Chief Olu Falae, former Secretary to the Federal Government and Finance Minister dialogues with Nseobong Okon-Ekong on the justification for his continued insistence on a true federation as an acceptable system of government in Nigeria
As an Economist, how would you assess the 2021 budget recently presented to the National Assembly by President Muhammadu Buhari, given that one of the highlights is that the economy may be going into a second recession?
In fairness, I have not had a studious look at the budget. I did not listen to the presentation, therefore, I have to be guarded in what I say, but since the President himself said the economy is going into recession, that is most unfortunate. We cannot use COVID as a sufficient justification for that pronouncement. Our economy, fortunately or unfortunately is not as industrialised or commercialised as the advanced industrial economies, which depend crucially on daily interaction. More than 80 percent movement have to occur for production to take place. Therefore with the arrival of COVID-19, all these activities have ground to a halt. Their economy going into recession is automatic. In Nigeria, most crucial economic activities are still not dependent on daily movement and interactions. For example, the farmers, they live in their villages. They don’t have to take public transport to their farms, therefore they are not shut down. They are operating. I am a farmer. I go to my farm. Agriculture is still over 40 percent of our own economy. We cannot say because of COVID-19, recession is inevitable. Before COVID-19, this economy has been badly and incompetently managed. In those days, we always had a guide to government spending, not just the annual budget, but a five-year Development Plan. Recently, I started to hear about plans. I said thank God for that. During the period of Obasanjo and immediately after Obasanjo and upto now all I heard about was an annual rolling plan. That is a deception. You cannot make any plan over a one-year period as a nation. What they call a national rolling plan is just an annual budget. In our time, the annual budget was an instrument for implementing the five year-plan. For you to articulate any project of any significance, take a major road project, for instance, the engineers have to survey the road and design the road and go into the contractual process for evaluation and award, that takes, at least, two years, then you execute and implement over a three-year period. That is the kind of consideration that led to having a five-year plan, but when you say you have a one year rolling plan, can you design and implement a road project in 12 months? Of course, not. I think they have abandoned that illusion and I hope we can now go back to serious planning. What planning does is that it makes you look at the entire economy in a consistent manner. Look at the transport sector, look at the road system. The first report is on the status of the economy.
The road system in Nigeria, there will be a report on each of them. Then you have to articulate what you do about the degeneration in that infrastructure. Of course, roads are used for different purposes; for passenger transportation, for haulage of goods to ports and from ports. Imports come in through roads, exports also come in through roads. Over a five year period, you can project the volume of trade, both import and export and then you see if the existing road network can carry the volume projected, if not, then you have to decide, which road to widen, which one to strengthen, which one to build. You begin to see that it is a very rational way of deciding on what to do. You ensure that the roads that lead to ports are taken care of, where you have enough berths for ships to come in and berth, discharge imports and load exports, so that what you are doing in transportation is consistent with what you are doing at the ports. You are not doing things in isolation. Similarly, if you take education. You say you want to increase enrollment in primary schools, you must project the population and then decide how many classrooms you need. How many do you have now? How many more do you need? Where are you going to locate them? What about the teachers? Planning takes you through this very rational process. By the time you finish, you can see clearly, how the economy will move in the next five years and there will be no room for recession. You see the minimum need of the economy in all the sectors and the cost to meet those needs. Then you strive to do your best and discipline yourself in spending to meet the minimum needs of the economy. If you succeed in doing that, there can be no recession, because you have a five-year outlook for the economy and every year, you review the plan. If there is any short fall you do something about it.
You don’t go to sleep. It is when you go to sleep and you wake up three years later that there is a recession. Continuous monitoring of the economy is an essential part of planning and planning implementation. If we go back to serious planning and planning implementation, we will hardly have any recession, even with COVID. Then we have to look at the wastages and level of corruption. The euphemism for it is leakage, wastage or corruption. A lot of money is being stolen and a lot of the services are being wasted. We do not have an effective husbandry of the national resources. We have a situation where in a state like Ondo State, where we used to have free education and in the five Western states, education was completely and totally free. These days it is not so, in fact the poor can hardly send their children to school. Because we don’t plan. When you plan, you have to get your priorities right and their will be very few surprises. If we return to planned development, we will be able to avoid recessions. If you do not have any leak in the economy, you will not fall into a depression. Extended recession is depression because of abandoned planning. Planning is the instrument you have for seeing that the entire economy are consistent in the different sectors and that there are no bottlenecks. If you want to expand the health system for example and you need 50,000 additional hospital beds and you need to arrange to buy or manufacture the equipment that will make the hospital function. From the moment of planning, you can begin to see your needs in future. It is not after building the hospital that you begin to look for beds. Where will the doctors come from? What about the nurses?
