‘Restructuring is key to survival of Nigeria’
Obong Victor Bassey Attah, a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, a Fellow and president of the Nigerian Institute of Architects from 1997 to 1999, recently celebrated his 80th birthday. Holder of several academic, community and leadership awards, including the Knights of St John (KSJ), Attah has returned to practice as an architect and town planner and has devoted his time to community service.
Born in Uyo, the Akwa Ibom State capital, in November 1938, he had his secondary education at St Patrick’s College, Ikot-Ansa, Calabar, while his professional training as an architect started at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria. He qualified as a graduate architect in 1964 from Leeds in the United Kingdom (UK) and obtained a postgraduate diploma in Building Science from Liverpool University in 1965.
In the same year, he got married to his wife (Nnenyin) Alison Attah.
From Liverpool, he won the English Speaking Union Scholarship to study for a Masters degree in Advanced Architectural Design with Planning at Columbia University in New York, United States.
His first professional employment was in 1966 in Barbados, from where he moved back to work in New York from 1968 to 1972. He returned to Nigeria as a fully qualified and experienced architect and town planner in January 1973 and was employed for two years at Kola Bankole and Associates and in September 1974, he set up his own firm, Inter Designs Partnership.
On leaving office in May 2007, Attah returned to his practice and has devoted his time to community service. He spoke here on restructuring, national minimum wage, onshore/offshore dichotomy, among others.
As next year’s general elections draw near and the polity heating up, how do you see the coming elections?
First, let me know who is going to restructure this country and he is sincere about it and he would have my vote. Anybody that is not prepared to restructure this country should not even run and if he runs, nobody should vote for him. We must restructure this country; that is basic.
Let us look at who is sincere about restructuring and who has the ability to do it and we should vote for such a person, because leadership is critical, necessary and important, but you cannot always guarantee the quality of the leadership, so elect that person. But if his functions are confined and restricted, the evil he could do will be minimal, and cannot be nationwide.
Presently, if the President does one thing, the whole country feels it, whereas if the regions were autonomous, the effect will be minimal. So, restructuring is key to the survival of this country and its development through resource control.
Why are some people afraid of state police being canvassed as part of restructuring? Some people said because governors will abuse it, but the governors can only abuse state police because they know they are non-indigenes, they just bring them here and you will pay them to do whatever you pay them to do. But if they are from their states, if you tell any policeman to go and kill his own father, he would say ‘no governor,’ I don’t agree with you, because that is my father and we cannot do that.’
You would get better policing with local police than you do with non-indigene police force that we have over the place and it can never be adequate. There must be state police if we are going to have restructuring and a federal arrangement, because it is one of the ingredients of restructuring and true federation.
How can you make law and you don’t have means of enforcing the law, because it is only through the Police that you enforce the law?
What is your take on next year’s general elections?
Again, I say we should look for who will restructure the country. President Muhammadu Buhari has done a lot of things wrong. He even admited that he has done a good number of very wrong things, such as employing people from a certain area. But if that was his only fault and if we had a proper federal arrangement, do you know it wouldn’t matter, even at the risk of offending some people?
When you think you are doing the best by employing only your own brother and they are not doing well, you should at least succumb to public opinion that these people are not doing well, send them away and get other people. He is not doing that; he is not correcting the wrong things he did, and that is his biggest fault.
But tell me whether there has ever been a situation in which so much money and property have been recovered from people. Never! And we don’t want to go back to the situation where people are just grapping.
Are you supporting Buhari’s second term bid?
What does that mean? I am not in any political party. I am supporting whoever would give us a better country, which must start with restructuring of the country. Let us assess the person and see that he develop the country and expand the economy to enable it grow in every sector. That is what I am supporting and will continue to support.
What type of leader do we need in 2019?
We should go for leader that will be able to create an environment that conduces to growth and development. He only needs to create an environment and give the federating units autonomy and they would develop at their own pace and capacity, because it has happened before and it would happen again.
Are you comfortable with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and its conduct of elections so far under Professor Mahmood Yakubu?
I wrote a memo to former Senate President Ken Nnamani’s committee on electoral reforms and I am happy that one of the major proposals I suggested has been adopted, but I was extremely surprised and disappointed with the court refusal to admit what INEC was doing with card reader. INEC brought card reader, you don’t have to bring a law that will be card reader or not; INEC is empowered to do what it feels it can do to improve the conduct of elections.
