The pro-chancellor of Federal University Of Technology Minna Niger state professor Femi Odekunle says Nigerian leaders, followers don’t have conscience. He stated the procedures in which Nigeria can follow to fight Covid-19.
The Pro-Chancellor, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Niger State, Prof Femi Odekunle, who is also a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, speaks with MUDIAGA AFFE on the implications of the lockdown in states over the coronavirus pandemic, the counter-insurgency war and anti-corruption struggle, among others
What are the implications of this total lockdown of states as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?
In learning from our experiences during the Ebola crisis and with the situation in China, Italy, Spain, the United States, and other countries, the Federal Government decided to act appropriately. It shows that there is a concern for the welfare of Nigerians notwithstanding the economic consequences. However, if we are not careful, we would reap the fruit of our governance responsibility sooner than later because for the past five decades, especially since 1999, our political class has been irresponsible in the way they attend to our socio-economic organisations. This is because, with the situation of the price of crude oil and this lockdown, the economy hereafter is likely to descend to some kind of abyss.
If Lagos and Abuja are already on lockdown, is that not a signal that we are in for a recession?
Although I am a socio-scientist, I do not reckon with the use of the word recession. For example, if you say there is a recession, how come the banks are making profits in hundreds of billions in naira? Ideologically, I do not appreciate that and I do not think we are in that abyss yet going by the definition of a recession as used by economists. My thinking is that unlike the advanced countries, we do not have a solid foundation for our economy and society and that is why the thing will hit us when it comes as an aftermath of this coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdown. I am an old man, but for the past five or six decades I have been hearing of diversification- that we cannot rely on crude oil as our revenue anymore and after so many years I still hear the same thing. I am not an economist, but commonsensically, we do not have a sound socio-economic base as a nation and this is the responsibility of the political class who are selfish.
The President recently addressed the nation over the pandemic where he rolled out some palliatives to cushion the economic shock, what is your reaction to the palliatives?
Things have been wrong over the years. In the US for instance, there is ab-initio, social security which is part of their safety hub for their citizens. So, when they have this kind of crisis they already have a base. What base do we have in Nigeria? Some pensioners are not paid and besides, we do not have unemployment benefits. When you talk about the home-grown-school feeding system, you will wonder why now because the pupils are not in school. So, who will they be feeding? Again, when the Central Bank of Nigeria says they will release money for ABCD, we all know that the apex bank in Nigeria is more for the banks, especially under its current leadership, than the populace. The CBN has been claiming they are giving money for agriculture and the rest of us but from what we hear most of this money is difficult to access by the middle-level people, let alone the poor people. They are only available to the banks, the big corporations and those who are well connected. The President is not an economist, but he has the Presidential Economic Advisory team, I would have preferred that he gave the job of what to do to that team than for the CBN governor to talk about some money to be given out.
Do you think that introducing the home-grown-school feeding programme at a time that pupils are at home will not give room for corruption?
I know the President has integrity but I cannot deny the suspicion that some of this money may be avenues for corruption. After all, our leaders and followers do not seem to have a conscience. Look at the Internally Displaced Persons’ camps all over the country, we have been hearing of diversion of food items and selling them. It is disheartening. So, I share in your suspicion that if we are not careful some of this money may be an avenue for stealing by irresponsible officials.
The FG has also said that there will be food palliatives for the vulnerable in society. Do you think the food items will get to the desired people?
The way society should be organised is not the way the Nigerian society is organised. The fight was lost in the 70s between the leftists and conservatives. Now, we are in a situation of administration and management are no longer talking about the basic principles, ideologies or philosophies that should guide policies, institutions and planning. Even in that situation, responsibility should come in. These responses to the lockdown should have been something that should have been dealt with by the President’s Economic Advisory Team who should be locked up somewhere in Aso Rock dissecting the data and the best way forward considering our economic situation and knowing that we do not have any socio-economic base, not from either this minister or that minister or a CBN governor. As it is, the President was, somehow, under pressure to talk to the nation and in doing this he had to say this on how to manage the virus and I think it was not properly cooked by those who gave the advice. The task should have been given to the Economic Advisory Team.
The World Bank Organisation has raised the alarm over likely food shortages globally if the food supply chain is broken as a result of the lockdown, but we are observing, especially in Lagos and other states. With the scanty food markets that are operational at the moment, don’t you think we may soon be hit by this shortage?
