hief Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) is a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). He speaks in this interview on the 2023 general election and the kind of President needed to move the country forward. He also shares his thoughts on the Electoral Act Bill and other issues. TEMIDAYO AKINSUYI brings the excerpts:
With Nigeria preparing for the 2023 general election, what kind of challenges do you think the next administration is going to face and how would they solve the challenges?
The expectation from this government with the time it has cannot be much again. It is like setting an agenda and asking questions of what would this new presidential aspirants or candidates do when they emerge, how would they confront the fragile nature of our economy, the fragile nature of our political process and the fragile nature of our security situation. Across the six zones, clearly, the security challenges are such that we can say that Nigeria is in a low-grade civil war, there is no question about that but we must really carry on somehow. So, one area I thought we should look at, which is often ignored and it has pained me very much having been in this legal policy work in the last 30 years that little attention is paid to law. You can see that Nigeria is seriously challenged because if we are paying a debt to revenue profile of N90 if you earn N100 for debt and you have N10 left, how do you run your family.
That is Nigeria’s situation right now. Look at the budget of last year and the budget of this year, you will see that almost 70 per cent of this year’s budget would be borrowed. So, that challenge of how do we sustain the nation is paramount because all the economic parameters are in red hot zones; inflation is high, food prices are up, yet there is a lot that can be done. People might not really understand that in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) circle, there are 45 key drivers of growth. Supposing government revenues are to stop entirely, people would be shocked to know that it will not affect us because Nigeria’s contribution in terms of revenue to the GDP is only five per cent, which means that it is the private sector and the informal sector that drive the economy. But the government has a big role to play. It is what the government does that shapes the policy and drives the private sector. So, if the government is policy challenged, it is a big issue.
Why is it that in spite of all, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), not me, says that Nigeria has $900 billion worth of dead assets. Now if those assets are to be liquidized, we would not have revenue challenges again. There is one I can refer to immediately, which is just down the road there and this one is the Federal Secretariat. The Federal Secretariat is worth about N150 billion. Ajaokuta Steel Company is there and there are all kinds of assets around Nigeria that the PwC did in their report, which they titled Liquidizing Dead Assets in Nigeria. So, our problem is it that policy drivers to grow the economy are not being utilized properly.
You have talked much about the agenda for the presidential aspirants; what kind of person do you think Nigeria needs at this point in time?
We need a driver in the shape of someone like Lee Kuan Yew. We need someone who understands what the issues are because if we have someone who doesn’t understand the issues, it will be difficult to have aides. What will aides do?
If you have a very good crop of aides, they can’t assist you if you are deficit. So, the first thing is that the leader must be able to understand the issues. Of course, he would need assistants but he would have to understand the issues. Look at President Joe Biden of the United States, he has a clear agenda of what he wants to do and he gets people who would fit into that process and assist him.
So, point number one is that the leader we want must have the type of vision and defined characteristics that understand how to run a complex country like Nigeria as well as how to harness the resources. But what I find is that most members of our political class have no clue on how to find a model and part of what it is and in my experience mixing with politicians, I find out that they have no idea that law is a growth driver.
In fact, it is very shocking to me that the connection is not there. For instance, every policy that drives the country forward is based on credit because you never can have enough cash to buy a car or to buy a house. So, in advanced countries what happens is that there is a mortgage system, so that people working in different places will take their letters of employment and go to the bank and then the mortgage is given.
You know that is not possible here. Now, why is it not possible here? Take this building, for instance, I want to get a loan from the bank, the first time the bank is going to ask me is, how do I intend to pay back the loan I want to take? And I said I have a house at 10A Ilabere Avenue and they ask: Where is the title document? I don’t have it. I don’t have it because the land registry in Alausa is incompetent. It takes six to seven years to get a title in Lagos State. Now, if that happens, it means that this house is dead capital.
It has capital in the sense that it’s worth N400 million but it cannot multiply itself into the system because there is no title. So, in economic terms, we refer to it as dead. Now, take all the houses in Lagos, the pricing of all the houses in Lagos is $4.3 trillion yet Governor Sanwo-Olu is looking for N1.3 trillion. But if he is to fix the land registry that is under him and remove himself, that is what the law says as the person who signs because he is too busy and create an executive agency and someone is there to attend to people who need titles 24/7, he would create an instant credit market. Why they don’t do it? I don’t know but the law is there to do it.
