Nigeria will never get out of recession – Prof Ango Abdullahi

You are the spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum, a think tank for the 19 Northern states and a source of inspiration and hope for the younger generations in the North. As it is, it seems your main area of concentration is politics in the Northern Elders Forum…

(Cuts in) finish your question.

How far have you gone in inspiring the younger ones in the region so that at least there can be a generational shift, people who can take over from your generation because the accusation now is that the elders have refused to quit the stage?

(Laughs) No, no, no…

They say it is the same names they have been hearing since the Sardauna era

Now, you see this is the utopian debate about age. Go back to about 1990, about the time Abiola contested election. If you leave it and move up to 1999, go and study the structures that we have on ground, local, states and federal government and go into details of those who are running these tiers of government, I bet you, you will find that from local government to the state level most of the operators of these tiers of government, at least 90 percent of them are under the age of 45 years. When do you become old in Nigeria? It is when you become 80. Youths, particularly, if you go down to the level of local governments, the councillors, the chairmen and so on, until it was changed to 30, was 25 years. And you find them 25, 30, 35 and the age for going to the Senate is 35 years. The age also for contesting for the president is 35 years. So, the youths had always been engaged in politics and sometimes it all depends on the orientation that led them into contesting for councillorship, chairmanship and so on. I remember in the Babangida days he was the one who introduced this philosophy of new breed politics which created the kind of corruption we are seeing today in our youths.

You mean the new breed philosophy caused corruption?

Absolutely.

I don’t understand.

Okay, I will try and explain. When you are talking about youths participating in politics, particularly politics of the Nigerian variety, the one that I know, there is only one political party that I can remember in the recent past that did election without recourse to massive use of money to get votes during political party formations as well as contesting elections, only one; that is the one led by Mallam Aminu Kano, NEPU which later on gave birth to PRP. All the rest became polluted, particularly around 1990s during the period Babangida was guiding the formation of civil government in this country. We formed political parties; I was working with Yar’Adua. He said all of them were not qualified to be parties and eventually set up a little to the right, a little to the left. That’s corruption. And then, of course when he was working hard to get the youths behind him, he tried to set the so-called youths against the old that the old had blocked their chances and so on and that’s how many of the youths who eventually became governors in various states of the federation were products of corruption because they were given positions in areas that made it possible for them to accumulate money because they were foreseeing that future politics in Nigeria if you are going to succeed would require a lot of money. And, in fact, it is that drive for you to win elections in the political system…I was one of those who formed the PDP, 10 of us signed, Ekwueme, Abubakar Rimi, myself and seven others for PDP to become a political party, Jerry Gana and others and we wrote the constitution. And we enshrined this rotation between the North and the South.

But what happened? In no time after the party came into existence, young people with a lot of dollars in their hands bought their tickets to become governors of so many states. I don’t want to begin to list them, but if you do your research, you will find out how most of them became governors from nowhere without any political background except that they have got money and that money you can question how it came about.

You have just brought me to another leg of the question which is zoning which you said was enshrined in the constitution. It is here relevant to ask you because you are the spokesman of Northern elders that clamoured for a president of northern extraction…

(Cuts in) Yes, but we explained why we clamoured for it. Do you remember the explanation otherwise I will have to repeat it here at this point.

Maybe you will have to do that before I conclude my question.

Alright, now I have just told you that I am one of those who signed life into PDP as a political party and I was one of those who drafted its constitution and incorporated what we agreed in the 1996 conference organized by Abacha that there should be power rotation between the North and the South. And when PDP came into existence, there were views that were saying give the South the first shot under this rotational arrangement. There were those who were very adamant that this will not go. I remember my friend very well, may his soul rest in peace, Abubakar Rimi, refused. He said every aspirant should be given the opportunity to slug it out in the primary election. If the southerner or a northerner gets it, fine and that next time the issue of a northerner or a southerner contesting would not arise. Many of us agreed that the South should take the first shot. That was why Obasanjo and Ekwueme slugged it out. In fact, those of us in G34…