Rural areas are the suppliers of our foodstuffs in Nigeria. Even though the impact of the virus at the moment might not have been experienced in the rural areas, these foodstuffs are moved from the rural to the semi-urban and urban areas. Unfortunately, the security operatives at checkpoints are not discerning enough to take discretionary decisions that will check the free flow of farm produce. Farmers may produce the food but there may be a high degree of wastage than normal at this time due to this transportation problem. The people who will suffer are those in the urban areas. The government could change the methodology by taking charge of the transportation of these foodstuffs from the rural areas to the semi-urban and urban centres. I am aware that fruit sellers and food vendors on the streets in urban areas are being harassed by the police. This should not be so. It is not the President that should come out to tell the police that they should have common-sense to know how to deal with situations.
Do you foresee job losses and what could be the magnitude?
I do not foresee job losses in Nigeria in the magnitude that is being reported, particularly in the US. We have what is considered an unusual rate of unemployment already. So, we are talking about those who had jobs before this pandemic, but the bulk of the people in Nigeria are self-employed. Although economists may differ on this, (but) I am saying categorically that majority of Nigerians are occupied in the informal sector and those in the formal sector, particularly the public servants are not likely to lose their jobs, even when they do not do their job well. The place we are likely to experience loss will be in the private sector where we have the banks and other companies. But I think what the government can do is to apply some palliatives on a corporate level to those private sector institutions.
Until the FG stepped in to stop the planned hike, electricity distribution companies were planning to increase at this crucial time, are they not part of the beneficiaries of government’s palliatives?
The DisCos are beneficiaries of the palliatives given to the private sector. They are corporate ‘robbers’ and yet the government keeps giving them money so that they could keep supplying the little electricity that they supply. For me, it is a kind of blackmail because they see it as an essential service that they are rendering the populace and if the populace does not get it, they hold the government responsible. It is blackmail because the DisCos are now privately-owned. It is like buying a second-hand vehicle and I give the new owner the money to be maintaining the vehicle that is no longer mine and for me, it is big blackmail to government. That is why the government keeps pumping money to them and allowing them to determine the increment of the tariff. I know the Federal Government might have approved the increment before, but it is the coronavirus scourge that is making them suspend it. These people are getting the government’s support because of indirect blackmail.
In the face of this pandemic, the Boko Haram terrorists have continued to strike. They recently ambushed and killed a large number of Nigerian soldiers. What is your reaction to this?
For over eight years, I have been critical of the government’s approach to this fight against Boko Haram. I have heard from middle-level military officers who said that this matter cannot be stopped until some people want it to be stopped. In other words, there is an adage in Yoruba that says “the insect that is eating the vegetable lives inside the vegetable.” What they are saying in effect is that some military and political leaders are participants in the perpetration of the mischief of Boko Haram. There had been claims by the military that the Boko Haram fighters are always getting classified information. It means someone gives them information. But I will have to ignore rumours. If these Boko Haram fighters are backing the Nigerian borders, then we have borders with Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. Why can’t we station our station along with theirs (neighbouring countries) and start pushing them to a common border where someone will be waiting for them. Again, soldiers are meant to liberate, not necessarily to keep, I was thinking that as our soldiers are moving, even if it is one inch per day, they are followed by our mobile (riot) policemen, who were originally set up to deal with riot, like semi-military men and they could take over those communities that have been won in collaboration with the Department of State Services men for intelligence. Unfortunately, about 40 per cent of our policemen are engaged in what I call ‘mei-guard’ jobs. They are guarding the elites, some of whom are criminals who ought to be in jail. These mobile policemen should be raked up to assist the military in the war front, not necessarily to do the fighting, but immediately a town is secured, the mobile (riot) policemen should take charge of the place while the military will move on to another place along with the DSS intelligence officers. Unfortunately, most governors have no fewer than five DSS men and many mobile (riot) policemen around them. What kind of wastage of deployment is that when we have these Boko Haram fighters menacing us? If we are not careful, they (Boko Haram) may infiltrate the country the more. However, with this lockdown situation, I think the activities of Boko Haram fighters could be reduced.
The Federal Government recently introduced a de-radicalisation programme for repentant Boko Haram fighters, some of whom were freed not too long ago. There is the belief that some of these so-called repentant Boko Haram fighters have infiltrated the military and are leaking classified information, what is your take on this programme?
