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Why the Nigerian nation is not making progress, by Fred Egbe

By Innocent Anaba
Friday, November 21, 2003

Mr Fred Egbe, a Lagos based lawyer, is not given to much talking, save for the fact that he will shout it in on the roof top, that he is a victim of the judiciary conspiracy, claiming that he was arrested in Lagos and taken to Abuja in 1999, and arraigned before the Failed Bank Tribunal for allegedly stealing a cold room, in Lagos, all because he dared criticize the judgement of the Supreme Court. In that case, it was late Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Chief Bola Ige (SAN) who was his counsel. He did not speak on his ordeal in the hands of the Failed Bank Tribunal in this interview, but preferred to raise issues for the forthcoming Commonwealth ministers meeting holding in the country next month, noting that it should provide an opportunity for Nigeria to press for the repatriation of looted money, most of which are still trapped in European banks.

He noted that the present government has not done much to improve on the standard of living of the ordinary citizen.


Nigeria turned 43 last month. Can you assess how far we have come as a country.

This is a very interesting issue you have raised: Have we made progress at 43? I have been reading all the editorials in the various newspapers and I think the general consensus is that our expectations have not been realised. Let me take the President to task, because it looks as though he was talking about people who see nothing good about this nation. People are complaining about everything. Let me please beg him to be receptive to criticism. Let us remind him that there is a lot to complain about in this country.

 Let us remind him that his government does not pay the average Nigerian enough money for the man to feed himself, to house himself, to transport himself to work and to look after himself when he is ill and to look after, one, his wife and, two, his children. I am not aware of any full time employee of the federal government who can boast that he has all these amenities, it doesnít exist. The ordinary person may begin to ask himself, what is this whole government all about. Of course, all we read is that a few individuals have made away with large amount of money.

The process of government seems to be just to make money for some individuals who exploit its facilities. In those days, 43 years under colonial rule, we were complaining about the exploitation and misuse of Nigeriaís resources. They sold our cocoa, rubber, and put the money in reserve accounts in London for the benefit of the Nigerian people. Some of the money was repatriated subsequently after independence. Today what do we do, we just carry the cocoa and rubber and sell it and put the money in our own private bank accounts abroad. The money doesnít even come here at all. So, we have not made that much progress. In fact, we have not made the measure of progress that we should have made.

Look at the disparity: People who say they are the Assemblymen. They vote for themselves huge sums of money that has nothing to do with their needs, it has nothing to do with their contribution, it is not in anyway related to the situation in the country they serve or the work they do. Donít you see the money we get to know about when they were fighting. You saw the amount of money one was paying the other, ostensibly for doing non-existing work. It is mind bugling. Is that the way to govern a people, no, it is not at all. It is a terrible way to govern a people. And the people of this nation have a right to protest and when they protest, they should be listened to.

So, the answer is that, we have not made the kind of progress that we ought to have made and we have in fact not realised the legitimate expectations that we fought for to gain independence.

Why do you think we have not progressed. Who should we blamed: The leaders or the followers?

You should blame everybody, because some people say that a people gets the quality of government they deserve. That is not necessarily true, because you will see that in Russia under Stalin, and you take the whole of East Germany, some times, oppressed people do not deserve the oppression of the government they have. But if you now apply this to Nigeria, I think you should blame both the leaders and the followers. I think after a while, the country lost its real drive. Well, if we had political parties we all subscribe to it, we have ideas as to what we want, we then try and put these ideas into practice through our political leadership, by harnessing our resources and applying them, so as to achieve what we collectively want as a people. We were not given enough time to acquire the experience and first of all, we made initial mistakes in our political arrangement, in which the quality of merit was removed from advancement. That was a big mistake, because it had a debilitating effect on our institutions, which is part of the problem we are still suffering today.

The second problem was that before we went far, all the political parties were disbanded, we then had in charge of our affairs, a people who did not have any particular link with grassroots requirement. Mind you, there was a time in Africa when it was generally feasible and very fashionable to utilise the military as agents of development. This was because some people thought the soldiers were radical, they did not have this ethnic consideration or background, they had a central discipline to which they responded, they did not have the vices that was so common place in the general population. But how wrong we all were. We now discover that what the soldiers did was to multiply all the vices we had, without any semblance of understanding the political situation confronting us. So, that, to a very large extent, caused our inability to forge institutions to fight and realise our ambition and to develop ourselves as a people. So the problem is leadership, followership, the intervention of various institutions, total mismanagement of our destiny and our nation. That was and is still the problem.

Have our leaders governed us well. Have they been able to fight for the upliftment of the common man or they have impoverished us the more?

