Dr Doyin Okupe is a presidential aspirant in 2023 on the platform of the People’s Democratic Party and a one-time Special Adviser to President Olusegun Obansajo and Goodluck Jonathan, as well as one of the elders that waded into the leadership crisis in the PDP. He x-rays the challenges facing Nigeria in this interview with AMOS ESELE. Excerpts:
What would you say about 23 years of democratic practice in Nigeria, given the worsening insecurity, poverty and high unemployment rate in the country?
There is no gainsaying the point that things are bad in the country, but they have not always been so. Since 1998, it has not been this bad. The current situation escalated in the last five years. It may take some years to build something and a few years to tear it down. There may have been foundational errors, as you say, but it is a question of leadership. Between 1999 and up till recently, things were relatively stable. No, hold it, I am not blaming anybody but the truth is that things were not always as bad as they are today. I am just making an assessment.
You have been in politics since the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1998. You were Special Adviser to two Presidents, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan. How would you rate Nigerian politicians?
There is no argument that politicians have been in power for the past 23 years. It is also true that we, the political elite, have not done our very best. But it is not unusual because we do not have a reasonable pedigree of democracy. Democracy in the country was truncated after six years of independence and then after many years of military interregnum, we had to start things afresh. So we have many people in the system who have not been properly trained. And when the military were to leave the scene, they, like any institution, replaced themselves with their own set of leaders. Leaders before the advent of the military and after are different in orientation. Maybe, this is what you mean by a foundational issue. Take an example: When you take somebody who has read up to school certificate and had no tutelage in leadership to become a local government councillor with a salary of N200,000, you can imagine his or her reference point. That is what has happened with many of our senior and junior lawmakers and state governors. So we do not have a leadership cadre that has evolved over time.
How is that to be done?
Look at what happened in a country like Ghana that had a similar experience with military rule. The nature of that country is different from that of Nigeria. Nigeria in comparison is up till today a country and not a nation. But Ghana is a nation. I was there for a long time. So I know what I am saying. Their senators, military rulers, traditional rulers and governors are from the same class. There is a pedigree of leadership and the vision of a nation welded together by the late Kwame Nkrumah. Here, in Nigeria, we have West, East, North, South and the minorities. There is no commitment to the country. Everybody wants to go to the centre and when they go and steal, they are celebrated by their people. The Nigerian problem started from structural maladjustment.
So what is the problem?
There is no elite consensus in Nigeria and we cannot have it until the ruling elite sit down and agree on what to do with the country. Look at Boko Haram, banditry, armed robbery and kidnapping. We cannot even agree on the differentiation of what banditry is, who is a terrorist or kidnapper.
Do you agree with the call for restructuring of the country as the way forward?
The issue of restructuring is a misnomer. I know what many advocates of restructuring want; self-determination and for the regions to look after themselves. That means you have to have a federal system with a centre that supervises the regions. What we need to have are clearly identified units that relate with the centre. That is why I do not talk about it because the very idea that we want the centre to do it would still create a master-servant relationship.
In a federal system, the federating units would say this is what we want and go to the centre and insist on it. Look at the several Constitutions we have had. It is federally suggested. Then the way the current National Assembly is going about the Constitutional Amendment is wrong. That is why the foundation is wrong and attempts to put a superstructure on it will fail. Let every zone come up with a memorandum on what they want and insist on it. Look at the Senate. Can it really consider any such memo? A Senate that in the 21st century has denied the country e-voting. Can we really rely on the National Assembly to do the needful? It cannot because it is lopsided based on unacceptable structure. If the North does not want something, nothing will happen, even if the south insists on it. They have the number. You cannot put a superstructure on that foundation and expect it to work.
In the Benin Republic, the late President Mathieu Kerekou set up a conference to discuss constitutional structure for the country, but the participants declared themselves sovereign and took decisions that led to his exit from office. Don’t you think it can happen in Nigeria, given the current level of agitation and agreement on restructuring?
