Chief Dubem Onyia
Former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Chief Dubem Onyia believes that the response of the Buhari administration to the challenges facing the nation is slow and that something needs to be urgently done about it. In this interview with PAMELA JAMES, he speaks on the dwindling fortunes of the nation’s economy among other issues.
What are your thoughts on the state of affairs in Nigeria today? Are you worried with the way things are going in the country?
My reaction is simple. We have gone into deep recession and I am absolutely worried about the economic indices giving us some negative signals. It is about N500 to the dollar; again, the interest rate is double digit. The inflation rate too is double digit. The rate of unemployment has hit the roof. So, when are we going to start getting our acts together? For the first year of this administration, it kept on blaming the previous government but we are into the second year. There does not seem to be light at the end of the tunnel and it is very worrisome. This is because there are people who graduated over 10 years ago who have not secured a job neither are they employable any longer. If what this government can give to Nigerians is the stabilisation of power and allow the private sector to take off from there, we will get somewhere. We are talking about industrialisation and investors; how can investors come to Nigeria when they cannot even remit the proceeds of their investment. I am worried but I hope that this government has some magic somewhere that they can use to rekindle the economy and get us out of this recession. It is not a question of building roads but a question of how do we allow the private sector to take over the economic drive of this nation. It is the duty of the government to give us policies and it is the duty of the private sector to power the economy. Today, the fight against corruption is at the front burner, I agree with that but the fight is selective. It is not catalysing all the indices that need the economy to grow and that, we need to get us out of the recession. If you have one million naira today, what you are supposed to get is less than $2,000 whereas two years ago, one million would give you about $4,000 and where do we go from there? Every year, we keep churning out graduates after the National Youth Service Corps. Where do we take them to? I am worried but I hope that government has a secret programme somewhere that would take us out of the woods.
You said that privatisation of the economy will help us out of the situation but can you reconcile your position with what is happening in the power sector?
That effort to privatise the power sector, was it genuine, was it holistic and transparent? If you call any disco, I will tell you who is behind that disco. When you want to privatise, you know what to do. If you do a transparent privatisation, you will get result. One interest group or the other controls every disco in this country. I do not call that genuine and transparent privatisation. The government knows what to do when they want to tackle the issue of power. There must be a holistic policy towards solving the power problem in Nigeria. There is solar and I watched on television, where the Vice President was powering some villages with solar. Let the government abrogate this so called privatisation of the power sector done in the past.
Successive leaders have failed the nation with many thinking that Nigeria is gradually becoming a failed state. Do you agree with this school of thought?
There are certain factors that led to the situation we have presently. The question is –how many people in this country are truly patriotic. Most people do not even know our national anthem or the pledge. The only time we believe in this project called Nigeria is when we are playing football. I got my ambassador in South Korea to produce the Nigerian badge that I introduced to the Federal Executive Council through the then Chief of Staff, Gen Abdullahi so that the badge would continue to remind them of their country, Nigeria. This is because without the country called Nigeria, you cannot be president, governor, minister and so on. But how many Nigerians now have that badge in their house? We have to believe in the project called Nigeria before we talk about being a united country. Not many people believe in this project called Nigeria. It is only those who are in government that pretend to love Nigeria but by the time they leave government, they’ll start doing their thing. We need to believe in Nigeria. It is to your tenth oh! Israel and what you can get out of the country. It is not about what you can contribute to Nigeria. Let me give you an example, the president went to the National hospital and I was happy he went there. He came out and till today, I do not know the result of that visit. It is easy for Mr President to jet out of this country to get medical attention but it only shows that he has no confidence in the medical facilities of this country. And if you ask Mr President how much money he has spent abroad seeking medical attention, it would be outrageous. Why not just equip one or two hospitals in Nigeria. The budget of the National Hospital is only N170 million. Can’t we pick one hospital in Nigeria and make it a centre of medical excellence and we have brains in and out of the country. It would even earn foreign exchange for us. Even people from other parts of Africa and Europe can come. Look at how many Nigerians travel to India, Ghana, South Africa, Europe and other parts of the world. And you want to tell me that we are patriotic about this country called Nigeria? I do not think so. We are deceiving ourselves. If we have a united country, with what is happening today, people would have rioted but it cannot happen because we are not united. We are segmented and regionalised. Everything is ethnic-based. Today, it is the Niger Delta, tomorrow, it is Biafra, Afenifere or Oodua. It is very annoying. I do not have any other country; this is the only country that I know.
Some people believe in restructuring; some in self-determination, some in fiscal federalism and regionalism; where do you belong?
