Chief Olu Falae, seasoned banker, administrator and politician, former Secretary to the Federal Government and one-time Minster of Finance, is a leader of the pan-Yoruba group, Afenifere. He speaks on the state of Nigeria nation, especially on the economy, insecurity and many other crucial national issues. Hakeem Gbadamosi brings some excerpts:
How can we make the country work again?
By insisting that consensus, which was the essence of the independence, should be the essence of our next constitution. What I mean is that the premiers of the three regions in the country had to agree to the form of constitution and intergovernmental arrangements they would have after independence and they agreed; it’s a consensus. But when the military took over they threw away that constitution and the consensus that was its foundation and since then, there has been no other consensual constitution. We have been having imposition by the military which is one-sided and sectional. It was only at the 2014 National Conference that once again, since the scrapping of the Independence Constitution, we were able, as civilians without the military bringing down our heads, to discuss, brainstorm and agree on more than 600 resolutions by consensus, meaning that we did not have to vote on a single resolution. The chairman of the conference, the late Justice Idris Kutigi, put a big ballot box in front of us, boldly written and he told us that if you feel strongly about any resolution and you think or feel we should have a division, you just raise your hand and we will vote. We passed about 622 resolutions and nobody, not one person raised his or her hand to ask for division. Therefore, it is only fair to say that the entire report was agreed by consensus and that is the only way you can make a constitution owned by all Nigerians
The one we are operating is written by the late General Sani Abacha, I don’t know whom he consulted but it is not a constitution that the Yoruba can own. We didn’t have any input in it; therefore, the minimum is that we should now take the report of the national conference and use it as the basis for a new constitution. Some people are making untrue statements that the Confab report was imposed. That was very wicked, cowardly and unfair to us . I recalled at the beginning of the conference, we had a disagreement as to what percentage must a resolution pass before it will be accepted. In the guiding speech which the then President Goodluck Jonathan read to us, he suggested 70 per cent majority but after he left, we had a very robust debate. Some said 70 per cent was an odd percentage that the conventional thing is two-thirds majority, even in United Nations. Where did 70 per cent come from; why not 90 percent? The chairman adjourned the meeting and picked 100 of us whom they called the 100 wise men and women, to go and meet separately, deliberate on that matter and report back to plenary. We withdrew and went elsewhere and we discussed for long time and I proposed that important decisions like political decisions are best taken by consensus and not by any majority because the majority excludes some people who felt strongly not to support it but to vote them out, even 90 per cent. I said we should achieve consensus, which means all of us are comfortable with these proposals and it does not mean all of us are happy with the proposal. It means none of us feel very strongly against it and I think that’s better than a 99 per cent majority, where one person feels very strongly and unhappy about the decision. They added by saying that if it’s going to be consensus, we must also add that any committee that cannot reach consensus, we would lock them up in a room, give them food and drink and keep them there until they reached consensus. They all laughed but I meant it and I am happy to say that my major proposal, consensus, was recommended in the plenary. As it turned out, not once did we vote by any majority; we didn’t vote we agreed by consensus. Therefore, the report is the only one I know; if anybody knows another one, let him produce it that has been agreed by all Nigerians by consensus. It is the only one that qualifies to be used as a basis, which we all support and which Nigerians should support because we all subscribed to the report.
The country has slipped into recession again under the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. What do you think is the problem? Do you think it’s avoidable, in the first instance?
The economy is what you and I are anticipating on a daily basis and there is no magic to it if you want the economy to develop. Look at the parametres and look at your economy. What are your strengths; what are your weaknesses; what do you have as points of growth? We are an agricultural country; at one time, agricultural export was our main earner of foreign exchange (during the 1950 to 1970s). Cocoa, rubber, palm oil, cotton, groundnut, hides and skin were the exports of Nigeria which earned foreign exchange. But when oil came in 1973-1974, the price of oil just exploded and gradually, we abandoned the goose that had been laying the golden egg. We folded our arms and waited for the oil money but unfortunately for us, the production of crude oil is an activity which most Nigerians are not involved in it. White men come with their high equipment and technology, most of it offshore, pump the crude, send it abroad, bring the dollar and the dollar is what we see. Employment generation is minuscule, very small. So, it has not brought the linkages that will create activities elsewhere in the country; that will create employment. Most Nigerians did not even know what was going on but they saw the money and spent it.