When we started killing armed robbers, my argument as criminologists was that they should not kill all the armed robbers because an armed robber is sometimes a smart person. It is possible that after screening him you could turn him to be an agent for the police to use his (the armed robber) brain to curb robbery. So, it is possible that you could de-radicalise people you have captured and re-radicalise them. These people were radicalised to the Boko Haram philosophy, so, you have to re-radicalise them to the interest of the society. To do that, it will be good if it is for only those who come back voluntarily after they have been captured and quarantined and after you have had some experts (psychologists, sociologists, criminologists, and psychiatrists) to interact with them. You then look at the ones that will be of benefit to you rather than the so-called general de-radicalisation programme. De-radicalisation is not new just like the concept of community policing. It has been on since the time of (Sabo) Dasuki as the National Security Adviser. I do not believe in a general de-radicalisation because it could lead to the fear you have raised. After all, it will lead to danger in the Armed Forces. I will prefer that when they are captured, they should be isolated and screened over a period and subject them to test before they are re-absorbed into the society.
Why do you think foreign countries that are worst hit by this COVID-19 are evacuating their citizens from Nigeria?
You can never trust some of these countries, but I will look at it from their national ideologies that wherever their citizens are they will look after them. They are not people like developing countries that will abandon their citizens in the face of threats.
Over the years, the political class has always pointed the need for the diversification of the nation’s economy, but it has not been done. What do you think is the hindering factor?
The hindering factor is what I told you about-the fight for the ideological soul of the country in the late 70s just before the 1979 Constitution. You could either have a society organised in such a way that the vested interest of the society in the interest of the collective over and above the interest of the individual. There are many ways of organising a society. It can be feudal and theocracy like Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc; direct capitalist like the United States of America, among others. When Nigeria was still in a faux, the majority of the elites decided that they were going to put the interest of the individual over and above the interest of the collective. The argument is that if everybody can look after its interest, the interest of the collective will be addressed, but only a tiny fraction have been able to even look after their interests using the power of the state to increase their resources and political power to their gain. This kind of thing affects every area of our lives. Whether public or private sectors, their interests are first and foremost individual and not collective. Look at our religious and political leaders, it is first their interests. They only use religion, ethnicity, and community as a cover. The future of our children has been destroyed by corruption. Look at the schools, hospitals, offices, and roads. These are results of individual interests overriding collective interest. That is why corrupt governors are finding their way to the Senate and corrupt ministers becoming governors. That is why also the Senate has not passed a law on the death penalty for corruption but they have done that for armed robbers, kidnappers and terrorists.
Lately, a lot of high profile Nigerians have been convicted and sent to jail over corruption. To what extent do you think the fight against corruption is succeeding?
I will say yes to a certain extent. This is because people are more aware of the humongous nature of the corruption that is going on. Similarly, the anti-corruption agencies are more emboldened to pursue than before. Again, a lot of money has been recovered. A lot of high-profile people, including ex-governors are cooling their heels in the prisons while some senators still have their cases in court. Well, people can make accusations that there are other people in high places that are corrupt, but more concrete proofs are needed. In all of these, nobody has been able to say that the President has acquired this or that but what they can accuse him of is not doing due diligence to some of his appointees or some of their behaviours in office. We would, however, continue to play our advisory roles as members of the anti-corruption committee. Those born between 1980 till date do not know much about honesty and integrity because what they met on the ground is cutting corners, greed and breakthroughs. What we are doing is to show them that danger by way of what the government is doing and what is expected of them. It does not, however, mean that we are successful to the degree I expect. It seems we are dealing with it in the concept of administration and management and not rooting it out. If the fight had been ideological, then there is no way somebody like a former Minister of the Federal Capital Territory should have been allowed to contest election let alone becoming a governor of a state. It gives a wrong impression to the public about the fight against corruption. How did the senators who have corruption cases hanging on them also became senators? If we have an ideological rooting to the matter, that should not have occurred. The democracy should have been moderated and also the Rule of Law. Finally, this corruption has been going on for over 50 years and exponentially getting worst. It’s only being fought in the last four years, what can a four-year fight do in the context of a 50-year-old problem? One of the success stories in the fight against corruption is the recovery of looted funds. It is a process. At a point in time, money was being laundered abroad, but now there is no more room for that. All the so-called billionaire bankers who we are celebrating today made their money through this round-tripping. It is because they can no longer launder money that is why you have many houses in Abuja that are unoccupied. I did a study in eight African countries and discovered that there is a new system which is ‘internal money laundering’ whereby because they cannot send the money abroad anymore they use it to buy property. That is why in Abuja you have many plazas, mansions that are not occupied. We are also attacking that now. Rome was not built in a day.
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