Eze Festus Odimegwu, erstwhile Managing Director of Nigerian Breweries Plc and former Chairman of the National Population Commission (NPC), is a man of conviction who does not speak tongue-in-cheek. He is passionate about Nigeria and bemoans what he calls leadership failure at all levels. On Saturday, January 18, he broke his self-imposed five-year censorship on interviews to speak to IKECHUKWU AMAECHI at his Abuja home. For close to three hours, he spoke on the failures of the Buhari presidency, 2019 elections, 50th anniversary of the end of the civil war, Supreme Court judgement that sacked Governor Emeka Ihedioha, Nigerian President of Igbo extraction and what he called the hegemonic inclination of the Fulani, among other issues. The interview will be published in three tranches and this is the first.
Shortly after the 2015 elections, TheNiche team had an interview with you in Lagos where you spoke glowingly of the then president-elect, General Muhammadu Buhari. You said you were confident he would deliver as president. Do you still hold that view?
A lot of people have tried to get an interview from me and I didn’t feel like granting any interview until I met you last night and I made a deliberate choice to give you this interview because when you write, you also write like a modern person.
You write from logic, you write from what is scientifically sensible and you present issues the way you see them. You may be right or wrong but you put it in a perspective that one would consider reasonable.
That is why I said, let me talk to you again. If not, since that 2015 till date, I have not granted any interviews but people will always say let us talk to you, but I tell them that Nigerians talk too much and do too little and I didn’t want to be party to that.
Now, coming to your question, I will start by saying that it is still good that President Goodluck Jonathan was voted out of office because he under-performed and he was a big disappointment.
I have seen people trying to ask, was it right or wrong? It was good that he was voted out because as somebody who claimed to be educated up to PhD level, when he had the opportunity to use that knowledge to transform Nigeria to a modern nation-state, he failed woefully.
He was busy playing cheap politics the third world mentality way. So, it was good he was voted out.
And of all the people then who were running with him, current President Muhammadu Buhari came across as somebody who was very serious minded and who had this desire, persistent desire to do something for Nigeria as we saw it then.
And not just because of this image, the people around him also were people that had the credentials of progressive politics. People who you could say are egalitarian in their outlook. And their manifesto also had content that made sense.
So, putting these three things together, it was appropriate to support him. It was logical to support him. The possibilities that he would do well were there if you analyse it properly.
But on assuming office, Buhari has been an unmitigated disaster and a complete failure to put it mildly. In fact, he has failed to the level that he has become a security risk to Nigeria.
Some people say it is those around him that are the problem, but leadership makes you to be responsible for what is happening. And the failure of his leadership is comprehensive. He has not shown any element of capacity in any department of leadership and it is very unfortunate.
And all the people around him, as far as I can see are not there to help him. All of them are there to run their own personal agenda and he doesn’t even know what is happening to begin to control these people.
So, everybody around him is a power unto himself. That is why you see all this confusion and disorder in his administration and then they transfer it to the country.
The only person around him who means well for him is his wife, Aisha. And in fact, the only person around him who shows any element of intelligence, sense of responsibility, is the wife, the First Lady of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Outside her, every other person around Buhari is as disappointing as Buhari himself.
Why did you single out the First Lady? What has she done in particular?
Leadership has three main dimensions that you can analyse to infinite dimensions. And the core of those three dimensions is the intention of the leader which is encapsulated in the value and visions of leadership. That is what holds what any leadership is doing together.
Aisha has come across as somebody who has conscience, not conscience in the religious sense, the way Nigerian hypocrites would always bring religion and talk nonsense but conscience in ethical sense. Somebody who knows the right things to do. She has that sense and she gives advice and when they don’t take her advice or even allow her to give that advice, she has enough conviction herself to explode and come to the public and criticise the husband’s administration and people around him.
And in the Nigerian set-up particularly in northern Nigeria where she, Buhari and all the people around him come from, it is exemplary for a lady to do that.
