Global Energy Executive and founding Deputy National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Gbenga Olawepo-Hashim is one of the few Nigerian leaders who combine a solid business record with a strong political background. In this interview with SANYA ADEJOKUN, he expresses confidence that Nigeria would overcome its current vicissitudes but insists that there must be comprehensive decentralization of power to sub-national governments.
DO you see Nigeria surviving this period?
Nigeria is going to survive. Worse things have happened in many countries and they are still there. Some countries have been in crisis for decades. It is just that we have different warlords holding different parts of the country.
Rwanda had a very terrible experience; massive ethnic cleansing, but now, virtually everybody agrees that they are making a lot of progress. Everything depends on what leaders do at the end of the day. They can change the trajectory, I believe that we can still change the course of events and move to stability. Nigeria stabilized Sierra Leone, arrested FodeySankor and brought him in handcuffs to Abuja. Nigeria stabilized Liberia. This same Nigerian Army. So, it depends on decisions that we take as leaders, then we can begin to steer things back to stability. I am confident that Nigeria will survive. You just have to give leadership at various levels and to ensure that we come with a national consensus on how to come out of this crisis. Obviously, we are facing a monumental crisis, but we can survive it depending on the kind of consensus leaders are able to come up with.
The south is clamouring for restructuring, a section of the north agrees, while another section says “no, all we just need to do is move forward”. What is your opinion on restructuring?
There is no section of Nigeria that does not agree that we should decentralize.
Would you rather have decentralisation than restructuring?
When you talk about restructuring, and some people say devolution, and some say decentralisation, are you quarrelling with the nomenclature or you want to focus on the substance of what is being recommended? What is the substance of what people are saying? People are saying that the over centralisation is unsustainable especially given the myriad of problems that Nigeria faces right now.
Take for instance policing, there are issues that can be dealt with promptly at local level before they become a national crisis that in fact does not need the attention of the President. As you have in the United States, the mayor will deploy the police and deal with issues in the city. Now if it is beyond a mayoral jurisdiction, the governor comes in and then they collaborate with federal agencies like the FBI, and co. At some point in time, the governor will deploy the guard, or ask for the National Guard to be deployed. So now, Nigeria needs this right now. It’s not just a northern or southern affair. Let us go back to history: Saudana of Sokoto, Sir. Ahmadu Bello was the first person to insist on having regional police. It was Nnamdi Azikwe, Obafemi Awolowo, and other southerners that said they needed federal police at the Lancaster conference. It was the Northern delegates who said “let us have regional police”. And the Arrangement which we had under the 1966 Constitution was overthrown by a coup that was led by Kaduna Nzeogwu who was not a northerner, and the man who became the beneficiary of that coup and brought decree 1, Aguiyi Ironsi who centralized power in the country was a southerner. This discourse is not a south-north thing, and I think there is a lot of ignorance in the air which is caused by people’s lack of appreciation of history, and then two, because the President now is a northern, there is an assumption that because he is a northerner, that is why some section of the country called northerners “do not want decentralization”. Obasanjo was president under this republic but did not decentralize, and he is a southerner. Jonathan is a southerner and he did not decentralize. So, this is not a north-south thing, it is an ideological thing, and the people clamoring for decentralisation and state police now are from different parts of the country. El-Rufai is calling for it, Lukman is saying “look, we have to do something”, they are not southerners, you understand? So that’s why I said there is a consensus that we must decentralise. So now, let us not ethnicise the conversation. The more you ethnicise it, you will destroy the conversation. The south was not the creator of centralization of police. Southern leaders wanted federal police, Saudana did not want it, so, don’t ethnicise it.
You contested to be president in 2019. If you had won, what would you have done?
Number one, I would have immediately taken a Constitutional Amendment Bill from the executive to the National Assembly, asking for decentralisation of power in the following items within one month: Number one, the creation of state police and local government police. Those levels of government will have jurisdiction over policing, so it will become a concurrent affair. Number two, I will decentralise the control of mineral resources in the inland basins of every state. Look at what is happening now, the bandits are controlling the gold mines, earning money to buy more sophisticated weapons and equipment, and the governors who should control the states don’t have jurisdiction over the mines. This is insanity. We have already more than decentralization, it’s just that the people exercising the powers are non-state actors. So, what are you keeping the powers for in Abuja? You are depriving the people who should have the legitimate responsibility to use those resources to secure their space, and to create prosperity for their people from having such powers. It is just insanity.
