Senator Olufemi Lanlehin was the Vice-Chairman, Senate Committee on National Planning, Economic Affairs and Poverty Alleviation in the Seventh Senate. In this interview with newsmen, he speaks on the renewed call for restructuring of the country, the presidential system of government, way out of the economic recession, among other issues. DARE ADEKANMBI brings excerpts.
WHILE you were in the last Senate, was there a privileged piece of information in possession of the National Assembly that things were going to be this bad, given the circumstances that the last government operated?
There has always been this need at all times for caution because of the monolithic nature of our economy, generating foreign exchange through crude oil sales largely. We have always borne it in mind that the fluctuation of the crude oil price can, like it did sometime in the 70’s or 80’s, just go south and very south too. AT the time I was there, there were indications that there might be a downward trend in the oil prices, going by the discovery of more oil in the United States, South Sudan, Ghana and many other places. So, there was the feeling that we might be running into turbulent weather and that was why we were always having issues with the executive arm of government which wanted to have the benchmark for crude oil in the appropriation act to be high, while the National Assembly wanted it to be drastically low.
What do you see as the way out of the recession into which the economy has been thrown?
The way out is essentially that President Muhammadu Buhari should be hands-on, on the economy. The buck stops on his table. At the same time, I believe the economy needs to be handled by economists and people who understand the methods, process and nuances of the economy; people who have the experience and ability to manage what we are into now. To that extent, I believe we need the cooperation of all the arms of government-the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But when there is friction between the legislature and executive, as we have it now, we can’t get the kind of result we expect. The way it is now, the legislature is in disarray as a result of inter- and intra-party squabbles and a lot of muscle-flexing. So, they must put all those aside and work together. Government should not think Nigerians are so sedentary and people who can’t do anything. No. Things are getting to a head and I want really appeal to the powers-that-be to really do something very fast about it.
When Senator Ayo Adeseun left APC and with you in Accord and some House of Representatives members also deserted him and many others in other parties, people had thought the governor was done for. But today, he is in his second term as governor.
That is a story for another day because there were so many things that happened during the election. Until we have an electoral system that really reflects the wishes of the electorate, we won’t move ahead in this country. Politicians think they win election because they have money and the violence that goes with it; they have the undercurrent and manipulation of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that they need to do; and lastly, they claim to have the people as a window dressing. And to that extent, when they get there, they see themselves as the cleverest politicians who got to the positions by virtue of their smartness, money and knowledge and that the people are the least in their contention. So, they don’t really think that they owe the people. Unlike other climes, even in war-torn areas, especially Eastern Europe countries, they still conduct credible election. Democracy is about the will of the people. The people might make wrong choices, but let their choices count. Here in Nigeria, there is so much manipulation of the electoral system and people’s will does not come to the fore, which is why the person declared winner sees himself as having outsmarted every other person. The presidential system we are operating puts so much powers in the hands of the president and the governors such that anybody who wants to confront them will obviously be knocking his head on a very hard piece of rock.
Somebody might argue that the point you raised has been taken care of in the presidential system with the concept of constituency project embarked upon by lawmakers.
That is a drop in the ocean as far as the needs of the common people are concerned. The constituency project constitutes a small percentage of the budget. It is less than N3 billion in a budget of N6 trillion. In the last Senate, each geo-political zone got probably less than N500 million and each Senator about N180 million. That’s an inconsequential, albeit useful, concept. When we were campaigning, we made a lot of promises. Sometimes, people asked us to do road and infrastructure. I can beat my chest that I spent every kobo I got as constituency project and even spent more. When I was elected on 11 April, 2011, before I was even sworn in, I commissioned some drilling companies to do 17 solar-powered boreholes and they were completed before I even got my first allowance in the Senate.
How do you think we can get to the point you just mentioned now? Is it by restructuring the country or by the National Assembly members tinkering with the constitution?
What we have is far above what the National Assembly can do. The National Assembly has been trying to amend the constitution since 2003 and mainly in 2007, when Baba [President Olusegun Obasanjo] wanted the third term bid injected into the constitution. The exercise was done also ever since 2007, 2011 and up till now that there is another constitution amendment committee in place. But what Nigeria is now faced with is so critical that we have to look beyond constitution amendment. Nigeria needs a major restructuring or else there will be no Nigeria. Where do you want to start? Is it in the education sector where somebody leaves school and despite being net-savvy, is unable to get a job for many years and sits at home. The only thing that is saving us in this part of the country is because we have many churches and mosques. Our belief in God is so great that we rest solely on Him for things to improve. But don’t let us take that too far. We are so basically different in the country and we so basically the same at the same time. Nigerians have the same basic needs-shelter, food, health and other basic things. But as people who have different experiences and culture, our approach to life, our methodology and process of attaining our goals are different. The average person in the South-West would do anything to educate his child, including women selling their gold and other belongings. But in other places, commerce appears to be their priority. We should maximise what is our strength in every zone and then have a common approach at the centre and that centre should be very loose. Every region will run its affairs the way they want it. So, we must restructure quickly and very quickly because things are just falling apart and there is no indication that there is the will to approach the whole thing.
If we restructure by the way of regional autonomy, will it solve the problems that the country currently faces?
It depends on how we restructure and basically, Nigeria is where it is today because we have become very lethargic. We are lethargic because we are being spoon-fed and we are being spoon-fed because what we are being spoon-fed with is got without effort. So, our problems will be solved when we are able to find a way of de-emphasising what makes us lazy. When you are spoon-fed, you take so many things for granted. Everybody becomes a rent seeker. That attitude can only be de-emphasised if we take a new look at how we share the common wealth. Wealth is everywhere in this country, either solid or liquid minerals. But nobody wants to dig anything to get money and we rely on foreign partners. It is baffling that we still talk about foreign partners in 2016 when we can boast of intelligent people in the country. It is disturbing too that the intelligent people are also now looking for a way of making quick money. The university used to be the repository of knowledge. But now, the dons want to have a share of the cake.
I believe we must restructure in a way that we go back to the basics. We must look at conventional wisdom. What was it that worked for us? What did have when things were working for us? We had a situation where you must prove your mettle before the goodies come to you. I bought my second or third car, a 505, with N5, 000 at Rhutam and got a five per cent discount. Today, N5, 000 can’t buy a tube. It is unfortunate too that there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. We seem to be digging deeper into the valley, into the abyss.