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‘We have proved that democracy has no rival’

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Osita Okechukwu

Director-General of Voice of Nigeria, Mr. OSITA OKECHUKWU, tells LEO SOBECHI in this interview that Nigeria has great stories to tell, stressing that the number of universities in the country is an indication of how far the country has come since 1960. Excerpts:

As someone born prior to independence, do you think Nigeria has a story to tell 59 years after?
Greatly, if for nothing else, those who thought Nigeria would not remain one can see that Nigeria is still one. Secondly, one of the greatest resources in the country is the population. We ask ourselves, how many were we in 1960 and how many are we today? We still remain the most populous country in Africa. We have increased our universities and have advanced beyond real hard-core appreciation, especially for those whose appreciation or comprehension of the development of the country is more symbolic in their substance; substantially we have done so well.

For us in the Muhammadu Buhari regime, what are we doing that is different from what others have done? We will come back to the agrarian revolution. In spite of all the challenges, agrarian revolution and diversification of the Nigerian economy from a mono-economy of oil-based to back to land.

For the first time, the government of the Nigerian federation, since after the First Republic, had looked into the confines of the Nigerian state and said Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), ‘coordinate with the ministry of agriculture, water resources and others and go back to where we started.’ Today, we have invested largely to revamp the cocoa industry, to revamp the cotton industry, the palm producing industry, cassava, rice, soybeans and sorghum, and others in our agricultural endeavours. Yes, it has not gained attraction like everything in agriculture, because the gestation period is not easy; it is not a quickie. It could be difficult and whether the harvest is commensurate to the investment. It is difficult and it is also a challenge to drive the youths back to agriculture or the woman when everybody wants to go for the blue-chip and the make-believe that has kept us going, but it is a landmark and major departure from previous regimes.

There are minuses within the regime we find ourselves, but in spite of those minuses, looking deep, we are trying to get majority of Nigerians back to work through the agrarian position and when it matures, at least, we will be happy. Like Muhammadu Buhari said: “You produce what you eat”; I think it is a major landmark and at least you know now that what you are exporting is part of what you produced from the ground and not only the oil. The oil had an adjunct and it stopped the importation of food items, which leaves your foreign reserves unprosperous and there is a saying that prosperity helps towards more prosperity and heads towards peace. A prosperous society brings peace. An English proverb says, ‘a hungry man is an angry man’ and ‘the idle mind is the devil’s workshop.’ It is a Nigerian project and we know that there are challenges like the herdsmen-farmers’ clashes, big challenge. We also know that care would be taken of those challenges that are hindering advancement towards the total agrarian revolution, but I think Nigeria is a work in progress. All hope is not lost.

A lot of people say it is a failed state. Part of the indices of a failed state is that there is no substituting adjudication. There is still a judiciary in Nigeria and there is still known police, a known military force in Nigeria; no matter what the challenges are, there is still a judiciary where their pronouncements are obeyed. No matter how one or two instances when the court processes were not obeyed by the government or others, it is on the minority of the judgment that is coming out on a daily basis from the judicial system. So, we are not a failed state.

Coming to the issue of the large population as part of the benefits for our progress, some observers question the quality of our population. With a greater percentage of young people without skills and without education, do you think this band of unemployed youth can march Nigeria to the future?
The youth cannot actually be dismissed; that is why I said ‘back to land project’ can take some of them off idleness. It will not take all of them and the tendency that it is a contagious society, anything that works; Nigeria has the habit of joining. Until one or two of their colleagues start doing well as farmers, it will not make sense yet. But it is going to make sense in the future; that is the years ahead and it might not take long, because part of the crops is high yielding.

The palm seeds they introduced to Enugu the other time were said to have a gestation period of two to four years but in less than four years, some will gestate and produce in two years. If that happens, it has a height of one metre; you do not need to climb and so it is happening in some other crops; high yield and some are even resistant to the Sahel. Yet the youths will not stand by. The day you hear your friend is a director in a farm company and you are a director in the civil service or you are idle, you look the other way and ask yourself where do you go next. It is not going to happen in a jiffy; I agree with you, but the point is that the most important resources we have are human resources.

In the Nollywood industry, nobody counted Nollywood; nobody counted the music industry; nobody counted sports. As long as we are getting what Maslow’s hierarchy of needs regards as the basic needs if you are able to solve food, you will have more people at the stadium. Have you ever asked yourself why the stadia in Europe get filled up each time they are playing football? They are filled up because the people have satisfied the basic needs of food; immediately you meet up the food issue you can advance to the next level; so, that is the truth of the matter. Yes, there are challenges; I will be an idiot to say there are no challenges, but that is what we are tackling today on how to advance prosperity because without prosperity there will be no peace.

On the critical issue of statecraft, from 1960 to 1963 when Nigeria became a republic and it adopted the parliamentary system to 1979 when it transited to the presidential system, confusion in the polity has pulled the country back. What do you make of party politics in Nigeria?
Like Winston Churchill said, “democracy has no rivalry”. It has its own challenges, but no other system of government is better than that. I asked them the other day, no matter where you are coming from, there are milestones achieved.