But Abubakar Rimi still contested even as a northerner

He still contested but how could Abubakar Rimi get zero from Kano State if that arrangement was not firmly on ground? How could Barnabas Gemade from Benue State get zero if this arrangement was not respected? The North said the arrangement should be respected, that’s why Rimi didn’t get votes from Kano and Gemade didn’t get votes from Benue. So, we started this way and Obasanjo defeated Ekwueme in Jos and became president. In the first four years he asked that since the constitution allows him to have a second term, this arrangement should be elastic enough for him to carry on and this was agreed.  Again, in an expanded caucus, you go and check the records from Audu Ogbeh, he was then chairman. Some people objected and here again, Abubakar Rimi was one of those who vehemently disagreed, but they were in the minority, just about four or five of them. Obasanjo got the second ticket to contest for second term and he got it. I thought that everybody should be happy with that and those who are not happy should accept that another time will come for them to go particularly if they were the ones interested. But Obasanjo after eight years decided to play hara-kiri and…

But he didn’t get it

But he tried. He forgot that he came under this arrangement and this thing is entrenched in the constitution of the party. He tried to get people to work for his third term, some of them surprisingly, many of them northerners. Thank God, led by the late Olusola Saraki, under the Northern Union I was his deputy, we mobilized and defeated him. So the North was supposed to take over from Obasanjo. Eight years for Obasanjo, eight years expected of a candidate of northern extraction as the president of Nigeria. So Obasanjo came and picked Umaru Yar’Adua. You know Umaru was not elected by us. Some of us initially kicked against it, but we were told by our elders to keep our cool and since Umaru is there, a northerner, so be it. But Umaru died three years in office. I am sure you remember this. So if politics is the basis on which some of these relationships should be respected and kept, the North needs not to ask, under PDP, I am not saying under any other party, that it would provide a candidate for four more years because the fourth year of Yar’Adua would have been used by his vice-President as the constitution has provided because Jonathan was sworn in as president after Umaru’s death.  So let’s say PDP under commonsense will come out and say the North where is the candidate? They did not. You argued vehemently that Jonathan should continue as president of this country against the zoning arrangement and he came out denying knowledge of this zoning arrangement. Even Obasanjo did deny that there was zoning. So there is this complete break-down of trust.

I couldn’t trust Jonathan or Obasanjo for anything having known all these and denying it and they want to be my president. This was what triggered us into saying the next president, come what may, should be of northern extraction. But of course the North gave us away, the Northern governors in particular in 2011 because that was when the North should have taken over. But they sold out. PDP governors 16 of them here in the North sold out for Jonathan to remain their candidate in 2011. We tried and our consensus candidate didn’t go so far and that was Atiku Abubakar, you remember. From that time we said okay the time has come now for us to look at our political interest first and this is how the Northern Elders Forum came into being. There is another forum, ACF, but it said it is a socio-cultural organization, but the Northern Elders Forum will be a political activist group that will defend the political interest of Northern Nigeria in Nigeria if possible. So this is how we formed it and these are the background reasons why we said under no circumstances should Jonathan win the election in 2015 and that’s why we mobilized the North and despite any claim that the North was divided, the Tanko Yakassais have sold out to Jonathan and so on. At the end, Jonathan was defeated.

The background to your political activism is now clear, but after eight years of Buhari’s administration…

(Cuts in) It’s only 18 months now, why are you speculating?

I am not speculating because he is entitled to two terms of eight years.

Yes, constitutionally.

After his eight years tenure, would the North be magnanimous enough to concede the presidency to another zone?

Well, the party that decided to support zoning was PDP and the party on ground that brought about the presidency of Buhari was not PDP and it is not likely to be PDP in 2019. It all depends to my mind how members of the APC particularly its leadership of the APC decides how they will play their game. For your information I am not a member of any party. What I am interested in is to remain socially and politically involved in matters of public affairs.

Would you recommend the kind of arrangement you had within the PDP to another party in the interest of justice, fairness and equity?

But we learnt some bitter lessons and based on these bitter lessons, it is going to take a lot of persuasion for northerners who really went through the rigours or treatments under Obasanjo’s third term and then under Jonathan’s manipulations of his nomination in 2011 and his insistence, against the constitution of this country to contest election in 2015. If he had contested elections in 2015 and supposing he won, he would be president of Nigeria for nine years and this is against the constitution of this country.

So it would be difficult for the North to concede?

