Can you tell us about yourself?
Once again, thank you. Welcome to my world. I’m Professor John Abhuere currently professor of development and management. I retired, as many persons know, as director of NYSC after which I went into writing, management consultancy and lately into academics. I set up a foundation which is called Centre for Child Care and Youth development where we try to put some of the ideas we believe in into practice. We have an office in Abuja and the headquarters in Uromi. It is for that reason I’m in Benin City, Edo state to see how the one in Uromi is faring.
Professor you are welcome to this interview. There are some burning issues we want you to vent your ideas on. First, it is about power rotation or zoning which ever one it is called in the political sphere of Nigeria bearing in mind the upcoming 2023 general elections. What do you have to say about power rotation in Nigeria?
I’m happy you raised this issue if you’ve been following my writing, I’m a sincere advocate of zoning and power rotation as a basis of making reasonable progress in this country, as a basis of having stability in this country, as a basis of promoting participating democracy of all citizens of this country. But for you to know why we are really passionate about zoning you, first of all know the evolution of democracy how it came about, the development so far within the democratic world e.t.c. If you remember or cast your mind back to the relevant literature we were told that democracy started in the Greek city state and the idea really was that every person should have an opportunity to participate in the development or political process of the community so that every person should gather in a community or square for them to take decision on issues that affect them but the city-states were small and people were few. So it wasn’t really possible as the world continues to develop to congregate in one place. We have a situation where in the 5bc to 17th or 18th century. Lets take that big gap, you find America coming up reviewing the whole thing to have a representative democracy as opposed to monarchy which means what they are working against is the advent of dictatorship. So everyone that has been very democratic wants as much as possible, people’s representation. So you find America came up with a novelty approach very different from what the Greek had about representative democracy where you will have your own representative in government making laws on your behalf.
Many parts of the world have seen this variance of democracy today but the point I’m trying to say is that democracy has never been static. It has been expanding, changing in definition or scope. One thing has however remained the need for people to participate. The more the better. I should correct a thing. Even when people like Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as a government of the people, by the people and for the people something of that nature. You, find out that not everyone in America was given the chance to participate. Blacks and slaves initially were not allowed to participate. Even in Greece when it started, it were the citizens that were allowed to vote.
You find out democracy as a system is where people have been struggling to participate. It took some time for the black man in America to vote. Also it took time for the woman in America and many part of the world to vote. So if you apply this theoretical background in Nigeria we find out that the British helped in establishing the kind of democracy we have with Nigerians participating in bringing it about. But you find from the beginning the democratic space was dominated by a few people the big tribe. If you look at it, again because the minority group wanted a place to participate, it saw them struggling. All this talk on Niger-delta has been there also, the tiv movement.
They were all about attempt to participate in the democratic space. We find a situation where Nigeria was moving and we began to see the need to balance up. That was why during the military administration then, take back to when Tafawa Balewa was the prime minister Nnamdi Azikiwe was the governor general, the power was being tried to balance up. Then in the military, somebody from the North trying to balance up being the head of government then Chief of staff position to South. We now came to 1993 election, the best ever conducted election that was annulled by the then military administration. Then between 1993 and 1999 there were series of conflict in this country until the same military that created the problem sat and handover. But they made sure the two most popular political parties presidential candidates end up being presented to the people from the same zone. That is why we have Abiola vs Falashe and Abiola eventually won. That alone, trying to zone the political process to the West brought enormous stability to the Yorubas to be brought to the fold and we achieve some reasonable level of development.
Now, if you look at the arithmetic, we have a section of the country with evidence that for a long time they’ve not been allowed to participate seriously at the highest political level in the country and that region continue to boil and what affects one region affects the other and you cannot rule that one out. Power, in a multi- cultural country like Nigeria, you cannot afford to say politics or power must go to the highest winner, no it has to be divided, it has to be zoned so that every region will have a fraction of it. In fact, the whole process of the winner takes all is wrong as power has to be proportional to the vote you won in an election. That’s a matter for another day.
What I’m trying to say is that if we really want stability, cooperation, development and also collective responsibility of every person to the development and promotion of national unity in this country, zoning is the answer, it is the solution to minority neglect whether at the state level or not. It is about proper power-sharing and assurance that once upon a time it will come down to your turn in many states including ours. If you don’t zone power there are some minority groups that will never smell power and they belong to the same country. So do you think they will be happy?
