Presidential candidate of the Youth Party of Nigeria, Mr. Rex Adebanjo thinks it is time for the youths to articulate their involvement and objective in governance. He spoke with Nseobong Okon-Ekong on the capacity of Nigerian youths to bridge the fault lines of religion and ethnicity, while advancing the country to the next level of development
How did you become involved in politics, your name can hardly be associated with political affairs
I have a degree in Philosophy from the University of Ife. That was the era when you had a lot of student activism. We were politically conscious about where the nation was going. We were part of that generation when the Babangida era came and shut down schools. That was where our political consciousness was formed. I had to go abroad. Over there, I was always thinking how things done right and how to provide similar solutions in Nigeria. Over a period of time, I actually created the jobs and ideas to bring back to Nigeria, which focused on the core things I thought was the problem in Nigeria, security, power and education and I came up with solutions for them. I talked about my background to make you see how the evolution to the present effort in this political space came about. In the course of coming back I tried to work with the government to propagate education. It was an e-learning platform, using solar power. It was quite innovative and it was a tremendous experience, I just saw how the system is almost built to fail. It was a fantastic idea. It had the support of the government, yet the procurement system itself just made the thing elusive. The idea was that maybe I could actually go into private enterprise and fund this as a Corporate Social Responsibility. At the same time, I observed the landscape that I left. I always score Nigeria before and after Abacha. The landscape had changed when I came back.
In the era I grew up, student union groups were advocates of good governance and they led people into taking action. Now you never hear anything happen, they are compromised. No one seems to talk about the values we all thought were fundamental-things like free education. I don’t know how anyone, whether People’s Democratic Party (PDP) or All Progressives Congress (APC) out there that is going to transform this country without a mass quality education programme. The idea was focused on the cheap concept that could bring quality education to the masses, using solar power. I think it was an interesting thing. The plan was to get a classroom, put a few solar panels on the roof and project on to a television screen, the best classes in the world. Rather than trying to train every teacher, we know that there is deficiency in the quality of teachers, just get one fantastic teacher, the best in the world, from Europe or America or wherever, standardise the training with good visuals that teaches every child in the appropriate subject. That was what I brought to Nigeria. I had seen this done in one of the firms my company worked for. The total coast was going to be about USD150 million for the over 5500 secondary schools in Nigeria. Each one will have a classroom and you have students rotate to receive the lectures. I travelled to the Ogun State, Jigawa, talking to the governors and even Osun State, where the Commissioner for Educution asked me if it was not too advanced for the children. The education commissioner in Jigawa, a lady later became the Minister of Education under President Goodluck Jonathan. Her explanation was that her government was trying to create infrastructure. My own concept is that the resource is in the brain. We have to invest in human capital. You can build as many bridges. You might put desks in classes, if what is going into the brain is not quality, you are not going to get value to the society. Because of the structure of our politics and our federation, we are largely design failure into the system.
The people who are going to bear the biggest brunt are the youths. They are youngest and they are the ones who are going to suffer for the longest period. At the same time they have the biggest potential to transform the nation at this time. Everyone says this is the time for the youths, but no one has ever tried to articulate how the youths should get involved and to what objective. That is what I am trying to do. I think the youths are the one demographic, because of social media and things like that can actually bridge the fault lines that have allowed this kind of nonsense to thrive in Nigeria. The masses are not united. They are split along ethnic and religious line. I was talking to a group and it is ridiculous that what you call the Fulani herdsman has a common interest with an Independent Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) agitator but they will never realise it, because if this leads to a conflict, there is a meeting point for them. Look at every economic index, the Fulani herdsman is at the bottom of the totem pole, though a Fulani man is at the top as president and the irony of all that should not go pass anyone.
Buhari becoming president of Nigeria is the worst thing that could have happened to the Fulani because he has now raised old fears among a whole new generation of Nigerians that is now poured out against the Fulani. The majority of the Fulani people who are going to bear the brunt of that are not benefitting from the supposed power that the Fulani man apparently holds. These are the message that I am trying to get across to the youths. They need to pay attention now more than any other time. If they don’t, in a few years, majority of us are either going to be dead, in refugee camps or living under war lords and area gangs. There is currently an ongoing war in the country, whether people are reporting it or not, in the Middle –belt and elsewhere. The IPOB agitation is there, people are not just going to stand back for the army to come and sort out all of that. These are going to build up to some kind of conflict. But even if you take that out and you have a marginal change in government, all our problems are going to quadruple unless someone figures out a mass programme to solve them
Think of the masses of the youths in the north. The government needs to take ownership. These people are not going to save themselves. Someone has to step in and say, ‘we take all of you and we will build you into industries where there is training.’ They have to adopt these number of youths, almost as if the government is now their parents; both from job training that has a value chain that can feed itself and is sustainable. You would think that a Buhari who has such a large following in the north would have figured out how to create artisan industrial parks. We are 180 million people we all need to eat, clothe and house, that is commerce. Just train them in mass areas of land that the government has until they acquire the skill and a certificate then they can go into the market themselves and become gainfully employed. You need mass programmes like that including free quality education. There is no ‘ifs and buts’ about it. That is where I am concerned because the people who are going to suffer the most are the youths. If they don’t pay attention now, there might not be a Nigeria in four years.