Well, it depends on the politics that is being played around. I am totally open politically. As I told you when Obasanjo…

I want to get you correctly in view of the treatment you (the North) got…

No, no, no. There are, sometimes, differences between my personal stand or views on issues and those of my organization. Personally, given my background, this is a country I don’t want to throw away until and unless it is absolutely necessary to do so because given my background, having studied and grown up in Ibadan, came and managed an international institution like the Ahmadu Bello University…I was the one who organized Abiola’s election for your information, in my house. When Shehu (Yar’Adua) was disqualified, the West said the North should still provide another candidate…I don’t want to mention the one that they preferred, but we said no, this is not our heritage and we said Yorubas should bring another candidate and this is how Abiola got the nomination. And actually, to my mind he won an election which never came to be.

So all these issues which we have been discussing, Nigeria’s project is not working, after 50 to 60 years the Nigerian project is not working despite everything we went through, constitutional conferences, the country is at a standstill. After 56 years, Nigeria cannot boast of 5000 megawatts of electricity and you have to blame somebody for it. I tell you that people like me and you who have a grip of what is happening around the world, left alone with our consciences and beliefs in our country to develop, will not touch 90 percent of the politicians that are running our affairs today in all these places because they are not being driven by the demands of their people but only their selfish interests. It is unfortunate we are still where we were more than 50 years after independence and have not been able to move away from where our colonial masters left us.

But if there has been a consistent negative trait that is associated with this administration, it must be that it routinely takes too long to do too little or nothing at all and the result has always been that Nigerians now believe that those running the affairs of this nation have no solutions to our problems or they do not care to find solutions to the problems. Have you a contrary opinion?

Well, I was one active member of the Northern Elders Forum and there are so many other fora, not just the Northern Elders Forum who worked in concert for us to achieve the successful election of Gen. Buhari. And there are so many people who have this mistaking belief that it was APC that won the election here in the North.

Was it not APC?

No. Yes, APC on paper; but APC was formed only 18 months to the elections. There are so many other forces that brought about the election of General Buhari, mainly on the issues that I have raised earlier on in this interview. Yes, we are expecting very much from this government. There is no question about that. But it is true that by most assessments we…I have been reported in an interview…I am not sure which of the papers, whether to you that I granted the interview where I  was quoted as saying the North is unhappy with what it is getting out of the Buhari administration. I think it depends on the area. But to be honest I was expecting much more than we are getting. I raised this issue at an earlier interview that Buhari himself as a person has got all that it takes. He is a man of integrity, honesty and experience to be in a position of leadership where he is now, but it takes more than one hand and man head to run a complex organization let alone to run a complex country like Nigeria. So I did raise issues about the quality of persons that he got together to work under his administration. Of course, I drew a lot of flaks on this that I did say that there are so many square pegs in round holes. This was not taken kindly by quite a number of people who thought that…I said no I am being honest and fair to him. If we don’t criticize a person, he will not know his shortcomings and we owe him a duty to observe or criticize where criticism is required for some adjustments to be made.

Thank God I was just being abused when his wife spoke. And what did she say? She said she wasn’t happy that the persons that are there are not the qualities that he needed to succeed in good governance. That is his wife of 27 years. If Professor Ango has spoken from a distance, his wife spoke from close quarters and she knew the persons that she was talking about. For me, I don’t know any of the ministers that are on ground except my former wife, the minister of Women Affairs. She was my wife. She contested for the governorship of Taraba State and won. I will say she was my trainee because she was trained in my house before she eventually left. She is the only one I will say I know, but whether she is put in a place that will make some difference…anyway, I said the team was not good enough.

But is the team good now?

To my mind the team is still not good enough and it is up to the head to look at it and do something about it to improve. So with that I cannot swear that the record you will show that people will be running forward in support next year or the year after until perhaps we reach that point where people can conclusively say this is a success, mediocre or a failure.

I was going to ask you whether in view of your rating in 2018 you will be in a position to…

No, in 2018 there will be nothing except politics for 2019.

