By Ikeddy Isiguzo
Mr. Oseloka H. Obaze is a diplomat, writer, public policy and governance expert and politician. He is the MD/CEO of Selonnes Consult, a policy, governance and management consulting firm. He was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in the Anambra State governorship election in 2017. A former United Nations official, he served as Secretary to the Anambra State Government under Governor Peter Obi and Governor Willie Obiano from 2012 to 2015. In this interview, Obaze responds to questions on politics, his personality and pressing national and continental challenges.
Nigeria will be sixty in a few days. Are you thrilled? How well have we done as a nation?
In the past several years, Nigeria has suffered a severe reverse in governance in every ramification. There is seeming movement, but hardly any discernible progress in term of substantive change. Rather the country has regressed in various aspects of governance. Two things have happened, and both are defeatist: the incumbent leadership is under the illusion that it is bringing about change, but that is hardly the case. And the national elite and attentive public have suddenly gone quiet, which is acquiescence, even if by default. Both trends are dangerous for the nation. But far more dangerous, is the ramped-up insecurity and polarization in the country. The increasing demand to restructure or risk balkanisation is a tale-tell sign that all is not well. Such tendencies should give us pause.
Nigeria’s economy is obviously in comatose. It could be said that this has an immediate and remote cause. What indices are responsible for this and how can our economy be rejigged?
Leadership indiscipline at all levels is our bane. But we must also begin to look closely at the negative impact fostered by bad followers. It is the bad followers that elect bad leaders; and support and sustain them in office. Fiscal, and economic discipline will be imperative. Federal, State and Local government cannot spend more than they generate. We can start by making zero-based budget and budgetary transparency mandatory. Then we can focus on public procurement policies and the implementation methodologies. The emolument of public officials, especially the legislative branch is hugely embarrassing. Recently a serving minister made a public personal donation of N11 million to a relief cause. The question that arises is this: how much a minister’s monthly salary? I would suggest that we have a Common Regimentation Emolument Structure Table (CREST) where a Senator is ranked with General of the Army, a Supreme Court Judge, a Minister, the Inspector General of Police and Heads of Statutory Agencies. They should all earn the same salary and the same prescribed perk and perquisites. We are wasting a lot of resources on recurrent expenditure and far less on infrastructure and capital development. We must scrap the two-tier foreign exchange regime and allow the market forces to drive the economy. Economic and political reforms are imperative and one word for that is restructuring. Power and resource control need to devolve more to the regions and states. We already have NDDC and NEDC, we must complete the mosaic by setting up SWDC and SEDC, thus replicating the functional regional arrangements of the First Republic, which served us well in terms of development. For now, the Central Government is too powerful. In a democracy, that is a contradiction of subsisting tenets.
Considering the position of the South East in Nigerian politics, do you see the possibility of an Igbo man becoming the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2023? Should we rather clamour for Restructuring?
Unquestionably yes. An Igbo person can become Nigeria’s President. We need a President of Igbo extraction not an Igbo President as some aver. The latter is too frightening for some Nigerians. Yet the Igbo nation must rally to a consensus and speak with one voice. There are sufficiently compelling reasons to believe that the Presidency will devolve to the south in 2023. But there will be high contestations for the slot between the three zones in the South. There will also be “spoilers” who will opt for the vice-presidency slot, thus confusing matters. The position of the south-east needs to be strategically and tactically managed. We cannot take anything or any support for granted. That said, the south as a collective, has to be strategic in handling this matter. Once you encounter an intra-south jostling and bickering, the default option will kick in, which is to maintain the status quo. That will be utterly unacceptable. Contextually, Nigeria must restructure or risk disintegrating. As I see it, restructuring will be incremental rather than a one-off formed event. We already see that manifesting in the security sector reform and governance.
In the question before the last one, you talked about restructuring and in the last question, you also talked about restructuring as a response. It appears restructuring mean different things to different people. In the two contexts above, what kind of restructuring did you mean?
Simply, we need to fine tune our governance and power and resource sharing modalities. Call it whatever name you want. Nigeria as presently constituted and governed is largely dysfunctional. That need to change. Restructuring means different things to different ethnicities and vested interests. It scares the hell out of some Nigerians. I don’t believe restructuring means the balkanisation of Nigeria, even as that remains a remote possibility. We can either come together and agree on change modalities, or risk that happening by default, which may lead to catastrophic implosion of the country. All said, we are long overdue for a change in our governance and power sharing modalities.
The debt profile of most African countries is on the rise. Where does this leave Africa as a continent?