Nigeria’s situation is like the analogy of the frog. If there is boiling water and you drop a frog into it, it will jump right out, but if you leave it in cold water and slowly turn the fire on, the frog is going to boil to death. We are in the slow-boiling-frog situation. Everyone acts as if nothing is going while there is an upcoming explosion underneath all of us-either from the divisions, the herdsmen, IPOB or militants in the Niger Delta, something will break because the capacity of the government to contain it in terms of revenue is shrinking. Everyone is thinking about corruption. That is a small of the problem. It should not be a president’s focus. An independent agency can always deal with that. There is population time bomb in itself. We are now seeing people committing suicide, I was driving today and I saw three people just lying on the street, no one cared. They were probably just giving up. It is when they die and smell and become intolerable that someone will report that there is a dead body on the street somewhere, to go and pick it up. We have people like that in our system. When you hear about an uprising, it is just one trigger. Look at how it happened in Morocco, one guy set himself ablaze, because he could not take it anymore. The thing is when you have an uprising like that because it is spontaneous, it is not organized. It happened suddenly, it doesn’t really lead anywhere. It is not structured. I think we have this last window in 2019 for a peaceful transformative transfer of power to solve our problems and that the mandate that I am trying to lead around a few things that I have identified that I think the youths need to rely on. The first thing I think is for the youths to try to assess and understand their own power in terms of numbers, come together on a unified platform or maybe around a unified candidate and then pursue specific objectives, you might call it manifesto and that has nothing to do with personalities.
We keep looking for a messiah-whether it is Sardauna, Awolowo or Azikiwe, we are so focused on individuals rather than, like every other country -France, US they have fine common principles that whoever is there must implement. It is almost like a blueprint, the masterplan, free education, who is there must do this or 43 per cent of the budget must go to education, things like that, invest in security. It seems as if we are designed for failure because if you look at our problems and the root cause, it is almost mathematical that it is guaranteed to fail. You talk about the security problem, people don’t see how it affects commerce. If you can’t go to your own village and invest either because you think there village witches or you say they don’t like you, who would invest there? So, how do you expect foreign investors to come to Nigeria when they can’t even come and monitor their investment because they don’t feel safe. I am a Nigerian, I will like to invest in Zamfara or Borno. I don’t know what opportunities there are because I can’t even go there. We don’t know how fundamental security is to production and investment, yet we pay policemen less than N50,000 a month and we give them a gun. I admire police men. I think they do an amazing job. For you to have a gun and all they do is still beg for money on the streets is just a self-respect thing. It shows a lot of restraint on their part. It is madness that we let that kind of thing happen. In any other place that is the core thing. I would say, for instance, if there is any serious government, you judge it from what they say about education and what they say about security. You need to triple the pay of the policeman. It can be done, the money is there. It is about priority. You need to triple their number. Of course, under a state police regime. The fact that we don’t even have that is scandalous. I don’t know why there is even a debate about it.
You may want to tell us about your party and its agenda
It is called the Youth Party of Nigeria (YPN). It is a very recently registered party. I had no connection to them. I was just enamoured that a group of young people had taken the initiative to actually establish a party that did not have a godfather and was trying to have credible youths without godfathers to stand for elections. I decided to work with this group to have the youths converge there. They have a very fantastic system which obviously the time has come. It is democracy through electronic. You can go there and vote. You do your primaries like Big Brother. If you look at their manifesto, it is well thought out. They have been at this for a long time.