So my own commitment to the idea of zoning or rotation of power is that it is imbibed, it is what democracy is all out to achieve. Without people trying to recognize it, if you exclude any group from power, democracy itself is being threatened. This is my submission. We may really need to sit down. This is the year we really need to think about it. 2022 is the year that will bring about 2023. So my appeal is that the people and political parties need to sit down and zone presidential candidate to the South-East. I say it again they should zone their presidential ticket to the South-East because every zone in this country has presidential material and when you really look at it again it is unfair. Injustice is the beginning of conflict in any society. A group that feels unjustly treated will always seek a way out to seek for justice. If from 1960 the great Zik can be regarded, in modern times, as the father of Nigeria nationalism, he didn’t cling to political executive power. We had Ironsi he stayed in power briefly and when you look at the history of this country, if you talk about those who made their own selfless contribution to the building of this country the Ibo people come first. We can not afford to exclude them from the political process and expect peace. We can never have it.
This is not to say that there will be no competition. There will still be competition. The only thing is that it’s limited to a zone such that one person will come and if somebody comes from the southeast as the president another person comes from the North or anywhere, the country will be better off. Development will have trust. These have all been destroyed because of present system of saying a dominant group must take power. It doesn’t work out that way and I think I’m saying this in the interest of national unity, national development and in the interest of peace in this country that is where zoning and rotation of power comes in.
So you are in variably asking that it should be entrenched in the Constitution?
Yeah, it is not there as a chapter but the idea of zoning is there. We are told that the federal government and the state government should ensure, in the appointment of people to offices, that the different geographical zones are represented. That is the federal character. So when you have it in structure, why is there no application in the political arena? So it is there. So the concept of citizens, participation is very germane to the success of any democratic process otherwise it’s not democracy.
Alright, let us look at the call by some state governors for clamp down on illegal refineries. Wike of Rivers State has been very vocal on this area asking for it to be closed down, what is your take on this sir?
Well, I have looked at what people are saying on this issue. We have to be very careful. Before you embark on the pursuit of certain policies, you have to look at the context (circumstances) that led to certain things. First of all, let me clear the fact that I don’t support any form of illegality. That is the point. We need to know what we are trying to do. This is an oil rich country that has consistently imported refined products into this country. We export crude oil out. There are assumptions here. How will we say we don’t have the technical know-how to refine? That is why we send crude oil out or we lack the resources to do so. That is financial capital. It is very evident government has given out licences that were not utilized which means it is expensive to do or it could be an ideological reason also for saying it is cheaper to export crude oil and to import refined products. All these reasons did not allow us to have what I will call meeting the supply and demand of the country. The meaning is that there is a huge gap to be filled in economics of development. The moment there is a demand, there will be supply. It is natural. What we are having in Nigeria is a gap that allow the growth of illegal refineries but the question you have to ask yourself is in an economy that there is hopeless unemployment, is it the correct thing to actually be closing so-called refineries. The wrong impression is given you know.
That reminds me of the illicit gin of those days. They say the gin produce in sapele is raw. No, the point is this we need to produce to have more employment, we need to produce to have more to consume at home. We give the false impression that we cannot actually produce oil but we have seen from all memos that during the Biafra war, families were producing petroleum from their backyard. So the technology is there. What I expect us to do is this rather than clamping them down, it is to invite them to a meeting, take census, give them conditions and study what can be done.
I think the government promised modular refineries, where are they? So we are crying in this country that we lack technical know how, we lack the capacity and we are seeing a group. Whether they like it or not am more interested in trying to know something about the quality. Is the product they are coming out with useable and how could government tax them and tap them into the economic mainstream. These are the issues I think Governor Wike and co should sit down also with the federal government and see that these people have it. Do we actually need to carry out over – regimented regulation of the sector? No! If this people really have the technology and it is as simple and they can produce, it will be better for the country to tap into it and help them improve their system, empower them if our borders were well-manned, smuggling itself will go down, the market for illegal refineries will not be there. We have to, first of all, do our home work. I know that people are burning some of their houses. They are being driven underground and I’m saying the more you do this one, the more they go underground, so they become more dangerous. I don’t see or encourage sabotage but I do think that they have some technology, some knowledge, you know, to sell and that the best thing is for the government to tap unto the existing technology to see what can be done to improve the sector.