It is when you are planning that you look at the needs of all you are trying to do. Any President should know that a plan is a major instrument in his hands for knowing what is going on, for controlling what is going on and for influencing the development of the economy. There is no other instrument. It is the plan that he gives to his ministers. For instance, the Minister of Education, read that plan. You duty is to implement it, faithfully, on target and if you have any problems, you come back. These days, the Executive appoints ministers and commissioners at state level. What do you give to guide them? Nothing! He goes to his ministry and the civil servants talk to you about what they were doing before. The question is, what they were doing last year, should they be doing it this year? Did it work well last year? Did it help the people of Nigeria? Who is assessing the impact of what they are doing on the live of Nigerians. It is planning that helps you look at all that. This thing that we have been doing for 10 years, is it delivering the services we expect? Is it improving the lives of Nigerians? It is critical analysis. If not, you need to abandon it and face something else. But there is no review of that kind. Planning brings all that on board. My recommendation is that we need a serious multi-year plan, at least five years. There is what we call perspective, which is between 10 and 20 years. Those are very skeletal kind of projections. You project macro economical aggregate for over 10 years. That was my job when I was in government. No ministry or department can just wake up one day and change the plan. There is a process for plan modification or plan amendment. It is a rigorous process. These days, a contractor goes to a governor or a minister and sells an idea to him. I see an example here in Akure, Ondo State. If you go to the major roads, you find elaborate bus stops, but we have no bus service in Akure. No buses are using those stops, why are they there? Because a contractor persuaded the government that they should build those bus stops and that will raise the contract amount and enable whoever is handling it to have a bigger cut. That is a classic example. Bus stops without a bus service!
I have retired from partisan politics so it will be unfortunateif my observations are perceived as those of a politician. I no longer belong to any party. My retirement from partisan politics and resignation as the Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and a member of SDP were well publicised. I will never be a member of any party by the Grace of God. I will be able to play my role as a national leader and elder statesman, unhindered by any partisan interests.
As an an elder statesman and Yoruba patriot, there are some prominent Yorubas who have indicated interest to run for the presidency in 2023. However, there are other opinions that the Igbos are the only major Nigerian ethnic group that have not occupied that office. Do you think a Yoruba should run for President of Nigeria in the next national elections?
I don’t think anybody from anywhere should run for the presidency of Nigeria in its present form and in any year. I do not believe that Nigeria in its present form is a viable country. The contradictions are clear. It is not serving us.Our brothers from the North who are benefiting more from the present arrangement are now beginning to find that their environment is changing. It is very difficult to find a Nothern leader of my status living in his own home town. They can’t stay there because of insecurity, either Boko Haram or bandits, they will go and get him. A government that cannot guarantee the safety and security of citizens cannot continue to exist in its present form. The first business of government is to guarantee your physical survival. If it cannot guarantee that, is that a government or system that we should keep in place? Then we begin to argue and quarrel, whether it is an Igbo man or a Yoruba man that should preside over that dysfunctional system. To me, where the president comes from is a side show. It is like shadow boxing. I ran for President. I had a blueprint, 352 pages, of what I will do in every sector of the economy. These people who have been President do they have any programme for you? None! If where the President comes from is relevant and a solution to the problem we have, Obasanjo was President for eight years, has his presidency for eight years solved the problem of the Yorubas? Buhari is the current president of Nigeria from Katsina, the people in Katsina including some of their traditional rulers are hiding in Abuja. They cant live in Katsina. You can see that where the president comes from is not really an important consideration. After 60 years, this thing has not worked unless and until we change this system, I show no interest whatsoever in who gets what.
Where do you think that conversation can really take place, the National Assembly or where?
It is a conversation that has been on for a long time and it will continue for a very long time. It started before independence. Our leaders went to London many times; Zik, Awolowo and the Sardauna between 1957 and 1959 to talk about the sort of government we will have at independence. Awolowo made it clear that we will only be part of Nigeria after independence if it was going to be a federal government, that there must be a true federation that will give the ethnic groups considerable autonomy to be themselves while remaining loyal to the centre. At the beginning, Zik was for a unitary government, but later he saw that we are too big and complex to be run as a unitary state and at the end of the day, they agreed to a true federation. At independence, the younger generation may not know that every region had its own construction. There were four constitutional documents at independence-federal constitution, western, eastern and northern regions. Every region was a government, not an underling of the federal government. Of course, the federal took precedence over all of them. But each of them was a government with its own constitution, police, coat of arms and armour bearer, it had its own ambassador. That is what we negotiated and got. The military came and scrapped that. In doing so, they scrapped the consensus that was the covenant on which Nigeria is built. No matter what we do, until we return to consensus we are wasting our time.
