Tribe ideology and religion make democracy complex in Nigeria, says Ezike
Index-linked salaries will address corruption in civil service
The 2023 presidential election is few days away. In this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, a lawyer and candidate for the House of Representatives on the platform of National Party of Nigeria (NPN) in 1984, James Ezike, bares his mind on insecurity, 2023 elections, corruption, among other issues.
We are in a political season and a lot of things are happening. Some of the controversial developments are the Muslim-Muslim ticket debate, insecurity as well as the calls for equity and fairness. How do you react to these issues?
Nigeria as of today is the most complex country in the history of mankind. What they call Muslim-Muslim ticket to me is not what I call it. What I see as Muslim-Muslim ticket is that there are two major political parties and each nominated a Muslim to be their presidential candidates. That is my Muslim Muslim ticket. Not that one party had a Muslim presidential candidate and Muslim running mate.
So, the two parties have Muslims as their presidential candidates. What does that tell you? It tells you that the situation is terrible for the country. Remember that in my first interview with The Guardian, I said that Nigeria has not been formed, until Nigeria is formed, we can’t begin to talk about business. Nigeria cannot be said to be formed or pretends that it exists when it doesn’t. My prayer for this election is that everybody agrees that it is free and fair when the result comes out. When that happens, then that will be the beginning of our journey to success. If the election is not rigged, it won’t matter who wins. Unfortunately, the two major parties started with rigging. Is it not all in the public space that the candidates bought their tickets? Paying to get nominated is part of rigging because, maybe, there are people who are better, but couldn’t get it.
Two, using dollars to buy delegates according to reports, is bad for the economy and they are the people you expect to govern us. So, we started very badly with this election and if the result comes out, and it is rigged, we will continue in the quagmire. Honestly, since independence, all elections have been rigged. There is no exception. What led to the 1966 coup was the rigging of the 1964 election, the general election and the election in Western Region in 1963.
So, rigging of elections has been part of our problems. Now, Peter Obi is contesting, he will be the first Igbo man after the military came to power in 1966 to run for a major office, maybe you can include Azikiwe, but if he loses, then the whole country have told the Igbos that they don’t want them. And Igbo’s will be happy that that is what they want. So, that’s why I said I want a free and fair election and they will not oppose the Igbos living in the country.
In future, it might be the turn of a presidential candidate from the Middle Belt or other minorities to contest and we will also decline support. The minorities may begin agitation when they remain excluded from power for too long. Let us not forget our history, that before independence, Nnamdi Azikiwe told Ahmadu Bello, when they were going to a conference in Britain, that they should forget their differences, but Ahmadu Bello said, no. The north wanted a confederation as early as then, The Southwest led by Awolowo wanted it, but Azikiwe and the colonial masters wanted a federation. Don’t forget that immediately after the death of Aguiyi Ironsi, the north wanted to secede outright and Yakubu Gowon organised a national conference where all the regions agreed on a loose confederation. Then suddenly, one thing led to another and we are where we are. Why are we where we are? It is because of the metropolitan power. In case people don’t know, the metropolitan power here is Britain. During the cold war and up till now, the way the west practice colonialism is that they determine what happens in their former territories. France will determine who or what will happen, who will be in charge in their former territories, while Britain will decide who will be in charge or what will happen in its own territories.
Does that explain why our presidential candidates prefer to go to Chatham house in England?
When we talk about Chatham house, it is not much different from Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, Victoria Island. The only thing is that during the military era, we destroyed our own. During Shehu Shagari’s time, Shagari and Awolowo didn’t go to Chatham house. Today, people believe they will get international audience when they go there, and also, the metropolitan power influence. But Atiku Abubakar didn’t go. Atiku did something more interesting. There’s something called soft power. The late Queen Elizabeth is soft power, her successor, King Charles is, as well as the Bishop of Canterbury. Atiku went to see the Bishop of Canterbury and that for me is more important, and influential than going to Chatham House. Also, you saw the photographs of Obi and King Charles? That is even a more powerful soft power for me. So, Britain has a lot to do with what goes on in Nigeria, but if we have a leader who is intelligent, these problems will be reduced.
With the level of insecurity going on as well as the attacks on INEC offices, what do you think about this coming election?
It is the people who either don’t want elections to hold or want a low turn out in some areas in the country, so they can win. Those things are happening with the intention of getting less people to turn out for the election in some parts of the country. It is either the political opponents or the government that is sponsoring it. We just need to compare it with what is happening at the Central Bank. The governor has been accused of unspeakable things. I have tried to read and understand what they are saying, but it makes no sense to me. The DSS went to court, whereas it should hand over to the authorities after investigations. If he was financing terrorism, the government will charge him to court through the Attorney General’s office. They didn’t tell us exactly what he did. And then suddenly, we started hearing about trillions of naira. The last time DSS was involved in something, it shook the whole country. It was when Buhari was ill and the DSS stopped members of the National Assembly from seating. That amounts to treason anywhere else in the world. So, what we are praying for is peace.
How will you rate the campaigns by presidential candidates? Are they really-issue based?
In the modern world, Nigeria is the only country where presidential candidates don’t debate. Olusegun Obasanjo refused to debate. After him was Yar’adua. I am not sure he debated, perhaps, he was only exceptional, I think he was, he had always been exceptional. Then Muhammadu Buhari always refuse to debate. So, it is nothing new. And why do they do this? They do it because they know that it is not the debate that would decide who will win. In other climes, political parties are founded on ideology. The ideology of Nigerian Politics and some other African countries is called the tribe ideology. But what makes Nigerian ideology worse than anywhere else in the world is that it is also based on religion. So, it is complex.
