A former Director General of the News Agency of Nigeria, Akin Osuntokun, has dismissed claims that only southerners will benefit if the country is restructured. He spoke with Tobi Soniyi and Segun James
The call for the restructuring of the nation has become strident. With the call for a Biafran republic and the ultimatum from the northern youth to the Igbos to quit the north, what is your take?
Yes, I have always been an advocate of restructuring. What is happening now is the momentum that has been generated by those two circumstances you refer to. This makes an adequate response more urgent. There is no doubting the fact that Nigeria needs a shock therapy. Personally, I don’t see any option available other than restructuring. But, deliberately, wittingly or unwittingly, people chose to misunderstand or politicise the call for restructuring.
Let’s make it clear. Restructuring for me is not that I want to be apart from the Igbos or the northern people. No. I am looking at the configuration of the present structure. The states for instance, are not viable units of development. I will like anybody to take me up on that proposition; and I’m inviting challenges from anybody to tell me that those 36 states we have are viable units of development. A very significant indication that they are far from being units of development is that they are not self-sustaining.
States that have been created for years are lacking in total capacity for self-sustenance through internally generated revenue. How can anybody tell me now that Ekiti state is a viable unit of development? I’m from Ekiti state, as a matter of fact, when it was being carved out of Ondo state, the voice of reasons made this argument that there was no need for the creation of the state, instead you are just adding to the liability and burden of the people. The point I’m making is that, once these states are created, they will start asking for take-off grant. What we have is a feeding-bottle kind of federalism. It is an absurdity. This is not how Nigeria or any society that aims to develop should function; the lack of autonomous capacity for self-sustenance argues against those states remaining as units of government or development. The other side of course is the centre; the obsession with the power at the centre. The political instability that has plagued this country since 1966 has to do with the obsession for the power in the centre. That is one aspect of the restructuring call we have to attend to. The powers, the functions and the resources that have been lumbered with the powers at the centre are too enormous. The federal government is not in a capacity to perform those roles effectively. What we are asking for, is the optimal and most effective way to utilise our resources; that is all what the struggle for restructuring is all about.
So the call is not about anybody or people. The call applies to everybody including Ekiti state where I come from as it does to Anambra or Yobe state. Take Yobe state for instance, it is in the northeast, but if those six states in the northeast were to come together to form one unit of government, that potential zonal government will be far more efficient in the utilisation of the resources that are available. First, it will cut down on recurrent expenditure, duplication, replication and wastage of resources in running the government. I heard the minister of finance say it the other day that the ratio of recurrent expenditure to capital expenditure is 90 to 10 percent. Is that a formula for development? These are the things that we are talking about. For me, Biafra is of no essence. I see it as an extreme act of frustration with the system. Every Nigerian, one way or the other, is frustrated with the status quo.
So, what we are proposing, is to demonstrate good faith and goodwill with one another, and every part of this country stands to gain from it. The only area that is not fair is the centre. The centre we have now is only useful for nepotism and discriminatory support. It is designed for arbitrariness, for lack of accountability in the application and utilisation of Nigeria’s resources. This lack of accountability is why they should be privatised. Today, you appoint one managing director and in six months you appoint another. These appointments have become instruments of patronage. That is all they are useful for.
But there is a counter argument that the problem of the country is not restructuring but corruption. For instance, if we have a regional government as you suggested and the zonal governor ends up stealing what six governors were stealing before, it will still end up the same way?
No. It will not end up in the same way. The point you are making can be addressed proactively. In any case, the simple answer to your question is that the structure will make it impossible or constrain the hands of whoever wants to steal from doing so. First and foremost, the level of scrutiny and accountability and oversight on the resources of the potential northeast region will be higher than the present structure. Presently, each of the 36 states in the country can be easily manipulated. There is no way you will have six states coming together and people will not demand higher level of scrutiny and accountability. It will result in greater political competitiveness. The political leadership that is going to result from that level of coming together is going to be superior to what you have now. The application of resources is going to be more efficient. Today you have University of Ekiti, you have University of Osun. But when you come together, you merge all of these mushroom universities together and make them satellite campuses of a greater university. The problem now is that each of the states does not have the capacity, and it has been proven, to make a university what it should be. What you have now are glorified secondary schools being paraded as university.