Africa must continue to look inwards. Intra-African trade capacity is huge and sufficiently broad to serve Africa. There is an inevitable nexus between Africa’s external trade deficit and its growing indebtedness to Western nations and more troubling, to China. With the African Trade Agreement in place, African nations need to collaborate more closely to avoid being entrapped in a collective debt peonage. As things stand, Africa’s debt overhang is already huge and troubling. The optics are not salutary, so we need to change the narrative quickly.
With your experience, what do you think Africa needs to do better to get things right?
Africa has shining exemplars in some emerging leaders and nations. Rwandan and Ethiopian leaders and countries are validators. Where you elect good leaders, good governance and sustainability will follow. External interests will not develop Africa for us. Our aspirations, policies and governance methodologies must be unapologetically Afrocentric. Quite unfortunately, we cannot say that of our country Nigeria any longer. Once Africa’s bellwether, Nigeria has lost that credential, and sadly so.
Were you elated about the reopening of Enugu airport. South East leaders seemed upbeat about it. Incidentally, the reopening of the airport coincided with the killings of some Igbo youths suspected to be IPOB sympathizers. South East governors did not collectively react to the killings. Was that right?
I am happy for South Easterners who suffered immeasurably due to the closing of the airport. Beyond that I see nothing to celebrate. If the reopened airport does not really become international with at least three foreign airlines landing there, then we are not serious. In the ream of policy there has been obvious double standards; when Abuja airport was closed airport was upgraded to handle the additional traffic. When Enugu airport was closed neither the Asaba airport nor Owerri airport was upgraded. Go figure that one out.
It is also regrettable that the recent killing of Igbo youths in Enugu only garnered nuanced reaction from the South East leaders. It is most disconcerting that for the sake of political correctness, our leaders demur when they ought to speak up. Constitutionally, every Nigerian, regardless of tribe, religion, or gender is afforded freedom of assembly, faith and speech. Political belief and ideology are also subsumed within the freedom of thought. Hence, when the security operatives kill innocent, unarmed and defenceless Nigerians as was the case with the killing of Igbo youths recently in the so-called IPOB-Police incident in Enugu, we must speak up. Not to condemn such unbridled used of deadly force in the strongest terms, is to allow impunity to become deeply entrenched. We must continue to speak truth to power.
Some claim that Anambra State is now in utter bad shape. You were an insider as former three-time Secretary to Anambra State government. When you were in government things ran smoothly, what changed?
As the Secretary to the State Government, SSG, I had a synoptic job description, which was “fostering policy coherence and coordination and problem solving.“ My job and position required of me as a public servant and technocrat to be a professional to the core; and a PRO – persistent, resilient and optimistic. I will not blow my own horn of my accomplishments, but the policy options, undertakings and accomplishments during my tenure are amply documented in my 2015 book, Here To Serve. Of my greatest accomplishments: I helped Governor Peter Obi to finish strong and Governor Willie Obiano to start strong and hit the ground running. In all modesty, when I left, the Obiano government literarily went off the good governance trajectory.
How was it that “the Obiano government literally went off the good governance trajectory”? Can you expatiate?
I do not wish to court controversy. Obiano arrived to vie for Governor unprepared and without a blueprint or manifesto. It was my campaign blueprint and manifesto that Gov. Peter Obi took and gave to him and it was adapted and reformulated into what eventually became the Obiano Blueprint. Naturally, there were additional input, but the core premise was based on my notion of governance. The young man assigned to rewrite that template was a member of my campaign and strategic team. At the outset, I had ample leeway to advise on policy formulation and implementation, with a hard focus on cohesiveness, coordination and due process. When I left, these three variables derailed, governance became freewheeling and transactional. The difference was that as former schoolmates, age mate and friend, I could look the Governor straight in the face and honestly tell him what was working and what was not. He did not always like it; be he knew I was honest and selfless about governance. Good governance is not about political sloganeering, which works well during campaigns, but is a suspect attribute of justifying governance performance that ought to be self-evident.
You ran for Governor of Anambra State twice in 2013, 2017 and rumours have it you may yet run in 2021. Some say that as former diplomat you are too gentle and not cut for the wheeling and dealing rough-and-tumble Anambra politics. Indeed, though you are an acclaimed technocrat, why did you enter the fray of partisan politics after a successful career as a Diplomat?
If you desire to serve you must do so from within and from a position where you can add value. I was a child of two public servants. So, I have always believed in public service. I had done so, supporting my principals at the federal, international and state levels. Running for office was aimed at serving by being at the helm to articulate and drive public policies rather than merely implementing policies articulated by others. Above all, I wanted to add value by bringing on board, international best practices related to good governance.
Looking to 2021 and beyond, from your experience you fared better in 2017 even though you lost. In 2013, you were literarily knocked out of the race. In hindsight, what were the lessons learned?