We only have 2017. Are you going to throw your weight behind him with the scenario you have just painted? You have said there is hunger in the land

We are not the ones saying that. People are saying so. We have gone the distance that we thought we have obligation to go by submitting memoranda and suggestions because there existed newspaper interviews over this last 18 months; people will say why not submit those advices as recommendations to the president instead of criticizing him on the pages of newspapers. We have done that on several occasions as an organisation. Well that’s all we thought is our honest obligation. The man that we struggled to help to bring about a new government…the question is whether those who are handling the advice are the ones sitting on it. It is so difficult to say and given the accusations that are coming in that some faceless people have taken charge, his wife was very brutally open; she called names and said they are the ones running the show. She even argued that some of them didn’t vote during the election and some are without membership cards of the party. I mean it was damning comments and she must have made them on good grounds.

Many people have been talking about the Nigerian economy, the recession, for instance. What is your assessment of the recession we are said to be in. Are we likely to get out of it soon?

No. My overall assessment or projections about the recession as presently managed or in terms of the proposals that are being made for us to get out of it is that we will never get out of it. It may sound too pessimistic but I cannot see how we will get out of recession with at least two or three of these policies on ground. One, the naira has been so decimated to the point of almost being valueless against currencies which countries we do business with. Let me give you an example. Supposing we want to improve on power, we are going to buy every pin, every screw, and everything else you think of that is associated with power development from outside the country which means that we have to get the naira equivalent to the dollar that you have to have to buy everything that you want to import for infrastructural development in this country. Where are you going to get it with a country where there is hardly any productivity anymore? The country is certainly unproductive. So I was arguing very strongly that one way to get out of recession is to reduce our consumption, particularly consumption of our unproductive public sector because the public sector is unproductive, take it or leave it. They may not like what I say, but it is unproductive. If our public sector had been productive we cannot be where we are in terms of our power supply and social infrastructure. It is not working. The productive areas have been neglected. They say agriculture will be the alternative, but look at the budget in 2016; agriculture was given 1.6 percent as the capital allocation for a sector that still provides 40 to 45 percent of the GDP. In the so-called 2017 budget, the allocation is 1.8 percent. The recommendation of FAO, IMF and other world bodies, developing countries should at least give 20 percent of their budgetary allocations to agriculture. This is what Malaysia did. Malaysia for 10 consecutive years their allocation to agriculture was not less than 15 percent annually and that’s why today when they got their seeds from us, the year they got their palm oil seeds I was just graduating from the University of Ibadan in 1964. Today if you fly over Malaysia you will see nothing except palm grooves. They are the largest producers of palm oil in the world and they are already converting palm oil into diesel. So, I cannot see any action now. I talked about the issue of salary.

The country must save from its wasteful spending. Eighty percent of our budget goes to recurrent. Recurrent means salaries and allowances of staff and with due respect to people in office the public sector is unproductive. So if it is unproductive one way of saving money from it is to reduce the size, but I don’t support reducing the size because it would create its problem. They should reduce the salaries, the salaries that are being paid to unproductive public servants. If the country cannot pay a minimum wage of N18,000 what is the justification of somebody getting N100,000, N200,000, N250,000, one million naira and many millions a month. So they are not really being honest with regards to seriousness in terms of saving our scarce resources in these various areas. They want to leave like before when we were getting this windfall which again has been wasted which is why we are where we are today. So agriculture they have neglected, unproductive sector is taking our money, and the third one is our consumption pattern, which we have not domiciled to put in alignment with our capacity to produce. One will like to demonstrate the decimation of the naira. In 1986, I bought one dollar and 40 cents with one naira and I bought one pound sterling with one naira 20 kobo.

Today if I want one pound sterling I have to go and find N670 and if I want one dollar, even in the Central Bank they will take N305. You tell me how this could work. And you can also use an example of labour. In UK the minimum wage per hour is seven pounds, 50 pence. Supposing one works for five hours in a day, he is getting 40 pounds per day. Now, multiply 40 pounds into naira, that is 40 pounds times 300, that is roughly N120,000. This is the minimum wage being paid to a labourer working for five hours in London and you are not able to pay N18,000 a month as minimum wage. Something is totally wrong and I cannot see us out of recession until we go back almost to the beginning because I cannot see all these touch and go approach when you talk of productivity. Where is the productivity coming from?

The factories are closed. In Kano in the last five to 10 years about 10,000 factories have closed. Agriculture is not getting the allocation that will make key production. So I cannot see us getting out of this recession except through meetings. Officials are just deceiving themselves because they know that this is not going to happen under this current regime of remedies that are being proposed. – Culled from The Sun.

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