There’s no other place we have that complexity. Look at what happened in Yugoslavia, they had four ethnic groups and they decided to rotate the presidency among them. After the first one, the people of Slovenia said no, they don’t want it anymore, but opted to have a separate state and everybody agreed. They have an ethnic group called Kosovo and those people were Muslims. Kosovo said they wanted to also have their own country. You see how complex religion is? That is nothing to compare with our own. Ours is unfathomable and very complex. Look at the one of Czechoslovakia, two ethnic groups, the same culture, the same faith, the same religion, but they held an election, incidentally, the two candidates emerged from the two ethnic groups separately. When the result came out, one has most of the votes from the Czech, while the other candidate had most of the votes in his own area. But the Czech candidate won and he called his friend and said you can see that our people are telling us something. Most of my people voted for me, most of the other people voted for you because they don’t want to be in the same country. Let us go peacefully and continue to do business the way we use to do things and stay together as we used to.
So, they separated into Czech Republic and Slovenia. It was called Velvet divorce, because there was no violence. I hear somebody say Nigeria is indissoluble, when the United Nations Charter allows countries to do so if they want it by referendum. There’s no part of this country that is not heavily endowed. The only thing that we don’t seem to be endowed with is the thing between our two ears. If people are endowed with it, they won’t need anybody’s help. So, we are going to continue this way, innocent lives are lost every second in every part of the country. Young men are not employed and yet there is a lot for them to do because the type of governance we have in Nigeria does not encourage people to work and it is sad.
Is there anyway strike actions could be tackled using the instrumentality of law?
It is not really a matter of law alone, but a matter of the rule of law and the rule of law includes economics. I did a case many years ago that ended at the Supreme Court in 2006. And the case ended on what is called the gold value of the Naira. I argued it in my brief, until the Supreme Court approved it. The thing to do is to ask ourselves the question, why is it that in the advanced countries of the world, people don’t go on strike anymore to increase their salaries? It happened in the distant past, but not anymore. The answer is simple. We should index-link the amount we are paid as salaries to the rate of inflation, that’s what they do. We have what used to be the Federal Office of Statistics, now called the Federal Bureau of Statistic. It’s so easy for them to do it. If in 1970, a public servant was earning a living wage, and no matter how lowly his position, he is able to go every weekend to the National Stadium in Surulere to watch a football match, so, what happened when there is inflation? All we need to do is to index-link the wages. I found it laughable when some lawyers went to court to increase the salaries of the judges. As long as there’s inflation, the value of their salary will drop. Do we have to keep going to the courts to do so and how are we going to arrive at the figure? That is not the way to do it.
It is very simple for statisticians. We have the decimal currency Act, which some people in the Central Bank don’t know about. Now, index-link the salary of everybody to the current value of inflation and the problem will be solved. That is why, for instance, in Britain, what you pay for electricity bill this month maybe lower than what you paid six months ago.
It just doesn’t keep going up, it depends on the rate of inflation. What you spend determines what they will charge you, and it is index-linked. Yes, they go on strike over there, but it’s always on other grounds. So, it is easy to do and is not a matter of going to courts. The same thing is happening in the courts. It is the reason our courts are congested, such that most cases, especially civil cases, where monetary claims are involved, linger so long in the courts. A defendant never loses a case and the plaintiff never wins at the same time. However, what a defendant needs to do is to keep delaying cases and by the time they get to the Supreme Court, the subject-matter of the dispute will worth nothing in monetary values.
People go on strike because they are not earning much. I’m saying that you go back to the time when they were earning enough, do some calculations and raise it by that percentage. Now, they make more money in the public service by corruption to be able to survive. But if they are earning living wages, most of them won’t like to go through that route.
What if the employers are not making profits, how will they go about index-linking wages under inflation?
Why not? They should also take insurance. Insurance is a big business all over the world when you employ people. Before you go into that business, you should have enough money. The banks can also support. And remember, I said that the rule of law is involved. If you are an investor and you go to a country to do business, you know that if you are cheated, or if something goes wrong and you go to court, you’ll be adequately compensated.
You don’t look back. You just do your business. You don’t need to bribe the judges or do something ridiculous, if you know that the law will apply and you will be adequately compensated immediately, just concentrate on what you are doing. By that assurance, the economy keeps growing. It is good for the foreigner and good for the nation. So, it is not difficult at all. I spent time studying some of these things, but I know that people who are professionals know it, but for some strange reasons, nobody thinks that way. It doesn’t cost the government anything, the amount of money they are losing through corruption will employ people in the ministries. You will be happy to earn a living wage and retire. Normally, if you retire to your village in a bungalow and there is law and order, and peace, you will be happier.
Are you saying earning living wage will address corruption in the civil service?
Yes, it will. If a civil servant knows that he earns enough money to justify what he does, he will be happy. In any event, if he does something funny, others won’t accept it and he will get into trouble. Nobody wants to go to jail. But because everybody is doing it, nobody reports the other.
There used to be wages commission in Nigeria, are they still functioning?
It goes without saying that they are not functioning, or if people are still there, they are not doing what they’re supposed to do. If they’re doing their jobs, like I said, the national office of statistics will not find it difficult at all to get everybody to earn a living wage.
I believe the quarrel going on is the fear that the CBN governor is going to fix the currency problem, but corrupt politicians, retired public servants, retired generals and top guns in NNPC are resisting it.
The bottom line is that the CBN cannot go along with it because those who stored billions of dollars overseas were too fast. You need a leader who is strong willed to be able to do it. Immediately you do it, you will have a strong currency, you can now use it to achieve purpose. It is not a very difficult thing to do or calculate.