It was a long time ago when I was still in government we had been sensing that the major objective of the economy policy must be diversified; that dependence on a single commodity as the major foreign exchange and revenue was very dangerous; that we should go back to basic: encourage agriculture so that it can make its own contribution to both revenue and foreign exchange and even employment generation. We even argued that for the next 30 to 40 years, agriculture is the only sector that has the potential, capacity to accommodate millions of people in employment since oil mining does not employ many people, generate a lot of money and therefore government should push agricultural development and encourage young people to go into agriculture; give them what they need so that they can earn decent income from agriculture. Provide them with infrastructure and what government does is to make sure that power is available, adequate in quantity, affordable in price and stable in supply; that alone will encourage massive industrialisation. If power were available today without much additional investment in industry, in a year or two, manufacturing will grow by more than 20-30 per cent because many factories that have been established and are not functioning because of power, once power is available within six months, they will be back to production. Many of these factories exist; they just shut down. But with availability of power, you can reactivate them and they will start to employ people and producing, increasing tax revenue, increasing demand for raw materials and other things. These are ways of revamping the economy.
So, if we generate enough power in Nigeria today, stable, affordable and available, in less than 12 months manufacturing output will grow by 20-25 per cent and that’s a huge amount of growth. Those who will be employed will be millions; those who will be buying what they are producing to sell will be millions. Like urban transformation, urban centre constitutes the core essence of Yoruba culture. the Yoruba are the most urbanised people in Africa. That may be the result of civil war or whatever, but that’s the fact. If you look at the cities today, not just in Yoruba land but across Nigeria, you will find that most of the towns are not what they should be, infrastructure is not adequate roads are bad the houses are poor; they are inadequate, not sufficient. So, should government now decide to launch an urban transformation programme, which will encourage every landlord to access a low interest loan to improve his house, the quality and standard, will rise, so as to increase his ability to earn rent from new tenants who live in the cities and are paying very high rent because of the shortage of accommodation. So, urban transformation will generate additional housing units at half the cost because the house have already been existing. So, extending it will not cost much as building a new house.
The first thing you’re doing is creating employment with this scheme; once that programme takes off, at least between 10 million and 20 million new jobs will be generated every year. We generate great demand for artisans; very soon there will be a shortage of carpenters and bricklayers. Then, another programme is the youth training scheme, intensive training for artisan, six to nine months, those roaming the streets, you gather them, train them. They can see that jobs are waiting for them when a housing scheme is going on. So, as they are finishing, they are coming to the housing programme.
It is not rocket science to manage the economy if you know what you are doing and committed. So, these are things that can be done and if you ask me what is one thing that should be done to make a great impact on employment and growth in Nigeria, I would say make electricity adequate and affordable because electricity consumption per head is regarded as the best proxy to economic growth in any country and that can be done. Instead of messing around with local contractors, who give contracts to their girlfriends and destroy the country, you call the leading electrical company in the world and tell them you want the power problem solved in the next four years. If they call it $25m, so be it! Within five years, it will pay for itself. So, my heart bleeds when I look at Nigeria and we are fumbling as if we don’t know what to do; it’s a pity.
Insecurity in the country seems to be worsening and affecting the growth of the economy. How should it be tackle?
Begin to generate economic growth and employment like I have said earlier. Launch the urban transformation plan and get 10 million young people off the street by working as artisans. Ten million people, who are not working and start working within 18 months, there will be fewer hoodlums to be recruited into Boko Haram. There will be fewer people to be recruited for kidnapping. I am not saying economic development alone will end crime because there are people who are pathological criminals but they are in the minority; the overwhelming majority are people recruited to crime for survival. In other words, we are forcing them to become criminals. It comes through the government failure to provide for their needs and forcing them to become criminals.
Kidnapping, seemed to be alien to us in this part of the country, is now on the rise and you have been a victim. What do you think is responsible?
