Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Chairman, 2014 National Conference, speaks on the exit of Great Britain from the European Union (EU) and its implication for both Britain and Nigeria, and the report of the 2014 confab, Nation, in this interview with BOLA BADMUS. Excerpts:
Britain just announced its exit from the EU and people are wondering why and how did it get to the point of taking such decision. How would you assess the situation?
Britain has always had a sort of insularity within it. Go back to the period even before Europe was called Europe. I think because of the existence of the channel, the geography of Britain itself, is cut off from the continent. So, I say that geographic insularity has tended to breed cultural and political insularity. Britain does not really regard integration with Europe as a first choice policy option. If you like, relate that to the time of Henry the 8th. Henry the 8th was the one who broke up, if you like, the old Roman Empire because up till that point in time, even though Europe had their kings, queens, whatever at that time, but there was this kind of unified allegiance to the Pope as not only the head of the Church but also for his political influence. Henry the 8th broke that up where then the British Christianity was involved. A British Church evolved, breaking away from the universal church. Henry the 8th of England then became head of the church in opposition to the Pope, the head of the universal church; you could go that far back.
But still, I believe that even Britain joining the European Union was because, finally, she ran out of options. She was reluctant to be a member and even when she became a member, the role she played in Europe was not really a positive one. It was like ‘okay, since I cannot ignore Europe, I will join but with the intention to slow down the rate at which Europe was moving towards the evolution of the United States of Europe.’ So, one should not then be surprised that each time Europe faced a crisis—and any human venture would face crisis, even a marriage does—she always wants to quit the relationship. A marriage is forever and ever. However, the priest would tell you on your wedding day that this does not mean that there would not be problems but that your commitment is to always see those problems as opportunities to strengthen the bond of love between you and your wife.
Whereas with Britain, every crisis that the European Union faced, the option of ‘I want to get out, I don’t want to be part of this” was always there. You know this is not the first referendum that would be made. In fact, there was a previous one under the Labour Party. Of course, about 60 per cent at that time voted to remain. But this one now, even while Britain was a member, she refused to join the common currency which would have allowed the Euro to be used in Britain. She insisted on holding on to the Pound Sterling; she refused to sign and become a member of Zengen, which is where people can move around. Once you enter one European country, you don’t need a passport to move around all the other countries. Britain refused to join.
So, really, the outcome of the referendum, don’t let me mislead you, it surprised me. I was expecting people to vote, ‘I will remain,’ because the benefits to Britain are enormous. But it came at this time of Xenophobia. A wave of Xenophobia is spreading throughout the whole world, fear of foreigners, fear of people from outside. It manifests itself even in the United States.
That actually was what was responsible for the success of Donald Trump, the emergence of Trump as the Republican candidate. This xenophobia is a negative phenomenon, you fear foreigners, you hate foreigners, you fear people who don’t look like you, you want to shut your door against them and politicians would play on that, just as Trump has been playing upon it in the United States against Mexicans. But Mexicans to Trump means anybody brown coming from Latin America.
You hinted that Britain has a lot to lose with this exit, what are those things?
They are going to lose the certainty of the big market they had in Europe because being a member of EU, they could import and export without the need to pay duties, no economic obstacle. So, factories in Britain will not just have to look at 60 million people in Britain itself as their market, we have 500 million in Europe. With what Europeans are saying now, Britain leaving the EU, cannot expect automatic entry of its goods into Europe. It would have to negotiate before they can come in and that immediately debars them and provides for other European countries to set up factories and industries targeting these markets.
If you are a Chinese industrialist and you are thinking of, maybe where to locate your industry in Europe and you have a market of 60 million on the one hand and a market of 500 million on the other hand, of course, you would know where you would locate that factory because if you locate where there is 60 million, when those goods are going to come into European markets, you come across tariffs, import duties that you are going to pay. Whereas if you locate it in Europe, there is no question of tariffs, excise duties yes, like VAT which everybody pays. So, Britain would lose that.
Two, there is a transfer of European fund meant for industrialisation which all European members benefit from. Now, Britain is going to lose that. It cannot access this fund. Of course, the totality of what I am saying is that nobody, not even Chancellor of Exchequer in Britain, can today tell you, whether at the end of the day, the balance would be negative or positive. There are too many imponderables. They never thought it out well.
Does it mean they never considered all these issues before voting at the referendum?
It was not a rational decision, it was more of a protest vote. One, it was a protest vote against fear of immigrants and a protest vote against unemployment. You know, an economy transforms from what people have called industrial stage to digitalised IT stage. Workers would lose jobs, as the factories would have to be reorganised and production line reorganised. Production is becoming more and more mechanised, so workers could get laid off. Therefore, the fear of losing jobs or anger of having lost jobs was part of the vote.
Again, we must grant this. Yes, there is a measure of meddlesomeness from Brussels. Brussels has got itself into regulating things. It has no business regulating things that are better left to maybe local governments. You know, there is a lot of pettiness, like dictating how round an orange should be and what kind of colour a mango should have if you are producing mango and so on; too many regulations and those regulations could be very, very irritating.
