Olanrewaju Suraju is the chairman of Board of Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) Resource Centre, a non-governmental human capital development organisation. He spoke about the politicisation of development in Nigeria and the struggle with COVID-19.
Nigeria like the rest of the world is battling the coronavirus pandemic, what is your assessment of the response of the federal and state governments so far?
The efforts of government to contain the spread and combat the scourge of coronavirus can simply be classified to the normal Nigerian factor. It is a bag of mix fruits; the good, the bad and the ugly. The government in this context will mean collective pronoun of Federal, States and Local governments. Whereas, the Federal Government can be seen to have displayed some measure of commitment to this, though uncoordinated in its efforts, some state governments are simply getting prepared while others are playing politics and some considering opportunities of making free money from the process rather than responding to the challenges in the public interest. The Local Governments are completely out of the mix. They are simply oblivious of the dire situation of the country and its people. In spite of their closeness to the people, they are not proactive or simply put, lack the capacity to intervene.
It has been 21 years since the return to democratic rule in 1999, what does the response to this COVID -19 crisis say about the successive governments in Nigeria?
Our 21 years of civilian rule has failed to impact in our socio-economic lives. As a matter of fact, the military regimes can be said to have developed more infrastructure than the civilian governments, sadly so. Though, the virus is a major global threat to every country and super powers, the United Nations Secretary General just celebrated the response of Nigeria to the pandemic and showcased that to the world during a recent press conference as update on responses to the pandemic but it is insufficient to rest on our oars. The response under reference was by Lagos State government, though with the active support and encouragement of the Federal Government. Other states across the federation are far below expectation in their responses to the virus. Even, the neighbouring Ogun State with the index case of the virus in Nigeria, still carries on as if nothing is happening. Across the world, evidence has shown the best medicine for the containment of the spread and by extension the best medicine; it is social distancing and stay at home. Whereas the Federal Government took the bold step by declaring the movement restriction, Ogun State manipulated the declaration and played politics of correctness to deferment of the directive and also planning to stagger the restriction. This is a clear indication of lack of direction and insufficient understanding of governance on the part of the governor.
Hundreds of thousands of people who are self-employed and on daily income have been without means of supporting themselves by this lockdown, what do you make of that?
It was very necessary and still very crucial. Nigeria runs the risk of implosion and the earlier we realise this fact, the better for all of us. With the unfortunate relaxation of that lockdown by the state governments, defeating the essence and purpose of the lockdown, is like postponing the evil day. We need to understand. That this is a pandemic and delay in such proactive measure portends greater danger for the people and the nation. The problem is not with the lockdown, like you have seen in many other countries and several Nigerians clamoured for over the social media; the problem is the programme of several governments to address the impacts of the lockdown on those vulnerable Nigerians. Unfortunately, we delve too much, the elites, on the wrong side of the issues. So much attention was focused on the appropriateness or otherwise of the lockdown, after the announcement, rather than monitoring the relief and palliative packages of several governments at different levels. The emergency situation is akin to a state of war and people must be prepared to live with some inconveniences, including staying at home without and off from daily routine. The government is equally losing revenues during the period and it must be viewed from the interest of citizens than against the citizens.
Some Eminent Nigerians and senior lawyers opposed the lockdown declared by President Buhari. What do you think?
It would be irresponsible for anybody to oppose the lockdown, which was even late in coming. Lockdown, especially for a country like Nigeria is just about the most potent measure to get secure enforcement of the social distance and stay at home. With other persuasive and relaxed measure, you saw religious leaders still convening gatherings and misleading the people about the virus, when Rome and Saudi Arabia were not only locked-down, congregations were banned and religious leaders complied. Here in Nigeria, the gathering is not about worships and prayers but more of enterprise and fund raising.
Several billions of Naira have been reportedly donated by private and corporate entities; is there any way of tracking these funds?
I was highly impressed and encouraged by the donations and responses. Government must ensure they all pay the pledges. There should be no going back on what has been publicly declared and documented. There must be accountability and transparency in the utilisation of the donations. This can be considered one of the best and appropriate fund and intervention desirable in our healthcare system nationwide and security for our health workers too. We must not come out of this crisis the same as we went in. There must be positive impacts derived from the supports and experiences.