It is the Land Use Act that gives the government powers to issue certificates but it has become so bureaucratized. I have a title document in Alausa in the last six years. Supposed I want to borrow money on that property down the road there, I can’t because I can’t go and tell the bank to give me N200 million, so that I can pull this out. Then as I pull it out, the effect is that lawyers, surveyors, estate agents and the whole chain in the housing sector get busy and if you multiple it and all the guys who have properties in Lagos are also busy, then you will see the impact on the economy. So, that is what law can do.
If you look at the discussion on the 2023 presidential election the focus has been on place of origin, education and such issues. Are you saying that those issues are not important to the realities of Nigeria today?
It is not important.
You are saying that the discussion on northern or southern presidency is not important?
It is not. It is a game politicians play to hold on to power. If you are in power or around power, I’m not going to invite you or expand the room, so, what politicians do, I may be wrong but what I see them do is to use ethnicity, religion and language to keep us divided whereas they are enjoying. And that is why I like Kingsley Moghalu’s philosophy. I personally do not care where the Nigerian president comes from. I’m more interested in what he delivers and I can assure you that if you go out on the streets and ask people, they are not going to be interested where you come from. Nigerians believe that any man who can provide jobs, food, healthcare, education is the man we want.
I think it makes sense. Your question also presupposes that you have been brainwashed by the political process to think that zoning is important. Yes, zoning is important to the extent that we are diverse people. Even when I was in NBA, I also talked about inclusion but not to sacrifice merit. So, if I have a choice of choosing between a northern president who I can guarantee would deliver and an Igbo president who I can’t guarantee, I can vote for the northern president.
I will vote for him and I’m sure Nigerians would support me. Let us take the China model for example; do you think that a typical Chinese man is interested in democracy? He is interested in a policy that pulled over one billion people out of poverty. If it is workable, why change the game? So, we have to interrogate ourselves and ask if this democracy has not produced the fruit, why we are still practising it. So, I will not dismiss zoning but I will not give it the kind of importance I see the political parties give to it.
There is a school of thought that believes that it is not really about policies but the willingness of those in power to implement the policies that we have?
That is what I just said. I identified the policy challenges and gave you some examples. I am not aware but how many of our governors or any president has a head of policy? What they have is the head of information and strategy but if I am to ever advise anybody, I would advise the person to abolish the Ministry of Information because it is not needed.
What you need is the Director of Communications in the government house or in Aso Rock. So, policy is crucial to performance and what I have seen in studying the situation is that either there is a lack of knowledge of policy and its impact on development or there is knowledge of policy but there is failure of implementation.
So, I termed this policy challenge. And the point that I have been making also is that we are not at all a poor country because aggregating the potentials in our growth drivers, we can be self-sufficient. And you can see one area policy has worked in fairness to the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele; the rice policy.
We are rice sufficiency in less than two years and if the energy shown on self-sufficiency on rice goes into the gas master plan, we will be sufficient as well. The gas master plan was formulated in 2008 and yet we don’t have self-sufficiency.
So, clearly, it is workable. What is this gas master plan? I will recommend you all read it. The gas master plan talks about a national gas infrastructure. For instance, the OB3 coming from Edo running across River Niger going to Port Harcourt will power up to eight states. There are about three main drivers and then we have a regional gas master plan called the West African Gas Pipeline. One of the things that makes Vladimir Putin who he is and tough is gas because he has a hold of Europe and if he cuts the gas, Europe is dead.
Why are we not doing our own gas; that is the question? My concern is that these presidential aspirants will implement an active gas plan because crude oil is going out. Would they implement a digitalization of their land registry, so that it is not a manual process because if you do so, you are going to release a lot of capital into the system?
Looking at the enormous challenges you have identified, is there any short term policy plan for any president to move the economy forward?
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The president who is coming in would have to have a clear idea of what he wants to do, he must have vision and knowledge. If you have vision and knowledge, you will know the kind of economic policy that you want to implement. One of the challenges we have in Nigeria is that we have not find the nature of our economic policy. So, are we a capitalist country or socialist or mixed, it is unclear because the constitution says the commanding heights of the economy would be retained by the states, clearly privatization has shown that it is not correct.
