Being, the concluding part of the interview with elderstatesman, Chief Philip Asiodu.
We started assembling before South Korea, today we import Korean cars. This is what happens when you do not stick to the discipline of planning. We then negotiated in reducing 100 percent concession with the oil companies. We later reduced it to 45 and 50. I was a principal negotiator. That was going to give us more money, but Gowon was removed within four months.
The trillions and millions you hear about today, did not come under Gowon. But under Gowon, the Ring Roads, new airports and other things were built. There was expansion of schools also. Remember that oil was about 14 dollars per barrel before Gowon left. What have we done since Gowon left? Maybe the road infrastructure in Abuja.
We heard the President saying that 150 billion dollars was stolen, it may be more than that. The point is that we did not have a proper independent public service as a guardian of national interest. In a developing country we don’t need different think-tanks, we are supposed to have a limited pool of people, and these people are to be found in the civil service. They are to analyse and offer the best policy advice.
Can you now proffer solutions to the economic difficulties confronting the nation?
Our economic challenges are over stated. We live in the world and we are not alone in that crisis.
Stimulating the economy
When I first got to the ministry of petroleum, oil was two dollars per barrel. It rose to three dollars. What happened from 2000 to now when oil rose from over 100 dollars before slumping to 50dollars, is very unusual.
I personally believe that if we reined in corruption, inflation of cost of public procurement and try quickly to make proper power available at constant prices, things will get better. We should also try to stimulate the economy even at 50 or 40 dollars per barrel, Nigeria will have enough money to run a good and accelerated developing economy.
How many of our neighbours are exporting oil? Are they not existing?
Some are even flourishing more than us. So, I think the key is to serve a notice that we would not condone this unsustainable level of corruption.
The kind of corruption going on the country is competitive. I was a member of the Presidential Advisory Council set up when Jonathan became President. We disbanded ourselves when he won election. And so I know that the budget of the National Assembly in 2000 was probably about N19 billion both recurrent and capital expenditure. By 2010 it had become N141 billion with same number of legislators.
Some figures we saw at that time made us know that a senator earned N47 million a quarter. When that is multiplied by four, then you will know what it was. When put together, a Nigerian senator was earning a salary that is four times higher than the salary of the American President, who is the President of an economy that is 20 times the size of the rebased Nigerian economy.
That is scandalous! This same manner of wasteful use of money applies to the executive. I cannot understand why the recurrent expenditure has been accounting for 75 percent of the federal government expenditure. At a retreat with the President and some political office holders, I proposed a salary structure that starts with N30 million. That should start from Mr. President while it will eventually cascade down.
The US President is drawing about half a million dollars while per capita income in America is about $45, 000. What is the relationship? In any case, 70 percent of Nigerians are living on less than $2 a day.
Making the Forbes list should not be through public service. Secondly, our people should know that history of great men is not history of the richest men. It is the history of those who have transformed the society for the better. If they want to be so rich they can leave government and do business. If we follow my suggestions, we can reduce the cost of governance by 30 percent. No American state has so many appointees.
Let us as politicians and party people create an economy which is developing and let that be where we make our money and not drawing from the public purse. We are only in this condition because we have turned public service into a place for looting.
So what was President Jonathan’s reaction to your observation on the National Assembly budget?
We addressed him in even stronger terms than I am addressing you. We advised the bar association to take the National Assembly to court.
For two years the case was constantly being postponed until finally one judge said the NBA had no locus in a constitutional matter. Surprisingly, the man who succeeded the then bar association president did not appeal the judgement.
I have volumes of the reports we gave Mr. President. We will present the report, which he will give to his chief of staff and that was the end of it. None of us in the committee was one day invited by the president to discuss any of our recommendations. And so, we disbanded ourselves.
In 1975 we were becoming a middle income economy. Our economy was growing at 11.5 percent for five years until the coup. We would have grown in subsequent years.
We have the unique geographical advantage to be supplying the plastic shoes and other things to the US because we are closer to America than Asian countries. We had textile industry that was employing millions of people until 20 years ago, but it was destroyed by unfavourable government policies.
We also had a booming textile industry in Aba which was destroyed. With our genius, the Aba and Abiriba tailors would have been making clothes that can be sold in European and American markets. So, our economy is just waiting to be stimulated.