Professor thank you so much for dwelling on the usefulness of bringing operators of illegal refineries together. That is harmonise, rather than destroying them or chasing them out of existence. We want to look at another issue very important in Nigeria. The youths. The number is increasing and they have challenges. The country is blessed with a lot of human resources among them are youths. As it is today, how do you perceive the Nigerian youth vis a vis the prospect of the country?
Well this is a very important question. In my book the “Power of Youth” I try to explain why we must invest in the youth. Let’s take a simple theoretical perspective of the youth. They can be defined as an idealistic human being who aspires for the best of a society and the meaning of this is that the youth can easily be bought into something that is good and could also easily rebel when what you have told them is the standard is being deviated from. Almost every protest we’ve had take this nature. They are idealistic and they now express disappointment.
Another aspect is that youths can actually be always educated to be positive. In other words, we have two aspects or sides of the youth; positive side and the negative side. Negative side is when you don’t give them opportunity to create or participate, to beat their own knowledge e.t.c. and the positive comes out when you create opportunities. So you find out that the easiest ways to really mobilize youths are through education, employment. Education which can’t come from the family could come from the government, also the school. But you must find them employment to engage themselves because as they say the idle man is the devil’s workshop. The youths also need empowerment in the direction the society wants to go.
This means creating opportunities. Take for instance, government can’t do it alone. We do know that. Look at Nollywood, opportunities it has created for young people. So if government can even, in each of the states, build three or four stadia for people to learn how to play tennis, golf, cricket and engage in other sports it is already empowering them. So coming back now, what I’m trying to say is that unless there’s a deliberate policy to improve the youth in nation-building activities in a very creative way, many of them will be doomed.
Okay now, the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) is a very good example of what you can do with young people and how best to utilize young people. They are there serving under the sun and in the rain also because they have been made to behave that way. They see the benefit towards it.
So in 2022, we are looking at 2023 facing the role of young people in election most especially, members of NYSC who go to serve as officials during elections. Many have been recruited as thugs. Many recruited for bad purposes by the elite. So the first thing is to focus on each party to ensure that in 2022 the mind of the youths should be addressed to play more positive roles. They should be addressed to support the party they feel will win. What even stops the youths supporting one party heavily in order to secure some positions within that party and see if and when the candidate wins, the candidate will be friendly with youth-beneficial programs.
I’m trying to say that the zoning system I mentioned before, if the youth can be made to see the benefit of it, if the youth can made to see that democracy pays also if the youth are made to participate in campaign against corruption during election and development program that can make society grow like promotion of positive value and discipline in the society, it will be better off.
There is no doubt at all government must be ready to spend or to invest much more in the youth than they are presently doing and you cannot ask somebody that is hungry to go to the moon when there is nothing on ground. If you don’t provide employment, for example, the temptation of the youth falling for anything available is very, very high. They can be recruited into banditry, terrorism, fraud because at that particular time what is available to them is better than what they have which becomes more attractive and if you have bothered to know what happens in terrorist camp you will know that they spend so much money in trying to win their heart.
It takes real ideological conviction or faithful belief when you go throw a missile and die that there’s heaven waiting for you, which is a kind of brain-washing. I’m not saying that the Nigerian youth should be so brainwashed, I’m saying if you give employment to the Nigerian youth and proper empowerment to do certain things like we are talking about illegal refineries, you call them together and give proper supervision to the youth. If done, this year they will be better even in 2023 especially during the conduct of the general election.
Sir, we have to digress a little from the issues of youths to the intervention of state in the economic process of the Nigerian state. What do you have to say about it?
Nigeria, in my view, is a victim of wrong ideological position. You see, the state during Obasanjo’s administration, people will tell you the government has no business with the states, marketing. The government investment in business failed all over. It lost a foundation.
The state was formed for two primary purpose. Firstly, to give you protection. Secondly, security of life and property, then to create an atmosphere for you to realize your objective in life in terms of welfare. Now when you take it from that position you find out that the state, even from the beginning, was supposed to sit people down to say okay let’s surrender these powers to one strong person that will ensure that they will be free trade, security and others.