So, I think from her intentions, from the things she says, if she is the president of Nigeria herself, this administration will do better just like if Patience Jonathan had been the president and Jonathan was the First Man, that administration would have also done better. And I can say a lot more about that in terms of leadership meaning to do what is right from the basic intentions. She is a very good lady by my estimation.
You were a member of the Buhari Transition Committee prior to his inauguration in 2015. Many thought you were going to be appointed a minister. At what point did you realise that Nigerians may have had a bad deal in electing him president?
The question itself implies that or has an undertone that I supported Buhari so that I could be made a minister. I mean, you are in my house, if you look around, you will see that I am not looking for a job. It would be demeaning of my person, who I am to think I would do something because I will get a job. I am an employer of labour. I am not looking for a job. So, I didn’t get a bad deal from Buhari.
I am not talking about you as a person. The question is, at what point did you realise that Nigerians may have made a mistake in electing Buhari President?
Ok! You spoke about a bad deal after talking about my not being appointed a minister. If Buhari had made me a minister, I would not have accepted it.
Because it was very clear and I actually made that known to former President Obasanjo when some of these issues started emerging, I also made that clear to somebody like Ahmed Joda and the current Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu.
If Buhari had made me a minister after he started doing certain things, I wouldn’t have stayed. First, I would not have accepted the appointment because if I do, and he continues doing the things he has been doing since then, when we are in FEC meeting, I will challenge him and when I do that, if he continues doing what he is doing, I will resign. I will not stay to be a witness to the nonsenses that have been happening since then. And if I challenge him also, he may decide to sack me himself since he is the one who would appoint.
So, in order not to face the same story of what made me resign as chairman of the National Populations Commission (NPC), I didn’t just want to bother myself, messing around when people are not serious to do what is right.
And it was very early that Buhari showed his hand that he didn’t really mean to do anything serious when he started talking about people who voted 97 per cent and 5 per cent for him. When he started making his first few appointments, and everyone on the list are from the North, Northwest in particular, all Muslims. When he started marginalizing some people in his own party who helped him to come to power, and then instead of getting his kitchen cabinet from his party, the APC, who helped him to come to power, he decided to go back to family and friends. That type of nonsense, I mean I shouldn’t be party to such things.
The level of decisions and actions was very primitive to say the least. Some people will say provincial or nepotistic. No modern person like me would think that such a thing is good.
So, he failed from the very first day he started up till today.
How would you rate Jonathan and Buhari’s failure on a scale of 1 to 10? Who, in your estimation, failed most?
Two of them are failures. Failure is failure. There is no comparative analysis for failure. When you are a leader, you are there to improve the situation. Once you are not able to improve the situation, either incrementally or dramatically, depending on who you are, your capabilities, you have failed.
So, if two of them were to be working for Nigerian Breweries when I was the MD/CEO and I was going to write their appraisal, I will give two of them D, that means they didn’t do well. You cannot compare failure. Jonathan failed and Buhari has failed in terms of making Nigeria a better place.
That will be the top level assessment I will give. But when you dig down and you want to cherry pick to say who is better than the other, Jonathan was better in the sense that he didn’t do the right things that he was supposed to do but he was not malicious. And he was not reckless in a sense that can bring security problems to the country.
Buhari also is not doing the right things like Jonathan didn’t do the right things, but he is reckless and he has this impunity that could set the country ablaze. And when people do things without thinking of the consequences, it can be very dangerous indeed.
So at that level, Jonathan is far better than Buhari but that doesn’t mean that Jonathan shouldn’t have been voted out. It is good that he was voted out just like if the last election was free and fair, Buhari would have been voted out as well. There was no election. If there was, there was no way he would have won a second term.
Supporters of Buhari, and there are many of them, will disagree with your assessment. Even the President insists he has done well in the three core areas – economy, fight against corruption and improvement of security – he promised Nigerians.
You know, sometimes you read in the newspapers that this person said this, that person said that, Buhari said this and this person around him said that, the question is, who are those people, what do they know?