You cannot talk about our leaders in that general terms. You will have to isolate them, because the performance has not been the same throughout. Of all, the first leader, the one I think scored the highest mark, is Sadauna. You see Ahmadu Bello was very conscious about reflecting the aspiration of his people in Northern Nigeria and enhancing their position in Nigeria. Today nearly every Northerner in Nigeria is a beneficiary of Ahmadu Belloís vision and his strong and assiduous manner. He sought to fight for the people of Northern Nigeria. The people of Southern Nigeria can be divided into two broad spectrums. The Yoruba also under Awolowo fought a real guarded action, in which they wanted a certain amount of regionalism and an environment in which they could develop themselves. Donít forget at that time, the Yorubaís were educational the most advanced people. It was Sadauna who was applying Awolowoís blue print to its proper and logical conclusion and to the greater benefit of the Hausa people. The Igboís had of course, far sighted leader in those days. We began life in those days as Zikists and we were black people, not Africans. We talk about the black race, their struggle for freedom. Later on, we became Africans. In London in those days, we were African students, we did not even reckon with Nigeria; Nigeria was too small. But what happened eventually, we have now become village people.

Today look at us fighting about tribe, about ethnic group. You see how far we have come down. So in that context of course, some leaders succeeded, other leaders did not achieve as much as they promised. Zik was one man who could have achieved a great deal, because he had a clear field, he had vision, knowledge and followership. He did not achieve half of what he should have achieved. When we talk of leaders, I donít regard all these military adventurers, people like Gowon and those who followed after him. I see them as creatures of opportunities, who came in, did not understand what the problem was.

But again, you should give Gowon credit. Gowon was infact a very discreet human being. I always know that he will be a nice person. I know him, when he was at Sandhurst and he and one Okwechime, they were all soldiers. They came in, and we were the politician. You see how ironical it has become, we were the students, but he was not a politician. We then were arguing, because there was this question of whether a Nigerian soldier would attack a Nigeria mob or demonstrators at the instance of a white commanding officer. Okwechime did not answer that, but Godown did. Gowon was very forthright. He said once a wire was put demarcating a no go area, he said that if anybody crossed that line, even if it was his father, he said he will deal with such a person.

Gowon was a very straight forward, a very courageous fine officer and a credit to any particular force. But after him, oh God keep us, after him we had all sorts of strange people. After him, the officers became one of self advancement and self aggrandisement. Today, one man has $100 million in a foreign account. What is that? And this present leader says they can keep part of it, is that leadership. Which country in the world is led like that. They are just nothing but exercising public stealing. The whole thing has gone soar, very wrong. So you can't talk about leaders in that sense. You must demarcate and isolate and make individual judgement. That is the position in this country.

Nigeria is hosting the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Abuja next month. What should be the main focus of that meeting?

First of all, let me make one comment. Nigerians are abysmal, they have no organisation. Let us hope that when this conference begins, there will be a place for them to stay. I donít think Nigeria should just put the Queen in some temporary accommodation, while you are trying to finish the building. I donít think that will work. She is not used to that kind of treatment. So, let them understand this before we start, before they disgrace us again. The foreign minister made the point that there will be a question of looted funds. That is a very interesting point, because we are the victims. You see what our leaders have done to us. You see the way our leaders have disgraced us. First, our leaders take our money, put it abroad. We then earn the reputation of being a corrupt country.

 The money does not serve us, those who abuse us are those who are holding the money. Can you hear anything more stupid, can you imagine how stupid we are, those who are benefitting from our money are those who abuse us as being stupid people, all because of the action of your former leaders. So, the question of looted funds and the hypocrisy of metropolitan powers, hypocrisy of countries like Britain, who are the custodian of those monies, who are the beneficiaries of those monies, are the ones who abuse us. The interest on the money that is in England alone, that they know is stolen, the interest alone is more than the foreign aid that Britain has given Nigerians over the years. Now, does that make sense to you. So, who is being deceived. Why do they think we are so stupid.

Secondly, the problem of human rights. Again, foreign governments are actually duplicitous and dubious in this business. Britain for instance will watch Mugabe, totally annihilate the Matabelis in Bulawayo, his own people, and Britain will say nothing, and if Mugabe kills his people, ill-treat them, nothing is said. But let one white farmer be approached by Mugabe, they shout to the whole world. That is not right, because we must avoid this kind of thinking that black people donít count. That when black governments treat their people badly, you can turn a blind eye, you canít do that. The Commonwealth must institutionalise opportunities for the enforcement of human rights at a personal level.

