CHIEF OLABODE George bestrides two worlds: the military establishment and political turf, and in this interview by KUNLE ODEREMI, he bares his mind on what he considers as fundamental issues that continually put the country on edge. EXCERPTS:
In a matter of 72 hours, it would be 20 years since Nigeria restored civil rule. As an active player in the political process, what are the gains and challenges?
Gains? There are no gains at all. So far, we are going through an experimentation that doesn’t show we are really in a democratic dispensation. There is more confusion now than where we ought to be. The tribal differences, rather than gathering them as our strength, we have further expanded the gulf among the ethnic nationalities that make up the country. There is no cohesion; a vital ingredient that we could use as a strength for our nation. The mistrust among the tribes is getting bigger and larger by the hour. People see power as personal. Rather than to use it to build a united nation, we are further dividing ourselves as a people and country. Trust is lost; lies have overtaken truth and so, ethical leaders are no longer there. They are not committed. Overall, it’s a siege of helplessness and hopelessness. That’s exactly what we have now.
You painted a frightening scenario about the situation in the country. But what actually is wrong and at what stage did the country lose its bearing?
I will respond this way concerning the precarious state of the nation; people personalise leadership; they personalise management; they personalise the corporate interest of Nigeria, rather than saying these things belong to all of us. It is the system that must survive, but unfortunately, we have idolised individualism rather than the system. In short, there is no system now; people are dropping names and because of the grip of power, people are using tribal sentiments to divide the people; they are using religious sentiments to divide the country; they are using falsehood to divide the citizens. Democracy has the essence of listening; it when more people are allowed to talk, ventilate their views that you gain something. But, if you keep muzzling them by not allowing them, you retard progress and stifle the beauty of democracy. Now, if you say anything, it is viewed you are against a particular ethnic nationality or religion. Things have really gone bad; it has never been this bad.
Are you insisting that despite of all what you see as lapses in the existing system, the country did not record any significant stride under civil rule?
None at all! Where are the achievements? Just tell me. Identify them. List those areas where we can in honesty point at. When I graduated from school, I got a job before even I wrote my final examination. Today, our own children struggle from cradle to grave, whereas by the time I graduated, I got a job and began to take care of my parents. Is that what is happening now? Parents perpetually support their children; you help them to get married; maintain them in all aspects of life. When are they going to be independent? Where is the future for them? I do not see any silver lining at the end of the tunnel. It’s a dark alley.
However, there is a way forward. We must go back to the drawing board; the way we started at independence in 1960 without any region superintending the other regions. Let every state develop according to the resources available to them; so that we would have a loose centre; not an over-burdened centre with concentration of powers; a centre that has usurped the powers of states. A federation doesn’t work that way. It doesn’t pay anybody; it is defective, prone to crisis; instigates crisis, stalls progress and development; it is a potential danger and time bomb. We copied the America Constitution but, we half-copied it. The American people do not take their resources and earnings to the centre, that is, Washington; they don’t. Whatever is federal is federal; states itself should survive according to their resources.
Do you mean the constitution Nigeria operates now is not federal?
It’s not; the 2014 National Constitutional Conference stated unequivocally that though we cannot go back to a regional government anymore because of state creation, we should have a United States of Nigeria, where states would have coordinate powers; and be independent. Why must the Federal Government have a say in the creation of local government areas? What is their concern, if not to undermine the principle of federalism or the spirit of a federation? In America, what is the concern of the Federal Government in Washington against the counties in a state? Look at Lagos, with its huge human population, has 20 Local Government Areas; Kano State has 44 Local Government Areas. Why should we send all our earnings to the centre and it will now distribute the money to us? About 80 per cent of money accruing from the Value Added Tax (VAT) comes from Lagos State. Yet what it gets at the end of the day is only about 11 per cent. What else can be a height of gross in justice? Is that fairness? Look at America, the state of California is the sixth largest economy in the world. And you still have a state like Rhode Island, the smallest state in US. The people of the state live happily and survive within their resources. So, why should our case in Nigeria be different? I have traversed all the length and breadth of this country; there is hardly any state that is not endowed with one or two resources.
Let’s tap into those resources in the states so that they can grow and develop. That would create jobs for their people; they will be forced to do something for survival. By 2040, that is, in another 20 years or so, there would be no petrol engine made anywhere. So, what do we want to do with the crude oil? Have we started to think about what we must do now so that we won’t be left behind by the rest of the world? Our major source of income now is crude oil; are we involved in any serious planning? The issue of structural realignment must be revisited if we are serious about Nigeria rediscovering itself; we cannot go back to the regions but we can back to our states and whatever you create, keep 90 per cent of it and utilise in states; it is their resources. If you want to have 100 local governments and you can sustain them, so be it. If it is only one or two, so be it.
Experts talk about federalism as a form of arrangement, where constituents exist in a coordinate arrangement. But some Nigerians now talk about true federalism, with President Muhammadu Buhari recently quoted as having said it is imperative Nigeria returned to it (true federalism) because of the frightening challenges facing the country? What do you see as the similarities between the two concepts, as they are currently being used interchangeably by a lot of people?
What we discussed and decided at the 2014 National Conference was that the country should go back to real federalism which I understand means that whatever you generate, you keep for your sustenance and contribute a minute percentage for the upkeep of the centre. No free lunch. If you are able to mine either gold or some mineral resources or you have agricultural resources or skilled human power that other states are ready to hire, you make money for your state. You survive based on what you generate as revenues. That kind of arrangement, which defines federalism, will force everybody to look inward in their states and add value to their existence. It will promote healthy competition, economic growth and development and guarantee stability. Peace is a vital ingredient for growth; that is one critical factor that genuine federalism culture will nurture and sustain.