You know the worst thing in this world is ignorance. The major problem in Nigeria is ignorance. The leadership failure in Nigeria from the first day is caused by ignorance. People who do not know and who do not know that they do not know, and they are behaving as if they know, the result is the Nigeria you have.
So, people around him can say what they like, Buhari himself can say what he likes, but the empirical evidence of the state of Nigeria today in the three areas you have mentioned are worse than they were in 2015 on an objective analysis.
Governance by the way has nothing to do with cherry picking – corruption, security, economy. When you start cherry picking like that, you don’t even understand the issues.
If Buhari, for example, when he was inaugurated as the president of Nigeria consulted his own party, he has people in his party that have brain, the people who wrote the manifesto of his party, the people who wrote the speeches that he gave during the election, they are there. If he consulted only those people or if he used what we told him from the transition committee, and for instance, if he comes to say on his inauguration day in a two-paragraph speech that: “I thank you Nigerians for electing me president. This country is in a position it should not be and as I promised, I will make sure that Nigeria starts on the road to greatness and to kick that, from tomorrow morning, my first day in office, we will start the process to restructure Nigeria.” Full stop. And he signs his name Buhari.
This short statement which has a loaded intention that represents what leadership means at that level, the moment he starts to restructure Nigeria, every problem in this country will disappear.
There is what you call the fulcrum of an issue. For every problem, when you are a professional, when you understand the issues, when you look at every problem and you analyse it, you can see where the problems is tied. But maybe it has millions of ramifications.
If you start dealing with those ramifications, you do not understand the issue. You are ignorant. But if you go to that place it is tied and untie it, everything will unfold and become beautiful again. That is the magic of informed leadership.
And what Buhari should have done, on being elected the president of Nigeria, the first act according to the manifesto of his own party is to start the immediate restructuring of Nigeria. That would have exponentially exploded the economy because all the regions would take responsibility for their people. And then everybody will get busy.
Economics is creating an environment where everybody will be useful to himself and his environment. That is the simple definition of economics.
And when you start restructuring and every region takes responsibility for their people, enable them with education, skills, environment, infrastructure, security, and then point them in directions where they have comparative advantage, the economy will burst.
The government itself doesn’t have to do anything. Governments don’t create the economy. Governments don’t create jobs, governments create the environment for people to be busy.
So, by focusing on the economy the way he is saying it, what do they know, all the things they have been doing where has it led the country? There is more unemployment today than ever. More people are out of school than ever.
So, the people who are talking don’t understand the issues.
Nigeria is more corrupt today than ever. I am a business man and you are a Nigerian, you know that Nigeria is more corrupt today than ever. People around Buhari are more corrupt than people around Jonathan. They are even corrupt with impunity. Jonathan had only one or two people around him that were corrupt with impunity but everybody around Buhari is corrupt with impunity.
They claim that they own the land, they own Nigeria. So, who is fighting corruption? If you want to fight corruption, maybe 10 people who stole 90 per cent of the money we are looking for, everybody knows them, has he arrested any of them? If he is fighting corruption, he should arrest them because nobody is above the law.
I have books in my library where some people listed those who stole Nigeria’s money, has he arrested any of them? So, there is no anti-corruption fight. What is happening is just semantics, what they use to pursue political enemies and things like that.
Security, are you safe? Insecurity has gotten worse. It has gone beyond Boko Haram, which has become a business for some northern elites and their military collaborators. They use it to steal money and say they are fighting Boko Haram. Fulani herdsmen have become empowered by the Federal Government to take people’s lands in North Central, South East and South West.
And one day, they will overreach themselves. And Nigeria will unravel. Kidnapping and rape are everywhere. Assault, banditry, youths out of school are on drugs. Is this the Nigeria of your dream?
So, he cannot lay claim to any parametres since he became president that has improved in Nigeria.