Also, let somebody tell me the state that has developed in this world without government intervention. America is a very good model because it sat down and say look we want to form a country and if you look at the first hundred years of America, even till this moment, America government laid the foundation of railway, telecommunication, city-building and others. So now, the meaning of this is that if there is infrastructure, you just have to make sure that this is a community. There is water, there is electricity, there are good roads and when these are already done, individuals can come and tap into this and ensure the development of that community.
We cannot in a way run state determination. However, what happened was that around the 1970s, because the argument of whether the state should intervene or not was there when Adams Smith said the wealth of nation is dependent on the free trade across borders. He was projecting an ideological position and if you look at the literature of that period too you will find people who opposed to Adams Smith’s thesis saying that it was wrong and that the state has a role to play and you cannot afford open all your borders to free trade. We see it today. America still controls its borders. Now in the 1970’s, especially Margaret Thatcher in England stated that her father has always been a conservative all her life. She had groceries, her economic outlook contrilled by a private person she never ever liked, so she came up with the idea that it’s very wrong for the economic activities to be in government hand and that government is too inefficient. Now Reagan came up in America supported the idea of free trade and they were able to buy the press and use the western press to support the idea that free market-base approach is really worth it.
Take Nigeria, where are the private men the rich men? Count them they are there and even the rich private men, they got the money from the government in the first instance. So we really have not got the capital base to say we should do our things ourselves at this level. When government gave licenses for, at least, I think 11 and later 20 refineries, did Nigeria have the capital to establish? No they didn’t and those licenses were there so we have to have the capital.
Secondly, historically, when you tell the state not to participate, who will do the infrastructure development that bring, about other development. Thirdly, if you take the census of private people who had invested and loss compare it to the government own is inconsequential. Everyday people invest and loose their own capital. They are not told not to invest again, or why not sit down say why did government firms fail in Nigeria. I have personally looked at it I found out that the reason is politics you set up a multi-million or multi-billion naira enterprise instead of you to go out to look for the best hand whether it’s in Jerusalem to help you run it you say no it must be an Esan man that Esan man doesn’t have it, or it must be a Kanuri person who doesn’t have it, no thinking of competence or about the investment being made. It doesn’t work that way.
The person has to know it. That’s why me, I’m very crazy about capacity- building. If you don’t have it you don’t have it. Okay take a pen write with your left hand if you will be able to write with it. You won’t be able but the person who can will take the pen and write with the left hand. Capacity building is there. That was the secret of Awolowo, that’s the secret of America, that’s the secret of China.
What are we talking about here. We had a kind of ideological mis-step especially in the 1980’s when Babaginda came into power. He started experimenting market economy, it just didn’t work out so why don’t we have the courage. When this administration came, I wrote. Then Obey Ezekwesili suggested government shouldn’t set up a national airways I said government should set it up even if that can give job to three people alone, it is enough but we will keep on developing ourselves. Eight years almost gone. We’ve not been able to establish one whereas nothing stops a local government from investing or having a small refinery or from conquering the bush and making a huge agricultural land and engage competent youths to work.
The train has come now. What stop the state government from constructing a railway from Benin City to Uromi, Benin City to warri, Benin City to Asaba then you see the ease of movement of goods and services. We have killed the best instrument or regulated the instrument we had in development by saying the state has no role to play. The state’s major role is development. It has a duty to lead development. This doesn’t mean that it should not allow private sector.
The China that is developed today there are companies that are government- owned operated under the private sector skills. Take one Kobo in China and see if you will not be executed, you will! For financial crimes they send messages to your family for you to commit suicide and if you fail they execute you.
These are issues we should really think about, what should we do and this is the message whether the federal or state government, it must be prepared to invest in the infrastructure development of this country and as much as possible in areas they think are critical to economic survival and development of this country, that’s number one.
Two, we need a system where the economy is free and open to both the private sector and the government, in other words, to all that are willing and capable without any hindrance. In other words, if Mr. A is capable of going into this office let him do it, if the government has the capability let it go and do it. Absence of such arrangements or understanding is what is killing the economy.
