Dr. John Dara, a technocrat and former presidential aspirant, was a Chief of Staff to the governor of Lagos during the administration of Chief Michael Otedola. He recently conveyed a meeting of the delegates to the 2014 National Conference, where ideas of implementation of the confab report were highlighted. He spoke to Group Politics Editor, TAIWO ADISA on the agenda of his group, among other issues. Excerpts:
YOU recently held the sensitisation parley to push for the implementation of the report of 2014 National Conference, but a section of the North boycotted that meeting. Don’t you see this as a dent on your efforts?
I do not think so. The beauty of democracy is that the minority can always have their say but the majority at the end of the day will have their way. The summit we held in Abuja, all the Southern states were represented. All of the middle belt was represented. Then in spite of attempts to promote a boycott, North-West and North-East were strongly represented. So, that shows that the idea of dissociating from the report of the conference is very unpopular. Only a few people in the North-West are behind it and they could not carry even all of the North-West. That’s understandable. You remember at that Conference, the people of Southern Kebbi, which is part of North-West asked for and got Kainji State. The people of Kano, Dambata area, asked for one other state out of Kano and they got it. From the North-East, some state creation movements came from Southern Borno; they got it, Sardauna Province. They said Sardauna promised that whatever every other province enjoyed, they would enjoy it. Every province in this region in the time of Saurdauna had become a state; they asked for Amana State, they got it. The people of Katagum in Bauchi State had been asking for a state of their own for a long time. They got it. All those people believe it’s the best thing that has ever happened to them and these are all from the core North. The consequence is that they could never get the whole of the core North to be on their side.
Apart from that, there were so many far-reaching decisions taken that everyone who cares about progress, about modernisation, about accelerated development would back it because it was not to weaken any part of the country but to strengthen all. Instead of scheming for unfair advantage, we felt that we could make the nation more productive by being more competitive. So, it’s a popular direction that that conference moved. You recall that the conference itself was preceded by demands and calls for such a conference from practically all quarters in Nigeria. There was discontentment. Everyone was claiming to be marginalised and the issues that made them feel marginalised were addressed at the conference – devolution of powers, decentralisation of authority in some areas, resource allocation and things like that. So, it’s a conference that was not just politically correct; it was economically strategic. Therefore, it would be difficult for any group to really stop it.
What do you think is the motivation for some of the delegates at the conference who have publicly dissociated themselves from the report they signed three years ago?
First of all, it is dishonourable to stay in a conference for six months, collect all your allowances and [disown the report]. On the day the conference was to end, it was Honourable Adamu Maina Waziri from Yobe that moved the motion for the adoption of the reports and recommendations of the conference, and it was unanimously accepted without a single dissenting voice. When that happened, we were all so surprised, so happy, we started singing the old national anthem— Nigeria we hail thee. Though tribe and tongue may differ, in brotherhood we stand— We held hands, we hugged. People shed tears of joy. How can you be part of such celebration and then three years after, you say you no longer believe in it, because there are people who came to the conference with the notion that demand for structural changes will deprive them of what they perceive rightly or wrongly to be their own political advantages? But as the conference progressed, those fears were allayed. Their minds were disabused and they embraced the popular ideas of structural changes; maybe as they say time changes everything. The passage of time and the impression that with Buhari as president, certain parts of the country are going to keep their advantages or privileges, maybe that’s why some of them are changing their minds. But they are getting it wrong. We are not talking about any regime, any administration. We are talking about the long term future of Nigeria and what will work for a pluralistic society like our own.
How far do you think this agitation will go, especially in view of the reluctance of people at the centre to yield to issues like restructuring? How resilient do you think this movement can be?
You are absolutely correct in saying that the government at the centre is often reluctant about the structural changes Nigerians are asking for, because at the superficial level, it amounts to reduction in the revenue accruable to the centre. It amounts to reduction in the power that is given to the centre. Now, when you happen to be incumbent, you don’t want to reduce your power. You probably want to increase it. So, every incumbent president, unless they are ideologically prepared, they tend to misconstrue it as a personal thing. Whereas, a country like Sweden, the centre is so weak that many times when you ask someone to go and be a minister at the centre, he will tell you sorry, I prefer to be a commissioner at the local level than to go there. One, it’s far away. Even in America, I met a senator recently who did not return to Washington and he said ‘the total income I’m receiving in Washington is much less than what I’m earning in my law practice back home and my family standard of living was beginning to drop; so, to hell with Washington.’ Those are the kind of distortions that we have here. Once you become a senator, you become so rich overnight. You become a minister; everything changes in your life. It’s a combination of structural distortion and corruption. But we succeeded in persuading Chief Olusegun Obasanjo as president to call the national political reform conference. He was reluctant too. We succeeded in persuading even Abacha to come up with vision 2010. We succeeded in getting Jonathan to call the national conference. Jonathan again needed a lot of persuasion and prodding to be able to implement. He probably thought he would get second term and then we would have continued the prodding and persuasion. But that did not happen. That is why we are not surprised about reluctance or resistance from the centre. But you can see that over the years, whenever you persist and sustain the pressure, inevitably, they will buckle. They have no choice once it is clear that this is the popular demand of overwhelming majority of the people of Nigeria. We are going to do more than that. We are going to mobilise people. There will be mass movements; there will be real orchestration and promotion of the reform recommended by that conference. We are going to make them to also compel every party, every candidate to sign on; otherwise, they will be punished by vote. The next election is going to be a referendum on this conference, I am telling you. The 2019 elections will be a question of candidate A, where do you stand on this matter. You say I am not in support; thank you very much, we will not vote for you. So, where they will vote for such people will be in the small group that is still resistant.