In Nigeria, people talk for the sake of talking. But truth matters. And for every issue there is only one truth. You don’t have alternative truths. Truth matters. That is the fundamental basis of epistemology – knowledge. And because truth matters, you see when a chemist – I am one, I am a scientist – when a chemist comes here to say, I will make water out of hydrogen and oxygen under these conditions, you say do it let me see, and he will do it and you will have water. Everywhere he goes in the entire cosmos, not only on planet earth, and recreates those conditions, hydrogen and oxygen will become water because truth is one, truth matters.
You need knowledge to speak about truth. Truth is not alternate truth or emotional truth, or because Buhari said it, it is true, then Festus said it and because Festus is not President, then it is not true. Office doesn’t make the man. It is the man that makes office. I have been in high offices before. I was the one who made those offices. Some people are in an office and they don’t know what is happening. I have seen so many of such examples. They are confused.
Leadership needs knowledge. When they tell you somebody is a leader, you need to know three things about that person. If you ask him, who are you, how will he answer it? And if you ask him, what are you, how will he answer it? Those two questions will establish his identity and his intelligence
And what people call divinity, what is the difference between divinity and humanity? And what is the difference between archaeology, anthropology and theology? Not many people understand that.
When you understand that, you will know that people just don’t wake and say they are leaders. When do you become a leader? You become a leader when you have reached a certain level of evolution. And you begin to create things that make sense. It is not by talking.
So, when I say they have failed, and somebody says they have succeeded, and I want to waste my time, and you arrange a debate with that person, I will come on television with that person and I will prove to the person that he does not understand the issues, that he is ignorant. Because every village woman, every village man, every child in Nigeria knows that Nigeria has gotten worse.
Outside the identity and intelligence of the person who calls himself a leader, you have to check his competence and his capacity and you have to check his values and his vision.
In these three departments, Buhari is zero. And everybody around him, as far as they relate to him, they are all zero because they are all pursuing their personal agenda.
That sounds rather harsh
It is not because Buhari himself says his primary objective of appointing people is to reward those who have been supporting him through his political life, he said so.
How can the president of Nigeria, a country like this say such a thing if he is not ignorant. He does not understand the issues.
So, if you are fighting corruption, why do you put family and friends and you say you are rewarding them? They will steal with two hands and two legs. The child that his father sent for armed robbery uses his leg to break the door and says daddy is there. So, who is going to arrest that person?
Some people will say, ok, when the next government comes, let them fight that corruption but can’t we prevent it?
So, I won’t be exchanging words with people who are ignorant. I don’t express opinion. What I am telling you are matters of fact. And truth matters. If you climb a ten-storey building and I tell you there is something called gravity, don’t jump out you will die and you say, no, when you are flying down, some angels will use wings and carry you, and because I don’t want you to die, I will put a chain on your waist and chain you somewhere. I won’t let you fall because I know that once you jump out there, you will die.
The delusion you have in your head is not a reality. If you break that chain and jump out, you will simply die and I won’t be surprised that you have died because truth matters. You will see what gravity means.
Everything in life is like that. Humanity is reality. It matters. Anthropology is reality, it matters. Some people may project their idealistic mirror type and begin to blow grammar about them. That is their opinion which does not exist in reality. Truth matters.
Buhari was not an unknown quantity before 2015. He was former head of state, so Nigerians knew him and his antecedents. Is it that you didn’t quite know the man you were praising then or that office changed him?
When you are older, meaning you have acquired knowledge, as you get older, not just older by nonsensical counting in age, there is what you call evolution, there is what you call transformation, and there is what you call development. There is what you call phenomenology, you see that someone that was here today, is there tomorrow. People who talk about religion as metaphors and anecdotes that Nigerians like, they will explain it from their perspective like Saul later becoming Paul.
I knew Buhari by history not as a person, but by what he did – his war against indiscipline then even with the saga of 53 suitcases, the missing money in NNPC, how he executed retroactively the drug boys – I know all that.
But after the man was removed in a coup, and he started running round that he wanted to be a politician, that he had this desire to serve Nigeria, it will not be logical to think that he never learnt anything running up and down. At his age, it is not illogical for him to say I have learnt for example not be a dictator, I am now a democrat. You cannot just dismiss all that with a wave of the hand.