In 60 years of Nigeria’s independence, arguments abound that the country has not been as divided by ethnic and religious sentiments as it is today under President Muhammadu Buhari, what is your view?
Sadly, the pronouncement, foundation and nurturing of ethnic and religious sentiment was attributable to the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan dating back to his campaign in 2011 and made worse during the 2015 elections. That is the truth and history is there to affirm or controvert my assertions. Unfortunately, the government of President Buhari and his Vice President both added icing to the cake with their appointments based on ethnic and religious considerations. Both have failed to correct the sentiments in their actions and appointments and I am not sure if the country will ever have another opportunity of getting any other government to achieve such feat.
How can we address the glaring ethnic and religious divisions threatening the country today?
It’s such a Herculean task. All the leaders saddled with the responsibility of nation building and unity of the people are profiting from the divisions. The clerics are promoting this division to ensure a stronghold on their congregations and exploit them. The politicians are exploiting this to access power and appointment for personal benefits at the expense of their communities. You will recollect most of those who assume position of power, even from the presidency ended up leaving the power without any significant benefits for their people. Though, their elections and even appointments were achieved with divisive campaign of “it is our turn”. Ask the South West people about President Olusegun Obasanjo’s two-term in office and ask the South-South about the government of Goodluck Jonathan. Their states (Ogun and Bayelsa) are living examples of those experiences.
The root of this division is incompetence and greed. The incompetent aspirants and greedy religious and traditional leaders’ resort to inciting people and encouraging them to support their interest, under the guise of community interest. We should assist the citizens to understand the implications of this mediocrity of their supposed leader and expose their exploitation with empirical evidence. These sentiments are of equal gravity, if not worse, at the states level than the federal.
What recommendations can you make that you believe will bring Nigeria to those days, like the old national anthem said “though tribe and tongue differ, in brotherhood we stand”, that is assuming tribe and tongue were never issues among Nigerians?
The citizens should be educated and sensitised to understand politics of merit over sentiment and mundane consideration of ethnic and religious biases. Patriotic Nigerians are charged to expose the fraudulent religious and political leaders exploiting these sentiments at the expense of innocent citizens for who they are. And, our demands of government should be based on national interest and not ethnic and religious point of view. Many of the leaders and position occupiers forget about this sentiment immediately on assumption of their offices or engagement with fellows from opposing camp, until it is time for another election. Finally, the government and political class should be compelled to institutionalise democracy and good governance. Media and Civil Society can achieve this by holding them accountable in their actions and not allow for ethnic and religious sentiments in the failure and mis-governance that is pervasive across the levels of governments and tiers of governments.
The South East of Nigeria believe that 2023 is the right time for a president of Igbo extraction, what do you think?
I would rather not want to contradict myself by approbating and reprobating at the same time. There should be equity and justice in the system, no doubt but I have never been part of ethnic or religious consideration in the appointments or election of leaders. In a situation where the constitution has recognised federal character, which is a reflection of how much we have elevated mediocrity into our constitution, that is fine in appointive consideration. In terms of the election and presidential consideration come 2023, my position would be for the South East to be united and come forward with a formidable candidate that would appeal across board. I personally have a list of personalities of credible and impeachable character from the South East I can support to lead the country come 2023, over and above those ‘frontrunners’ from the South West and the North. I would never, concede to ethnic sentiment and blackmail of sacrificing competence and integrity for ethnic or religious considerations.
The war against terrorist Boko Haram group has stretched without end and some people feel the reason is that the war has become a lucrative business, what is your view?
The emergency, response and war against Boko Haram has always been a lucrative business for both the military hierarchy and politicians alike. This government came with the rays of hope and commendable responses to the war in the early days but seems to be bugged by the same affliction that affected its predecessor. The President seems to have completely lost control and at wits end in taking the fight forward. It is a sad reality to see some of the gains reversed and failure to change leadership of the armed forces. The Nigerian factor of diminishing returns has crept into the performances of the Service Chiefs and the President certainly is not seeing or lacks the capacity to identify new officers to take over from them and inject new zeal, vigour and drive into the leadership of the armed forces and protection of the country’s territorial integrity. This is why you would have the military calling for “national” prayer to overcome insurgency. That is more than sufficient enough for the president to have retired the leadership and advise them to take up religious leadership or even advisor to the military.
Credit: Sun Newspaper