In 2017, Mr President approved a bill to become an actor and he is now insisting that the local government officials at the state level should have a direct line of funding, no matter the resistance. Those who are resisting it are anti-democrats, because what the law is saying directly or indirectly, ‘let the tier that owns the fund of the local government have their money directly so that those individuals at the units will be in a better position to know and ask for accountability.’ It is also a practical way of restructuring the country. The councillors and the chairmen that are collecting their allocation for that unit, we should be a position to ask them what they are doing with the money so everything is not centered in Abuja and that the judiciary at the state level should be independent just like the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the Federal High Court and Appeal court where they have direct line of funding and if there is anything that will make the judiciary independent, it is better achieved when they are sure that their own promotion and finances are within. It might not be well publicised but actually these are advancements being made. When it happened at the federal judiciary, everybody applauded it. Why are they resisting it at the unit level?

Accountability is one of the easiest ways to promote prosperity because the basis of government is a social contract and if the head cannot in any way be in a position to monitor or oversee the finances of the leadership, then the basis of democracy is gone. There are a lot of advancements being made. Like it used to be said in a political sense, democracy is not a revolution. It is incremental; it keeps on changing. All the advanced democracies of the west, the U.K. and the U.S. were done incrementally; they were not done in one day otherwise it could have been a revolution.

In 1960, how many universities did we have? Today, we have advanced with over 300 universities (state, federal and private universities) and other higher institutions even if they may not be as qualitative; they cannot be dismissed as a minus by any rational thinker.

Still, on the issue of statecraft and national resolution, most people say 59 years after independence Nigeria cannot claim to be a nation when there are disparate groups (Arewa, Ohanaeze, the Afenifere, PanDEF, Middle Belt Forum and all that). Again, leadership selection when talking about zones, rotation and all that, why is it hard for Nigeria to blend its citizens as Nigerians?

You know that quotation by (Obafemi) Awolowo that Nigeria is a geographical expression. He was not the first person that did so. An Austrian envoy did it; he was exchanging banters with the Italian envoy, and he said Italy is a geographical expression.

As at then, it was at the turn of 1800; then Austria was a country but today Austria is about six countries. There is no country in the world that is not a geographical expression. Where I come from, Eke town, we migrated about 5/10 metres away from where Nsude is today, because the other history says Nsude is the first son of our father and we are the second; so, we had to leave the palace for the first son. When we are in the village, it is a geographical expression. Those people saying that Nigeria is a disparate group when you ask them to tell you of the nations on earth, they will count the United States but President (Donald) Trump had also exposed the human characteristics that exist in developing countries like Nigeria. Today, nationalism is on top agenda all over the world. Boris Johnson talks about populism, ethnicism or racism, the same thing.

The point is that it had not hampered development. As long as we have leadership that goes through a democratic forum, they cannot do it the way they want, because the forces of democracy would stop that from happening. I told you how, at the turn of the Fourth Republic, how ex-president Obasanjo was constructing a one-party state which was at the detriment of the growth of democracy.

People like late Chief (Chuba) Okadigbo predicted it. Immediately Buhari entered the opposition party he said they should applaud his entry because he would break the one-party system. Is that not done today? Today, APC is the ruling party, but PDP cannot be dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Today, we are going for an election in November in Kogi and Bayelsa States. Bayelsa is ruled by the APC now, but if it is a country where we bet, any person who is betting that APC might lose in Bayelsa will not be wrong; any person betting that PDP might lose in Kogi would not be wrong; it shows that there is strength of 60/40 and not 30/70 or 20/80, which is development of the country along democratic lines. Those who claim, ‘give us a region,’ in the (Sani) Abacha’s constitutional conference of the 1990s, regionalism was defeated; in (former Goodluck) Jonathan’s conference of 2014, it was also defeated which shows that the people are happy with the country where they are and all we need is to refine as we move on to smoothen rough edges of our fatherland, a blessed country with all that it takes to be a giant. Now, the people should look inwards and appreciate the gains made.

In my village today in Eke, we are divided over chieftaincy issue; so, will we say it is not a town because it is divided? The point is that it is very easy to say we cannot have it here because the constitution is false. The constitution by the preamble of the 1999 constitution, 23 to 80 percent of it is derived from 1979. That constitution is not our hindrance; it is how to manage it and the tenets that underline it. Go to chapter two for the fundamental principles of state policy, if you look at it as a president, you get the country where we are going.

Talk of economic resurgence or fragmentation, a situation whereby each geo-political zone wants to maximise its opportunities, like the development of the ports and so on. Do you think this augurs well for a united Nigeria for the future?
It is only those who are not looking at what is going on. On July 18, 2018, Minister of Transportation, Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi emphasised what we called the Bonny seaport; the data process is almost concluded, so there will be a balance. In Akwa Ibom State, there are still efforts being made to build a seaport within Calabar, Oron, and Eket and it will turn out to be one of the best and biggest seaports.

The eastern corridor rail line, a group called British African Business Alliance are bidding for high-speed rail that will go from Port Harcourt to Maiduguri. If their offer is put into action by the President and the National Assembly, you will have a high-speed rail in no distant time.

A year to the 60th birthday of Nigeria, what are the essential ingredients or things you expect Nigeria to be?
You do not have a benchmark. What you ask yourself is, ‘what is going on?’ There is some structural change that is trying to give the people’s money back to them at the state level to the local government. Yes, local government council. You have about 20 per cent revenue generated by the country. The state governors have become like emperors and nobody is querying the state governors. One of the advantages of the direct funding of the local government is because you see rural democracy growing there. If they get their direct funding, it means the election will be more democratic than it is today where the winner takes all; that is why the resistance, which shows it is a major breakthrough.


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