Dr. Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) is a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA. Agbakoba co-founded the Civil Liberty Organisation, CLO, in Nigeria and founded Human Rights Law Services. In this interview, he spoke on the state of the nation, communication importance in government, President Muhammadu Buhari’s economy policies and others.
We have seen at least 195 days of General Muhammadu Buhari as President of Nigeria, what is your view on the state of the nation?
Well, it is good when you listen to perception; know what people think because action of government is to reflect what people want. When I was NBA President, I always do what I call sweeping. I will make sweeping calls to about 10 Chair persons to know what lawyers are thinking.
Perception is very important. It is for the President to pay more attention to the way people feel and that is why we need a communication strategy, such as having a Director of Communication. You find different people say different things about the President.
Some say that he does not know what he is doing and some say he is too slow. But my interest in the President is not as General Buhari as a president because I have not met him, I do not know what he does. The country is suffering what I call economic anaemia. There is no money in the system because a lot of parameters are not working. There is no investment law, competition law, which is why MTN can do what it likes.
Does this suggest that in 2016, communication should be one of the key things for effecting the change President Buhari intends to deliver to Nigerians?
I hope that the present administration will understand that in 2016, communicating their strategy should be of prime importance so as to dispel all doubts. Also, the Biafra thing is what a good communication strategist will communicate. I think this administration has not done well in communication. In abroad, what attracts people is the programme. If I look at your programme and I am able to compare, then I can make my choice.
If you look at the Presidential Debate in the US, you will be able to make your choice. But in Nigerian politics, it is a personal thing. You will need to know the person and touch him. In the US, for example, you do not need to know anybody; he will appeal to you by what he does. So President Buhari’s programme, quite surprisingly, appears to me as something to be looked at.
Which means that President Buhari’s programme would succeed since people like you are impressed by it?
I am keen to see that it succeeds. Everybody wants to have a break. If he (President Buhari) is going to take us there, then we will support it. I am tired of being able to handle money but unable to spend it because one is not happy. You need to have a country where you feel safe.
You know I come from Apapa in Lagos and you know what happens there? You think I like it that I have towalk one mile to the office, in a place that is Nigeria’s richest community? We need to have a good country. And like I said earlier on, the President need to pay more attention to the way people feel and that is why we need this communication strategy.
But some people have misconceived you, saying there is something you are looking for from this administration?
For those who know me for a long time, they know that I do not need to look for anything. I had a chance to be Abacha’s Attorney-General at age 34 or 35, that was quite tempting and not what I was looking for. I am just looking for a good Nigeria.
Many Nigerians seem not to understand President Buhari’s economic policies. Looking at your good sense of economy, can you share what you know about it?
The nature of person’s ideology changes with where he is. So the natures of what countries do depend on where they are at any time. Basically, Nigeria as an emerging economy is a very poor country, typified by the fact that we are in the primmest land yet I have no water. Anyone who wants to design a programme for a poor country will take into account what the people want and what their need is. There is no template.
A group better known as the Washington Consensus came together and felt that in the context of the war between the west and east, that imposing democracy and imposing the western economy thought will keep the sovereignty away. If you understand it and do not believe it, that is too bad. But for us who are international political economist, I know that the biggest challenge we face is the west and the east, the conflict that they have had and how it has affected us.
So the first thing they will do is to bring their doctors of economy and say structural adjustment programme, which we resisted in Gani’s house in 1985 when IBB started it. We said it cannot work in a poor country. You cannot be doing structural adjustment programme when people are hungry. It may be good in the west, but here, it is difficult because people are poor. So if we agree that people are poor, then the last thing you will want to do is to inflict further harm on the people.
But I think I understand what President Buhari’s economic policy is, it has two components. It is a derivative of social regulation. Underpinning the programme, as I understood, it is social regulation, which makes provision for people who are at the bottom and trying to bring them up and at the same time leaving space for market efficiency so that the markets can run.
Social regulation means we cater for those who need government support but we will allow the Dangotes and the Otedolas space to work, then we task them to about 30 percent to 40 percent, which will be well collected. Once that is done, the money would drizzle down to assist the social regulation policy. It is a mixed economy model that I think it is what this administration want to present.
Those who feel like doing business in the country will find that they have the space but they are not going to do it like they have in America. Even in America, there have been questions on the republican model of running an economy.
What programme do you think would thrive in Nigeria today, considering the poverty rate you just mentioned?
If you have a programme, the one that is commonly referred to as market feudalism, which means asking everybody to go and the best person to sell wheat flour wins. Then you will find out that the person can drive his price up, in the exclusion of others, and make money. So market feudalism, which was Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s doctrine, failed because in the years you will see that her policies did not work.