We have to fight corruption frontally bearing in mind that the first coup plotters of 1966 had denounced those collecting five and 10 percent as kickbacks. There are some international reports that said that in public procurement, Nigerians were inflating what they were doing by a factor of 200 and 300 percent.
Reduction of corruption
Therefore, this means that if we are able to reduce corruption, Nigeria will do well. The government should ensure that those found corrupt are punished accordingly. That will send a strong message across the country. And the government must live according to what it preaches. We are eminently governable.
Buhari and Idiagbon brought War Against Indiscipline and people queued but as soon as they left people started becoming disorderly. So we are eminently governable.
So the man who sets the law must live by what he says. And I hope that with Buhari, we will be lucky this time because I believe that President Buhari has learned from his first experience. He should monitor his lieutenants so that what he says should go down to the lowest apparatchik.
You, Gen Yakubu Gowon and three other super-permanent secretaries were accused of starting some of these things you have mentioned led to Nigeria’s current quagmire. How true is that?
It is one of those unfortunate things people say. And when you do not correct falsehood, it begins to take a life. When the coup happened in 1966, they wanted us to become ministers but we refused because we said the army was not in power to be permanent. And we pleaded that we must get the leaders whom the world knew to join his government. It was based on our recommendation that Awolowo, Arikpo, Tarka, Briggs, Aminu-Kano and others were brought in. We were those, who helped to plan that Gowon should go by 1976. No civil servant that I know was a party to Gowon abandoning the 1976 handover date. As a matter of fact, it was some military people that were pressuring him that they wanted to become governors. And I believe he gave them the impression that he will do so, but he did not implement it for about three years. He kept postponing. The last postponement happened because he had worked out the names of people he wanted to appoint governors, but he wanted the queen to visit in October before doing that.
Those of us being blamed worked quietly to get things done properly. Gowon may have his reservations for not appointing, and some were good reasons because some of the military people pressurising him then, had done heinous things at the war front.
And you cannot imagine him making some of them governors. At that time, we also gave names of about eight governors who should be changed. And the governors got to know but did nothing to us.
Interest of politicians
The politicians felt that without the support of the civil service, the military people would not have remained. We saw the need to support the government of the day. And as far as we were concerned, keeping Nigeria was more important than the interest of the politicians.
We even produced a memo telling Gowon that he may not last for six months if he did not start a consultative parliament and stop decrees from being promulgated without debates. Those documents are still available. And later on when he was removed they must have found the documents there.
And when we thought things were drifting against the tenets of the civil service, we arranged a meeting at the Supreme Headquarters to be presided over by Admiral Wey, who was the second in command to him and Gen. Gowon got to know and he left his office to attend the meeting uninvited. We still discussed our agenda particularly, the necessities of the changes we wanted him to make.
How did he react?
Gowon is a very pleasant man. He was not angry. He wanted to hear what we would say. He knew us very well because we had been with him before he became the Head of State.
When the second 1966 coup happened, we had no government for two days. When the army pushed him forward (as head of state) we had a meeting with him at the Police Headquarters which was the best place. We told him that since he had been chosen, he needed to meet the press. We gave him the questions that will be asked and when he met the world press there was no question that was asked that he didn’t know about. That was the bond between us. We were serving the country and not individuals.
How true is it that the initial aim of the second coup was for the North to secede and that Gowon had a change of mind later?
Gowon was not among the coup plotters. But the people who planned the coup wanted to correct the marriage of 1914. They wanted to blow up the Cater Bridge and then secede. But civil servants like the late Abdulazeez Attah and Daggash sat down to question that secession plan.
He said it would be disastrous for Nigeria to break up then because there was no authority in the country. Meanwhile, some northern civil servants were consulting then. One of them told me that some cattle rearers who heard of the plans to break up met some top northern civil servants and cautioned them against war against brothers.
They wanted an assurance that after the breakup, they will still be able to take their cattle to Enugu and sell. During those two days when there was no government, people did not know because the permanent secretaries and other civil servants kept working.
You had another opportunity to serve under Obasanjo, who was among those who truncated the National Development Plans. What were your inputs then and how did he receive them?
In the meantime, under Abacha, we had the Vision 2010. Although I was an aspirant in 1999, the PDP manipulated the process and gave the ticket to Obasanjo. He did not win even in his local government and under the PDP rules he should not have been a candidate.