Also, there are judgements of the European Court of Human Rights that I myself found extremely strange and which, definitely, the British courts differ from, given their cultural background, especially on cases involving terrorism. Europe has tended to be more liberal in its attitude than Britain, and I can understand the liberality of Europe. You know Europe has suffered from dictators, from the Second World War. They had Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and then you have modern dictators, modern in the sense that since the Second World War, they have had the Greek Generals, the military regime in Greece, ruling with very draconian laws.
You could see the judicial and legal system in Europe reacting to the horror of fascism and dictatorship and, therefore, it has tended to be more robust in protection of human rights than in Britain, where they have had one revolution, Cromwell Vs Charles, where he ended up beheading Charles. But basically, the judicial system in Britain has tended to be more protective of the Executive in giving a lot of leverage to the Executive in managing the affairs of Britain, whereas the European courts see the Executive as more of an institution that they should control in the protection of the right of the people. This rubbed Britain the wrong way. They are used to their Parliament taking decisions from the Queen. So, Europe also must take some of the blame. We are even in agreement with the British on this, that Brussels has taken on too much powers and had often rendered local institutions impotent.
Perhaps as an illustration to make it something that Nigerians can understand what I am talking about, we have been talking about restructuring in Nigeria— that Abuja is too powerful, Abuja has become involved in things it has no business getting involved in. Some of the issues that are determined in Abuja whether by our National Assembly or the Presidency are better left alone to the state and even some of them to the local governments. That was part of what we even talked about concerning devolution of powers.
Let’s talk about the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. What could you say led to his resignation, was it on account of frustration or what?
No, I mean, let’s put things in perspective. Whatever way one must feel about the British culture, it has this thing about individual responsibility. If you stand for something and people reject that, then honour dictates that you step aside and let somebody else pilots the ship of the state. It is not pride, it is honour, not like us here where you get defeated and instead of leaving the field gracefully, you hold on to the chair.
I mean they voted a no-confidence voting in a speaker, oh no, he is not going anywhere. So, the old speaker and the new speaker start dragging themselves and their supporters start exchanging blows until finally somebody steps in. Whereas in Britain, it is not like that. I made your voice heard, you rejected my advice, fine, this is a fundamental issue. Once you have rejected my advice, you have rejected me, let me step aside and let somebody have a go at leading the government. It is something to be applauded, but in a more fundamental way, he took the responsibility and which he has shown because this was an unnecessary referendum.
The issue of whether to stay in the EU or not was too complex to ask the market woman to take a decision through a referendum, and Britain has market women, by the way. Whoever must have been in Britain would have seen the open market, the cart pushers, who load boxes and other kind of things; it was too complex and that is why we have representative government. Populism, one man one vote on an issue, was a Greek concept where all men can gather in a market place and for all in favour of an issue to raise up their hands. That is by the way. But gradually, people came to the conclusion through the process of evolution that society was getting too complex, we need to entrust decision taking to a smaller group who would have more time for debate, and who, therefore, would be able to take informed decisions on an issue, on our behalf.
I still maintain my point that Cameron should have left this matter to the Parliament, if he thinks Britain needs to take a decision on whether it would continue its membership of EU, instead of allowing the populace to decide it. Because we are now seeing, in fact, that many didn’t know what they voted for. They knew they voted to get out, but what would they gain by getting out? People then talked in a fluid manner about ‘we’ve got our sovereignty back and we would get control of our government.’
To me, that is like saying, yes, I am against sin and then you ask me to define what sin is? ‘My definition could be different from yours. Another person may or may not quote the 10 Commandments or as I have a Catholic bishop who is a good friend of mine who says there are no 10 Commandments in the Bible and that there are over 600 commandments in the Bible. So yes, they got their sovereignty back, what does this mean in terms of the need for your factory to export to Europe? When you get your sovereignty back, you should know that you can’t lord things over on Europeans. You can’t lord things over them, you’ve got to negotiate with them. So, what you got back is negotiating from the outside, is that better than negotiating from the inside as a partner.
What is the implication for Nigeria?
The implication for Nigeria is enormous. I am not going into the economic implication, I would leave that to an economist. I am more concerned with the ongoing debate, its impact, the impact of Brexit on the ongoing debate about the Nigerian project.
Now, I want Nigerians to be very, very clear about this. The British or the Europeans didn’t start the Nigerian debate about the Nigerian project. We started it although you could claim it was Britain that set up Nigeria and as it is, the British must have some vicarious responsibility. But it is a position that I have always brushed aside in the sense that, all over the world, forces are responsible for a state of affairs and not necessarily forces under your own control.
I mean the shape and structure of Europe, as we know it today is a function of the Second World War. It has not been like that for 1,000 years, it has only been like that for 50, or 60 years or whenever they finished the Second World War and people have been tinkering with that structure. Yes, Nigeria was set up in 1914 but since we became independent, we the Nigerians ourselves have been dialoguing with ourselves about what we called the Nigerian project, in the structure of Nigeria. At times, it has not been a dialogue, it has been a shouting match when, you know, each person is trying to shout down the others. And there is nothing wrong in it, it is natural in human relationship or human affairs for differences of view to arise about the nature of structure will want in place. So, to me, its a natural phenomenon.
