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‘Let’s bridge the gap between the rich and poor to save Nigeria’

Olorunfunmi. Photo: IKORODUGA

Basorun Reuben Olorunfunmi is a former Assistant Director of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and erstwhile Secretary to Lagos State Government, during the Second Republic. He spoke with SEYE OLUMIDE on the achievements and setbacks that trail Nigeria at 59. The octogenarian also lamented that most Nigerians in public service place their personal interests above that of the country. Excerpts: 

Is Nigeria a country to be proud of at 59?
To some extent, Nigeria has developed as a nation. At least, there are certain areas that we are not lagging behind. For instance, Nigeria had only one university as of 1960 when it got independence, but now there are close to 200 universities and if all those approved had taken off, we would have had over 200 universities.

In the education sector, we are not lagging behind because that is the root of all development. Take the issue of banking. Nigeria developed from stage to stage to where we now talking of a cashless economy, which has actually taken off and it is working fine, particularly with the advent of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), which, by itself, is a global one that Nigeria has benefited from. With it, the cashless policy has been very effective because you can sit inside your room and make a cash transfer to as many people as you wish as long as you have the funds in your account. Our checkbooks last longer in our hands these days. This is an area of development.

Then we had three regions and it later became four after we got independence when the Midwest Region was created. But by and large, when the military came the country was split into states; the first time it was six states in the North and South. But gradually, maybe those in charge who were usually from the north found out that the regions should not be the same and they ended up creating 36 states where 17 are from the south and 19 from the north, which we have till now. I see it as a development because America started with lesser states but it now has 51 states.
 
We have developed but people are saying we should return to the regional arrangement. For me, I don’t see why we should go back to the regions. I was serving at the Central Bank in Maiduguri between 1972 and 1974 when we had the Northeastern State and Musa Usman was the governor but that state has been split into six, which is now known as the northeastern geopolitical zone that comprises Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa, Borno, Yobe and the Taraba States. Do you think those people would agree to go back and make Maiduguri headquarter again? I doubt. So those who are preaching regionalism should examine the area of gradual development whereby either by ethnic splitting or by a combination of factors they have got some sort of independent. Take Borno State; the majority of people there are Beriberi. The majority of those in Adamawa are Fulani and Hausa. If you move to Taraba it is a different story where we have half Christians and half Muslims.

In Borno, for instance, almost 90 per cent of the citizens are Muslims. These people are all happy where they are grouped; so, I don’t know whether those who are talking of regionalism are considering this factor. They are only looking at one aspect that everybody should return to their region and develop its potential and benefit from it, but that is one side of the matter, but what about the other side? We developed into 36 states and somehow we now use six geopolitical zones. Although the constitution does not recognise the zones, they are unconsciously used to group the number of states in the country.

The Southeast, for instance, is claiming that they should have a minimum of six states because others have six. I do not know what criteria the Southeast wants to use to get additional state, because even with the five that they have, their population is still the least. So those who have limited it to five probably have reasons. That is the area of political set up.

 
Nigeria has also improved in the area of human development. In those days one would talk of professors, maybe 20 to 30, but they are now in thousands all over Nigeria. Particularly, people thought that the North is backward, but one area I always use to measure the development of the north is the political terrain. For example, the north is much more politically conscious than the south. You don’t see the north sending someone to the National Assembly who is not one of its first eleven. You won’t also see the north nominating somebody as a minister, even the ones they have now, not being highly qualified. The present governor of Borno State is a university professor and when you look back in those days we are only hearing about Professor Anglo Abdulahhi, Professor Abubakar but they have so many professors now, which is a form development.
 
However, if a country is growing in population and it is not planning to have the administrative and technical infrastructure to match the growth, that is not development and this is a big problem Nigeria is facing. There was a time in Nigeria when we had a development plan. Japan had it in those days and the first was entirely devoted to education; the second to some other things, because they started going to stay in the moon, developed computers and they are now a force to be reckoned with in the world in the area of technology. But Nigeria is yet to do that. Nigeria has not done well in the area of education and we need to work harder. The country is growing but not developing.

