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‘Security, corruption not Nigeria’s major problems’

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Industrialist and politician, Dr. CHARLES UGWU, served as the Minster for Commerce and Industry under the President Umaru Yar’dua administration. In this interview with COLLINS OSUJI, the ex-minister says the way forward for Nigeria is to invest in internal productions, create job opportunities, among other issues.

* 2023 Igbo presidency is for Nigeria’s best interest, says Charles Ugwu

How do you react to President Muhammadu Buhari’s New Year letter to Nigerians?
There are specific issues or polices I would like Mr. President to concentrate on. Of course, fighting corruption is an important element but more important is to establish a productive base in our economy, because our economy has no productive base. We are importing over 80 per cent of what we use and what we consume. This is not sustainable at all. We have to get back to production; we have to make investments in production, whether it is in the food area, fishery, fish, chicken, whatever else; we must make investments in those areas.

In that regard, I feel strongly that he should concentrate on making a clear decision on what to do with imports. We must close our borders; allow our economy to attract investments; we need to grow it; to create jobs locally and not to import things and give jobs outside. Imagine, we would go and buy chickens in Ireland; we buy chicken’s carcass and bring them into our country. We must imbed production in our country; we must make investments. Therefore, the only way we can do it is to create the environment.

Of course, infrastructure is number one. Number two is what I call market access. If you keep your doors open, everybody can bring in any amount of rubbish into your country and you will never grow. So I don’t want to judge President Buhari on the issue of corruption. My major focus on which he would be judged is to what extent he has imbedded production and made investments there. Look, we have nearly 200 million people. How many of those 200 million people are producing and bringing benefits to the economy? Not up to 30 million. The rest of them, we are all consuming things coming in from outside the country. We have to change that scope, this kind of parasitic survival. It doesn’t work.

Don’t you think security has a role to play in achieving all that? 
Security is important because life comes first. But it can be achieved. You can’t achieve it by guns and shooting people. You achieve it by creating jobs, creating opportunities for people to live. At the moment, the level of poverty is horrendous. The level of poverty is completely outrageous in our country and that’s why, although I am not forgiving crime, I am not saying that if you don’t have work you should go and steal, go and kill or destroy other people, but we must tackle opportunities for our people. And number one is to create those jobs, give opportunities for fabricators, for welders, for construction people, for farmers. Once there is economic activity, people have something to protect and defend. If a person has no stake in the economy, he wouldn’t defend it; he would destroy it.

So, security is important. Government has access to resources to enable us equip the police in new technology, in new surveillance systems but the best surveillance system, the best armed police will not ensure you against hungry people who are desperate for daily survival. The level of poverty is incredible and I am saying to you, out of the 200 million, less than 30 million are those who are contributing genuinely to the economy, the rest of them are people who are reaping off the economy and there is no job for them. I am talking in specific terms; you can go and check the statistics.

So job is number one in this fight. Foreign investment, yes; it will come in but it will only come in when those who are already producing here, doing things here can show there is success here. If you don’t have power, what serious investment can you make? Sixteen years of PDP and over four years of APC governments and all that, we still don’t generate power to run our industries. Are we serious? We are not serious in that regard. Power is number one. We have gas; let’s use the gas to build power supply. Let us have power supply 20 hours a day and the economy will look different. That is the point I am making. Priority is jobs. Jobs are driven by investments; investments are driven by infrastructure and security. Corruption yes; it is a problem. What corruption represents for us is that people are consuming our capital that should be used to generate power, to provide the roads, provide infrastructure; they are ‘eating’ it upfront by padding budgets and padding contracts. But once we focus and establish those infrastructure, the economy will grow; it will build enough resource for people now to earn good money. People are ‘eating’ the capital without producing with it first.