The other one is social democracy and you will find it in Denmark, Norway and other countries. That is why they are the richest countries in the world, even if they have small population. They do social democracy where they plan for everybody. They know the need of everybody and try to meet it. I think social democracy is a better programme for Nigeria than market feudalism. Now, I go back to the challenge of not communicating effectively.
In your recent letter to President Buhari, you talked about conspiracy of the elite, can you expatiate?
The problem Obama is facing in America is that of the conspirators. Do you know that he was so frustrated in the last 3 killings and he said he was tired of sitting and being helpless as the America President whereas the gun lobby will not allow him to control guns? Who is benefitting? The last person that killed had 13 guns in the house. How can that be? Why is America unable to raid the gun supply? It is simply because people are making billions.
What are your thoughts on sovereign wealth fund vis-a-vis your advocacy for freeing frozen funds; there are huge funds frozen while infrastructure in the country is in terrible state?
Sovereign wealth fund is a small issue in the large equation. When I was the NBA President, I was able to invite one of the world’s leading thinkers of waking dead capital. Some of my friends, when they come to Nigeria, evaluating it to its state of wealth economy wise, they are shock that amidst great wealth there is poverty. Now development law, which we preach but it has not been understood by anybody, government does not have a lawyer in the policy space.
This world is a large space and only the best will thrive. It is shocking that as the developed world and China go about setting standards and goals for investment and trade, there is no single investment and trade lawyer who has any expertise to criss-cross various multi-lateral conferences that take place, fixing your own fortune.
For instance, in the last Doha, World Trade Organization (WTO) became stranded by the objection of Brazil and India on the utilization of tree-bags which we allow the west to take away and make into quinine, and then they now put intellectual imprimatur on it- your products. They take it away and reset it. The worst one was when they move into higher drugs, which they wanted to bring to South Africa and India to sell at a high rate.
So what am I saying? I am saying that Nigeria is not taking advantage of its huge soft institutions of experts, particularly law. My simple theory is that we have enough money in Nigeria not to worry about how to build our roads. But all our banks, until the Soludo resolution, were interested in getting public fund and lending. So they would not give you any money because they will get it from the government and that was enough to make huge profit.
What is your perception of the various election tribunal judgements across the country, especially the judgement of the Taraba Governorship Tribunal?
These people who go to court have absolutely lost their senses. The reason why they are so mad is to access the money that is available in government house. Is it not the Taraba man that flew a jet and broke his leg? I am discussing the foolishness of the elite. We need to make this type of Taraba example obsolete. It should not be discussed. We need to make the quest for power to be only for those who want it.
My view is that if you give N1 million as allowance in the national assembly many will go and not return. We need to understand that the elites and elite’s structure are the ones who propose people to the tribunal. Of course, they pay lawyers to do the cases. I am tired of unravelling the conflicting decisions. You look at Taraba, you look at Kogi and somebody told me that they will end in absolute mess.
Have you seen any election that is different? It is the same complain that INEC did not bring materials on time or they did not provide enough material. Until we help Nigerians understand that they need to take up arms and begin to exercise their right, Nigeria is not going to change.
In your letter to President Buhari, you noted that many Nigerians feel alienated and disconnected. Don’t you think that is the reason for recent Biafra struggle?
The Biafra thing is not an agitation. People there are very hungry, I am from there. They have been dispossessed and abandoned by different political leaders who deceive them when they come for their votes. APC, PDP and APGA- all kinds of parties deceive them and led them to exactly where they are. The last time I was at the area, I was shocked when I drove around. I was shocked at the level of poverty and unemployment.
So when somebody who is an elite wants to manipulate them, which is what is going on now, they will fall for it. I I think the best case has been explained by Prof. Wole Soyinka. We should not say that this country is indivisible. There is nothing indivisible about Nigeria. If we cannot live together, let us go in pieces. Who is to say that it is indivisible and treason? It is not.
If you were President Buhari, how would you handle the Biafra issue?
If I were President Buhari, I will first find out what the people are agitating. When I know the problem, then I will know how to deal with it and move on. The Nigeria configuration, the Nigeria country, needs to be panel beated around again so that everybody can feel happy.
You will need to assign space and a room in a country called Nigeria. But right now, 180 million Nigerians are outside, they have no room and they can see a few Nigerians eating very well inside a room. So they wonder if it is not their own meal too. The more they eat, the more these men get angry.
The wall separating the two is so huge and the elite keep constructing it and they have reached a position where they just ignore the people and do not care about what the people say. They do what they like and say to hell with you because you will collect their money and vote for them. This is the time to deal with the elite.