I spent a lot of my time in the civil service; in the Federal Ministry of Planning and at a time, I became a director for Economic Planning for Nigeria and in that capacity, I saw the economic potentials of every part of Nigeria. Under the military, General Yakubu Gowon and Gen Olusegun Obasanjo, every state will bring their development projects to me in Lagos to discuss and from there, I saw that the northern states in those days had very ambitious programmes for setting up grazing reserves and watering holes for cattle and their herdsmen. In addition, a place like Lake Chad had some estimate of about a million farmers and herdsmen grazing around it and farming around it. But what has happened? The Sahara desert has never stopped moving into Nigeria and what we tried to do in the past was to slow down the rate of incursion by planting shelter beds. The northern government had the programme of shelter beds, planting special plants that grow in the desert. They were being planted across the North to slow down the rate at which the Sahara was coming but I think in the last 25 years or so, such programme had virtually stopped. Development planning has been stopped; we now hear about the rolling plan. There is no plan you can do in one year unless you want to deceive yourself. Even private companies have five years to 10 years strategic plans, which will show where they want to be in five or t10 years’ time. Many projects last three to five years but if you’re only looking at one year, you’re just deceiving yourself; you cannot grow.
We have abandoned planning and this is another tragedy. So, they don’t plan and the Sahara desert has been moving faster. Places that accommodated farmers and herdsmen some t30 years ago are today completely taken over by sand and desert. Those who were there before, what have they done? Lake Chad started drying off and today, what is left of the Lake Chad? The surface area is less than a quarter of what it used to be. It means if one million people were surviving around it before, a quarter of that population had moved further into the country to look for grassland. So, those are some of the pressures that have been pushing these herdsmen towards us but my argument is that it is the duty of the state government where they come from to take care of the people. If they can no longer provide for these people, it is for you to take part of the money you’re receiving from Abuja on their behalf every month to create grazing reserves and water for your people, but you’re now conniving with them coming down to other people’s domain, causing problems for other people. I also suspect that there are some political manipulations going on because there is no reason. When I was a child, herdsman were our friends; they will bring their cows here and we will be singing with them after they had sold them. They were not threatening anybody but in the last 10 or 50 years, they became violent. They have become a different thing altogether and I suspect that because the President is a Fulani, the ordinary herdsman ignorantly believes that they own everything in Nigeria, including all of us in the country and whatever we own. For example, a few years ago, one of the herdsmen hanging around my farm, met one of my workers and asked him: why I am disturbing them? That I should be planting my maize on one side and allow them to graze on the other side. Even on my own farm? He was proposing that I should share my farm with him. Has such a person got any sense of property right? Did he think he has no right in that place? He thought it’s our land. So, this is a new development for herdsmen to think they own what you have and that you must share what you have with them.
As I have said, there are natural factors responsible for pushing them down South but the state government of where they come always have a responsibility to look after them. When they themselves saw that almajiri was not a good thing, they decided to end it and decided to carry the almajiri from one place to another. So, I think we too should carry the herdsmen from here to where they came from. Herdsmen, who want to sell their cattle, can always come but let them rent a land and fence it and put their cattle in it so that the cattle will not come and disturb me on my farm and I too will not come to disturb them. But to continue to graze cattle freely, no! All nation started like that. Even in the Bible, Abraham and Lots were grazing their cattle all over the place but it is no longer so in Israel. American did the same; the British did the same.
In the last 200 years, civilised men have ended free grazing; we must do the same. There’s no alternative but the present grazer wants it to continue because they want to use us to subsidise their cattle business. As of now, they don’t pay a dime to feed their cattle. The cattle comes to your farm to consume your crop because they believe until the cattle consumes planted crop, it will not have good forage. They believe it and they will deliberately drive them into your farms to consume your rice, cassava and maize. That’s what they believe. In the case of Ondo State and Western Nigeria, I think a law should be in place in the constitution to regulate what we call animal husbandry. It is a state responsibility and not a concurrent matter at all. Each state is totally competent to make a law and regulate how cattle will be driven and sold; this is what we need to do now. Until it is illegal for cattle to be moving around, we will continue to be in trouble. There is no law that says they cannot move around, none. It is dangerous but there is no law that made it criminal.
Why do you think the herdsmen used to come to your farm; is it because to intimidate you or to run you out of business?