After he won he invited me to moderate a seminar (for his policy team). The invitation was for myself and the late Awoniyi. For four days and four nights we brainstormed with Obsanajo on what each ministry should do. We also treated the profile of would be ministers and the calibre of ministers. And in that group, more than 10 of us were academics.
He accepted our proposals. So when he invited me as the chief economic adviser, I agreed thinking he was going to implement the proposal. He did not like the Vision 2020 because he did not like the Abacha connection to it. But Abacha did not read even one paragraph of that report.
As far as Abacha was concerned, if that was what we wanted, we could have it while he was doing what he was doing. In fairness, things were set out and it was advised that we should have an implementation council with about 15 ministers and 15 non ministers. I was one of them. He knew my views but did not refuse my appointment. Before Abacha died, he was coming to the meetings, I don’t know what would have happened if he did not die.When Obasanjo came to power, I thought the 2010 recommendation should be followed. What has killed this country is the refusal of any new government to build upon what the predecessor had done. Unfortunately I failed. He refused to pursue vision 2010.
When Jonathan came, he came with transformation agenda which was 2011-2015. To me, it was unfortunate because once policy thrusts are personalised, it leads to discontinuity. I hope that Buhari will go back to the era of having things done along the principles of collective responsibility. Government must be synergistic.
Do you think Buhari should continue running the government with civil servants given that things seem to be working?
I am not privy to the fact that he is running the government with only civil servants. It is true that there are no ministers in place. And when the minister is not there, the permanent secretary stands in for him. Buhari also has some friends and advisers, who may also be advising him.
Signal for the future
So I would not give 100 percent credit to the civil servants. Now, can we continue like this? The answer is no. It will be unconstitutional to do so. We are practising a democracy.
The executive is produced by the political class, who are supposed to be expressing the will of the people. Orderliness must be respected and I am sure the President would sooner or later appoint his ministers. I support the President in his insistence that in appointing ministers, as a signal for the future, Nigeria needs people who have no baggage. I hope that the process of getting the background of those to be appointed would yield good results. I am wishing the President better luck this time than when he was a military leader.
He left office not self enriched, so his ministers and appointees should also see him as a model. We know that some who served under him in the past enriched themselves, he should make sure that those who will work with him now should be accountable. He should also right size most appointments that were done before him because many were not appointed on merit. I must stress that I am all for limiting the number of ministers maybe to 18. The American government is governed by 12 departments. To further get things right, states in America also do that. Governors in our states should not also be seen as sole authorities. There is also no need for full time legislature.
Are you still a member of the PDP?
I ceased being a member when they came up with revalidation exercise. I left government in 2001 and did not attend any meeting since then. I have always maintained that there are no political parties in Nigeria. I am non partisan and I have been trying to see if we should form a non partisan movement and recruit young people. Our message will focus on how to make Nigeria great without looting the public treasury. You can’t add to comfort, you can only add to statistics.
How many of the famous generals that made money during the military era, lived up to 60?
Buhari has limited the scope of his anti-corruption fight to Jonathan’s administration. Are you satisfied with that considering the fact that systemic corruption predated that administration?
Did he say so? The President knows that crime is not time bound. Supposing tomorrow the Americans demand the extradition of somebody who was mentioned in the Halliburton scandal, will the President say he will not allow the person to be extradited?
As far as I am concerned, there is no time and energy for a holistic probe of Jonathan’s administration. There are one or two glaring cases like the NNPC scandal and procurement in the defense sector that should be focused on so that positive signal will be sent across. What we need in this country is not to have all corrupt people in court; rather two or three cases should be focused on and positively pursued to get justice. But in the meantime, any case stumbled upon or raised by our international friends, we should not hesitate to let the law take its course otherwise there will be endless probes. And we have many lawyers who are ready to bring out technicalities that will delay the cases. I am for some obvious cases being pursued immediately and I repeat that no cow should be seen as scared. And anyone who is mentioned in a reputable jurisdiction abroad, the person should be allowed to go abroad to defend himself.
What is your position on the back log of civil servants’ salaries being owed by most states?
Owing of salaries is very unfortunate and should not happen especially when you look at the things they do in government. The amount of money they waste is alarming. People should be paid their salaries.