The latest discourse, the National Conference of 2014, in which I had the honour to be the leader of the Yoruba delegation, I was elected on the floor by the delegates from the six South-west states including the Yorubas from Kogi and Kwara. They all met and said they wanted a leader and they elected me. I was at the very vortex of that conference. We agreed on a deal for Nigeria based on consensus. No constitutional conference since independence has achieved what that conference achieved, which is to reach agreements by consensus. We never voted at all. Not because votimg was outlawed. There was a big ballot box in front of us, throughout. The Chairman said if you disagree on anything, raise your hand we will take a vote. Nobody raised his hand in four and a.half months. Every of the over 600 decisions was by consensus. That is the future of Nigeria. That is what most of us are comfortable with. What Abacha and the North have imposed on the rest of us can never be accepted by the rest of Nigeria in perpetuity. Not at all. The report of that conference is a consensus, which is an agreement by all Nigerians. That is the way forward. There is no other future for Nigeria. How can it be that you go to your area, you have a constitution and then you impose that on me and my children? It won’t happen! If people will not allow Nigeria to make the necessary change to remain one country, they will be provoking extreme elements to ask for a total breakup. If you don’t want a breakup, you have to come back to my position. Let us go back to what we all agreed in London; to what Zik, Sardauna, Balewa, Aminu Kano, Awolowo; everybody signed. Let’s go back to that. That is what we are asking for, at least in Yorubaland. But a few people are saying to me, nobody is listening to you, Baba, forget them we are going. Self-determination has become the most critical issue in politics, since the collapse of communism, since the end of the Cold War. That is why, for example, in the very heart of Europe, you had Czechoslovakia, broke in to two- Czech Republic and Slovakia. Nobody fired a shot. That is what I call a managed change example. The leaders saw the need for change and they decided not to resist it, but to manage it in a way that will not damage them, that they can still have separate countries and remain friends. Brilliant and intelligent people. In Yugoslavia, next door, you have a bunch of irrational people. After the death of Josip Tito, who managed the various ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, the moment he died, lesser men took over, change became very clear. What happened? The Bosnia War-10 years of bloodletting, tens of thousands of people killed. At the end of it, Yugoslavia where change was not allowed broke into pieces, about 10 different countries.
So, we have these two change models-managed change model and resisted change model. You can see the consequences of both. Even Britain that created Nigeria, the United Kingdom under the same king and queen, since they had their permanent union of 1707, today is a defacto federation. They now recognise that Scotland is a nation. Wales is a nation. Northern Ireland is a nation and the Britain is a nation. Did you hear that five years ago? Because of self-determination everybody wants to assert its right to survive and be itself. We can belong to a larger body, but you can’t extinguish my identity. How can you prevent the Igbos from being themselves. The Kanuri, the Ibibio, the Yoruba, the Itsekiri, the Ijaw and so forth, from being themselves? You can’t. God created us that way, but we will live together if there is consensus. Not if there is an imposition and say there is a ‘no-go area’. Who said so? Why should I obey him? The other constitutional conferences took place during military regimes and the dictator said, you can debate some things, but these are ‘no-go areas’ because he is a military man. During President Jonathan being an elected civilian president , he could not impose ‘no-go areas’ on us, so we went into all the areas. We discussed religion, ethnicity, everything and we came to a consensus. At the end of it all, the decisions taken were used to produce a new draft constitution for Nigeria.
To me, where the president comes from is a side show. It is like shadow boxing. I ran for President. I had a blueprint, 352 pages, of what I will do in every sector of the economy. These people who have been President do they have any programme for you? None! If where the President comes from is relevant and a solution to the problem we have, Obasanjo was President for eight years, has his presidency for eight years solved the problem of the Yorubas? Buhari is the current president of Nigeria from Katsina, the people in Katsina including some of their traditional rulers are hiding in Abuja. They cant live in Katsina. You can see that where the president comes from is not really an important consideration. After 60 years, this thing has not worked unless and until we change this system, I show no interest whatsoever in who gets what