So, what about the likely impact on Nigeria?
The first issue that I would like to address is the impact on Nigeria. One, for Britain, even having a referendum on structure issues, like should we remain in a European Union, you could see there are copycats everywhere. In fact, people are saying something of this nature should happen here, by saying let (President Muhammadu) Buhari have a referendum about who wants to remain in Nigeria. I don’t buy into that. Yes, people are probably taking an extremely position.
I can understand that position, probably in reaction to some of the remarks coming from other parts of the country, which they feel are either insulting them, or not showing a sensitivity towards their point of view. To me, you can disagree with a person without being disagreeable. Your choice of words can show that you disagreed without using crude words, demeaning words, as if you are brushing them aside or as if they don’t even exist all because you know, you are in control of temporary power. Your power is not static, power is not static at all.
And in this day and age, as I say there are copycats. If you have your money, weapons are available all over the world. From the modern age of industrialisation, if you have the money, you can buy a pile of weapons from the so-called black market. But now , there is such an influx of weapons into the world-all over the place, that the prices have even been cheap, you don’t need too much money to do that.
You will recall that two, three years ago, even in Nigeria, they were talking about an ex-militant leader buying a frigate with missiles. So that is the first impact that I am worrying about. The copycat issue. Number two is where you think a compromise is possible, people may now take a hardline position and make a compromise impossible and unworkable. Maybe before, we are just talking of more powers, devolution of more powers from Abuja to the states, but now people are talking of Independence and if Scotland were to break from the United Kingdom as a consequence of this referendum, then in fact, it would energise the secessionist tendency not only in Nigeria but also in many parts of the developing world. I mean, that bothers me, that worries me more than anything else. Having said that, let me also say that our people have a saying that somebody who is warned about an on-coming war, if he is wise, the war would not catch him (Aro to ba gbon, ki i duro dogun).
With what I have seen, the unforseeable and unpredictable consequences of a recalcitrant attitude on the part of the British Prime Minister, he probably had thought he would use threat of referendum to extract more concessions from Europe, he didn’t believe it would go this far. Now he has seen how far he can go, and we haven’t seen the end of it.
Those who have to manage our problems in Nigeria should not say, ‘okay, they would leave this alone, it is not going to go anywhere and that in two years or three years, another administration would address these. ‘I am not going to waste my time addressing them.’ Then if you decide to ignore the problems, would the problems ignore you? And this is what kind of happen when you are reckless about something, or you are insensitive in addressing issues that you should address. Let us survive as a nation, let us survive as a peaceful nation, let us survive as a cooperative nation, not in an antagonistic relationship with each other, then we can start to talk about prosperity.
The Niger Delta Avengers, who were resolved to ground the economy, are now asking the government to dialogue with them, giving conditions, what is your take on this?
I am happier today than I was a year ago simply because I think we have got to a place where both are prepared to dialogue. I don’t see dialoguing as a kind of weakness as long as we don’t misunderstand each other. Parameters must be clearly defined to avoid the Aburi syndrome. Aburi was where Nigerian leaders met and had an agreement, only for them to return to Nigeria and think differently, saying ‘that was not what we agreed to.’
Let’s be clear if we say we hold this to be self evident that all men are created equal. One, when we say all men, we mean all men and women. Two, when we say all men, we mean all men, white and black, yellow and you know, all that kind of thing. But you said all men are equal, no, we didn’t mean white and black men and before you know it, America was at civil war and they had to confront the issue of slavery head on. That war was fought over the issue of what does it mean? All men are created equal.
I am happy both have said they need to dialogue, I am happy that, at least, the militants are making an effort at spelling out their demands. I am not saying I agreed with their demands but in negotiation, it is always good for both parties to spell out in concise and clear terms what they are aiming for, saying ‘we are for peace, we are for unity.’
Let them not go back to Abuja and continue business as usual and then the militants say ‘ah, but we agreed we are all for peace and unity but we didn’t mean business as usual.’ Are we going to take devolution? If there should be resource control, what does resource control mean? What does it mean? You cannot have 100 per cent of what is dug up from you backyard, whether it is petroleum or whether it is solid mineral. So what does resource control mean? What percentage are we talking about? Now, these are issues we sought to thrash out at the National Conference.
We succeeded in some areas, we pushed the rest back to the government. And there is nothing wrong pushing it back to government because it is far better and more productive to defer a decision on the matter than to allow the conference break up on item 601 and whereas you have reached agreement on 600 different items. This is because if the conference broke up on item 601, all the agreements on those 600 others would go into comatose. item 601. That is what we did on the issue of revenue allocation.
So, I am not too despondent. I hope the dialogue between the government and Avengers would not break up and that government would not go into it, having at the back of their mind that they are buying time and therefore appear insincere. I hope the militants would not go into the dialogue with the mindset that we’ve got to defeat the government.
Government cannot be defeated, by the time you think so, the price you pay in terms of destruction, in terms of blood shed won’t be worth it. So let’s hope both sides will go into it with sincerity.