For instance, if I have a lot of cassava in this room and I am not using it for anything, it means nothing. As a Nigerian, I will say we have tried at 59, but there is room for improvement. I agreed that the country was doing well during the First Republic in terms of development, but for the military intervention. Although I am one of those who shared the same opinion that the military should take over power those days due to what was happening, today I am regretting it because the soldiers seem to have used the power of the gun to effectively silence many people who could have protested against their excesses. I can say without fear of contradiction that many retired military officers carted away most of the wealth of this nation and if anybody should allow the military to return to the government today, Nigeria will slide into destruction.

 
I have said repeatedly that the model of Nigeria’s democracy is not a government of the people by the people for the people, but it is a government of the rich by the rich and for the rich. That is what we have now and unless a conscious effort is made to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor this nation will not develop. Unfortunately, most of those in the middle class are being dragged down to the lower class and you find those at the top get richer. I am not calling for revolution but the truth is the rich in this nation have acquired such monetary power that they want everything for themselves.

How can we achieve equilibrium and bridge the gap?
Right now there is N30, 000 minimum wage problem, which is yet to be resolved but why N30, 000? It was N18, 000 minimum wage about five years ago, but what is the value of the naira then compared to now? I do not think N30,000 will buy as much as what N18,000 would buy then. A simple definition of the value of money is what it can buy. Five years ago N18,000 would buy more than what N30,000 will buy now. Honestly, I don’t see anything wrong with the N30, 000 minimum wage, because whatever salary we pay to our people, nobody is going to carry it abroad; it is going to circulate within our economy. Why are we getting scared to increase salary? They say it will cause inflation and I wonder, what is inflation?   
 
If I am in charge, I will just announce that I have granted N50, 000 minimum wage and I will urge the National Assembly to look into it and make a law to that effect. This country has the resources to implement the N30,000 minimum wage.

But some governors refused to pay N18,000 minimum wage. How can they now pay N30,000?
We are where we are today because of the level of the understanding of the electorate. Governor Seyi Makinde of Oyo State said something recently and if what is going on in Oyo at present is obtainable elsewhere, Nigeria would have done better over the years. Makinde said his election was done by the people and not by his party. He said people looked at him and they said he is fit; that was why they voted for him, but in most cases, it wasn’t like that.

In Nigeria, the governors almost have powers more than the president. With all due respect to President Muhammadu Buhari, he is upright but then there are other things he needs to govern Nigeria. This word always comes to my mind, which Chief Obafemi Awolowo called mental magnitude. It means that you must have at least a minimum of first degree and a little idea of psychology, social science, law, and others as a leader or president so that when matters come up you will quickly perceive what approach to take and not that people will write bundles, which you will not have the time to read. For Buhari, he has put himself forward to serve but more than 50 percent of those in public service and the ones surrounding him are there to serve their personal pockets.
 
I want to suggest that Buhari should call a meeting of stakeholders and elder statesmen, irrespective of their party affiliations, to discuss the issue of Nigeria. There should be a national dialogue that must examine if there is a need to amend the constitution, which has been very difficult to achieve over the years. Take the case of local government; the president felt the councils are not performing because they are not getting their money and he gave an executive order to that effect. However, some consider it unconstitutional. Because Section 7 of the 1999 Constitution gives the states the power over the local government they are to create, structure and finance. And Section 162 said the allocation for councils should be paid into the account of state and to be shared among them in a joint account. But the government is saying there should be no joint account, which is wrong.

The one they have been ignoring and which is bad is, the portion of the state total revenue should be part of what should be added to the federal allocation before sharing but you hardly hear any state government giving any portion. They have devised many ways to tell you that we are already making a contribution but the constitution says ‘portion’, and this particular clause has been on for years. It was there from 1979 to 1983. The dialogue can look into all these critical issues.

How do you see the demand for restructuring?
When it suits our politicians they talk of restructuring. They use all sorts of terminologies to make this demand but what Nigeria requires today is to fight security. Secondly, we need to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich and the quickest way is not to change the structure of the country; there are several things to do. The central government is overloaded; it should shed part of its functions. The allocation to the states should be increased.

 

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