to Abuja, Lagos, Kano, Benin, Kaduna, Katsina and when they go to such places, because we are very creative, they develop those places to the detriment of our own area, because everything that will help us develop our area has been denied us. If anybody says it is not deliberate, I will not agree.
Energy which they have refused to liberalise is making it impossible for our economy to grow here. We are very creative people. The highest concentration of small and medium scale enterprises is highest in the east but they cannot grow because the circumstances and our leaders are not aware, because if they were aware, they will start thinking of what we should do to work on our economy so that our economy can grow. You remember that before the war, eastern region was classified as the fastest growing in the whole of the South Sahara, not just Nigeria, because we started early to understand the meaning of the word ‘value addition.’ We had three regions.
The North then was producing groundnuts and they were exporting groundnuts. The West was producing cocoa and they were exporting cocoa; the east was producing palm fruits, but we were not exporting palm fruits and that value addition is where there are opportunities, but no wealth production and no job creation. They were called pioneer oil mills. When we break out palm nuts, we processed them and export oil and then we export palm kernel. That is to say, we were adding value and that value addition system is what creates jobs and that is why within the Eastern Region, we had goods known as Igbo Made. Every person that was of age would remember that Igbo Made products were made in Igbo land.
There was no other part of the country involved in local manufacturing. This is the same time that countries like Japan that just came out of World War II was trying their hands in manufacturing; it was the same with China that got out of 100 years of exile and started manufacturing; it was also the time that Taiwan started manufacturing. We were also producing at the same time. It was the war that interrupted us. They stopped us, and the war ended. We were being systematically moved out to go and develop other areas. All those places that were trying their hands on manufacturing like Taiwan, China and India, see where they are today and see where we are today, because we could not move further. Before the war, there has been so much jealousy, and immediately after the war, they started doing things that made it impossible for us to get back on our feet, but that notwithstanding, creativity is creativity. For those who are endowed, it would take some time, but we shall get there.
Just a few days ago, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said the privatisation of PHCN was given to proxies and those who did not have capacity and that the Federal Government would like to repossess and then redistribute the DISCOs and others. Do you think that this policy somersault would revive the energy sector?
That is not where the problem lies. The vice president himself does not know where the problem lies. The problem is in the complete overhaul of the energy sector; that overhaul will involve bringing people who can generate energy and sell energy. Once that is done it would leave room for people to develop at their own pace.
My friend, Prof. Barth Nnaji borrowed a lot of money, close to 600 million dollars to build a geometric plant at Aba and by the time he finished it was when the problem came up, that whatever you produce you must throw into the national grid. Which national grid? National grid is providing energy to the people who do not need it at the detriment of those who need it. When it goes to the national grid, they begin to ration it state by state. It is punitive and destructive. So, where the problem should be solved is, provide the energy, sell the energy and pay something to the government, not the government controlling.
It is never done anywhere in the world. Secondly, where the Southeastern governors are failing, and I happen to be old enough to know that years back before the war, there was electricity in all parts of the east. We had 24 hours of quality energy in large quantity and the Eastern Region then extended to Calabar, Rivers through Umuahia, to Onitsha and Aba. A lot of energy was produced through coal at the time. The question is, what has happened to that coal? I discussed this with my professor friend and he said the issue is that providing energy using coal is more expensive than hydro, but is it more expensive than energy produced from diesel of industrial places? So, what we need is energy that is affordable and sustainable, but there is a comma somewhere.
Today, the U.S. is still using coal-powered energy. China is powering through a lot of coal too; England is powering through a lot of coal and Japan is still using coal and what they say is no new coal should be used to power energy, because of pollution. So, I would have expected our legislators and National Assembly to legislate on these things. Oji River is not a new coal plant. All they need to do is to erect the plant, expand it and increase its capacity; the coal is still there. If you go to Ebonyi State, what is under the ground is heavier and higher than what we have above the ground in any other part of the country and when you ask, they say it belongs to the federal government.
Our leaders, especially governors of the Southeast do not impress me, because we have a lot that can grow our economy and become the fastest growing economy again and you do not wait for people to give you permission to develop your economy.
You attack them to leave you alone to develop your economy. If we do not create jobs for our young, no one will do that for us. If we do not create new wealth to improve the standard of living of our people, nobody will do it for us. In this 21st going on 22nd century, we need to take our destiny in our hands. We have all it takes to do that.
There is the issue of ports and port management. Recently, we heard from the grapevine that the Federal Government is trying to reintroduce the inland waterways control bill. How do you think this will affect economic growth?
The ports’ issue is part of the problems of this country. It is just to hold down the Eastern Region of this country. I remember so many years ago when we started our businesses, we were importing and when we import, our goods come to Port Harcourt. We go to Port Harcourt to clear the goods and move them home. Then after some years, they said ships couldn’t come to PH again unless ships carrying oil installation goods, that every ship will then go to Lagos. There is a very good port at Onne, but because they want to continue with reining us in. Instead of doing that, they were building more ports in Lagos. It is sheer wickedness.
Calabar is there; so, also is Warri. If you ship a multi-food container to Lagos, it would cost you say N4,000 but if you are shipping it down to Onne, you would be asked to pay N5,000. What have they done to make sure they open up the eastern ports and ensure they control every part of the economy?
If they are consumables, there was a time it was taking a container more than five days to get to Onitsha, because of the bad roads and because there are too many checkpoints on the road and you are spending money on the checkpoints and avoiding the death traps on the roads which they are not ready to fix. It is deliberate and it is their plan. They know what they are doing.