Can you comment on why people run away from competition by zoning certain offices to particular parts of the country
It is the most wicked thing to do. You look at how this zoning thing works. Look at all the presidents we have had, they are perfect gentlemen, but you can’t say they are most dynamic personalities from their part of the country. Start from Balewa, Shagari, Yar’Adua, Jonathan, Buhari. Even if you want to pick a northerner or Fulani man, will there be a consensus that those were their best candidates? Of course not, because any committee that wants to pick somebody is going to pick a pliable person because they want to have influence on them. I have seen this up close. It has nothing to do with PDP or APC, it is just the way the system is. Even when the Alliance for Democracy (AD) was supposed to pick. You would ask why did they not pick a Bola Ige? Because he was too radical. They wanted a Falae, because they felt, at least, he would listen. People always want someone who listen to them and sometimes they are not the best. These are not people who can chart their own course. When they get to government, they become imprisoned by a cabal. They system in a federation where you have to zone is designed to fail. Not that you can’t be inclusive, you have to because we are a diverse country. The first thing is to make the centre not so attractive so that it does not become a life and death issue. That is why power devolution is the first agenda to any salvation to this country. You have to devolve power to the states and the local governments so that there is greater accountability. This has nothing to do with revenue sharing. If you unleash the dynamism of the nation through devolution. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo likes to talk as if it is just good people we need in government.
My argument is that imagine if there are one thousand Osinbajos in every local government doing what he is doing at the federal level. That is what we need. Nigeria is one place that looks like we are trying to grow a plant and we are watering it from the leaves, rather than from the roots. It makes no sense. You have empowered the centre so much that everybody just feels that the centre is where they have to be. The two things we need for development is education and reliable data. Have we had a reliable census to plan in this country? No! Why? Because it is subject to politics, particularly in the north and it affects everybody. People are self-motivated to doctor the census that you need for development. This undermines you actually producing the solution for people that you are trying to save. The people in the north despite all of these number of leaders that they have in the centre are still where the needs are the greatest. Getting reliable data has been politicized for the worst reasons. The only time you actually had someone do something close was in the old Western region when Awolowo actually got the number of children who need to be in school and he planned things. You can see the result. Now, we only guess the number of children who are out of school.
I don’t understand this Imperial Presidency. Anyone who wants to greet the President almost bows. It goes down to the state level with governors as well. It is madness. This is supposed to be a servant and you are already feeding them with this imprimatur of all-knowing god and you expect them not to act like outlaws? That is why you see the arrogance in government, even from the president. When last did the president hold a press conference? People say things. He is not accountable. Three hundred Shiites were killed by his military, regardless of what their crime is. That is an outrage. If those were 300 children from Ikoyi, do you think that will happen? But he did not say a word about it! He did not even say the army was excessive, we apologise. These are human lives. Everyone is saying the Shiites went overboard, but if you can do that with them, what protection do you and I have? He did it with IPOB and we still carry on. I don’t know what is wrong with Nigerians. Is it a spell? If someone is that unaccountable, why do you think he won’t go to the next level of corruption of power? We are the ones feeding them, we are asking them to be corrupt as if they are all-knowing. If you are going to disagree with IPOB Shiites, they are still Nigerians, you need to understand their grievance as the president. If they say it is a law and order issue, you address it as such. You don’t just mow them down as if they are some invading army. These are your citizens. Yet, their representatives and all of us, don’t hold him. Is that they right way? We wonder when the next one will happen. Those are the kind of issues that calls for devolution of power, so that the president is actually not that powerful. In Africa, we have this problem with strongmen. There needs to be more checks and balances on power, even more than anyone else.
IN THE MIRROR:
*Rex Adebanjo is a successful entrepreneur, private equity investor and venture capitalist
*He successfully founded a leading commercial solar power company in the country which attracted successful investment from two of the leading private equity funds in Africa and was featured as the Number 1 renewable energy deal in the world in 2018 by Renewable Energy World
*Rex was a corporate lawyer in New York for several years where he served as counsel to some of the leading corporations in the world such as Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Verizon Wireless
*Rex was an attorney with Davis Polk and Wardwell, Clifford Chance and Sidley Austin LLP. Rex earned a B.A in Philosophy from the University of Ife in Nigeria, an LL.B. from the University of Buckingham in England and a J.D. from Columbia University, New York where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and Articles Editor of the Colombia Business Law Review
*For the past 10 years Rex has been trying to promote free quality education for all children in Nigeria and ultimately Africa as the foundation to transformation and the development of Nigeria and Africa
*Rex Adebanjo was practicing law in the United States until a few years ago when the passion to give back to his motherland fired him to return home
* A student activist until he left Nigeria, he was one of those who could not stomach the tyrannical rule of General Sani Abacha and the evils it represented
* Rex has opted to pursue political change to for a more immediate remedy as time has become of the essence