Look, the Nigerian elite have not decided what to do about Nigeria. What we have here is to struggle for the president to come from your area and you use it to solve the problems of your region. This makes many Nigerians unequal in the country and therefore lesser Nigerians. Even if you were to have a president from the Ijaws, the fourth largest nationality in the country, he can be frustrated. I am talking about a situation in which the fears of such a nationality are contained in the Nigerian context. When a group in the U.S said Nigeria is getting to be a failed state, I do not think they are far from the truth. Why can’t the Nigerian elite sit down and say after Buhari let us agree on what to do with Nigeria?
When Southern governors, irrespective of their political parties, abandoned the philosophy of their parties and said they wanted the president to come from the South in 2023, it meant that if they do not get the presidency, you do not belong. In any case, if the elites were serious about 2023, governors from the North could have come together and agreed to discuss with their southern counterparts and seek to address their fears of marginalisation. No, in Nigeria, what is happening among the elites is deception. When Obasanjo was president, many saw him as representing the Southwest. Now, Buhari is in power, people are saying it is time for the South. We ought to have passed this situation and this deception. That is why the country is suffering today and we cannot stop it with deception.
Banditry, terrorism, cultism, armed robbery are signs that the system has collapsed. Why can’t APC and PDP leaders sink their differences and save this country? Even in the North, none of the Emirs have gone to Zamfara or Kaduna to find out what has to be done to stop the killings going on there. That was how Boko Haram spread. The basic problem is the national elite comprising the politicians, top justices in the judiciary and police and businessmen and women are undecided. Business people will not talk because they do not want to lose a contract. The National Economic Summit Group will hold their conferences and never issue stern warnings on the economy. We are all rent seekers.
You are aspiring to become president in 2023. What are your plans for the country?
I have reacted to what former Head of State Ibrahim Babangida said about the qualities that a future Nigerian president should have, namely age in their 60s, widely travelled and have a network of contacts that makes him at home everywhere in Nigeria. I am widely travelled. There is no local government area I have not visited. I have been extremely close to those whom I served as presidents and know how they made decisions, right or wrong. I have been more than an aide to those I served. I am better prepared than any minister. That is why I said maybe IBB had me in mind when he made that statement. Even at my age, I am 69 and if I get elected by 70, there is no difference between me and those in their 60s.
What has age got to do with it, if you consider that there is a Nigerian law on Not-Too- Young To Run targeted at the youths?
I know that law is to encourage the youths. But there is a place for experience in running a government. There are those who have not run a local government area and want to run a complicated country like Nigeria. The amount of distrust and mistrust we have generated among ourselves in this country will need somebody with the requisite experience. People today talk about giving way to technocrats. No amount of technocratic knowledge can do it all. By my training, I am a technocrat. We should have in mind that technocrats have tunnel vision. But with political experience in addition, you cannot beat that combination.
What is your presidential plan?
My point is that we should stop all this junketing up and down the country and see if we can lead our people to a discussion table. Even if I am not president, I will insist on others on how we can stop this ongoing deceit because If we do not have a nation, all this running around will end up to nothing. I mean there is a majority in the South-East and South-West that say they do not want to be part of the country. Part of the North is under siege. Let’s find a way to solve these problems. People in the South-West have started telling me that they will not vote in 2023 so why am I talking about being president.? Some are my colleagues and others are youths. These are the problems in Nigeria. Even if a small group in this country is uninterested in these matters, we cannot move forward. So we need to find a vision, a set of ideas to galvanise Nigerians into actions to have a nation we can all call our own.
How can a president make the desired impact with these warnings you are giving?
That is why I say we must first of all correct what is on the ground. I am not desperate to become president. We have two years to do so before 2023. If we do not, it would be just deception. There should be a by-partisan structure on the ground to come up with ideas on what we can do and how to do it. Forget about Buhari, he has a few months to go. If Buhari goes and the country is still in this situation, anybody that comes as president will just stay and enjoy himself or herself in the presidential villa.