 They must be able to entertain applications and protests from individual Commonwealth citizens, who have complaints against their government and they should be able to pass resolutions, condemning governments that perpetuate human rights abuses. They must also create a machinery for enforcing human rights at a personal level. Whether they will create a Commonwealth court, like the international criminal court, so that those who conspired to hang Saro Wiwa can still be tried for a crime against humanity. The commonwealth should also have a court where human rights applications are entertained and measures are fashioned for the enforcement of such rights. I have written a petitions to the Commonwealth Sceretary-General, Don MacKinnon about the abuse to which I suffered in the past four/five years. All I got was a reply that the matter has been brought to his attention. If there was an institution to which I can process that report, then that should be the first report that should be filed at this meeting.

Again, trade. Why are Europeans so anxious to subsidise their people and at the same time, asking us to abandon subsidy. Can you see the double standard they are applying here. Why should we allow that? So, there are many issues that can be raised at this commonwealth meeting for the benefit of Nigeria. Which ever way you do it, we must be able to provide for our people, efficient administration, so that our legitimate expectations can be realised. White people will not abandon the interest of their people to look after you. They cannot forget those who voted for them. They cannot forget whose interest they must protect. So, if you think we asked for independence so as to allow white people to look after us, it is a big mistake. When a Nigerian is sick, he goes to the hospital in England.

When he produces his children, he sends then to school in England. When he wants to go on holiday, he goes to holiday in England. When he wants to do everything, he goes to England. Why then did we ask for independence, why? Because it would have been cheaper if we had just told them to carry on. The Europeans know what is happening. They are embarrassed by the number of people like us who go there. Some of us die while trying to get there. We take all sorts of risks because we want to go to England. Is that a life anybody should be proud of. Is that something the leaders of this country can be proud of?

Recently, the Federal Government indirectly increased the prices of petroleum products, by its so called deregulation policy. What do you make of it?

Let me tell you something, I had voted for Obasanjo twice, most Yorubaís voted for him only once and most Hausaís voted only once. I am waiting for Obasanjo to perform. There are many of us that do not have tribal battalion backing us. We do not have building advantages, we are just ordinary Nigerians and very happy to be ordinary Nigerians. We donít want contracts, we donít want public offices, we donít want favours, we just want basic good governance. We want public money to be spent for public purposes. We want to do that which is right. We want roads, bridges, hospitals, schools. When is Obasanjo going to do all of that.

Every minute, he keeps increasing the price of fuel, is that what government is all about? That is what he is famous for now, let him not go down in history as one man whoís primary concern was the price of petrol. He has to find other things to do as well. We are waiting for him to deliver. And the argument for the increase of price of fuel is not a convincing one. People are smuggling, well if people are smuggling, is that not a weakness of government, is it not the business of government to guard its borders. You canít say that people are smuggling oil, therefore you want to charge people more for it here. You say subsidy, everybody is being subsidised in this country, from those who carry a hundred million dollars abroad and keep it, those assembly men who are collecting millions, that is subsidy. If subsidy is good for one, why not for the others. At the position we are, let us not begin to look for trouble needlessly. Let us get down to better government administration. We are waiting for Obasanjo to perform. We are waiting for him to carry out the basic reforms he promised. He said so in his inaugural speech. He should come and begin to take them one by one. I said I will do this, I have done it.

When is he going to provide the average Nigeria three square meals a day, a roof over his head, medicine, school for his children, transportation to work, that is what he must do and prevent all these sacred cows from stealing our money and abusing power, when is he going to do that. Every Nigerian has a mute damage, you know why? Nigerians live in fear, fear of the policeman, fear of the crocked judge, fear of soldiers, fear of permanent secretary. What sort of life is this, when are we going to be free in this society, when is the ordinary person going to enjoy the freedom of being proud enough to say I am a Nigerian, I do not want to live in fear, I will not fear to live, when are we going to have that. Is he not supposed to work towards that or is he going to announce at the end of his second term, that he did not realize how serious the problems were again, is that what he is going to say.

On the zoning of the presidency, which zone do you think should present the next president.

I must say that zoning is a backward arrangement. But let me tell you, if we must zone, let us zone properly, let us do it in a style and awareness that is logical. There is no argument for any other group, except the Igbos. So, the Igbos should present the president come 2007. Because the Igbos themselves are one of the major tribes. They have a right to produce the president. Are you going to say zone minus the Igbo, donít you think the Igbos form part of Nigeria. If they form part of Nigeria, then it is their turn, that is my very humble submission. And all those who mean well for this nation must put their hands together to make sure that an Igbo candidate is the one we vote for, if we follow the question of zoning. You canít pretend the Igbos donít exist, you cant pretend they donít belong, they do.



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