As a president, we expect a clear economic philosophy because if you don’t have clear economic philosophy you can’t move forward. China has a clear economic philosophy, which is state economic nationalism. So, they retain the commanding height of the economy but allow the private sector to drive it.
Everything you see in China is state-owned but their president is not appointing the board members. He allows the private sector to run at private-sector salaries, so there is efficiency. A president must come and say what policy he wants to adopt. Once he decides that, the next thing he would ask himself is what do I want to do to refloat the economy. And a president who wants to work will not work with an inefficient National Assembly.
I hope you know that there is no Nigerian leader that has never adopted a legislative policy. None! It is very disheartening. They think it is the National Assembly that generates legislation, no it is the president. That is why if you go back to Barack Obama, he generated all the critical bills, not the National Assembly. So, when the National Assembly generates legislation, they are not following the president’s agenda. The president who is coming in should have massive legislation on infrastructure, education, health and gas.
If he has it, then he drives it and you will see that he controls legislation, not the National Assembly. It is unfortunate that the National Assembly or the states House of Assembly controls legislation. How many times do you find presidents or governors presenting draft bills to lawmakers? So, I would expect that the person who is campaigning to be president would tell us what his legislative agenda would be because it is the legislative agenda that turns the wheel of the process and generate revenue.
Knowing that our politicians don’t keep to their campaign promises, do you think that Nigerians would believe the politicians this time around? Secondly, our political education is very low, how do you explain all of these theoretical ideas to people on the streets?
The problem we have is that I’m not sure whether we are at a point where we can say that the voting class decides the vote. We see a situation where the National Assembly, which is very odd to me, is directly interested in the electoral process and controlling it. I always have the view that the constitution makes the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the schedule where the power is prescribed to conduct and supervise the elections.
I don’t think it is the place of the National Assembly to say whether or not we can have election results transmitted electronically because it is not possible for Chelsea FC playing Arsenal FC to be part of the referee because they will rig it in their favour. When the National Assembly is taking part in the framework of the election, it is a problem because they are going to do it to favour them.
And it is a big shame that INEC has not risen. I wrote to INEC and said you must rise to the constitutional responsibility bestowed on you by the constitution. I think INEC has abdicated its authority to the National Assembly. In some cases, the Supreme Court struck down some parts of the Electoral Act in terms of timing for the election and all that but the first thing is to really have an independent INEC performing its functions, so that people are not beholding the National Assembly that will make the law to suit themselves.
I don’t see why we would not have a fairer process if at the polling booths; the votes are counted and transmitted to a transparent process where the officials and the politicians play no role.
It will strengthen the voting process and it will give more voice to those who vote. Right now, the voting class does not really have a say. Don’t assume that because you want to vote that your vote counts and that came out clearly in the Atiku Abubakar and Muhammadu Buhari court case where a transparent process would mean that the referee will not be involved and take part in the dispute. The duty of the referee is to file the papers to the chairman of the review commission, which is the court but INEC took an active part.
So, we are not at a point where a voter has the assurance that his vote counts. The damage that does is that the people seeking your votes don’t care about what they promise you because they know that you are irrelevant. That is why there is a disconnect between the voters and the government because they know that once they find a way to go through, then why do I have to take the pains to fulfill the promises when you did nothing. I have thought about Nigeria’s democratic consolidation and I have always said that our democracy scholars talked about our democracy in four processes.
We all recalled that in 1998, we were an authoritarian country that is step one. Then with the Abdulsalami Abubakar Constitution, we became semi-authoritarian and then we began to move to the point where we begin to see a semblance of institutions like the media and civil society; that is where we are today. In fact, I am not sure whether it is a semi-authoritarian or a liberal democracy but we have not reached a liberal democratic stage.
A good example of how a liberal democracy can shot out illegal processes is President Donald Trump. President Trump, apart from being white, was a typical African politician but the system, including the 56 judges he appointed taught him a lesson. He filed 60 cases and lost all.
In Nigeria, that would not have happened. So, unfortunately, we do not have a vibrant voting class that can make demands. I have been here in the last 40 years and I have never heard or seen any person either at the Senate level or councillorship level coming to do the usual canvassing of votes. Nobody has come to sell their ideas. So, there is disconnect and that is the challenge and that is why we are wallowing in these problems.