I believe in restructuring this country. Let us have true federalism. There is no reason why some people should have more local governments than the other. I do not see why some zones should have more states than the other. I have always said it that apart from oil, Nigeria has all the minerals to be a super power. If you allow each state to take over the minerals found in its area, you would see that there would be less tension. What is it? I have been a member of the National Assembly twice in my lifetime. When I was at the National Assembly, we had vehicles in the pool and apart from the committee chairman, if you wanted to go anywhere, they would assign you a vehicle and you go and come back. But today, each member of the 360 at the House of Representatives has one car attached to him and after six months or so, they would monetise it themselves and buy another one. So, we are not living a realistic life. We are not a developing country; we are still underdeveloped. We behave as if we are already a developed country. The gap between the rich and the poor is so wide that Nigeria does not even have a middle class. Let us be honest to ourselves. We must cut our coat according to our cloth. The minimum wage in Nigeria today is still N18000. If you are using an SUV, you cannot even fuel it with that amount.
Recently, Prof Ango Abdullahi who is the spokesman of the Northern Elders Forum said that the North is ready for break up if the need arises. What is your take on the statement at this time from a statesman like him?
Prof Abdullahi is my very good friend and my political associate. I have high regard and respect for him. He is entitled to his opinion but that goes to buttress what I said earlier that there is no unity of purpose in this country. If there is unity of purpose, he would not make that kind of statement. Sao tome and Principe is only about 200,000 people in population which is not up to one local government in Nigeria. If it is necessary, we could have a referendum to know if we should have confederation, true federalism or whether we are going to go our separate ways. One thing I can assure you is that there would never be civil war in this country again.
You were once the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, how would you assess the image of Nigeria today in the comity of nations?
Let me talk about the basics first. If you go to any of our missions outside this country, they are starved of funds. They cannot even pay their staff. Secondly, two years into the life of this government, ambassadors are yet to be sent out. It means that we are under-represented in each of the countries of the world. Nigeria is being represented by the Charge d’Affairs which is not a full representation. At that level, we have limitations. There are certain decisions that the Charge d’ Affairs cannot take. When we came in, in 1999, the President was sworn in, in May and before August, all the ambassadors had left Nigeria to their various nations. Today, we are still talking about sending ambassadors out two years into the life of this administration. Remember that this government has only this year to perform because from next year, it will be elections fever. The ambassadors would be recalled to participate in politics and they would not even stay up to one year before they come back to Nigeria to participate in the politics of the next elections. Let me just give you the last example and you would now judge whether we are doing well or not. This month, Nigeria vied for a position in the African Union; commissioner for peace and security and Algeria beat us to it. It had never happened before. It never happened under our watch from 1999 to 2003. We had an undersecretary given to us and the first thing we did, was to start the process of ensuring that our candidate got the seat. Ambassador Lawrence Agubuzu won that seat. He went to the AU and served as the Secretary General. But just two weeks ago, we lost a seat to Algeria. You know the position of Nigeria in West Africa and the African continent. Do not ask me why we lost. That answers your question. If we are doing well, you should know. We came in when Nigeria was a pariah state after the military government. Within six months of the administration of Obasanjo, Nigeria was acceptable in the comity of nations. It did not take long before Nigeria became a force to be reckoned with not only in West Africa, Africa but the world. But today, the reverse is the case. Today, we have ECOWAS parliament in Nigeria; do you know how we got that. We contested with Ghana because Ghana wanted ECOWAS parliament in Ghana, they said we already have the commission in Nigeria and that we should allow them have the parliament. We got to a point where we came to a stalemate. We referred it to the president and after briefing President Obasanjo, we agreed that we would go home with the parliament and we did. That is how we have the ECOWAS parliament in Nigeria today. We gave Ghana the monitoring unit. That is foreign politics for you. There was a time that Muammar Ghadafi was funding rebels in West Africa and Africa and president Obasanjo went to convince Ghadafi to allow Africa and especially West Africa to have true democracy. That was how we were able to intervene in Niger. We located the Niger military Head of State and had election put in place and produced the first civilian Head of State. The issue is about you knowing what to do. With what we did then and what is happening now, you should be able to judge whether we are doing well or not.
Recently, former President Obasanjo expressed support for a Nigerian president of Igbo extraction. Having served under him, what is your take on his disposition?
With due respect to President Obasanjo, he was my boss and my president and I have tremendous respect and regard for him. I supported his presidency and we worked together, we only disagreed on the issue of third term. But what I would not accept from President Obasanjo is what is called Greek gift. Let President Obasanjo not use the Igbo nation to fight his personal war with anybody. Let Obasanjo leave the Igbo nation alone. The country rests on a tripod before the six geo-political zones were created- the Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba. Where were the Igbo when Obasanjo decided that somebody from a different place would run with late president Umaru Yar’ Adua? We have had the Hausa/Fulani become presidents in this country; we have had the Yoruba become president in this country but the Igbo are still yet to produce the president of this country. When he brought somebody from the South-South, were the Igbo not around then? Or is it that Obasanjo did not realise that the Igbo were part of Nigeria. Please, let him not use the Igbo nation to fight his personal war with some individuals or any Nigerian. Let Obasanjo allow the Igbo to be; we have had enough trauma from him. We would be president when God wants us to be president. We do not need anybody to fight for the presidency. After all, you talked about what Ango Abdullahi said; if we find out that we are not wanted in this country, we’ll‑ know what to do.