In 2013, I was knocked out of the race deliberately, and on technical grounds. I did not have a voters’ card. Only INEC could issue me one, and they shifted the issuance date. I certainly could not have presented a fake card or lied that I possessed one. I had a window of opportunity to rectify the situation, but those in APGA who were against my emergence pulled the plug before the fact. In 2017, I followed due process, ran, won the PDP nomination, but some powers that be, indeed some major PDP stakeholders within and outside Anambra, mostly for selfish personal or sectional interests opted to align with the ruling APGA party. They could not countenance a supposed outsider winning the PDP primaries, even though it was free and fair and nationally televised. I lost an election PDP was all set to win; losing had nothing to do with the power of incumbency, but more with subterfuge, in INEC, within PDP and by the ruling party. The Federal Might was squarely deployed against us at the last minute to garner a win for APGA and assign APC the second place. I might have lost the election, but Anambra as history has shown, was the biggest loser.
Can you speak more candidly and with specificity on what you refer to “subterfuge”, more so since you did not legally contest the electoral outcome?
My take is that it’s the people and not the Courts that elect leaders. Unfortunately, by default we have subscribed to judicial supremacy in electoral matters thus making the judiciary at all levels the Electoral College. Going to court is expensive, distractive and always with an indeterminate outcome, not based on facts or reality. So why waste my time and resources, and for that matter, Anambra State resources? It did not make any sense. My position has since been validated by court rulings on the 2019 presidential elections, and recent court rulings on the Imo and Kogi State Governorship elections.
Now that we have your undivided attention can you end the speculation as to whether you will run for the Governorship of Anambra State in 2021?
In life, you never ever say never! Doing so may prove precipitate and unrealistic. My options remain on the table and indeed remain open. I’m very sympathetic to the clamour of zoning aimed at allowing the South senatorial zone to produce the next governor. But the South must also admit that in the past, they have never offered other zones the sanctity and unfettered space they now seek. It seems all too convenient. More importantly, what Anambra needs now is a capable leader, not a person elected on partisan, sectional, religious or gender sentiments. If the truth be told, Anambra is in very bad shape than most people know, and it will only worsen unless we elect a good administrator, who is fiscally disciplined and understand the inner workings of bureaucratic governance. I feel sorry for anyone who might succeed Obiano, myself included, which is not to say I’m already running.
Your party PDP seems to be immersed in very deep and factionalising controversy over the issue of zoning. Some power brokers and even some Traditional Rulers have been drawn into the controversy. Speak to us about zoning since some believe your candidacy in 2017 was predicated on zoning, and that it should now be the turn of the South?
Zoning has its utility in prescribed circumstances. It ought not become a preferential policy and in that sense defeatist. Let me repeat what I have said consistently in the context of zoning in Anambra. The South Senatorial zone is not bereft of competent politicians who can be governors. What PDP needs is to put its best foot forwards in order to wrestle power away from the ruling party. As such, to win, PDP must present its best candidate and a united front, the zone from which the candidate emerges notwithstanding. The risk we face, is the possible polarization and fracturing of the party as is happening now, over presumptive zoning arrangements. If I recall correctly, since 1999 PDP aspirants from the three Senatorial zone have always competed for the ticket. It happened in 2013 and 2017 so I don’t think it will be any different in 2021. Yet the inherent danger will manifest, if the South senatorial decides to scuttle the chances of a person who emerges as the PPD candidate, but is not from the Southern senatorial zone. Were that to happen, the PDP will remain in the doghouse and in political opposition for another four years and perhaps, longer than that. The corollary is that APC and YPP will continue to wax stronger as opposition elements in the State. Personally, what I seek is good governance in Anambra. There are capable people in PDP who can govern Anambra well, of which I can humbly count myself as one.
We are certain you are aware of what transpired when Arthur Eze took some Traditional Rulers to Abuja to pay President Buhari a visit and the controversy that ensued. Does such happenstance and posturing augur well for Anambra ahead of the 2021 elections? Was Governor Willie Obiano’s reaction germane to peace and stability?
As a matter of personal policy and principles, I decided after the 2017 governorship election not to comment on the activities of the Anambra State government, for good or bad, despite being in the opposition. I will stand on that premise. However, insofar as it relates to 2021 governorship electioneering, I must say that ‘all politics is local.’ Routinely, the rich, mighty and powerful in Anambra State play a very divisive and dangerous type of “helicopter politics.” They pull plugs and punches in Abuja, often to their own advantage but inimical to Anambra State’s collective interests. I don’t see Dangote, Adenuga, Adeyeye, Otedola, Elumelu and others doing that in their respective states. If theses power brokers wished to run the state as their individual fiefdoms, the least they can do is subject themselves to electoral suffrage. Mike Bloomberg, a U.S. billionaire ran and served as Mayor of New York City and eventually ran for the presidency. We need to imbibe international best practices.