I was saying that card reader is not enough; the issue often is not what happens at the polling booth. The issue most times is what happens at the collation centres, because sometimes they send fake documents and they use the general collation centre and write all kinds of number and so on. What we need is a simple hand-held or palm-held device at every polling unit. You can use the card reader when they finish voting, where agents of all political parties punch it and it goes to the local government collation centre to state collation centre and to Abuja and nobody can alter that.
It is quite revolutionary because every time somebody loses a case of electoral malpractice, it is because whoever alleges must prove and what you need to prove a badly conducted election is the mandate kept by INEC. The onus should be shifted to INEC to prove that it conducted an election properly. If that is adopted, we will have perfect elections, because INEC will preserve the materials and everything so that it can show how properly it conducted the election.
If they take that second step, we can now go to sleep and know that it is a matter of one man, one vote and every vote will count and we would keep children out of voting, because underage voting is evil.
How would you rate the war against corruption by this government?
I don’t know; we are lost somewhere. The concept hasn’t died, but the operation has been greatly faulted and therefore, it has not achieved the desired result.
At one time, I had occasion to ask if we can continue to believe Magu, because without conviction, without frequent and clear evidence of conviction, nobody will believe that the fight against corruption has succeeded. We have to look at why we cannot convict indicted persons for corruption.
I respect what the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is doing now, in terms of the reforms he has brought, especially with the special courts and so on. If we can get the judges to accept the fact that they are part of the fight against corruption, we will make progress in this regard.
What is your view on APC’s restructuring plans and re-introduction of onshore/offshore dichotomy in the country?
I don’t want to focus on that alone. I sent a memo to the El-Rufai committee, though people told me I was wasting my time, but I said I want to be able to say I sent a position paper to that committee. Let them accept or ignore it.
I can tell you with satisfaction that they accepted over 90 per cent of what I suggested to them, such as state police, resource control, restructuring and so on. But then they sneaked in something that I would advise them not to attempt and that is re-introduce onshore and offshore dichotomy. There can be no such thing; there can be no such dichotomy anywhere in any country for many reasons.
If you want to look at the legal reasons, the CJN had said that there can be no boundary dispute between federating units and the federation, because it is the aggregate boundaries of the federating units that defines the boundaries of the federation, but former President Olusegun Obasanjo cajoled the Supreme Court into making a ridiculous statement that I challenged and I told them it will stand to external shame until they assume the courage to correct it.
Let us just accept the fact that this thing was introduced for very selfish reasons. We have passed that stage and nobody should go back to it. That act of Obasanjo and the Supreme Court is what started the militancy in the Niger Delta region that has not stopped till date. If we want to attempt it again, we may not be able to stop it at all this time. Just let the state boundaries define the boundaries of Nigeria and if it extends to exclusive economic zone, then it extends to exclusive economic zone and that is what belongs to the state and that is the resource they should control.
To say that you want to leave the offshore oil money for the Federal Government will mean you didn’t even understand federalism, because if you do, you will know that in a federal arrangement, as it was before. In the past, the regions collected a certain amount of money and gave 50 per cent of it to the Federal Government. I think we should let the sleeping dog lie.
What is your view on restructuring?
Restructuring is the only answer for Nigeria to survive and it has to survive first before it can even develop, so let us just restructure now.
In what aspect do we need restructuring?
I am not one of those people that talk about forming regions and going back to amalgamating states; I don’t think it would work. We have got 36 states and those should be accepted as federating units and there isn’t one of those states that cannot survive on its own, not one. Name one and I will give you all their resources that can sustain them and even if you don’t have the resources yourself, you can exploit them in your neighbouring state by investing in what they have.
For example, I lived in Kaduna for many years and there are no big forests in Kaduna, so in Cross River, they started something they called Calabar Veneer and Plywood Limited (CALVENPLY). Kaduna State government invested in it and was getting dividends out of the project.
So, you don’t need to have forest to even benefit from the forest in your neighbouring state; you just have to accept that we are one country and we have a common citizenship and you can exploit what is available wherever and if you begin to look at Nigeria as it was then, you will see that there is no state in this country that cannot survive.
Also, I hear that a new minimum wage is coming out soon. I think the labour must not continue to cause trouble for this country. It cannot suggest that the cost of living in Uyo is the same thing in Abuja or Lagos. How can there be a national minimum wage? You can say that nobody should earn less than a certain amount throughout the federation, but you cannot specify that this is the minimum wage to be paid uniformly throughout the country.