Three, development should be seeing as a deliberate act to enhance the wealth of an individual and the community he lives. So if my community is so far away and there is no lucky person that is rich, my community should be develop, the local government should ensure development. We can’t fold the hands of the state government and expect development to come.
The private sector all over the world has no business other than trying to make profit for itself. In economics, when you teach you say they create value. What value are they creating. Value that enhances their personality. That is why America talks about individualism which is about you having a right to produce and get the whole world to yourself. Throw it back to the ocean it doesn’t matter anymore because it’s your own. We are now saying yes you can create all these things let the state also create it’s own. If you like, you may decide to throw this away whereas the state will like its own production given to the human being.
So what I’m trying to say by my constant preaching on state intervention is that the state should wake up to its responsibility, first and foremost, in protecting people and producing condition for them to develop. You don’t run away from your responsibility under the pretense of one ideological reasoning. So when you say the state shouldn’t, they are all deceiving themselves. We are saying time has come if we say, vote you for a position, if you know unemployment of 20% this year you should allow it go down to 5% and you can’t do anything without investing in the country. So the truth is that the state has a responsibility.
Long before the internet do you know how much America invested in the development of internet. So what it means is the state must not go to sleep with the pretense that it has no business. That idea is just the imagination of some people in Europe who have no idea on how societies in Africa are run. True, we are so poor that the real instrument we have is the state. Yet the government is to bring about the centre of activities and raise money to carry out projects. We need to sit down and look for competent hands, the right hand. There’s nothing stopping the government from investing. For instance, what is it doing in NNPC, is it not a public establishment, why are they carrying our mineral exploration? So government should be asked to do the needful for us.
You have exhaustively dealt with the issue of state intervention. Lastly sir, we also want you to give a piece or two advice to the Edo state government in its effort to redefine governance and introduce reforms into the state civil service?
I will say this one without any bias. Every person knows me and my development approach of Obaseki. This explains why I wrote and supported him during the election. One thing visible you can’t take from him is that he has a kind of architectural taste, the new buildings. Like the John Odigie Oyegun Civil Service Academy building, it’s a very beautiful piece of work. But then as for the reforms in the civil service, we need to be very careful when we are talking about reforms. What I think we need is general agenda where people say, okay thirty years time, non of us will be around but we know an agenda has been set towards which every person will be walking to and the reform that I will want is a reform that is based on capacity-building that will be about the skills of the civil and public servant to enable him deliver.
Two, to actually create a sense of pride. What I want call ‘ideological orientation’ of the average Edolite such that they see themselves as belonging to the same entity. I remember in the days of Bendel, we were Bendelites, There was that pride whether you are in Warri, Asaba. When it comes to sport we were always winning, so we need to create that sense of pride and loyalty to Edo state by it’s citizens.
Then three, the environment of work needs to be made conducive you know because, why I’m always suspicious of reform is that it is always a disguise way of down-sizing. We may down-size the houses but it has many implications. It could create disaffection within the family, it could make sure that people, who hitherto were supportive, are alienated and it could lead to no result, no gainful result. If you enhance the environment in which an individual works, you enhance his skills, knowledge, competence and you promote his sense of fulfillment in terms of pride and belonging.
What I’m trying to say is that for me, the little I have seen, I like his development approach, his strategies that try to reach every corners of the state but this reform is easy, it easier to say reform than to actually get the benefit of reform for a number of reasons; cultural resistance, lack of funds to do the right thing, lack of the vision and ability to carry out or drive it. These are issues but result can be achieved, like I said, through capacity-building (training the individual.).
When we can now train dog to catch thief, to catch criminals then you can think of what human beings can do if given decent training, training is it, Like I usually say if you don’t know how to write with your left hand you have to be trained on how to write with your left, if you are right hand person that is my basic example. So you have to train.
Then the condition in which you work if it is not conducive you can’t produce any change. The tools to work are very, very critical. If the tools are not there you cannot perform magic. This is the thing. Then, my advice infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. the aim should be that each community in Edo-State should have at least water, should have electricity, should have roads. How this is going to be done is a subject for another day. If he consults me I will tell him what should be done because that’s my area of interest, I wish the state luck and a prosperous 2022.