Senator Ayo Arise represented the Ekiti North senatorial district on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) between 2007 and 2011 and served as the chairman, Senate Committee on Privatisation. In this interview, the chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC), submits that the country may continue to grope in the dark until the political elite comes to terms with the agitation for restructuring of the country. He spoke to TAIWO AMODU.
It is increasingly becoming difficult to cement mutual distrust among the ethnic units and states in the country, with agitation for restructuring and some people contending that the problem of the country is not about structure but the operators of the system. What’s thought on these issues?
I believe restructuring is inevitable because a system has permeated our policy for too long: the system of not building our institutions, perhaps building structures around our people is a major problem and there will always be agitators in terms of revenue generation and who benefit and there will always be agitations in terms of the wallet of the federal government. It is really too much as compared to the state and the local governments. Even though I agree there is nothing we will do that will totally eradicate agitation over the night, if there is movement towards correcting some of the things that lead to agitations, there will be peace in this country. And we need to ensure that the sense of belonging is extended towards everybody. The moment someone starts to feel disadvantaged because he is from one part of the country or the other, or either disadvantaged or feeling superior, whichever you look at it, then, it might affect the psyche of many people or a large size of the population. So, like I always insisted on, we must make tangible effort to ensure and enforce that anybody that lives in any part of the federation for at least one year, should be able to claim that State as his state of residence. And the moment we agree that anybody that resides in any State for more than one year can decide he wants to be a governor in the state and by law it is sanctioned, then, we have started in the direction of eliminating where or what tribe do you belong to.
It is going to take years. It is not a thing that we can take lightly and we think people will just agree. No. In the United States, it is the state of residency that they use for everything you want to do. I am resident in the State of Georgia for example. The only thing I cannot aspire to be is the President of the United State but I can still go to the Senate and represent the State of Georgia, I can do anything as an American born citizen except for those two offices reserved for the US born American citizens or resident. Whatever is good about that multi- cultural and multi ethnic country should be good for us because in many parts of this country we speak different languages but we must agree that the official language must be English because if we are looking that we are going to remain the same people for eternity, first, we must put that one in place and that is the only binding structure in America because for historical purposes, a place like Texas was bought by the US from Mexico. Puerto Rico is a Spanish, then of course Florida too and Louisana, some parts of that area were bought by the French people and that is why when you get to place like Louisana you will hear names like Lafarge and all other different names. But the unifying language is the language and in America, you have the Italians, the Irish, the Germans, the Scottish and all manners of ethnic groups but the moment you reside in that State and become resident, you can do anything from there. These are areas we need to be working towards.
There is an ongoing effort to amend the 1999 Constitution again. What would you advocate: a return to parliamentary system or what exactly would you be asking for?
Again, a number of things are wrong with our constitution. I participated in 2010 constitution review and many of these issues were raised and went further to even look at the structure of our National Assembly. The only reason you see somebody stayed 50 years in the Senate in America is just because nobody is thinking that he is not the only person in the country and you will find out that there are tenure and the only reason why you don’t find struggle between a junior Senator and a senior Senator is because foundation has been laid. It is only in Nigeria that somebody came to the Senate and became a minority leader immediately. And this is not something you can learn from the Executive, it is an act of legislation. So, we tell them okay we are still pursuing a learning course but the system itself is designed in such a way that any point in time that the Senate is going for election, it is only one third of those in the Senate in America that are only going for that election. So, they made it from day one. They divided thselves, seven to three. Some people stayed 3 years, some stayed 4 years and some 2 years for re-election, thereafter, anybody that comes in will stay for 6 years.
If you go back for example to parliamentary system of government, the same problem we are having under this presidential system of government will still raise its head. The struggle for power. Obviously, there might be nothing wrong with it but there must be laid down rules and regulations that must be followed by everybody. So, I don’t think it is the system of government, it is more of the fact that even the system we lay down, we have not addressed the shortcomings and prepare for eventualities. If we address that one, then we will know what is wrong with our electoral system. Over the years we have studied it and things are getting better gradually, from the time we started doing voters registration, where we are now is that we must be looking at the possibility of actually voting on our telephones. The moment we have the National Identity Cards working, it is going to open doors to so many possibilities. Somebody who is Ojo by his name or Emeka, cannot be Emeka in five places; neither can there be Ojo in 10 places. These are some of the things that we need to look at and ensure we work on for us to be truly on the part of greatness that we decide to be.
Some argue that Nigeria has symbolically tied itself to the apron of its colonial master for belonging to the Commonwealth of Nations…
I see it that there is no negative impact from being part of the Commonwealth, rather we still have some advantages because you know we still have Commonwealth scholarship for smart and brilliant university graduates that they accept in those advanced schools. At 60, if we think we are really, really matured, I will say okay because now we are 60, we are better off. Take the University for Example. Harvard was established in 1636, so more than a 100 years older than the independence of America which was established in 1776. So we are 60 now, we are now experienced than Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge of how many years? Even their Alumni, the money they put into those institutions, when are we ever going to catch up or surpass them? The Covid-19 virus, one of the more recognized or successful vaccine research came out of that Oxford axis and for us, our oldest university in Nigeria was 1948, University of Ibadan.