Do you think agitations for an Igbo president come 2023 are justifiable?
There is no agitation. There is a demand that fairness and justice should apply in our polity. We are a federation, a federation made up of Fulani and the Hausas, Yoruba, Igbo, lots of people. It is a federation. So in order to create unity and unity is important, in order for everybody to participate fully here, everybody wants to be respected, given equal opportunity. Equal opportunity demands that a Hausa man can be president; a Fulani man can be president. An Ijaw man can be president. A Yoruba man can be president. An Igbo, why not us? Are you still hanging on the civil war? Give us a chance to participate. The same federation you want us to play a part in we must be part of it. So it is a justified demand. It is a fair demand. If you know justice, you know that it is necessary. We don’t want to talk too much about it. The Igbo are justified to seek to participate as equal partners in the federation. That is what I support. I support that Igbo must be given a chance.

Are Igbo united in the quest for power shift, knowing that in time past, they were accused of sabotaging the opportunity for one of theirs to occupy the position?
The Igbo are prepared now. There are renegade people that are all over the country. There are Fulani, Hausa and Yoruba. There are those who think that their interest is protected by selling out or canvassing a different viewpoint. The core Igbo, people of substance know that is a fair thing to do and it will bring unity, it will bring cohesion. If you exclude Igbo from participating in the governance at the highest level of government in Nigeria, then you are saying that we are not part of the federation. And you are giving opportunity to those who say that the Igbo should move away and go to Biafra. We don’t want Biafra in that sense. Biafra is a statement of the discontent. The core Igbo are not for it. I have investments outside my state. I have investments in Lagos; I have investments in Abuja. This country is my own country and I want to play a full part in it.

As an Igbo, I want to be given a chance to participate at the highest level of governance in this country. You can’t exclude us and you think you can achieve justice. You can’t have justice. So let the Biafra element alone. It is the discontent expressed all the time when we have this discussion but in terms of equity and fairness and justice and love for each other, Yoruba man, Hausa man, Fulani man, Ijaw man, whoever it is, if we want to preserve the federation, it is in the interest of all of us Nigerians to make sure that there is equity and fairness and justice in this country. That is what this country requires. Otherwise, it will never work. That is the point I am making.

You once aspired to govern Imo State. Now what is your assessment of the incumbent, Emeka Iheioha? 
It is a little bit unfair to ask me that question because, yes, I offered myself to serve the state in 2007, but it didn’t work out. Now we have found a young man who is keen and able to do something that we can see, things that make sense in the economy and prosperity of Imo State. We support him whole-heartedly. Emeka Ihedioha has taken over the reins of government.

He is consulting fully with people who own the state, those in the House of Assembly, all the members of the National Assembly and all the leaders and elder. We can’t all agree on every element, but at least he takes a broad view of the issues. I give you one example. When he came on board, he saw the level of hunger, the level of poverty, the level of misery, and please, I mean every word I have said here, and he made an effort to say, ‘okay, this Christmas, I am going to buy rice to give to the people.’ And he made arrangement for rice to be delivered to each and every local government and community in small quantities. A few thousand bags in each of the local governments and that rice has trickle down to the grassroots. If you go round, you will see that people have something to eat.

On a longterm basis, it may not be the best thing to do, but today, because of the hunger and misery that exists in our country, it was a good thing to do. So we support him. Across the spectrum, in infrastructure, in the health area, in new development, new vision, new idea, he is working on all these, and trying to get the diaspora to make investments, trying to improve health care, trying to pay pensioners. Our state was in ruins. For people outside the state, they may not know but I am here and I saw that the state was in ruins. And he has started the rebuilding process. He is doing the roads now. If you see the roads, everywhere is being touched. We support him and we encourage him. So far, I think he is on a right track.

What agenda would you set for him in 2020?
I think my major worry; let me not say agenda is the availability of resources to run the state economically. The level of IGR is still very low. So we are worried and, with the level poverty here, those who can be in the tax net are very few. So how would he raise the money to run the state, to build all those infrastructure we desperately need? So, we have to encourage him to go out to expand the tax net, to bring in more people. No matter how small. Some people can pay N200. Some people can pay N500. Some people can pay N1,000. Let everybody pay something that enables the state to rise up and begin to generate quality services, adequate security, efficient health care, and sound education. All those things are paid for with money. The roads he is doing now, I don’t know where he is getting the money to build them. I marvel at what he is doing and how frugal he is trying to be in this matter.