When you do that, then you are not yourself open. You should be open to reason, to logic. He said it and a lot of people challenged him and said it is not true. And then he kept talking and talking and when you then look at him saying it and you look at the other man, Jonathan, it made sense to say, let us give Buhari a chance.
Now, he has got the chance and he messed it up. So, it is not as if the people who said, let us give him a chance are completely stupid or completely right. We can also say yes we made a mistake because he has failed, he is our recommendation, and he has failed. But it made sense to give him chance because he had the opportunity actually to do well if he had come with his party and say okay, gentlemen, let us do what is in this manifesto, let us restructure Nigeria, let everybody go and really do things the way they are because the six regions of Nigeria are actually different nations, different people.
Their cultures are different, their ways of life are different, the people themselves are different, what they eat, drink and wear are different. Their aspirations for the future are different, their ways and means are different.
So, it made sense that everybody in the six regions will be organised to really start developing their area while the federal government is doing a synergy and leveraging kind of job. It makes sense and he could have done that. He could still do that even now that he has written himself in that he won a second term.
But he came and then there were these forces of do the right thing, you are the president, you wanted this job, do it. And then there were people, the parochial, fanatical, hegemonic, demonic forces who were also telling him, come, this is the time we have to take over Nigeria and within six months of his election, the hegemonic, demonic forces won and took him in.
And he is responsible that such forces took him in and that is what his wife, Aisha, is always referring to because there was really a context between the APC people who helped him to get power, who wanted to pursue a progressive agenda and the hegemonic people around him, who thought okay, they would take over Nigeria,
Fulani people thinking that they will take over Nigeria is the climax of folly. If you know Nigeria and analyse it, it will never happen.
But they are succeeding
No, they are not. They will simply one day overstep themselves and get hurt. The Fulani people cannot succeed in taking over Nigeria. It is not possible. Anybody that believes they can doesn’t know Nigeria. A group of two, three million people? Even if they bring their brothers from all over West Africa, they will not be more that 10 million people overrunning a country that Igbo are part of?
It is not possible because you have to go into people’s culture and see what makes them who they are. Even the people in the Middle Belt who used to act as slaves, some of them have got the bad side of injustice because injustice to one is injustice to all and some of them have woken up.
Maybe on January 20, they will remove Governor Samuel Ortom, who is the best governor in the 2015 to 2019 era standing for his people, doing what governance is all about, doing why people elected him. But when you use the Supreme Court to remove him, it doesn’t mean you have won.
The Operation Amotekun in the South West is unravelling. The issue of the Igbo is permanently there. The Igbo can never be suppressed because in their culture, they are republicans, it is in their blood.
The Yoruba who wanted to play hanky-panky, many of them are also beginning to see that this is not leading us anywhere. So, one of these days, the Fulani will overreach themselves through what Buhari is doing with his people because it is not all the Fulani who are doing it. It is him doing it with their name.
And if they do not call him to order, the day he overreaches himself, they will all bear the consequences. Because I asked a Fulani man once, why do you people elect these characters that know next to nothing, why can’t they elect you who is a modern educated man and he said, they can never elect me, they don’t think I am Fulani enough. And from that answer, it means that to be Fulani enough, you have to be medieval, you have to be nasty, hegemonic, carry daggers but this is the 21st century where killing with dagger is a difficult way to kill. There are smarter, simpler ways to kill. And you can wipe out one billion people and yet all the buildings will be standing. This is 21st century.
So, the Fulani that are modern have a responsibility to call Buhari and people around him to order because if they overreach themselves, the Fulani will bear the consequences.
Obasanjo gave a four-step scenario once and he used the Rwanda example to buttress it. Such things can happen. So, the Fulani as an ethnic group does not have what it takes to overrun Nigeria. It will not happen.