How are you going to get the people to the realisation that that the report is good for the generality of the country?
The journey of a thousand miles they say starts with one step. The first step was to disabuse the mind of the delegates that all was a waste of time and that all was lost and it was not implementable again because of the hostility from the centre. But because I was a delegate in 2005, I was a delegate in 2014, I was a paid consultant for vision 2010, I was a rapporteur in 1988 constitutional assembly, therefore, I’ve sat through four conferences and I’m familiar with all these resistance. But my attitude is that there is a critical mass of people who believe in it and they propagate it and sell it to the public and the public buys in, then it becomes the popular demand of the people. Now, the good news is that more than three quarters of the delegates to that conference have signed on and said we will together promote this. That’s fantastic.
One of the critical recommendations of the conference was the proposal for creation of 18 more states. But today, states are going bankrupt, not able to pay salaries. How do you reconcile the incongruity?
The cup is half full or half empty, depending on how you look at it. 36 states were meant to be 36 centres of development and it played that role to a great extent. I remember when Dutse was made capital of Jigawa; Dutse was a village. I visited the place in company of Alhaji Bashir Tofa, the presidential candidate of NRC in 1993 and I tell you, I was shocked. But today, particularly after my good friend, Alhaji Sule Lamido served as governor, the place has been transformed. However, you have unviable government when people who break the laws of management are running government because even if you have 1,000 developmental units, rule number one is your civil service must be in proportion to your income, both real and projected. Now, most of them have bloated workforce because they were using employment as political patronage and social service. You imagine a ridiculous governor who has 1,000 special assistants. It shows he has no clue what it takes to run a state. In northern Nigeria, we had so many provinces in the past and they were viable. What the conference did was to address boldly the years of agitation for equity to redress imbalance between North and South. 1914 amalgamation was between two regions and the British started their mischief by creating three regions. It’s supposed to be two regions, one northern region and one southern region. But as part of their efforts to start playing divide and rule game, they created two regions in the South and one in the North. The North that had two-thirds of the landmass was made one region. But the South that had one-third of the landmass was made two regions. Subsequently, they made it four regions and South was broken into three, North was still one. General Gowon redressed that when he created 12 states, six in the North and six in the South. But all those who followed him started the distortions. But the National Conference of 2014 redressed it back to the Gowon formula of equal number of States in the South and in the North. To achieve that, we also factored in the issue of where are the people feeling really trapped where they don’t belong, where they will never be fulfilled and it had nothing to do with religion. The people of Damboa in Southern Borno were as vocal as the people of Chibok of Gwoza in demanding for Savannah State. The Emirate of Yauri, Emirate of Zuru, Emirate of Kotangora, Emirate of Borgu were equally vocal – they are Muslims – in saying no, we want a State of our own and they were celebrating and jubilating in all these emirates when these states were created. So, it is not about the number of states or the size. In America, you have states that are big enough to be two countries; but you also have what they call postage stamp states that are small with less than 400,000 people. None of the states that we created had a population of less than one million. So, by all international standards, they are viable.
We wanted to create eight regions at the conference. We had mapped out North-East, North-West, Middle Belt East, Middle Belt West, South-West, South-South, South-East and Mid-West, the old Bendel. That was what a group of us who were for regions wanted. In other words, we were going to create three levels of government. We are saying the local government is none of our business. Money will never be allocated to local governments. It will be allocated to states and each state will be free to use their discretion to create as many local governments as they want and administer it whichever way.
Will the states be equivalent to local governments in that arrangement?
They will be superior because they will have a bigger resource base. In fact they are bigger than the provinces of the colonial times. Therefore, there is no question of viability or non-viability. When power is devolved to these 54 states and the allocation of resources is now tilted in their favour, which we did at the conference, we reduced what goes to the federal and increase what goes to the states; that will now make the states to be the ones that are even more attractive and more viable. But beyond that, we were now going to develop all our resources optimally. So, we took some decisions of solid minerals. Why would you have so much gold and you don’t have a gold mining industry? They now discovered that Nigeria has as much gold as Ghana had because the geological turf in which Ghana’s Gold was found extends to Birnin Gwari and Zamfara and all those places to Ilesha. Therefore, why are we not having a formal coal mining industry and our children are dying from lead poisoning because we have not been able to have government that can use common sense to do things right. Really, Nigeria is too rich to be talking of viable and unviable states.
How do you intend to sell the agenda of the confab to ensure it is adopted by a major party?