Recently, they said Imo is the least corrupt state. I don’t know about that but I know that the young man is doing his best to make sure that the economy is growing. He is looking at so many aspects of new investments. In agriculture, for example, he is trying to see whether we can grow rice grain in Imo on the Imo River, from Ideato all the way to Umunwanwa, Ezinihitte; he is developing that. He is trying to attract resources from donor agencies and foreign investors to do it. When I speak like this you may think I am just praising him; I am not. I am saying that he has made the right decisions. He has seen the needs we have in the state and he is focusing on them to do his best.

Unfortunately, the state was virtually destroyed. So, the first step of rebuilding is to rebuild the foundation, repair the roads, rebuild the hospitals before he will now start doing what I call real economic development that involves activities in energy, infrastructure, etc. in Imo State, power supply is in a mess. How are we going to grow industries? How do we create clusters of activities, of industries, small scale people? These are things that he has in his plans. He has already mapped out very clear agenda. I am sure you read his budget, even though the budget doesn’t have the IGR to support it. But at least he has mapped out the direction that he is going in terms of economic development of the state.

The Supreme Court decision on Imo governorship is generating much interest. What is your perspective?
I can’t predict. The Supreme Court is dominated by people who have common sense to do the right thing, honourable justices. We followed the cases from the tribunal to the appeal and the grounds of the decisions they made are very clear to us. We don’t expect anything different. We expect that the Supreme Court will uphold the truth and the truth is that Imo State people voted for Emeka Ihedioha, they voted for him and will continue to support him in all his programmes. How will anybody else come? Who comes near that? No one. Unless somebody wants to sabotage the state to say it is going to be a different decision. That is all. But I don’t expect that. As a mature man, I expect the Supreme Court justices to clear their eyes and focus on the elements of law, the facts of the case and on exactly what happened and declare finally Emeka Ihedioha as the winner, and we know that his victory was earned. He scored the majority of the votes cast and he deserves the victory.

What do you make of recent prophecy by Rev. Fr. Ejike Mbaka on the matter?
I don’t recognize any prophet. The last prophet was Jesus Christ and he is coming again. No one can speak for him, no one can tell us anything else. I don’t acknowledge any prophet. Nobody can prophesize to me. Why didn’t he prophesy it before the election? Why didn’t he prophesy for people to vote for the man during the elections and why is he prophesying now after the election and people have cast their votes and we are in the process of enforcing the victory. I don’t recognize that and I dismiss it as rubbish. There is nothing in it and I have no trust in that.

What is your word of advice to Nigerians for the year 2020?
I don’t have any advice for Nigerians. They know their situation. I have said enough about that. You got to change the base of the economy. We have to produce more and consume what we produce. We have to build our economy. That is what it takes. If we continue to eat imported rice and we can’t grow rice, then we can’t have fish, we can’t have chicken. Whoever heard that Nigeria was importing chickens before? Can you see how ridiculous it is? Since I was born I have never heard in my life that Nigeria will import chickens when you can get chicks in your compound and allow them to roam.

So, some of these things we are doing we must wake up to our senses. The economy is what is holding us down. We must make the investments. We must believe in the economy. We must support the president in the policies he is making to help grow the economy.

In the case of Imo, I plead with all Imo citizens. This is the only home we have. This is the anchor for all of us. There is no other and therefore we must come back and participate in it. No matter how, even in the smallest way, come and participate. Help your people. If they want to put fish farm, help them to set that up. If they want to put a little poultry, put a little money there to encourage them.  The more of them that come up, you will see that the economy will begin to thrive. This is our state; we must grow it and make it succeed. That is my own view.


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