I’m not saying that corruption is going to evaporate into the air; we are still going to have it, but the structural constraints within that level of government will constrain anyone disposed to corruption. Look, if the average population of each state is six million, then you are going to contend with more people, that will be a source of pressure on you not to be corrupt.
Secondly, if the source of the revenue of the state is internally generated, the people will compel you to be accountable, but if it is from the federal purse in Abuja, then people are not bothered because it is not their money.
How will this be structured?
The restructuring we are going to have surely will be as a result of compromise. I am not going to impose my view on anybody. Along the way, we are all going to come together in goodwill to determine what will be. For without goodwill it will not work. Don’t let me re-invent the wheel. The report of the 2014 Confab set up by the Jonathan’s government is there. Very elastic! It is the height of the instrument of compromise. The good thing about the report is that all the resolutions there-in were adopted by consensus. It got a buy-in from all sections of the country, it accommodated everybody’s position. I’m not in opposition to impose my own view on restructuring on anybody but the meaning of restructuring is not more than true federalism. Be what you say you are; and of cause, the issue of devolution and decentralisation of power.
That brings me to the question of resources. If six states from a region come together to form a unit yet they still end up sharing money from the resources from the Niger Delta, won’t we be back at the same situation?
Let me tell you the reason why I want to de-emphasise that aspect. It is one of the most contentious aspects. Realistically, if you had done fiscal federalism right from the word go, it will lead to a reduction in what they get presently. This is the contentious point, but there should be a compromise somewhere; a give and take situation. My own proposition for that is this; you might have a ten year window in which you retain the revenue allocation as it is today. The only one you will tamper with is the allocation to the centre. Take away from the centre and give it back to the states. What the states are getting presently, let them continue to get for the next 10 years in order to acclimatise and develop the internal capacity of the states to be self sustaining.
What I am proposing will require the spirit of sacrifice from the people and states of the Niger Delta. Well, not only Niger Delta alone, but also Lagos state. It will be a spirit of compromise and reasoning together in good faith as it was done at the confab.
Don’t you think that embarking on restructuring when some section is calling for secession is very dangerous, most especially at this time?
I don’t think so. I think it is the resistance to restructure or any constitutional review of the state that is breeding any secessionist agitation. That is all. The only way to pre-empt these agitations is to address these issues in a comprehensive and meaningful manner that takes the views of everybody from every part of the country into consideration. Like as I said, we are not re-inventing the wheel, this was what happened at the National Confab about three years ago. Restructuring will not lead to secession but as a matter of fact, it will end it. So there is no basis for that kind of fear. But to refuse to do anything about the present status quo is what in itself that is fuelling the agitations.
Let’s now talk about politics. There is this news making the rounds that you may be going for the governorship in Ekiti. How true is this and under which platform?
Well, I think that news is being peddled by people who believe that I should be contesting. But the truth is that there are lots of factors that you should take into consideration before going for that position. For me, the best position to adopt is to de-emphasise individual ambition. For me, people see governorship like a coronation. If all you want to do by becoming the governor is to serve, then all this inordinate ambition on the part of many shouldn’t be there. But as we know it, even though it is part of the problem, becoming the governor of a state under the present system is like becoming an emperor who can dish out patronage the way he wants while indulging in epicurean lifestyle to your heart’s desire. You can acquire as much money as you can. But, as of today, I have no such ambition.
But of course, I cannot wish it off. If the stars are aligned together for me to proceed along that path, surely I will contest. I am available to do so. But I’m not crazy about anything. For me, it’s no big deal.
Ekiti governor, Ayo Fayose has said that he is headed for the courts over his unjust removal from office during his first term and that he may also contest for president. What is your reaction?
Well, it is now a legal issue. You will have to go and fight that one out at the courts. But I know people say it that once you are sworn in twice you cannot be sworn in again.
I think it is the resistance to restructure or any constitutional review of the state that is breeding secessionist agitation. That is all. The only way to pre-empt these agitations is to address these issues in a comprehensive and meaningful manner that takes the views of everybody from every part of the country into consideration.