So, there is nothing to discuss about this because there is already a consensus about it and I don’t understand the panic about decentralization, because it is just absolute lack of wisdom not to decentralize. People fidget when you talk about it thinking it means Delta state will control the oil within its territory and how do we get the money from oil? It’s because they are ignorant. Right now, virtually 80 percent of Nigerian oil revenue is coming from offshore production, not the inland basin. They are coming from Agbami, Engina, etc. these deep sea productions are not in the inland basin. They are the exclusive holding of the federal government. So, there is nothing to quarrel about. If you allow the states to control oil… after all non-state actors in the Niger Delta are producing these assets anyway in a crude and environmentally devastating form, they are exporting the crude anyway, and you have no control over that. So, why not allow the states to take organized control of it and they can produce more rapidly in an organized form, and you get more revenue as taxes, after all they only constitute only about 20 percent. I’m not sure anybody has done the maths and to even ask themselves: what are we even losing by not decentralizing? Or, what are we going to lose if we decentralise? You can only have sound policies when you interrogate issues in an objective way. So, I think there is a colossal failure in policy processes. And this is causing unnecessary chaos in the land. The time has come to put a stop, and to pull the country back from the precipice, and it’s not a matter for tomorrow, It’s not a matter for 2023, it’s a matter for now.
There is this general belief that the problem with Nigeria has to do with leadership. Do you think so?
That has always been a problem, but not from the beginning. From the beginning, that is, independence, we had had fantastic leaders, and they did visible things. The economic growth recorded even in the period of limited self-independence in Nigeria was phenomenal and has never been achieved since 1966 when the military took over. For almost a hundred years of colonial rule, the British colonial government only left 27 bed hospitals for the whole of Western Region but within five years of limited self-government under Chief Awolowo, thousands of hospital beds and clinics were created. Phenomenal growth in infrastructure but after the 1966 coup, this country has been marking time.
Nigeria was first in many respects: we started broadcasting in Western Region even before France. France started recording in 1962 I guess but we started broadcasting in 1959. In the 70s, all the vaccines that were used in West Africa were produced in Yaba. Today, talking about vaccine production is like a mystery. So, what I am telling you is that this leadership thing started becoming a challenge after the 1966 coup because the First Republic leaders were great thinkers, they were knowledgeable people, they were patriots and they were selfless. So, we have a problem with leadership not just at the central government, but also at state and local government levels because our policies are no longer driven by ideas, they are driven by other things but we all have a responsibility to change the context in which politics is being played.
With all the contending forces, will it be possible to attract the right leadership for Nigeria? Do you think that forces will allow anybody that is Aso Villa to do well for Nigeria?
You see, it is not just about individuals, it is about our structures, it is about institutions and it’s about ideas. We are talking about decentralisation. It was because we had a decentralised framework in the First Republic that we had development at local levels beyond the center so that a failure of leadership at one point in time is not going to spiral throughout the system, and then, people can have benchmarks to compare with, and say- look at what is going on in Lagos, why should our own state be like this? You understand? But when you have everything centralized, if there is a failure at any part, it spirals throughout the system. Nigerians are fantastic and brilliant people and we do well when we leave the shores of this country. Everybody is celebrating Okonjo-Iweala, but she’s not the only one. There are thousands of Nigerian professionals in the USA, they are in NASA, and other places, and contributing greatly to the economy of this country even right now. If not for all the transfers from Nigerians in the diaspora, the economy of this country would have long collapsed. Total oil revenue in 2019 was just about $25 billion. Remittances from Nigerians abroad were $26 billion dollars. If you deduct diaspora remittances, perhaps, the Naira would have been exchanging for about ₦1,000 to a Dollar. So, Nigerians are creative people. What we just need to do is dismantle this over-centralized system that is suffocating everybody and killing local initiative. So, it is not about if anybody is going to allow or not allow, you know, it’s about making the necessary systemic adjustments because with this system, even if you have a saint as president, you will fail because there is too much power concentrated at the center. Take for instance, even how we have managed the oil industry: Nigeria has managed its oil industry in the most efficient manner, and this is an industry that will no longer be relevant in the next 30 years. Nigeria as a country of 200 million people is producing less than two million barrels per day. Saudi is producing 10 million barrels per day under the OPEC quota. One reason we have not managed our oil economy well over-centralisation. All powers over oil production are concentrated in one man called the Director of the Department of Petroleum Resources.