By the way the delegates to that conference were composed, it will be difficult to say move into one party. You remember that representatives of various parties were there, in spite of the fact that the APC boycotted it by not nominating the two people they were supposed to nominate. But in reality, many of the APC states sent their delegates. So, they were fully represented at the Conference. Therefore, you cannot say people who are in government now should come and join you to form another party. Even those in PDP, many of them are not ready to leave PDP or anything of that nature. That’s why as bad as the state of affairs in PDP, they will rather sink with the ship or they will keep trying to bail out the water. Fair enough, in my personal opinion, I think it’s inevitable that another party will emerge that will be powerful, that will be big, that will push through this agenda. It’s inevitable in my view. A third force is surely coming, in actual fact, the 2019 election is likely to be a five-party kind of race because the cleavages are beginning to emerge and you can see that beyond APC and PDP, there are two other groupings that have large resources in their control that they can build the machine nationwide. This support for restructuring and the implementation of the 2014 national conference recommendation is likely to give birth to a movement. I’m aware that there is already an organisation that is primarily committed to that; it’s a civil society thing. Some members of the National Conference are there already as members. They probably will recruit other members.
The underpinning issue behind restructuring is the search for efficient government how do you thing the conference report can enhance that?
We had a committee on civil service reforms at the conference and many retired federal permanent secretaries, even former heads of service were members of that committee. One of their recommendations is the need for the human resources base of the civil service to be matched with the resources available, not just on wishful thinking. It is possible for a man to do the job of three people efficiently. Somebody joked that we had only one Permanent Secretary for Agriculture in northern Nigeria in the First Republic. Now, we have 19 Permanent Secretary and they are not doing anything. But one Permanent Secretary of Agric in those days was getting more results. One Permanent Secretary of Education was getting more results. So, you got to appreciate that it’s not about number; it’s about quality. It’s not about the size; it’s about quality. If they prune it down, therefore, they will be able to even raise the quality of the remuneration for greater commitment. Let me say this that those recommendations were there. But in reality, retrenchment is always an unattractive option. But there are creative ways of retrenchment. You can actually move people into semi public-private partnership projects. You can move them gradually out into jobs that are not really civil service but they will feel happy. The private sector does it. When they want to weed out people from the banks and they feel this guy is good, we cannot afford to keep so many brilliant chartered accountants, they push them into some subsidiaries and gradually, they are on their way out. In the military, particularly in the US, they do it a lot. They don’t want to lose the investment they’ve made on you, but it’s time to go. They then ease them out into some other less formal assignment. They still earn income, but not pensionable income anymore. So, there are creative ways of trimming down the civil service, beyond hunting for the ghost workers as they have been doing, which is good. How did the ghost workers come in the first place? In fact, what is happening is that every new regime is still weeding out ghost workers, which implies that the last exercise, new set of ghost workers have come in. so, what preventive measures are you putting in place to prevent this cycle from repeating itself? I believe we can get it right. It’s about visionary leadership. Part of the big disappointment of the present leadership is that there is clearly a lack of capacity for decision making and I expected President Buhari to hit the ground running. If he was not negative about the conference recommendations, they were a blueprint that could have enabled him to actually hit the ground running.
Are you also thinking of engaging the National Assembly to ensure some of the issues raised in the conference report are passed on to the parliament perhaps as private members bills?
One of the resolutions we made was to engage even the government of President Muhammadu Buhari at the executive level because there are three categories of recommendations; the ones that will require constitution amendment, that’s category A. you have to go and share this with the National Assembly. The second category is the ones that only require only law making, both at the national level and at the State level. Again, this one is a continuous thing. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s the constitution amendment that you got to do first. Then, there are those ones that are more of policy making issues, which you need to sell to the Federal Executive Council and we will engage all these stakeholders. In fairness to the National Assembly, they’ve done a lot of work on their own plan to amend the Constitution and I can tell you confidently because I was privileged to look into some of their decisions; there are many areas where we were in full concurrence. The national conference recommendation is already impacting. It’s not a secret decisions. The documents are available to members of the Committee and any member of the Committee that wants to be well informed will spare no efforts in using whatever materials that are available. So, they obviously have done that. But where we think there are gaps, when we meet with them, we will see to those gaps. That’s all we are hoping to do.
You talked about formation of a coalition around the ideas of the National Conference, are we likely having a party emerge out of this?
You recall that the conference itself had an unprecedented number of people from the civil society sector and each of them was heading organisations that are already campaigning for the implementation of the conference reports. My good friend is already advocating changes in the legislative sector. He himself being a delegate benefitted from a lot of these recommendations and armed with them. Then, I’m aware of a new movement that cuts across all parts of the country. It’s called Citizens United for Reconstruction and Equity (CURE). You know reconstruction is more or less the same as restructuring and equity is the very thing the National Conference was trying to address, so that the North and the South feel that there is a balance. We are not changing the boundaries between the North and the South; but we want the North and the South to have equal representation at the centre and that was addressed at the last conference. So, that’s what we mean by equity; what is good for the goose is good for the gander. As for local governments that you’ve used to put some people at an advantage, we said any state can create whatever local government want. We are not complaining. But allocation of resources will be only to federal and states as things are. We did say in the conference that those regions that we did not create, groups of states can voluntarily come together.