I don’t know what they have on their minds but my suspicions is that if we get to the farm, there’s a dam there. So, there’s water all year round and there is grass on the other side of this particular farm. And these are the two things their cattle need: grass and water, especially in the dry season. Both are there, so they see it and want it to be there. In recent times, they are not confining their desires to just grass and water; they now concentrate on my crops: maize, cassava, orange and carry away what they could and then, they destroy the rest, which shows hatred for the owner. I recall about four years ago, they burnt 125 palm trees in my farm. They made individual bonfire around the base of every tree. This would have taken them hours; hours of hard work to get dry wood to put around each palm tree and set the 125 trees on fire. What has cattle got to do with palm tree? It’s not maize or cassava that they want to eat, so they destroyed my crops, kidnapped me; they want to run me down. And you’re talking of unity, how can there be unity between the person who shows that he’s out to destroy your property and farms? And the government said they wanted to set them up as RUGA on our territory! But that will never happen.
A few weeks ago, we had the experience of EndSARS protests across the country. It was later hijacked by hoodlums. Don’t you think the whole exercise was dangerous?
Don’t let us confuse issues; protest is a legitimate and healthy part of any democracy. When I was two weeks old as an undergraduate in the Ibadan in September 1960, I joined my colleagues in marching to Lagos to disrupt a meeting of the House of Representatives because we learnt that our political leaders had signed a secret deal with the British government; that if Britain were to go to war in future, even though Nigeria would have been independent, they would still send troops to go and fight for them. We thought that was a betrayal and thought what they gave us was not independent. And we took it up with them. We marched to the place, protested and disrupted a meeting of House but if it were now, we would be shot. We felt we are the conscience of the nation and that our leaders had betrayed us for signing such a document and that if there was war, we the young ones are the ones who will be sent to go and die. We thought we had a right to go and protest. So, don’t tell me that protest is dangerous; a peaceful protest is healthy; it’s part of democracy.
When a peaceful protest is hijacked, the question is: by who? Surely, it’s not those who organized the peaceful protest; you don’t hijack your own peaceful protest. It is other people who could have been put up by the government to give a dog a bad name and hang it. I was impressed with the way the EndSARS protest was organized; it was matured, peaceful and patriotic. The security people saw that it was developing a lot of protests by behaving responsibly and to destroy and give them a bad name, they organized people and shoot at them. Why did they shoot at them? They were not dangerous, not attacking anybody. They were singing and why did they have to shoot them? That’s the question and it was the military that shot them, so it is the government that disrupted the protest without any justification. So, hijacking came later but who hijacked it? I don’t know but what I know is that the EndSARS protesters are not the people who hijacked the protest; you don’t hijack your own protest. Therefore, what is dangerous is government using violence on peaceful protesters; it’s uncivilised and it is to be condemned. The government must accept its responsibility for the violence that followed the protest.
The President was quoted as saying that he would never accept such protest again. Do you see such statement as being democratic?
He’s not clear what he meant by such a protest. If he meant he would never allow a peaceful protest again, I will advise him to think again because before he became President, he and I went to the National Assembly to protest against the Electoral Act. We’re proposing amendments to the law and he followed me to the National Assembly before he became President. So, a peaceful protest is good; a society that does protest is dead. If he means violent protests, yes. But he should not allow security agents who he controls to go and shoot at peaceful protesters because that was what led to what followed the recent protest. If that’s what he’s saying I support him that never again he will not allow his security people to fire on peaceful protesters and transform peaceful protest to violence. If that’s what he’s saying that’s wonderful.
The exchange rate of the nation’s currency, Naira has skyrocketed in the last few weeks. What should be done to rescue it?
It pains me to talk about this issue, but it shows the reflection of the strength of the economy. If you have a weak economy and you’re artificially propping up the exchange rate, you’re deceiving yourself. This is what I mean: if Nigeria is committing herself to spending $5 billion every month in foreign transactions and you’re only earning $2 billion, that’s huge deficit between what you’re earning and what committed. Inevitably, your currency will come crashing down and if you don’t want that to happen then, find ways of increasing your exports, earning more foreign exchange, bridging that gap and your currency will appreciate; any other thing is artificial. So, I put it in a very simple language that anybody can understand. I can go into the technicality but I don’t want to do that. So, the exchange rate is a reflection of the strength or weakness of your economy. For instance if you’re borrowing other people’s money in billions and thereby committing future foreign exchange earnings of Nigeria to debt servicing and retainment without doing anything to show that you will be able to earn more foreign exchange at that time, there’s nothing you’re going to do your currency is going to crash.
Credit: Nigerian Tribune