You have seen and witnessed the good, not too good and pleasant side of the history of the country, first as former military officer and leading politician. Given current happenings (issues bordering on security; the economy, and so on), across the land, what can you say about the future of Nigeria?
There is no future; we are just groping and quisling in the dark. There is no future. Where is the economic fortune when it (economy) is monolithic? Whereas there are resources all over the country that are yet to be tapped into? Let people keep their oil; everybody will still send something to the national purse to help on critical unifying areas such as foreign affairs, defence; monetary policy, immigration, and so on. But when it comes to economic activities, let every state look inward; survive on the resources at their disposal. We will contribute an agreed percentage to the common pool. It is not every earning you should send it to the Federation Account. It wrong that some people will sit back and redistribute what you have worked hard to generate. No, it is absolutely wrong; it has not worked and it will never work; that is not justice, equity and fairness. It violates the rules of equity and justice.
You can see the state of the nation today compared to where we were in 1960. It has not worked and it will not work. There is no way you can do a unitary system of governance in Nigeria. What we operate is currently is not true federalism; we shouldn’t deceive ourselves. Time is running out; we must do the needful; take appropriate and necessary steps to address the defects in the unjust system and structure that exists today. Why should the Federation Account be concerned with distributing money to local government? It is not their business at all. It is the responsibility of states. The centre and states should be the federating units in a coordinate arrangement. Period! We cannot continue to rob Peter to pay Paul. The current three tier of government as federating units is antithetical to the fundamental principles of federalism; it is fraudulent and deceitful. It’s absolute rubbish. It is hypocrisy for anyone to claim we are operating or running a federation right now. What we have is a unitary system. Even in terms of security, why should we have a centralised policing system? In US, they have the Federal Bureau of Intelligence (FBI); they have the state police and they have the County Police. Now, it is only when an issue gets to a certain level that is beyond the powers of the other levels that the FBI takes over. All these things are well-defined in the US Constitution.
Right now, we have only the Nigeria Police to service the country and subject to whims and caprices of the Federal Government. It is antithetical federal principles. The population is exploding and you still have the police being given one head. We have to create state Police to meet the demands of the time and people. Let states sort out themselves and at the level of regions, you can decide to collaborate in such areas as transportation, airport; like the process that led to establishment of the Oodua Group and similar economic bodies in the north and the East in the past. You share and compare on your commonalities; you don’t wait on the Federal Government. In any case, who is the Federal Government? Somebody is elected as President and if he wants to shut you down, he will do it for four years; you can’t develop; you wait for funds to be released from the Federation Account. We have grown beyond that and even those who came and united us by force have seen that the best way out for Nigeria is to have federating units where the units can contribute a certain percentage of their incomes to support the centre, while you develop your various areas with the natural resources God has endowed.
Things are not working at all now and if you try to tell them why it is so and what should be done in order to make the system work, they will accuse of political bias, whereas the issue at stake has got nothing to do with political parties. It is about a collective interest. It has nothing to do with political parties; I’m a Nigerian. Do you have any difference among the existing political parties? Where is the ideological difference? None at all. It’s just about survival; to keep your family intact; to be able to send your children to school and have quality education; those things we enjoyed during the First Republic. Sadly, the military incursion into governance in the country brought everything to a unitary system. We must disengage from that arrangement. It has never worked and it will never work; from the beginning, it never worked because in the military, you need a hierarchical approach to management. The command structure works for the military. And that is what they have imposed on the country now; it cannot work. I have been to every state of this country; with the resources that have been endowed in each state, they can survive. Now, we are robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Your view that military intervention in political power truncated of subverted the practice of federalism in the country amounts to self-indictment since you used to be a part of the military constituency?
No, it is not self-indictment. I have seen the two worlds; so, it is not a matter of indicting myself. I am only saying the truth; I am only saying the type of governance we have today is hierarchical and that it typifies a military setting. It is good for the military because the command system must work. We adopted that system and it became ingrained in our psyche in politics. It is never the proper way of managing a country. In a command structure in the military, directives and orders come from the higher echelon because they are looking at issues holistically; it is from the top to bottom, but in a political setting, you can’t do that.
Why is the command structure of the military not working today that Nigeria is facing serious security issues of insurgency, terrorism and banditry?
That’s for the military to answer. If it is not working, it means they have a problem. That’s a different ball game. But, I told you where we missed it; we look at issues from the prism of tribe; culture, religion and other narrow perspectives. That means we have failed. We have become myopic instead of looking at critical national issues genuinely, honestly and dispassionately to make sure that things work for the befit of every Nigerian. Nobody decided that you were born to be a Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Itshekiri, and so on. You exist as a human being and must be given equal opportunities so that the best can emerge in the interest of the nation.
How has the country faired under the Buhari administration in the last four years? What are the most striking strides of the administration?
Nothing at all! Not when you have the Minister of Information perpetually lying to the people. Rather than telling it as it is, they lie, try to deceive people and pontificate. I am a Nigerian; business man and retired General. I feel the heat. Where is the conducive environment; the business of government is to create an enabling environment for people to thrive, do their work and to work according to stipulated rules and so, you make your income. It should not be because this man is in my party; this one is not, then I should isolate him; you cripple his business and encourage another person because he is your kinsman. Is that the way to run a system? No, let’s call a spade a spade. We must revisit the system we had at independence in 1960; we must return to the proper structure of the country that guaranteed equity, fairness and justice.