We can say yes, it is part of the old glory, some of the structures will still remain there and in a sense, they might still be able to attract more of the older or experienced Professors. May be they attended that University and by sentiment, they still want to go back there. So, I just used that as an example. The Commonwealth has advantages and I can also look at North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that includes Canada, USA and Mexico. So, when you look at it, why people are associating, it is for benefit. If you look at what you cannot do, may be with support from the group I belong to we can achieve better and like America is saying, may be they don’t want to support NATO like they used to, NATO had its own purpose and just like everything that was done after the second world war. Many of us from outside was wondering if America will jettison all those things that have put them way ahead of other nations at war, what would they have. I don’t want to talk about the politics of America but these are areas of great concerns for those people who understand where the world was coming from and anything can still happen in the future. So, I think we should remain in the Commonwealth.
Which geopolitical zone do you think should produce the president in 2023?
Unfortunately my response will sound as if I am speaking like a Yoruba person but as a politician, we cannot forecast who will win, typically speaking, the ruling party has an edge.
If the ruling party is going to take a presidential candidate from the South, it will have to come from the South West because the ruling party is stronger there than in the East and so, without leaving the possibility or considering the possibility of, we are not that popular in this particular region and so, if it is going by the political formula that we are seeing now, I would imagine that the ruling party should seriously be looking at picking a presidential candidate from the South West. And may be if it is agreed nationally that it has to come from the South may be the other party can take their candidate from the South-East. As far as I am concerned, the APC is mainly in the North and the South West. The South-South and the South East are mostly PDP. So, in looking at where the presidency should come from, if it is agreed that it must come from the South, then the ruling party will have to pick their candidate where they have the greater support to ensure that they are able to win when it comes to national election.
Nigerians, who were around during the independence era, looked back with nostalgia and expressed disenchantment over the way and manner we have managed ourselves. Can you say in all sincerity that our economy has fared better?
Let me say this, forget about the fact that I am in the APC, my own way of thinking is that if a person has shown some level of improvements, let us say yes, you are trying but you can do more. For example, I have been waiting for PDP to come out since PDP won the election in Edo. If APC had won that election in Edo, PDP would have been calling the President and the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) all manner of names but I have not seen them come out to say we thank these people. Sometimes, some things, even though they are supposed to be norms but they are already taken for granted based on our experience in the past like if the federal government had used its might, things would have happened differently but this is the same government that gone to the election and the opposition has won.
Pre-Buhari administration till now, have we managed our economy better compared to when we were under the tutelage of the British?
Again, by the time of independence I was only four years. I could not have had idea how things were and besides the population of Nigeria was probably around 50 something million or thereabout. In planning for 50 something million, the strategy has to be different when you are managing 200 million and the irony is that nobody is even talking about family planning now. So, when you look at the challenge of about 10 years ago in present day Nigeria, that person would had almost 70 million people to content with within the period of 10 years.
Our money is from oil. Now, this government came and that actually started from the previous administration when Akinwunmi was Minister of Agriculture. I think a lot of efforts were made to diversify the economy but this government has taken that very seriously and I think some of the policies I kind of align with, is the fact that a number of people are now getting money to run their businesses.
Under the small scale enterprises, a lot of money is now being put there to help Nigeria. Most of these funds are not secured and the loan, to the best of my knowledge is like 5 percent. Anybody that has an idea to set up a business, it is better under this government than any other government that I have known before or that I was even a part of. So, if you look at those items, if you look at health sector, we know COVID-19 brought that too but look at the agriculture sector, we have been doing that under Audu Ogbeh. We are giving people money to set up farming, either livestock or crops and that has continued. We understand that some people are complaining that the local rice is even getting costlier even than the imported ones. That again, I will not be able to totally exonerate the government because when a person goes into production and has to be putting on generator to drive his rice mill, there is now way you will be able to compete with person that has access to 24/7 electricity and where the transportation system is excellent. Of course, the transportation or moving goods is basically tied to the rail system. If the rail system is not working properly, the roads must be so that the vehicles can move and carry massive produce but there were rail lines but no train. The rail lines are not standard gauge from what we now know, so this government has focused on refurbishment, rehabilitations and building of new rail lines. This foundation that is being laid under this government, if it is sustained, there is a future to behold. Say by five of 10 years, we should be at this level. Already, we have almost 160 million people to transport everywhere but the roads have remained the same and unmaintained, so where we should be talking about expansion, how much of our budget do we have to spend on developmental agenda. So, these are arguments that can go back and forth. It depends on who is talking. Some people might say this economy is terrible; from that person’s perspective, he might be right. But from those looking at things objectively, where were we yesterday, where are we today? All the money that is being put in the public domain for embezzlement, some of them are now being channeled towards development.
Those who are used to free money in the past and are complaining now, when you talk to them, they will say things are very bad. But those who are looking at it where we want this country to be have seen some of these positive moves by the government. That is why I said it depends on who you are talking to. For me, I take my time to look at what is going on in very objective manner. I have a number of people that are very poor and are complaining. And of course, school fees have gone up, everything has gone up, you have to pay more and what you are making is not as you are making before but what is the sacrifice we are putting. If we see that government is doing something really to help. When they are doing roads, some people will post it and say your tax (money) is working for you. So, they will see what the government is doing. The kind of scandals that we are getting from the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), would anybody be happy in this country to see that those people in the oil-producing areas are left poor in spite of the money budgeted for development? Some of these problems are our individual problems. There are some people in this country, when they arrest their kinsman for alleged corrupt matter or have stolen money, they will gather themselves to defend him. They will say ‘this is our child; nothing must touch him.’
There are sections of this country that behave that way. It is still part of the fact that we don’t really feel the sense that we are one country. Some people are saying now that it is their turn to chop. It is chop I chop enterprises. So, the problems are many and cannot be resolved overnight. But let us begin to put policies in place to show that this is the direction we are going. Whatever we do to tackle our development and growth as a nation, let us begin to look at it and address it from the foundation.
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