When we had Oioibiri as the only oil well, it was possible for one man to be treating all the files, however now, you have thousands of oil wells and you have investors who want to do things in thousands of locations and the law still stipulates that until just one man approves, you can’t do anything even when it’s a private sector investment. In some of the cases we have in court now, you do a business, and because the law says of you must have the approval of one man, so, whatever you do, if he doesn’t sign, he can imperil millions of Dollars of investment and then you have loads of files waiting, and to be honest with you, it is impossible for one man to review all those files. And that is the reason why Nigeria’s oil production level has not increased in comparison with other countries. Saudi Arabia is a monarchical system, it is not even a democracy but the king does not sign all the papers, they have desk officers dealing with applications. In Nigeria, one man signs all the documents, and they are always in meetings all the time without result because everything comes to one person, and he is so busy. You want to see him, he comes out, he is feeling so sick, and really, it is impossible for one man to attend to all those questions. That is why we have a situation whereby the only reason why he will pick your file over another is if he has an interest in the file or you are from his village, or you share the same religion, or you are his concubine or girlfriend. So, these are all the illogical reasons why he will attend to your file that has just come in over the thousands of files that are pending.
So, what I am saying is that if you are serious about fighting corruption, you must be ready to decentralize.
Since 2019, the youths have been clamoring for generational change in leadership in Nigeria. Do you agree that there should be a generational change in leadership by 2023?
Not necessarily so. I’m not an advocate of generational change. I believe what we need is change in the ideas of government. You have many young people who have nothing in their heads and they’re saying they want to be president. Being young is not enough to be President or Governor; it depends on what ideas you have in your head. You have many old people who have integrity and didn’t soil their hands even when they had opportunities. Let me give you an example, Alhaji Abba Gana, former minister of FCT is still alive but he does not have a house in Abuja. He lives in a rented apartment. How many young people do you have around now like that? Chief Solomon Lar, the first PDP national chairman, did not have a house in Abuja. Until he died, he lived in a rented apartment. These were the people who inspired us as mentors. Now you have many young people who have become governors and ministers who literally pocketed their states. These were paupers. So, it is not about being a young man, but what ideas you carry. I am not an advocate of generational change in government. I believe that yes, youth can confer some advantage. They have more strength, but if you have no ideas in your head, those strengths will be deployed to destruction. So, it is the content of the ideas in your head that will make your youthfulness an advantage.
What is your take on rotatory presidency?
I don’t believe in rotatory presidency because it is absolute nonsense and I don’t know the sincerity of such a rendition. When Obasanjo contested in 1999, AlhajiAbubakarRimi contested against. When MuhammaduBuhari contested, RochasOkorocha contested against him. So, what do they mean by rotatory Presidency? I don’t believe in that. Secondly, it only causes division and a dubious narrative because late MKO Abiola won without any rotatory presidency, and he contested against a northerner, and even won in Kano against Bashir Tofa. So, if you’re a good candidate, Nigerians will elect you.
I believe that it should be by merit and this rotatory presidency assumes that we have only igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people in Nigeria. In the North Central, there are a lot of ethnic groups who are not Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa. So when will an Okun man become the president under the rotatory Presidency arrangement? When will a Tiv, or Igala, Urobo, or Jukun become President? Under the first republic, there was no rotatory Presidency; Northern Peoples’ Congress picked a Gere man, a minority to be the prime minister. Some of these conversations are based on ignorance, some are based on dubious intentions, they are not transparent about their intentions, and they think they can divide the country, heat up the polity, blackmail people on ethnicity. Most people who say this kind of nonsense are people who have had federal positions but when in office, they don’t say those things, but the moment they leave office, they organize some ethnic groups and start making this kind of nonsense noise. Now, that does not mean that we should not respect the diversity of the country. What I believe in, is that the federal character provisions in our constitution are enough to protect our diversities and identities and where there are strong cases of nepotism or marginalization institutions like the Federal Character Commission should kick in. There’s no state that does not have a Commissioner there. We’re not hearing them, we are not hearing their voices, and if they cannot do their jobs, they should resign. So, there are sufficient provisions, and I think that any leader who wants stability will make his appointments to be reflective of the fact that the country is a diverse entity. If you want peace and stability, you must do that. And if you’re not doing it, there are institutions of state that should correct you. What I know is that diversity, which is adequately protected in the Constitution, is that if the president comes from this particular area, the senate president must come from another area. But rotatory presidency is nonsense. Last time I checked, the only country that tried to do it seriously was Yugoslavia and it does not exist again. So any talk of rotatory presidency is the road to Bosnia Herzegovina.
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