We say the amount of petrol in Port Harcourt, where it is refined should be the same in Sokoto to where it is being transported. Why don’t we just leave a certain amount of free economy? But when it comes to labour, the unions should make sure nobody pays a wage that cannot sustain people, but to specify minimum wage is not correct, unless governors earn the same.
In America it is not like that. The governor of the state of Maine, one of the small England states, earns about one-third of what the governor of California earns and the wife of that governor works three days in a restaurant, waiting on tables to supplement her husband’s income. But here, several sirens follow the wives of politicians, not to talk of a governor’s wife. We are just ridiculous in the way we squander money. That is why we pretend there isn’t enough money to pay salaries.
If you want to deregulate petrol, labour will say they want to shut the country down. You want to tell me that when Dangote finishes building his refineries, knowing how much interest he is paying on loans or dividends he must pay to his shareholders, will you tell him how much to sell the petrol? Will that work? These are some of the things labour does that I really don’t understand.
Labour has gotten this military mentality that everything must be uniform, but there are certain basic minimums that should apply to each region, state and zone, such as house rent, which cannot be the same across the country and if it is not the same throughout, why should salaries be the same?
What is your view regarding Nigeria’s exiting of recession and the state of the economy presently?
We have exited recession, but that doesn’t mean our economy has improved or expanded, it is bad. In Britain, for example, they put it plainly and part of it is that from time to time, the authorities write to universities to close down certain departments and faculties, because there is an oversupply in those areas.
In Nigeria, the National Universities Commission (NUC) just sits there issuing licenses to universities and people are turning out worthless paper degrees in areas where nobody needs to employ people. The function should be to see that universities churn out properly trained graduates in areas of need, which are constantly changing.
The Federal Government has to stop being the educator, but the regulator. It should just regulate and supervise and let the people do things. There is too much government interference in everything, in the sense of wanting to do it itself, instead of supervising and regulating.
What is your opinion on youth restiveness and our educational system?
It is very unfortunate that even the credibility of our examinations has been called into question, because there are some places they said you just have to go and pay money and they can guarantee you the best results, which should not be so. It all boils down to corruption. If we can get away from corrupt practices, maybe we will get back our educational system.
There was a time that if you get a first degree in this country, there was no question about it; you will get into Masters programme abroad without stress. But now, if you take your degree abroad, they will put you back to even secondary school abroad, because they don’t trust what you have outside the country.
The way out is to do what we should do properly. We know what to do, we have always known what to do, there is no easy prescription, but we have to get things back to where people can trust and believe what we say and do. But if we say things and they are done through corruption, we will never succeed.
How do you feel about the endless killings in different parts of the country and what is the way out?
Since it was not always like this, there is every reason to believe that there would be a solution, because we must go back to where we were as our brothers’ keeper. What is happening is really quiet disturbing because it shows the complete devaluation of human lives to the point that killings do not mean anything to us anymore.
It comes with increased cultism and politicians have a big share of the blame, because they are the ones that started arming these people to snatch ballot boxes and do all kinds of evil things during elections. Now, the economy is so bad that people go into kidnapping.
We have not given people a good reason to want to live anymore, because everything seems to be on a complete downward turn. I don’t know, but something really drastic needs to happen, in terms of people’s attitude, the economy and gainful employment.
The way out is that we must change, we must let people know that this is morally wrong and give them alternatives to the killings as a means of making money or gaining positions. We have to change what is going on in the country and get people fully engaged in other gainful activities.
It all boils down to the fact that the military came and started this unitary system, pretending that they could look after the whole country by collecting all revenues and sharing them out. There was restiveness, but they suppressed it, because they were the military. The have left the scene and we are carrying on as if we can suppress it as the military did, but we can’t and that is why it is resurfacing.
The answer is go back to a federal arrangement and the key is restructuring. If we do not restructure to get a true federal system, we will get to a point where there will be a revolution in this country.
Let us accept that we are all Nigerians. It pains me when people say people want to divide the north. Why should it be a North versus South? Let us talk as though we want to be Nigerians; let us us accept that we are Nigerians and we should look after one another and we have a common citizenship, common destiny and then let us look at the fact that we want every part of the country to develop in the best manner that suits its own resources and any others they can acquire from other parts.