The Nigerian army is made up of Nigerians. The bravest, most-skilled and professional among them are not all Fulani. When they use them to begin to kill Nigerian people, the Igbo among them will not agree with them to kill their Igbo brothers, the Yoruba won’t agree to kill Yoruba people.
Setting up Nigerians to kill themselves that happened in 1967 to 1970 may not happen again because this is the era of social media, communication goes freely.
So, the world today is actually different from what it used to be. Every Fulani that means well has a responsibility to call Buhari and the hegemonics and religious fanatics around him to order because they are acting in their name.
Do you have any fears for Nigeria?
People fear when they are ignorant. Fear is not a virtue. When you are knowledgeable, you know everything technically because you know the dynamics of things, the laws that govern them, how things move, and the dialectics.
You know the components that are playing those dialectics and you can project to eternity. So you have a clear picture of things and you decide what the right thing to do is. When to speak truth to help address the situation if people are listening and not blinded or intoxicated by power because power intoxicates ignorant people.
When a knowledgeable man has power, he is thinking of the responsibility of what to do with that power. He sees it as a burden, he sees it as an opportunity to do good. He sees it as an ethical, what some people call categorical imperative, the universality of the goodness of man, such a person cannot be parochial because humanity is one. Nature is one. Life is one. Man is one.
When you do something that favours these four things, it will also be good for you because you are a man, you are a life, you are nature and it will be good for everybody.
That is what knowledgeable people do. But if you are not knowledgeable, you will say Ikechukwu has this land in Mbaise and he has 1000 family members. If I kill him and his 1000 family members, I will take this land. For you to say that, because you are stronger than Ikechukwu, you have not looked behind you to see infinite number of people that are stronger than you that will do exactly the same thing to you. And for you to say that, it means you think land is important. But you go outside there and they try to suffocate you and you can’t breathe air, you will now know that air is more important than land. Or you are in outer space and you go far and you look at this planet earth, and it will be one tiny, pale blue dot, a speck of dust, in cosmic rays, people who know that don’t do certain things.
Ignorance is a disease. And ignorance is a state of being because being and knowing and doing are the same singularity. Your being and what you know and what you are doing are the same thing.
Some people call it spirit. I call it personality. I will try to approach it from psychology and from neuro-science. So, people can change for good, people who want to but people who don’t want to, they can keep fooling themselves and eventually, the situation can unravel.
Look at history. It doesn’t repeat itself but people repeat their foolishness. . But I have no fears at all for Nigeria. Nigeria is a big country.
When I was running my career in Nigerian Breweries, anywhere you go in the world, and you see Nigerians, we are unique, particularly the Igbo. We are very exceptional and talented people. We are everywhere in the world. Somebody has said the igbo is a global race. Very soon, you may probably have more Igbo outside Nigeria than inside Nigeria. So if you begin to mess up with the Igbo in Nigeria, what will you do about the ones outside and who are really high skilled people who send $20 billion home every year? Nothing! And the day they decide to come and ask about what happened to the people that you killed, they can take action.
So, Nigeria will survive certainly. And all these demonic forces that are holding it down, all of them in 1967, they were between 21 years old and probably 33 years. So, 50 years after, they will be 71 years and 83 years. Now, you can look at what some of them did then and say that they were young boys and illiterates who didn’t go to school. And you say okay, forgive them, they were young boys who were misled but you cannot say a man who is 75 and 85 , who is still saying the same nonsense he said 50 years ago when he should have learnt as an adult , you will not say forgive him.
So, most of them that should now be regretting what they did then and begin to come together to find solution to the problems of Nigeria, are actually the ones who are still talking nonsense.
But none of them will live in another 60 years. That is also the good aspect of nature. Another 60 years, none of them will be alive. So, what Nigerians should be making sure of now is to prevent them from continuing messing up and to prevent useless people from taking over from them like it is happening for people in the political arena. Because if it continues like that, one day something will give.
But that doesn’t mean I have fears for Nigeria. I don’t have fears for Nigeria. Nigeria will sort itself out for sure. There will be no problem.