Dr. Femi Obayori, an environmentalist and a South-west delegate to the National Conference, spoke with Jaiyeola Andrews, on South-west delegates’ position on derivation formula and status of local governments, among other issues
Do you subscribe to the insinuation that at the end of the national conference, nothing meaningful may be achieved?
For me I think that would be too pessimistic; this conference is a bit different from previous conferences in that it is actually a national conference not a constitutional conference. Whereas it is true that many of the delegates have been nominated by government, but you will also agree with me that you have people coming from two sides, you have groups that are actually nominated, some selected by some people, so it is not as it used to be when people of the same class or same political hues are coming together.
Then secondly, is that at the end of the day what is most important is the outcome of the report of that conference, something that can be handed to the people, something people can hold on to that this is quite different from the previous conference and then become the basis of which those of us who are activists can begin to challenge the status quo, that is if the government refuse to do something back.
And remember also that we are advocating that the report of conference be subjected to popular referendum and it is a generally accepted principle all over the world. The president has told us that effort is being made to get the necessary thing done so that the report can be submitted for referendum. For me the first thing to do is to get a very plain report, something that is radical in fashion from time, something that will show that Nigerians, for once, have come together to negotiate their common existence and I think that is the most important thing.
South-west delegates had once threatened to walk out of the conference, based on their frustration on the devolution committee, what is your position on that?
One of the reasons we are here from time to time as part of the delegates, we are from Kogi State, some of the reasons we are here is to assist Kogi people, we also want restructuring and we think that restructuring in the parliamentary system is better. Power in Nigeria is too concentrated at the centre, we have a federal government that is too powerful and too overbearing and has too many resources at its disposal.
And all the authorities as it is are being used to hold the rest of Nigerians as slaves in their country. The devolution of power is very important and it is central to what we have come to do and I am sure Yorubas are not going to endorse anything that is against their interests; Yorubas are interested in devolution and it is high time everybody becomes interested in devolution, which is not just a game of numbers.
Do you support Northern delegates’ stand on the reduction of derivation to five per cent?
I think they are just grandstanding and it shows clearly one thing, that some people, some sections of the country, benefit from the present report; they benefit from the unitary system that is called the federal system. The unity contributes to the centre and that is the other way now, the federal government fends through the various components of the federation and that is not how federalism should be.
People have often said that most people in Nigeria are not viable. Naturally there’s this concept that we are not viable. We have just been told that Kogi State of all states is potentially the richest state in Nigeria in terms of mineral resources. Those mineral resources are not developed, every part of the country can contribute something and one of the ways to ensure that people actually look inward is this issue of derivation, if you are not contributing, if you are not generating wealth it is interesting to work with what is accrued to you and for me 5 per cent derivation is taking us backward.
Although you have 14 per cent, people are saying they don’t know what the government is using as yardstick. Talking from experience my own pick on that is that we should review it upward up to 50 per cent or more. What it means therefore is that some people will be benefiting at the centre.
We can begin to think of a period of gradual increment from 14 per cent to 30 per cent growth. But for it to be reduced back to 5 per cent is retrogressive and it’s like they feel on their own part that they can’t even contribute to the economy, but they are actually contributing and they have the potential, they are not indolent as a people. I think it’s the leaders that need to put more effort in rehabilitating the efforts of the people, by the time you organise and look inward you can empower the people to create employment to add values to explore your natural resources, develop agriculture so that when you send people to work, then you create opportunity and put your resources into use.
What is your take on the move to scrap local governments?
Well, I think people are getting that wrong, actually nobody has said local government should be scrapped. What the committee has just said is that let local government be the responsibility of the state.
In the federal system, the federating unit is as it is or the region as it is, and when you have that type of situation the state that wants to create a local government, it can create the number of local governments, but we have shortcomings whereby local government also will take allocation from the federal government and I don’t think it is proper, what the committee has said is that look; the federating units are the states; let them create and fund local government.
Look it’s simply because as we are, the military in the past has created local governments. Lagos State for instance has only 30 local governments and Kano that used to be one state, and if you agree with me they don’t have the population of Lagos, they have 70 something or 80 something per cent. Arbitrary creation of state and local government has subsided.
After all the local government is meant to bring government, according to them, closer to the people, which government are you bringing closer to the people? Is it the federal government or the state? And when you look at the local government allocation you will ask yourself what they have been doing. Local governments are supposed to operate at community level and their functions are clearly defined, but you will discover that what they are doing these days is that they want to take the allocation, they will just mismanage it, share some among themselves and apart from paying salaries they don’t even do any other thing.
In some states waste management, market you see it as the burden of the state. For God’s sake, these are the functions the local government should perform for the state indirectly to their thing. It will allow state to create local government and form local government based on the peculiarity of the various community people because as you go down to the grassroots, the culture of the people, their history, their experience as a people, becomes very important and that does not have anything to do with the overall national development.
To what extent has your committee gone on issues at the national conference?
I’m in science and technology committee and specifically on sub-committee on under technology and committee assurance, at the level of my own committee we are committed to report on board committee the preliminary reports to a larger committee and we are into recommendation.
Sometimes, generally in technology we have a lot of paper work that has been done, we have action plans, we have agencies, many of them do not function, many of them are falling and failing and seriously there is not much that we need to do if we feel that those bills have not been passed into law. For instance NAFDAC, which has been established almost 15 years, has not been passed into law, the building has not been completed, it is dilapidated and nothing has been done about the bill, it is still lying there, nothing has been done. So we are proposing that the bill will be passed into law speedily.
Are you not worried over the security challenges facing the nation?
Everybody is worried about the security system. I am equally worried and you will agree with me that when you talk about terrorism in Nigeria we have moved to another level, government itself has admitted that we have the worst case of terrorism in Nigeria where children are targeted and where women are targeted. The people who have been abducted are women and they are teenagers and it portends serious danger particularly during the recent occurrence that most of them are forcefully married off to their abductors in a high level of dehumanisation but generally for security in the country. To me it seems all hands are not on deck to solve the problem of this country.
At times people even over-politicise it along partisan lines, it is either the opposition party is blaming the presidency or the ruling party is blaming the opposition.
We all know that what we have on our hand is not a local issue whereas it could be true that Boko Haram emerged as a local Islamic group that started adopting terrorist method. I think what we have is a movement that has actually evolved into an international Islamic terrorist organisation. You discover that Nigerians have been alleged to have been in Afghanistan as far back as 1990, so if they now have problems in Nigeria it is only natural that international groups will come to their rescue so you won’t be surprised if what we are dealing with is international. You will recall their role in northern Mali and you will also recall that they were very active in Libya in 2011 and even in Syria.
What we are saying is that Nigeria has a population of 170 million and half of the population is following Islam and where they can establish their sharia state and also as the fallback in position if they have problems because of the size of the country, resources of the country. It is part of the global security problem we are confronting as part of the people, that freedom is very important and people must be allowed to air their views. Your know people are looking at it as Nigerian problem or people created Boko Haram in order to harass the people.
I think it’s a very wrong approach, if we have a wrong understanding of a problem, definitely your approach to tackle the problem will be wrong and ineffective for me we have a lot to do internally and we are at a global security crisis but fortunately government needs to do a lot in terms of empowering people in terms of education, empowerment.
The emergence of this Islamic group is a result of neglect of people. 60 per cent of Nigerian people are unemployed and we have about 100 million living below poverty line. Definitely something will crop up somewhere that will attract the youth that are taken out of the production and distribution process.